Fourteen hours. That’s roughly how long it takes to drive the 1,220 kilometres between Vancouver and Fort St. John, B.C. If you drove the same distance straight east, you’d be approaching the Saskatchewan border.
So it's not exactly surprising that the Peace River Country, which spans the Alberta-B.C. border and includes the cities of Fort St. John, Dawson Creek and Grande Prairie, feels a world away to the 3.4 million people — 73 per cent of B.C.’s population — who live in the Lower Mainland or on Vancouver Island.
A September 2013 poll commissioned by BC Hydro found only four in 10 British Columbians had even heard of the Crown utility’s $7.9 billion proposal to build a third hydroelectric dam on the Peace River.
But the decision about whether or not to build the Site C dam stands to directly affect all British Columbians — from the implications for our electricity bills to the flooding of some of our province's most valuable agricultural land.
With that in mind, today DeSmog Canada is launching an in-depth series looking at the issues at play in the pending decision on the Site C dam — from electricity demand and economics to First Nations concerns and alternative sources of energy.
“This project doesn’t just affect us on the ground, it’s going to affect the pocketbook of every British Columbian,” said Liz Logan, Treaty 8 First Nations Tribal Chief.
That’s because the dam, the largest infrastructure project in Canada, would be built with public money — about $1,700 of public money for every man, woman and child in British Columbia, to be specific.
Largest public expenditure in B.C. history?
"Site C is not an ordinary project,” said the report of the joint review panel, released two weeks ago. “At $7.9 billion, it might be the largest provincial public expenditure of the next 20 years.”
While concluding that the Site C dam is the best alternative for providing B.C. with reliable cheap power, the panel said BC Hydro has not proven the power is needed in the immediate future — and the dam would cause significant adverse effects on the environment and wildlife, First Nations and farmers.
“Justification must rest on an unambiguous need for the power,” the report stated.
The panel stopped short of recommending for or against the project — a decision that now rests in the hands of the federal and provincial governments, which have until Nov. 8 to make up their minds on the project.
For residents of the Peace Valley, the report release was a bit like déjà vu. This is the third time Site C has been on the table.
The dam was first turned down in the ’80s by the independent B.C. Utilities Commission, which said BC Hydro hadn't demonstrated that the power was needed or that the dam was preferable to all other sources of power. In the ’90s, BC Hydro suspended the project again because the need for power was still considered insufficient.
This time around the provincial government has exempted the project from the oversight of the B.C. Utilities Commission.
What are the alternatives?
We're living in an era where major hydrodams are being decommissioned all over the world, including just across the border in Washington State where the Elwha Dam was recently removed.
So it's fitting that the joint review panel’s report noted that BC Hydro has not looked closely enough at alternatives, such as geothermal energy.
“The panel concludes that a failure to pursue research over the last 30 years into B.C.’s geothermal resources has left B.C Hydro without information about a resource that BC Hydro thinks may offer up to 700 megawatts of firm, economic power with low environmental costs,” it says.
If approved, the dam would flood 107 kilometres of river, impacting 13,000 hectares of agricultural land — including flooding 3,800 hectares of farmland in the Agricultural Land Reserve, an area nearly twice the size of the city of Victoria.
“There’s enough land to produce fresh fruits and vegetables for a million people,” says Wendy Holm, a professional agrologist.
The project would also add more strain to the Peace, a region that already has two mega hydro dams, 16,267 oil and gas well sites and 8,517 petroleum and natural gas facilities.
Peace Break important gateway for wildlife, early explorers
The area is more than just a haven for industrial activity though. Because the Peace River is the only river to break the barrier of the Rocky Mountains between the Yukon south almost to Mexico, it has provided a gateway for wildlife and people for thousands of years.
At Charlie Lake Cave in the Peace Country, there’s evidence of human occupations spanning 11,000 years, making it one of just a handful of archaeological sites in North American that date back more than 10,500 years.
Thousands of years later, First Nations signed a treaty with the government of Canada, known as Treaty 8, which promises they can continue their way of life, including rights to hunting, fishing and trapping. As such, the Treaty 8 First Nations have raised serious concerns about the Site C dam.
When Sir Alexander Mackenzie became the first European known to reach the Peace River area in 1792, he wrote in his journal that the valley was so rich in wildlife that in some places it looked almost like a barnyard.
Fast-forward another 200 years and the Peace Break has been recognized as an international conservation priority for the movement of endangered populations of woodland caribou and grizzlies.
All of these factors raise serious questions about whether Site C is the best option to meet the electricity needs of British Columbia.
With so much hanging in the balance, DeSmog Canada will be taking a closer look at the issues surrounding the Site C dam proposal in the coming weeks.
We hope you’ll follow along, chime in below in the comments section and share with your friends and family — because while this project may be out of sight for many British Columbians, it’s far too consequential to be put out of mind.
Photo: A section of the Peace River Valley that would be flooded if the Site C dam were built, by Graham Osborne.