Field of Dreams: Peace Valley Farmers, Ranchers Fight to Keep Land Above Water As Site C Dam Decision Looms

Ardill Ranch

In 1920, Renee Ardill’s grandparents arrived in the Peace Valley with nothing more than a milk cow, saddle horse and team and wagon. They chose a piece of land on the banks of the Peace River, built a cabin, hunted moose and grew what they could.

They built everything from the ground up,” Ardill told DeSmog Canada. “Imagine being able to pick your piece of land and make what you wanted out of it.”

The Ardill family has been here ever since, running a cattle ranch on the banks of the Peace. But their days could be numbered if BC Hydro’s Site C hydroelectric dam gets the go-ahead this fall from the provincial and federal governments.

The panel tasked with reviewing the project found BC Hydro failed to prove that the energy from Site C would be needed within the timeframe set out in the proposal. The panel's report, released in May, also found that there are cost-effective alternatives to building a new dam, but the province has failed to adequately investigate options such as geothermal.

If built, the dam will flood 107 kilometres of the Peace River and its tributaries — impacting 13,000 hectares of agricultural land, including flooding 3,800 hectares of farmland in the Agricultural Land Reserve, an area nearly twice the size of the city of Victoria.

That flooding would put the Ardill's ranch underwater. Thirty-three other farm operations would also be affected by the project, according to the panel's report.

This is the best piece of land in the world. My grandpa picked a good spot. And I’m damned if I’m gonna give it up,” Ardill says. “Everybody now lives in the artificial world. People go to the grocery store and get their vegetables and they come wrapped in plastic. That’s not how it is. It comes from somewhere.”

Loss of Farmland in Peace Valley 'Almost Tragic': Agriculture Expert

Agriculture experts say the Peace Valley is home to some of the best land in the province, with the ability to produce fresh fruits and vegetables for a million people, according to agriculture expert Wendy Holm.

It’s not about what’s economic today,” Holm told DeSmog Canada. “This is land that forms part of the commons. This is part of the natural capital of our country.”

Yet, the joint review panel’s report (PDF) found that loss of agricultural land would not be significant in the context of B.C. or western Canadian agricultural production, while acknowledging “this loss would be highly significant to the farmers who would bear the loss, and that financial compensation would not make up for the loss of a highly valued place and way of life.”

Eveline Wolterson, a soil scientist who gave expert testimony during the review process, says the panel missed the point in its analysis by looking at the current use of land (largely forage production) instead of the potential of the land.

The reality is that the reason that land is in forage production is because most of it is owned by BC Hydro or it’s in the flood reserve, which means that at any time BC Hydro could expropriate those lands,” Wolterson told DeSmog Canada. “That has discounted the value of that land, as well as discounted the amount of money landowners are willing to invest in a piece of property.”

Wolterson points to the Okanagan Valley’s now booming wine industry as an example of how the panel has failed to think of the future.

In mid 1970s, the likelihood of agricultural use of those [Okanagan] lands would likely have been low. But because we saved those lands and left them, the use of those lands is extremely high right now,” she says.

The productivity of the agricultural land in the Peace River Valley is unique not only in the region, but in British Columbia and Western Canada, Wolterson said.

Take potatoes, a main production commodity in the Lower Mainland, for example. In the Lower Mainland, yields are about 10 tonnes per hectare. In the Peace Valley, yields are 30 per cent more at 13 tonnes per hectare due to more daylight and ideal conditions in the east-west valley, Wolterson says.

The area that they are proposing to flood is approximately equivalent to the agricultural land base in Delta, so it’d be like flooding all that land, taking it right out of production,” she says. “It’s almost tragic.”

The David Suzuki Foundation recently released a report looking at the economic benefits of keeping the Peace River region’s remaining farmland and nature intact beyond the market value of agriculture in the region.

The Peace Dividend found that the ecosystem services (such as providing clean air, clean water, carbon storage and habitat for wildlife) provided by farmland and nature in the Peace River Watershed are conservatively worth an estimated $7.9 billion to $8.6 billion a year.

