Peace River Valley, Northeast BC – HYDRO POWER TRUMPS ABORIGINAL AND NATURAL HERITAGE

Photo by Robin, under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Why it matters

Archaeological evidence and oral history bear witness to at least 10,500 years of human occupation along the Peace River Valley, marking it as an important prehistoric migration route. It contains many First Nations traditional and sacred sites, as well as heritage sites from the fur trade and later periods of European settlement. The valley is also an important wildlife habitat home to 20 at-risk species and to BC’s only prime farmland north of Quesnel.

Four hydroelectric generating stations harnessing the entire length of the Peace River were proposed in the mid-1950s. Two were eventually built covering about half the valley: W.A.C. Bennett Dam (1967), which created the vast Williston Reservoir, and the Peace Canyon Dam (1980). A third, Site C dam and generating station, downstream from Peace Canyon and 6.5 km southwest of the city of Fort St. John, was proposed and studied in 1976-80, but rejected by the BC Utilities Commission in 1983.

Why it’s endangered

Photo by Robin Bodnaruk

In April 2010, the BC government announced plans to revive the Site C dam and generating station at a project cost of approximately $8.8 billion. The Site C reservoir would flood 83 km of the Peace River Valley bottom—almost tripling the river’s width and inundating more than 125 sq. km (31,000 acres) of Class 1 to 7 agricultural land, along with 100 sq. km (25,000 acres) of forested land. This would result in the largest withdrawal from the Agricultural Land Reserve in BC’s history. Individuals and groups such as the Peace Valley Landowners Association have warned that over 60 family farms and ranches passed down for generations would be washed away. The Site C project would also destroy 78 First Nations heritage sites—including burial grounds—as well as 337 archaeological sites, 27 built heritage sites (including remains of fur trade forts), and 4 paleontological sites.

The Site C dam and generating station received environmental approvals from the federal and provincial governments in October 2014, and was given final approval by the BC government on December 16, 2014. Unlike in the 1980s, the province has exempted the project from a regulatory review by the BC Utilities Commission.

Where things stand

Many groups in the region have been advocating against the project, including First Nations, area landowners, and environmental and wildlife protection organizations. In December, the First Nations Summit issued a statement denouncing the approval of the project, noting it will result in extensive flooding within the traditional territories of Treaty 8 First Nations. Two court challenges aimed at stopping the project were launched in April, one by the Peace Valley Landowners Association and the other by the Treaty 8 First Nations. However, Bill Bennett, Energy Minister for BC, recently said he expects construction on the Site C dam to begin this summer.