Downstream Impacts of Site C Will be Measured: Scientists

Earlier this month, the joint review panel for BC Hydro’s proposed Site C dam said in its final post-hearing report that having a third hydro project on the Peace River would have “no measurable impact” on the Peace-Athabasca Delta environment and land users.

Luckily for the concerned residents of the delta and further downstream, there are scientists who don’t take such reports at face value.

As part of the ongoing Slave Watershed Environmental Effects Program (SWEEP), a cumulative impacts monitoring program for the Slave River, hydrologist Karl Lindenschmidt of the University of Saskatchewan will be working with some grad students over the next several years to create a digital model of not only the Slave, but the Peace and Athabasca watersheds as well.

The goal: to discern the impacts of hydro on the area while ruling out other simultaneous factors like climate change and water withdrawal from other tributaries.

Screengrab from documentary "Death of a Delta" 1972. This shows the dried up bottom of Lake Mamawi in the Peace Athabasca Delta. The WAC Bennett Dam cut off the Peace River for years while Williston Lake Reservoir was filling up, and the PAC has never recovered.

Screengrab from documentary “Death of a Delta” 1972. This shows the dried up bottom of Lake Mamawi in the Peace Athabasca Delta. The WAC Bennett Dam cut off the Peace River for years while Williston Lake Reservoir was filling up, and the PAC has never recovered.

In its report, the review panel said it was too difficult to differentiate the alleged impacts of hydro on the delta that have been spoken about by land users since the WAC Bennett dam was constructed in the 1960s – namely low summer water levels, over ice flooding in the winter, changes to ice thickness, death and extirpation of muskrats, among others – from other factors.

Fair enough. The ecosystem changes being noted in the Peace-Athabasca Delta are obviously being caused and/or exacerbated to a large extent by changing climate, and could be the result of large water withdrawals from the Athabasca River used to mine and process bitumen in the oilsands, as was testified by numerous scientists at the Site C hearings.

But what Lindenschmidt’s research plans to do is to ensure that the impacts of further upstream hydro development, however small, do not go unrecorded, even as far north as Fort Resolution where people are making similar complaints about low water levels and changes to winter ice as those around Fort Chipewyan.

The digital model won’t only be useful for tracking the impacts of hydro, but will also for imagining what the future of the area will look like 20 or 50 years down the road using meteorological predictions based on climate change and current/changing water levels in connected rivers.

Though it will be too late for those in the Peace-Athabasca to have their concerns heard with respect to the Site C dam by the time the modelling is done, the research will at least be able to send a stronger signal the next time a review panel is burdened with the task of evaluating just how far downstream the impacts of flow regulation will reach.

When it comes to building a baseline, it’s better late than never.

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About Meagan

Meagan Wohlberg is editor of Northern Journal, a weekly news publication covering northern Alberta and the Northwest Territories. She lives in Fort Smith, NWT.
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