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Cheslatta First Nation hopes to restore part of Nechako River | Northern BC Business
Home » Alternative Energy, Burns Lake, First Nations, North Central » Cheslatta First Nation hopes to restore part of Nechako River

Cheslatta First Nation hopes to restore part of Nechako River

By Mike Hager, Vancouver Sun

A traditional Cheslatta burial ground after flooding. The remains of about 60 Cheslatta have been washed away and recovered since the surplus water was first released from the Nechako Reservoir in 1956.

A First Nation in north-central B.C. wants to replenish a portion of the upper Nechako River, using water from a reservoir created by a Rio Tinto Alcan dam that dried up the river 60 years ago.

The Cheslatta Carrier Nation plans to independently finance the $280 million river restoration  project by diverting water the company is already forced to discharge and selling hydroelectric energy of its own to BC Hydro.

The Cheslatta will submit their application to the provincial government Monday to divert water from Rio Tinto Alcan’s Kenney Dam on the Nechako Reservoir to an eight-kilometre stretch of the upper Nechako River, which dried up when the company built the dam in 1952 to provide hydro power to its aluminum smelter in Kitimat.

The Cheslatta want to divert some of the water from the existing spillway — which floods the ancestral lands given back to them by the company last year — to replenish the upper reaches of the Fraser River’s biggest tributary.

“This issue’s been going around forever, but we finally decided to build a spillway ourselves and the only way to pay for it is to install a hydro-generating facility,” said Cheslatta spokesman and policy adviser Mike Robertson.

When Alcan built the dam at the headwaters of the Nechako River it reversed the flow of water through a 16-km tunnel to a power plant at Kemano and flooded the lands of the Cheslatta, who were not consulted.

In 2006, the B.C. Supreme Court ruled that the company can generate power for sale or to supply the smelter according to the terms of its original one-of-a-kind licence, which dates to 1950.

However, one of the consequences of providing Kitimat with cheap power is erratic water levels in the lakes, particularly when surplus water accumulating behind the dam has to be spilled. It goes out through a release facility at Skins Lake, which can cause Cheslatta Lake, downstream, to flood.

For the fifth time in two years, crews headed to the banks of the lake last week to recover human remains washed away from a traditional burial ground after flooding, Robertson said. The remains of about 60 Cheslatta have been washed away and recovered since the surplus water was first released in 1956, Robertson said.

“Through several court cases and out-of-court settlements they are mandated to release this base flow — that is the water we’re applying for,” Robertson said. “We’re comfortable that we can take the water that already flows into the Nechako and create a hydro facility without asking for more water.

“Each and every year when they release huge amounts of water, to keep the salmon alive, the Cheslatta system goes through an annual period of complete massive erosion and flooding.”

The Cheslatta have been in discussions with BC Hydro to secure a long-term agreement to buy electricity from the proposed facility, Robertson said.

“We’re almost forced to become an (Independent Power Producer) in order to bring stabilization to our world,” he said.

BC Hydro embarked on an ambitious plan to secure energy from IPPs under the energy self-sufficiency policy of former premier Gordon Campbell, who publicly supported the restoration of the Nechako River in 1996 while he was opposition leader.

The Cheslatta are not asking the government for funding, but Robertson said they want the province to “direct” BC Hydro to sign a “viable energy purchase agreement.”

“We have all the confidence in the world that if we get an EPA that financing won’t be an issue,” he said.

In August, BC Hydro said it has deals with independent power producers for 129 different projects with 81 of those already complete and generating about 20 per cent of the province’s electricity needs.

Robertson said the First Nation had positive discussions with Rio Tinto Alcan about the project last Thursday, but a company representative was unavailable for comment before press time Sunday.

If their water licence is approved, the Cheslatta will proceed with engineering and could begin construction on the site within three years, Robertson said.

Still, the company holds the licence to the Nechako reservoir’s water and owns the Kenney dam and would need to approve the project, Robertson said.

“We’re hopeful that they’ll work with us and put some of these outstanding issues to rest once and for all.”




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