By Laura Keil
Canada and the US are in the midst of renegotiating the Columbia River Treaty, an agreement that governs water levels in the Columbia Basin including in Kinbasket Lake, the reservoir created by the Mica Dam that ends just south of Valemount.
In the 1960s, over 270,000 acres of Canadian land (About 200,000 football fields) were flooded through the creation of three dams in Canada and one dam in the U.S. in the name of power generation and flood control. For the Canadians, a one-time payout from the Americans helped fund the three dams, but massive environmental damage was inflicted on huge areas, including many that were inhabited at the time. Since then, the U.S. has paid Canada for the additional power it generates thanks to the Canadian dams ($180–300 million dollars per year), and Canada also installed its own power generating tech on the dams that were originally just for holding water.
Now the 60-term of the treaty is up and a changing climate and modern environmental values mean the old treaty terms no longer suffice.
Mid-October, I took a quick trip to the Arrow Lakes, driving south from Valemount to Nakusp the first day. Here the water level has receded so low you can view the cribbing used to hoist up sternwheelers in the first half of the 20th century. Usually this is safely tucked under the waterline, a remnant of another era.
A kind paddler lent me a kayak and I slipped quietly along the dismal shores of the Upper Arrow
Lake near Nakusp. While low water isn’t unusual this time of year, many locals will attest it’s never been quite so low for so long. Along the shore, strewn haphazardly, sits the detritus of a hasty reservoir clearing 60 years ago – hulks of vehicles, rusted metal scraps, eerie unrecognizable foundations.
Starting around 1965, the BC Hydro & Power Authority issued contracts to clear hundreds of kilometres of land along either side of the lakes and rivers that were to be flooded. The work was done in haste, with many trees piled up and burned on site. Other trees were cut and later salvaged from the water.
As we know from Kinbasket, it took nearly half a century to clear the water well enough to promote
recreational activities. Kinbasket was low this year as well, with only a third of the moorage docks put into use this past summer. The past two years have seen the impacts of a low snowpack, droughts, and drawdown of the water via dams due to the treaty and non-treaty storage requirements decided by BC Hydro.
Untangling the factors at play can feel like a futile endeavour, and depending what side you’re on, can easily be blamed on one factor or another.
What appears clear is this: the larger the fluctuations in water, the more the surrounding land becomes a wasteland, unable to support even waterfowl that rely on more moderate changes. We don’t recognize just how much forestland and wetlands had to disappear for these reservoirs to exist, until the water level dips to the levels we are seeing now.
At Burton, for instance, just 20 minutes south of Nakusp, you can see the flats stretching out to the distance where the old community of Burton used to lie.
Canadian Geese now defend old roadbeds and the mangled steel remnants of former habitations.
Seeing is believing and with the water levels down, we get an appreciation for just how much land
was sacrificed to this multi-national treaty. Not just land, but resources, habitat and culture.
There is no going back to the way things were. But perhaps the renegotiation can bring a modicum
of natural back to the fluctuations of our reservoirs. And in tandem with that, BC Hydro should be engaging more closely with locals regarding non-treaty storage.