By Korie Marshall

We’re a small community on the very northern tip of the Columbia Basin, but Valemount was mentioned—more than once—in the Feb 24th virtual Town Hall on the Columbia River Treaty.

Over 200 people joined the presentation including people in the United States and other parts of Canada, raising a wide range of questions for the panel. Why was Valemount mentioned? For one thing, because of our air quality. And no, it wasn’t about the wood smoke.

The Robson Valley is one of the few areas in BC that doesn’t have access to natural gas, and yet we pay the same Tier 2 rates for electricity as the rest of the province—even though we are impacted by a major dam (Mica) that creates a large portion of the province’s power. Some of us have argued for better power rates, and local alternative energies (like geothermal) to help improve our air quality, but that is not a Treaty issue. One of the 14 principles in BC’s decision on the Treaty is “Canadian Columbia Basin issues not related to the Treaty will be addressed through other government programs and initiatives.” Valemount’s wood-burning issues are outside of the realm of the Treaty, but there is something else that may be affecting our air quality—dust from Kinbasket Reservoir’s drawdown zone.

These photos show the springtime phase of Kinbasket Reservoir when the water table is low, exposing miles of mud flats and sand bars that whip up into dust storms that drift north towards Valemount. /LAURA KEIL

If you’ve been around Valemount much, you’ve probably heard of the dust storms that come off the top of the reservoir. Kinbasket generally follows a yearly cycle: Mica Dam holds back water from the spring freshet (a major source of downstream flooding), and the reservoir rises throughout the spring and summer, generally reaching its peak in late August or September. It usually stays near that level until mid-November or so, and then starts dropping through the winter, as Mica’s powerful turbines are turned on for the peak-demand period each day – around 6-8PM, when so many of us across the province are cooking dinner, watching tv, doing laundry after work, etc. If we have a cold stretch in BC, we’ll often see a corresponding drop in the reservoir level, as our power demand across the province increases. Come early spring, the north 20 km or so of the reservoir can be drawn down to its muddy bottom, except for Canoe River, which winds its way along its original course. The same thing happens at the Golden end of the reservoir, though that drawdown zone is many kilometers longer.

These mud flats can be a big recreation draw for off-road vehicles and campers in the spring and early summer, but when they dry out, the prevailing winds from the south can stir up wicked dust clouds, often bringing that silica-containing dust right into Valemount. It is the silica especially that has many local residents concerned, because when crystalline silica dust is breathed in, it is known to cause silicosis—a painful and incurable lung disease. It’s not clear how much of the Kinbasket sand may be crystalline silica dust. If you are exposed to silica dust in the workplace, there are tons of precautions that need to be taken to limit your exposure. But we don’t have much data on the effects of environmental exposure.

The BC Treaty Team is currently working with the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy to develop a plan to review air quality data in Valemount,both PM10 (larger particles like sand) and PM2.5 (smaller particles like smoke), as well meteorological measurements, Kinbasket Reservoir levels, satellite imagery and documented dust storms, for example from photos. The plan will be forwarded to Valemount’s Clean Energy Task

Force for review, and the province will fund the contract for analysis of the data.

This is just one small example of the work that is happening because of this review of the Treaty. The Province and the federal government have committed to work on understanding the negative impacts in the basin and to bring input from residents, from these new studies, from work by the S/K/S Nations, to the negotiation table. Sylvain Fabi, chief negotiator for Canada (and also Consul General of Canada in Denver) and Kathy Eichenberger, executive director of the BC Treaty Team both noted again that these negotiations are confidential, but that full details will be made public before signing of any changes to the Treaty. And that negotiations will continue to incorporate this ongoing work to acknowledge what was lost and to enhance what remains.

Other speakers during the session included the Honourable Katrine Conroy, Minister of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development, who continues to work on “all things Columbia” (the Columbia River Treaty, Columbia Basin Trust and Columbia Power Corporation); Linda Worley, co-chair of the Local Governments’ Committee which continues to advocate for actions on community-specific and domestic issues; and representatives from the three Nations with “observer” status, who are sitting at the negotiation table with Canada and BC – Jay Johnson with the Sylix/Okanagan Nation, Bill Green with Ktunaxa, and Nathan Mathew with Secwepemc. (Many locals may recognize Nathan Mathew as former Chief of Simpcw, which is a member nation of Secwepemc.)

The Town Hall was earmarked for 2 hours, but the presenters stayed on for almost 3, answering many questions that came in before the presentation and during. A recording is now available on the Province’s YouTube page. ( A summary report will also be available soon.