FORT ST. JOHN, B.C. — The possibility of a third hydroelectric dam on the Peace River has hung over Ken and Arlene Boon like a black cloud for 20 years.
The storm clouds are now getting closer.
A joint federal and provincial environmental assessment is under way and a decision on BC Hydro’s Site C dam and hydroelectric generation station is expected within two years.
“I don’t think there is a day I don’t wake up and not think about it,” said Arlene, whose grandfather came to this area of northern British Columbia in the 1940s.
For the Boon family, the proposed dam would raise the water level of the Peace River to just below their home and force the relocation of the highway through a hay field above their house. The house wouldn’t be flooded, but it would likely slide away because of unstable soil on the riverbanks.
A little farther down the road, the proposed realigned Highway 29 would go through their private campsite on the highway between Fort St. John and Hudson’s Hope.
It’s the same story for 34 other farmers on 83 kilometres of the river valley from Fort St. John to Hudson’s Hope.
The Site C dam would raise the water 50 metres and make the Peace River two to three times the width of its current banks, swallowing 12,000 acres of land. Approximately 1,500 acres are under cultivation for grain and forage.
Esther Pedersen’s house is the closest residence to the proposed dam site and is on the erosion impact line, where B.C. Hydro engineers believe erosion from the reservoir could occur.
“My quarter section would fall into the river,” said Pedersen,adding that residents are starting to realize there will be more negatives than positives from the proposed dam.
However, a recent Harris Decima poll found that 80 percent of the 800 B.C. residents polled favour the Site C dam, as long as proper environmental concerns are addressed, said Dave Conway, community relations manager with BC Hydro.
There was no breakdown of the level of support for the dam among residents of northern B.C., who will feel the most impact. Eight percent of the population, or 330,000 people, live in northern B.C., and 63,000 of them live in the Peace River region.
The Boons believe they can still stop construction of the dam, despite public opinion polls, ongoing studies, public hearings and maps showing the proposed realigned highway and wider river banks.
“We’re confident this is not going to happen,” said Ken.
Added Arlene: “It’s David and Goliath and it seems we are gaining momentum.”
She has handed out hundreds of preliminary design maps to anyone who shows an interest in the Site C project and its impact on the Peace River. As part of an ongoing awareness raising campaign, the couple helped initiate Paddle for the Peace, a day-long canoe trip to show off the beauty that will be lost. Environmental activist David Suzuki attended this summer’s event.
For the Boons, it’s not just about their farm or the 13,500 acres along the river that will be flooded. The loss of fertile soil along the river valley also concerns them.
“This valley is so unique. It has a microclimate with class one soil. There are tremendous agriculture capabilities in the valley,” said Ken.
The long daylight hours means corn grown in Peace River area market gardens is ready earlier than Alberta’s famous Taber corn.
This year, the Boons rented river land to a market gardener whose corn matured three weeks earlier than corn on top of the valley.
“Stuff down here grows way faster than it does up there,” said market gardener Charles Steiner, pointing to the top of the river hills.
If the dam is approved, the impact for Steiner is simple.
“It would mean the end of the market garden,” said Steiner.
However, Conway points out that what land is capable of growing and what it actually grows are not the same. While some of the land has ideal soil and climate for growing cucumbers, due to its location, poor road access and other economic factors, only 1,500 of the 4,000 of arable land is actually under cultivation.
It’s not the first time residents on the Peace River have fought BC Hydro to prevent the building of the 1,110 megawatt hydroelectric dam just outside Fort St. John.
The Site C dam was first proposed as part of a series of dams on the Peace River in the 1950s. The first project, or Site A, called the W.A.C Bennett dam, was built in 1967.
Site B, or the Peace Canyon Dam, was finished in 1980 and is 23 km downstream from the W.A.C. Bennett Dam.
The Site C dam, also proposed during that time, was rejected after the BC Utilities Commission hearings in 1982 and again in 1989.
In 2010, the provincial government introduced the Clean Energy Act, which requires at least 93 percent of the electricity generated in B.C. to come from clean, renewable resources.
The Site C dam is part of BC Hydro’s and the provincial government’s plan to meet the demand from a growing provincial population.
Conway said the electrical load demand is expect to grow one to two percent over the next 20 years. Meeting the increased demand will come from a combination of energy conservation programs and new energy generation projects such as wind, wood, coal, natural gas and hydroelectric projects. Site C would supply 1,100 megawatts of capacity.
“It’s the capacity we’re after,” Conway said. “If we had the project now, we could use it.”
As part of the environmental impact statement slated for completion by early 2013, B.C. Hydro is now holding meetings to gain input on worker accommodation, transportation and agriculture.
The project is scheduled to be completed by 2021, if approvals are met.
Arthur Hadland, a farmer from Taylor, B.C., said the biggest problem with the proposed dam is the unstable soil along the Peace River. While the W.A.C. Bennett and Peace Canyon dams are built into bedrock, there is only slippery clay soil over unstable shale along the proposed Site C river valley route.
“It is truly unstable,” said Hadland.
“This is a disaster of the 21st century. They will have a mess on their hands they won’t be able to manage.”
Hadland said he believes the engineers’ erosion impact lines are just a guess and that the slumping will be worse than anticipated.
The unstable soil is not a secret. In 1973, the Attaché slide near the Halfway River, about half way between Fort St. John and Hudson’s Hope, blocked the Peace River for 14 hours.
“There are areas like that we know are unstable,” said Conway.
“Erosion and potential for slides is located in potentially four or five areas. We would be concerned about that. We would monitor that.”
To Hadland, the unstable soil is a large enough concern that the project should be scrapped.
“I would defy anyone to unequivocally state that destroying a river is green or clean.”
Conway said environmental costs are associated with the dam, but there are also benefits to having three dams in a row on the river.
“The reason this facility makes sense is you’re using the water for a third time. You get one third of power generation as W.A.C. Bennett dam and with a reservoir 1/20 the size. Yes there are impacts, we’re not saying they’re not substantive, they are, and there is a lot of work we have to do to avoid if we can and mitigate,” said Conway.
To Ken Boon, the latest scale of the Site C proposal and its accompanying environmental assessments are more serious than previous attempts to build the dam.
“They’ve studied everything from mice to moose,” he said.
“They have helicopters flying, boats on the river, guys running around catching butterflies.”
In August, the company spent $12 million to buy 160 acres of land just outside Fort St. John next to the dam site to use as fill for the earthen dam.
BC Hydro estimates the dam will cost $7.7 billion, but will supply enough electricity for 450,000 homes per year for more than 100 years. Boon thinks there must be a less environmentally destructive answer to solving B.C.’s growing power needs.
“To me it’s like a dinosaur,” he said.
In 1793, explorer Alexander Mackenzie called the area the breadbasket of northern B.C.
The river is a major wildlife corridor and the area was an important area for First Nations people.
“They used to pick buffalo skulls like rocks and roots,” said Arlene, who has a private museum in the yard in a log house where many local artifacts are displayed.
Ken said politicians will make the final decision and thinks they need to stand on the banks of the river to see what will be lost if the dam is built.
“Looking at a piece of paper doesn’t have the same impact as standing here on this land and looking.”