Since the construction of the Kenney Dam in 1952 and the Skins Lake spillway, Cheslatta Carrier Nation has had to endure an almost yearly flooding on their territory.
The Kenney Dam was built to create the Nechako reservoir, which supplies downstream hydro-electric turbine to power Rio Tinto aluminum smelters. The Skins Lake spillway was constructed to release water from the reservoir into the Upper Nechako River.
But the diversion of water from the Nechako reservoir hasn’t only been causing the frequent flooding. According to the Fraser Basin Council, the diversion of water at Kenney Dam is considered one of the most pressing issues affecting the health of the Nechako watershed.
Theresa Fresco, program coordinator for Fraser Basin Council’s watersheds and water resources program, said a key aspect of overall watershed health is the volume and timing of streamflow.
“Species and ecosystems within the Nechako watershed co-evolved with particular patterns of stream flow and movement of riverbed and riverbank sediments,” she said.
“When these historic patterns are changed, it can have significant and diverse impacts on fish, wildlife, and people.”
She explained that lower flows are more susceptible to warmer temperatures, which can be lethal to fish.
Mike Robertson, senior policy advisor for Cheslatta Carrier Nation, said the negative impacts on the environment “go without saying.”
“That’s what has been happening for 64 years,” said Robertson. “Let’s face it, the Nechako is a severely diminished river and the Upper Nechako is in a very fragile state.”
Cheslatta has had discussions with the province and Rio Tinto for several years to build a water release facility at the Kenney Dam that would address the yearly flooding.
According to Robertson, the proposed project would not only eliminate the frequent flooding and destruction of the Cheslatta system, but it would also be good for the environment.
“Our proposal will allow for a more natural mean-annual-flow regime and will greatly improve the temperature control targets,” explained Robertson.
Fresco agrees that the water release facility proposed by Cheslatta would restore a more natural flow regime to the watershed.
In addition, Robertson said the proposed project would re-establish flows in the five-mile-long Nechako River Canyon that was dewatered by the Kenney Dam in 1952, and allow for the rehabilitation and enhancement of the Cheslatta River and Lake system.
“The Kenney Dam release facility project is an environmentally sound proposal that provides a means to improve the environment of Cheslatta River and the Upper Nechako,” he added.
However, Robertson says the water release facility won’t be able to restore all damage that has been done to the watershed.
“Unfortunately, the release facility project will not improve the issues of flooded timber and shoreline debris on the Nechako reservoir,” he said.
Cheslatta Carrier Nation and the Fraser Basin Council are both part of the Nechako watershed roundtable, a collaborative initiative that started in 2015 to protect and improve the health of the Nechako watershed for future generations.