How green was my river:

🕔Mar 27, 2008

Thanks to the Campbell government, British Columbia will be a much different place when they’re finished. It will not be a pretty picture, and unless there is a public protest of sufficient impact to get the government’s attention, the “new BC” will be in place with no turning back.
I should add, in fairness, that if you like development more than the environment, this article will give you considerable pleasure.
Under the government’s energy plan, up to 500 BC streams will be severely impacted by private power companies acting under licenses which cost a pittance.
Let’s set the stage: BC will need more power in the coming years. The Minister of Energy, Richard Neufeld, says we import electricity now but doesn’t tell you that BC Hydro does that in order to export it to the US for profit.
But we are told that dozens—maybe hundreds—of private “micro-hydro” generators on BC rivers and streams are a “green” answer to our energy needs.

Local zoning erased
It all started so innocently with the BC Energy Plan in 2002 telling of opportunities for private capital to get into the electricity game. Of course they would not do so where a stream has “significant fish values” (whatever the devil that’s supposed to mean). This new policy didn’t catch the attention of the public because the government didn’t want it to until it was well underway. Well, folks—it is now well underway.
A troublesome roadblock to this policy quickly appeared when municipalities and regional districts became alarmed and exercised their land-use powers to vote down projects, as respected journalist Mark Hume of the Globe and Mail reported in June of last year.
“Some 33 regional districts and municipalities in areas of British Columbia long courted by the government as the resource-rich “heartlands” have turned against the province in a battle over independent power projects.
“In June 2006 the provincial government passed an amendment to Bill 30 that abolished local zoning authority so that no one can say ‘no’ to a private power project on a river in BC.”
So much for democracy.

Damned if they don’t dam
The government’s position is that none of these projects involve dams impeding fish migration—so everything’s just dandy. Once again, as with fish farms, the Campbell government hopes that no one will look too closely at its cheery pronouncements until the projects are a fait accompli —when it will be too late.
Making hydro-electricity requires that you control the flow of the water. This means different flows depending on the needs of the producer, and in at least one case a company took all the water. The stupid fish perished! Mr. Campbell, one would have thought, would know that fish need water.
I suppose one must expect economy of truthfulness with this government’s treatment of fish, given its record on the fish-farm issue—and they haven’t disappointed us. For one example, when it stated that the project on the Ashlu River near Squamish is upstream from a “waterfall,” the “waterfall” turned out to be rapids that fish can and do traverse, and that kayakers love to run as well.
Here are the facts, folks. Whether or not some projects will actually impede fish (and some will), here’s what will destroy fisheries: siltation (fish don’t do any better than humans when breathing mud), and lack of water. Both of these will occur.
But here’s something more that will happen: dirt roads into wilderness rivers so that equipment can come and go, and transmission lines from the power generators. In summary, this will happen on every river, all 500 or more of them: tunnels for water to pass through and create electricity, meaning major changes in the river flow to suit the power company, siltation, erosion of river banks, dirt roads and transmission lines. And it’s not just fish that will be decimated: all in the food chain, including many birds, such as Osprey and eagles, bears and other mammals, will suffer. It will adversely affect the neighbouring fauna as well. This policy, so innocent in initial appearance, is deadly.
It will also destroy wilderness areas—a hell of a lot of them. Once you have power plants, dirt roads and transmission lines, there is no wilderness. Many of you, like me, can’t partake of the wilderness but, like me, I’m sure you’re proud of BC’s wild areas and want them kept that way.

Regulators without poor records
Ah, but the government says we must get clearance from the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Right—the same DFO which approved the Kemano II project and turned their authority on fish farms over to the gentle mercies of the provincial Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fish—the ministry which, after environmental despoilers are fined, gives them the fines back.
But there’s the BC Ministry of Environment. Surely it can be depended upon to look after public interests in the great outdoors that British Columbians like to boast about. Unfortunately, we know from other matters such as the Eagleridge case and the South Fraser Perimeter Road that the Environmental Assessment Act is only invoked after the decision has been made.
Who makes sure that these new power millionaires will play by the rules after the project is completed? Are we to assume that these instantly rich companies will take tender loving care of that which surrounds their plant? Dream on, folks, dream on! Hell’s bells—neither the DFO nor the Ministry of Environment are capable of safeguarding the environment even within easy-to-reach parts of the province. Only a fool would believe that they will make forays into the wilderness to check out private power projects.

Site C would be better
Why is this happening?
One can only speculate that Campbell & Co. prefer private companies making profits to the publicly owned BC Hydro, which pays dividends over the public purse and helps pay for health care, education, and so on. As much as communists and old-line socialists hated private profit at any cost, the Campbell government loves making people rich at the expense of the public. The creation and distribution of power in this province will move from a Crown corporation, over which we have control and which pays huge dividends, to the private sector that pockets our money and is, for all intents and purposes, beyond our control.
To my way of thinking, the answer is not complicated. Instead of a large public power project like Site C on a river that’s already screwed up, the Campbell government prefers sacrificing the environment of the entire province for the profit of their friends. Once this plan is at the point of no return there will be no need for Site C, a project which would create thousands of jobs and leave the public with a precious asset.
We the people elected this government in 2001, 2005, and seem bound to do the same in 2009. We have no one to blame but ourselves proving that Pogo, from that great satirical comic of yesteryear, was right: “We’ve met the enemy, and he is us.”

_This column previously appeared in The Tyee