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NGO river recovery plan for British Columbia rivers focuses on decommissioning

Elizabeth Brink
World Rivers Review
June 1, 2001

Encouraging new efforts toward river protection are in contrast to Canada’s past record as a stalwart supporter of large dams and refuge for the troubled hydro industry.


Two British Columbia organizations have produced a shortlist of a dozen dams ripe for decommissioning or dismantling, taking a good first step toward restoring rivers in the Canadian province. The list appears in “River Recovery: Restoring Rivers Through Dam Decommissioning,” a report published jointly by the Outdoor Recreation Council (ORC) of BC and the BC Institute of Technology (BCIT).

The report identifies and evaluates nearly 100 dam candidates from around the province, and explores the range of dam management options for river restoration. A “primary candidate list” of nearly 40 dam structures was created based on an evaluation of operation, institutional, and biological concerns. Of these, a short list of 12 structures was selected, highlighting some of the structures where decommissioning or alternative management schemes have the greatest potential for occurring in the near future.

British Columbia’s rivers are blocked by 2,167 licensed dams and several hundred more unlicensed dams. Most were built several decades ago, and many are privately owned. “Perhaps 10% of dams in the province have outlived their usefulness or provide only marginal benefit,” said ORC chairman Mark Angelo. “The decommissioning of some of these structures would create some wonderful habitat restoration opportunities.”

There is precedent for the decommissioning campaign: nearly two dozen small dams have already been removed in BC.

Recently, BC’s provincial government has taken several encouraging steps to protect rivers by legislatively protecting important salmon rivers against future dams under the Fish Protection Act. In addition, BC has embraced two important programs – the “BC Heritage Rivers System” and the “Canadian Heritage Rivers System” – which officially designate BC rivers that represent outstanding values of provincial and national significance. These values include history, culture, economy, recreation, and ecology.

Dam builder’s paradise

These new efforts toward river protection are in contrast to Canada’s past record. According to Patricia Adams of the Canadian NGO Probe International, Canada is one of “the world’s worst dam offenders.” Not only have the country’s provincial governments given hydro monopolies such as Hydro-Quebec and BC Hydro license to flood native lands and other areas without due regard for the environment, local economy, or affected people, but the federal government also subsidizes these dam-building corporations to perpetuate their mistakes in the global south. Canadian firms have been involved in large dam projects in Uganda, Lesotho, China and elsewhere.

In fact, the Canadian government has been such a stalwart supporter of large dams that Canada has become something of a refuge for the troubled hydro industry. Three of the industry’s four biggest suppliers are based in Quebec, where they can access subsidies from both local and federal taxpayers as well as government agencies such as Export Development Corporation (EDC) and Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). As a former General Electric Canada executive told parliamentarians, “[Without] our good friends at EDC, we certainly would not survive.”

With its powerful rivers and steep-sided narrow valleys, the western-most Canadian province of British Columbia has been a dam builders’ dream come true. In the past, most BC residents regarded dam construction as a positive step toward economic prosperity. From the 1950s to the 1970s, the provincial government pursued an aggressive program of large-scale hydroelectric dam construction for both domestic power production and export.

However, at the same time, residents began to witness the serious environmental and social costs of dams. As the “River Recovery” report notes, “The decline of fish stocks and the permanent drowning of productive farmland, valley bottom forest, scenic canyons, and entire towns fueled a growing public opposition to new dams.” During the 1970s and ’80s, grassroots lobbying blocked the construction of new dams on the Skagit, Stikine and Peace rivers.

The report’s shortlist for removal includes the Kitsault dam on the Kitsault River in the Skeena region, the Surf River Dam on Princess Royal Island, the Chonat Creek Dam on Quadra Island, and the Tunnel Dam on Britannia Creek. Britannia Creek, which is 40 kilometres north of Vancouver, topped the 2001 Endangered Rivers List (an annual compilation produced by ORC). Decommissioning the dam is part of an overall ORC-backed plan to reclaim the creek.

Also on the list is Surf Inlet Dam, located on Princess Royal Island in the mid-coastal region of BC. The dam is owned by and licensed to mining company Rupert Resources, and has not been used for many years. The dam was built to create a reservoir for transporting mineral ore to the Surf Inlet area. The structure remains in place despite the fact that there has been no mining in the watershed since 1943. Having maintained the dam to meet provincial safety standards, the owners are holding onto the water license for potential future use and compromising both present and future environmental values. The dam impedes the passage of sockeye salmon stocks to prime habitat areas in the upper reaches of the river.

The “River Recovery” report also provides a general review of decommissioning lessons from abroad, examines issues and experiences that are unique to the province, and evaluates options as well as opportunities asociated with the range of dam management strategies that are available for river recovery in British Columbia.

ORC was a key player in securing a February 2000 agreement between various stakeholders, including dam owner Pacifica Papers and the BC government, to decommission the Theodosia Dam. The Theodosia Dam is the first documented example in Canada and BC of a major dam structure that will be decommissioned with restoration of the river’s health as a main objective. Instead of immediately removing the dam, participants in the decommissioning project are exploring extensive modification of the dam, which is scheduled to begin in September.

Using the Theodosia as a positive case study, ORC co-produced this report to further its goal of ensuring that the viability and need for certain dams is regularly reviewed and that every effort is made to restore rivers and lessen dam-related impacts on British Columbia’s waterways. The group will now work to bolster public support for the allocation of more resources to be used for the restoration of BC rivers and streams.

A new brochure from IRN provides an overview of global dam removal issues and campaigns. The brochure discusses challenges to dam decommissioning such as cost and sediment removal, and reviews case studies in the US Pacific Northwest, Canada, Thailand, and Colombia. Numerous dams are now slated or proposed for removal. Many have simply outlived their purpose or sit abandoned, posing a danger to public safety. Other dams continue to operate, though with significant environmental and social consequences. Over a dam’s lifespan, costs borne by damaged ecosystems and communities may outweigh other project benefits. With dam removal already outpacing dam construction in the US, decommissioning has significant implications for global river management. View “Reviving the World’s Rivers: The Global View of Dam Removal” online at http://www.riverrevival.org or order a copy of the brochure by e-mailing info@riverrevival.org, or calling 510.848.1155.

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