Cheslatta hopeful dam diversion will restore river

Published in Windspeaker newspaper | November 2013 | Circulation: 145,000

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It’s been 62 years since the Cheslatta Carrier Nation faced an offer they couldn’t refuse from B.C.: abandon their soon-to-be-flooded villages and cemeteries in two weeks, or go to jail.

Today, the 130-resident community near Prince George continues to battle the waters as more and more human remains are exposed by flooding erosion–several last month alone–prompting the band to apply on Sept. 30 for a water license to build a water-release facility that would stabilize the Nechako River.

“We’ve had the solution to the problem for many, many decades,” said Mike Robertson, the band’s senior policy advisor. “The solution is to build a release system for the Kenney dam.

“We’ve worked hard to get the land back. Now we’re working to get the water back, and to stabilize the environment … We resolved, here at Cheslatta, that we’re going to do it ourselves.”

If approved, the nation would seek funding partners for its $280 million Nechako River Legacy Project, which would construct a water release system in the bedrock beside the dam, and re-divert water into its original course – the now-dry Nechako canyon.

Previous provincial attempts to solve the flooding problem – and exposed ancestral graves – were abandoned in the face of the recent economic crisis, Robertson said.

“It’s an ongoing saga here at Cheslatta,” he said. “We’re still fighting it.

“It’s extremely troubling. We just took in some bones we just found last week. It always upsets the people; I had some Elders come in just this morning to look at fresh bones.”

The Cheslatta’s villages were flooded in 1952 with the construction of a dam to power Rio Tinto Alcan’s aluminum smelter in Kitimat. Robertson said “it’s just bizarre” that the firm only pays $5 a year for a license to the water, when his band’s water application cost $10,525.

When the dam was built, it didn’t include a spillway. As a result, the Cheslatta residents had to escape the rising waters caused by massive water releases upstream, which submerged cemeteries and dumped several million tons of debris into Cheslatta Lake.
“There’s sure a lot of unfairness we’ve had to deal with, in terms of the government giving that water away,” he said. “We have to at least try to get it back. The people are resigned to that; they feel it’s a small price to pay for the opportunity to get their water back.

“In a dream world, the dam should have never been built. But now, the town of Kitimat depends on the dam, and Alcan has a legal license to have the dam there and use the water. We don’t have an issue with Alcan; it’s the permitting agencies that we’re challenging.”

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