Cantaloupes, Corn Grow in Peace Valley's Unique Microclimate

Ken and Arlene Boon, owners of Bear Flats Farm and log home builders, know the value of the valley all too well. They regularly see mule deer, moose, elk, wolves and black and grizzly bears on their land.

The Boons host the annual Paddle for the Peace on their farm, where they can grow everything from corn to cantaloupes due to the unique microclimate in the valley. If the dam is built, they will lose their best farmland and their home.

In their submission to the panel, the Boons wrote: “As we write this submission, we feel like a prisoner trying to save his life by writing a statement that will hopefully save him from the death penalty.”

Ken Boon stands in his field in the Peace Valley

Ken Boon is fighting to save his farm from being flooded by the Site C dam. Photo: Emma Gilchrist.

Standing in their garden eating fresh peas, they talk about the five generations of their family who’ve lived on this land.

The 1,100-megawatt Site C dam has been on the books for 30 years and was turned down by the B.C. Utilities Commission in the 1980s. This time around, the B.C. government has exempted the project from a utilities' commission review, despite calls from local politicians and the joint review panel itself to have the project reviewed by the independent regulator.

Life has to go on for us, because grandpa was told in the ’70s that he was going to have to move because they were going to build it,” Arlene says. “He passed away without seeing the project happen. I’m sure that our grandkids will be having the same discussion.”

Five generations of Arlene Boons' family have lived on the Bear Flats Farm.

Five generations of Arlene Boon's family have enjoyed Bear Flats Farm. Photo: Emma Gilchrist.

But she hopes her grandchildren won't have to fight this fight again.

Our push this time is to try kill it once and for all,” Arlene says.

Solar panels on the Boons property feed energy back to the electricity grid.

You can generate electricity many ways, but you can only grow food one way,” Ken says. “What we can’t afford to do is to be flooding farmland any more.”

Ken Boon stands beside his solar panels, which feed electricity onto the B.C. power grid.

Ken Boon showcases his solar panels, which feed electricity back to the B.C. grid. Photo: Emma Gilchrist.

The original Bear Flats Schoolhouse is on the Boons' land, along with the Bear Flats Museum, which houses 5,000-year-old arrowheads and family heirlooms.

It’s impossible to replace when you have this kind of history,” Arlene says. “I don’t want to be a millionaire. I just want to be happy on this land.”

For Esther and Poul Pedersen, it’s a similar story. Their 65 hectare (160-acre) property is right above where the Site C dam would be built and is within the zone that could slough into the reservoir.

Located just five minutes outside of Fort St. John, it’s the perfect place to raise horses and give riding lessons.

It’s really hard to replace,” Esther says. “We feel that the valley is precious.”

To mitigate the lost value of agricultural economic activity, BC Hydro proposed a $20 million agricultural compensation program to support projects in the region, in addition to farm mitigation plans for directly affected agricultural operations.

But as Esther looks out over the Peace River Valley, she — like so many others — says what her family has is irreplaceable.

Esther Pedersen walks to a lookout on her land overlooking the potential site of the Site C dam.

Esther Pedersen walks to a lookout on her land above the proposed site of the Site C dam. Photo: Emma Gilchrist.

If you read its report closely, it appears the joint review panel did — at least on some level — grasp that sentiment. In coming to its conclusion that the earning potential of the Peace River Valley would appear to be highest as a reservoir, the panel notes it was unable to take into account “heartbreak (for residents who would be displaced from the land of their dreams).”

Question is: how do you put a price on heartbreak?

Back on the Ardill ranch, Renee just put $30,000 into fixing up an old barn.

I think you have to go forward or give up. You can't just sit there,” she says. “You have to act like you’re going to keep going or you give up. And I’m not very good at giving up.”

Renee and Dick Ardill

Renee and Dick Ardill at their ranch on the banks of the Peace River. Photo: Don Hoffmann.

Ardill's story is showcased on the StopSiteC website, which aims to gather petition signatures from citizens across the province. She wishes more British Columbians could see her part of the province.

When you look at it on a map, it doesn’t look like all that big deal. But when you actually stand on the ground and look at it, it is a big deal,” she says.

Main image: The Ardill Ranch on the banks of the Peace River. Credit: Emma Gilchrist.