It’s a sweltering 35 degrees as I pull up to a trailer housing the W.A.C. Bennett Dam visitor centre just outside Hudson’s Hope, 100 kilometres west of Fort St. John.
I’m here to see B.C.’s largest hydro dam first-hand. Damming the Peace River is back in the news this fall as the provincial and federal governments make up their minds about the Site C dam, which would be the third dam on this river.
I’m handed a fluorescent safety vest and am ushered on to a bus along with about 10 others.
Completed in 1967, the W.A.C. Bennett Dam is one of the world's largest earthfill structures, stretching two kilometres across the head of the Peace Canyon and creating B.C.’s largest body of freshwater, the Williston Reservoir.
Two peppy young women are our guides today. They inform us we’ll be heading more than 150 metres underground into the dam’s powerhouse and manifold.
At the front of our tour bus, pictures of wildlife — grizzlies, lynx, moose, elk — are taped above the driver’s seat. Our guides enthusiastically tell us how 11 of 19 of North America’s big game species live around the dam.
My mind can’t help but wander to a paragraph I read in the joint review panel’s report on the Site C dam, released in May. It appeared on page 307 in a section titled “Panel’s Reflections.”
“A few decades hence, when inflation has worked its eroding way on cost, Site C could appear as a wonderful gift from the ancestors of that future society, just as B.C. consumers today thank the dam-builders of the 1960s. Today’s distant beneficiaries do not remember the Finlay, Parsnip, and pristine Peace Rivers, or the wildlife that once filled the Rocky Mountain Trench. Site C would seem cheap, one day. But the project would be accompanied by significant environmental and social costs, and the costs would not be borne by those who benefit,” the report read.
It’s a poignant moment of pause in a report that doesn’t provide a clear yes or no on whether the 1,100-megawatt dam should be built due to a lack of clear demand for the power, concerns about costs and considerable environmental and social costs.
The panel found risks to fish and wildlife include harmful and irreversible effects on migratory birds and species such as the western toad and short-eared owl. Given the severe effects of dam-building on wildlife, I find the pictures at the front of our tour bus a tad incongruous.
Underground, we’re kitted out with hardhats before entering the powerhouse. It’s as long as three football fields and has the dimensions of the Titanic. This dam can produce up to 2,855 megawatts of power — more than double that of the proposed Site C dam.
Just downstream, another dam — the Peace Canyon dam — produces another 700 megawatts of power. Combined, these two dams provide B.C. with one-third of its power.
Aside from already being home to two megadams, the Peace Country’s landscape is dotted with 16,267 oil and gas well sites and 8,517 petroleum and natural gas facilities, according to a 2013 report, Passages from the Peace, by the David Suzuki Foundation and Global Forest Watch.
“The Peace River region has been and is currently undergoing enormous stress from resource development,” read the joint review panel’s report on Site C.
Rancher Leigh Summer knows that stress firsthand. He was just 14 years old when his family’s ranch was flooded by the W.A.C. Bennett dam. Now Summer has three young children and his life could be disrupted again, this time by the Site C dam that would flood the last intact part of the Peace River.
“The Peace River in British Columbia has paid her price for prosperity,” Summer says. “Why can’t we leave a piece of the Peace intact for future generations? Let them have a choice. If we flood it, we take that choice away from them, from ever seeing what the Peace River was like.”
If built, the Site C dam would flood 107 kilometres of the Peace River and its tributaries. BC Hydro says the power is needed to meet growing energy demand, but the joint review panel found that the crown corporation hadn’t proven the need for the Site C dam in the immediate future and has not adequately explored alternatives, such as geothermal.
Although BC Hydro has predicted power demand will balloon 40 per cent over the next 20 years, its 2014 financial reports show demand for power has remained relatively static since 2007.
“Justification must rest on an unambiguous need for the power and analyses showing its financial costs being sufficiently attractive as to make tolerable the bearing of substantial environmental, social and other costs,” the joint review panel wrote.
The Site C dam “would result in significant cumulative effects on fish, vegetation and ecological communities, wildlife,” they added.
“This is one of the last intact mountain ecosystems on the planet,” says Sarah Cox, senior conservation program manager for the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative. “Site C will make a major contribution toward severing that Rocky mountain chain that goes all the way from Yellowstone to Yukon.”
The Peace River is the only river to break the barrier of the Rocky Mountains between the Yukon south almost to Mexico.
“The science shows that vulnerable species like grizzly, wolverine and lynx will be greatly impacted to the extent that populations may not be recoverable,” Cox says.
Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative has joined forces with Sierra Club BC and the Peace Valley Environment Association to launch StopSiteC.org, dedicated to collecting petition signatures against the dam.
Although this fall is a crucial moment in the battle against Site C, it’s just one of many high-stakes moments in what has been a decades-long battle for residents of the Peace Valley.
“I’ve been living with it for 40 years. My hair went grey the first time around,” jokes Gwen Johansson, mayor of the District of Hudson's Hope. “That shadow has hung over the valley for a very long time.”
Gwen Johansson, a retired school teacher, lives on the banks of the Peace River near Hudson's Hope. Photo: Emma Gilchrist.
A flood impact sign on Gwen Johansson's gate shows how high the waters of the Site C reservoir would rise. Photo: Emma Gilchrist.
Johansson has lived in her house on the banks of the Peace River since 1975. In 1982, the Site C dam was postponed indefinitely after a review by the B.C. Utilities Commission.
“They said that Hydro had not proven the need for it and, if there was need, they hadn’t proven that this was the best way to get the power,” Johansson says.
“This time they’re going to make sure that nobody gets to examine these questions,” she added, referring to the province's decision to exempt the project from review by the independent regulator (the B.C. Utilities Commission) this time around.
Johansson has been part of a chorus of voices calling on the province to listen to the joint review panel’s recommendation to refer the project to the B.C. Utilities Commission for more in-depth analysis of costs and alternatives.
“It’s almost as though they worry that if they don’t get it done right away they won’t be able to do it,” the retired teacher says.
This week, Johansson was at a press conference in Vancouver trying to get the attention of the media and British Columbians. She brought Peace Valley watermelon, cantaloupe and honey for the crowd.
One of the biggest obstacles for those in the Peace Valley is that their area — a 14-hour drive from Vancouver — is out of sight, out of mind for the majority of British Columbians.
“If the decision-makers have to look out the window at the consequences of their decisions, they have to think harder about their decisions,” Johansson says.