Can BC Hydro repair the environmental damage caused by its dams?

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Conservation groups allege that BC Hydro is not allocating enough money to correct the damage caused by the dams to fish and wildlife.

BC Hydro is not properly compensating for the destruction of its 82 dams on BC fish and wildlife, according to a company audit request submitted to the province last week.

In a letter and report sent to the Auditor General of British Columbia, Michael Pickup, the BC Wildlife Federation and the Environmental Law Center at the University of Victoria point to the Peace and Columbia Rivers, where large dams have caused “some of the most serious environmental damage in British Columbia’s history”. .”

“A number of our most fertile and ecologically productive river valleys have been permanently inundated, destroying large areas of habitat and severely affecting species,” reads the audit application.

Therefore, BC Hydro’s water permits on both rivers require it to compensate for the negative effects of dam construction through its Fish and Wildlife Compensation Program (FWCP).

But over the past eight years on the Peace River, about 70% of that program’s annual funding has gone to wildlife monitoring and other projects that don’t make up for losses. On the Columbia River, these programs accounted for 13% of the FWCP’s annual funding between 2014 and 2022, according to the report.

“These allowances pay for basic obligations that are core responsibilities of the province,” said BC Wildlife Federation executive director Jesse Zeman.

“We’re in such a bad shape here on this file that things are basically going down the drain and we’re counting them as they go.”

BC Hydro says local groups decide what to fund

In an email, a BC Hydro spokesperson noted that the FWCP operates independently of the company and pointed to a third-party evaluation and financial audit of the program in 2019. (Zeman said the audit request stems from this assessment).

FWCP “funding decisions are made at local level in an open and transparent manner: each region has an independent local council and a local action plan, which includes the region’s priorities,” spokesperson Simi Heer wrote.

Heer highlighted restoration projects in the Squamish River estuary, habitat restoration in the Courtney River watershed, and work to help kokanee spawning on the shores of the Columbia Basin recover. habitat on West Arm of Kootenay Lake.

“These local councils guide the work in each region. They are also responsible for the collaborative review and approval of all funding decisions for FWCP projects and grant applications,” the spokesperson added.

Heer said the FWCP does not fund “core government activities” and instead focuses on actions that support habitats, species, research, securing land and monitoring and assessing the situation.

If the Auditor General pursues an audit, “BC Hydro would be pleased to provide further information,” Heer wrote.

Glacier Media contacted the auditor general’s office, but was not immediately available for comment.

B.C. falls short of neighboring jurisdiction

On the Canadian side of the Columbia River watershed, the river has permanently lost about 600 square kilometers of habitat.

Along a river where a treaty with the United States has provided the country with vast amounts of electricity for decades, British Columbia provides a fraction of what is spent restoring nature south of the border.

In 2019, the US Bonneville Power Administration spent $240 million in 2019, compared to $5.5 million for BC Hydro through the FWCP. After adjusting for its 70% share of the Columbia River, the Washington state-based power company still spends more than 14 times as much money each year to correct the damage the dams cause to the natural environment.

“We live in a completely different reality in terms of how much money we spend on compensation,” Zeman said.

In addition to devastating a number of salmon populations, BC Hydro dams are also putting pressure on declining white sturgeon populations and have resulted in increased levels of methylmercury in the environment, as well as significant changes in water quality, according to the report.

All of this has resulted in “drastic losses in ecosystem productivity,” the report says, resulting in an estimated loss of 800,000 tons of carbon per year in the Columbia region alone.

In the Peace region, dam construction resulted in the loss of at least 1,500 square kilometers of habitat and thousands of moose when it flooded, according to Zeman.

“Why is it [the FWCP money] going to educate people on how to deal with bears? asked Calvin Sandborn, legal director of the UVic Environmental Law Center. “These are good things to do. But these things have no impact on the pitch. We should focus on habitat restoration, habitat purchase, fish stream restoration, wildlife restoration.

“They kind of got away from that.”

Balancing Dam Damage with Decarbonization

Last fall, BC Hydro released its electrification plan, a framework for moving the province away from fossil fuels.

Critics said the plan did not properly account for growing demand for electricity, even with the construction of the $16 billion Site C dam on the Peace River.

To meet this demand by 2030, a team of energy experts from the University of British Columbia estimated earlier this year that it would take hundreds of new wind turbines, solar panels and a biofuels industry. booming to make up for what they calculated to be a 20 percent power shortfall (BC Hydro denied the predicted shortfall).

But it is not a simple two-way balance between economic prosperity and decarbonization. Between 2014 and 2022, only 26% of funding allocated to the Peace River Basin has gone to fish and wildlife compensation, according to the UVic Environmental Law Center report.

Even if funding has been properly spent to offset fish and wildlife losses, Zeman and Sandborn say B.C. needs hundreds of millions of dollars more to even approach the spending seen in jurisdictions like the United States. State of Washington.

“We lost our balance,” Sandborn said. “It’s important to move away from fossil fuels, but we also need to make sure the polluter pays when that damage is done.”

“We have to repay Mother Nature.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misquoted Calvin Sandborn when he said the FWCP program had “restrained” itself from restoring habitat and wildlife restoration. In fact, he says. “…got away from that.”

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