With the huge W.A.C. Bennett Dam and its massive reservoir as a backdrop, Premier Gordon Campbell announced Monday what may be British Columbia's last major hydro project.
Mr. Campbell, in deciding to go ahead with Site C, a third dam on the Peace River, has launched a project that has been talked about for more than 30 years.
If it passes federal and provincial environmental reviews, the BC Hydro dam could be under construction in two years, and generating 4,600 gigawatt hours of electricity annually by 2020.
The cost - more than $6-billion by 2006 estimates - and the fact it will partly flood an environmentally and agriculturally rich valley have long kept the project on the shelf.
But Mr. Campbell, with about 100 of the workers who had helped build the W.A.C. Bennett Dam in the late 1960s looking on, said it is time for Site C to be built. He said the province is moving to Stage 3 - environmental review. If it passes there, it will go on to Stage 4, detailed engineering planning. Stage 5, construction, will follow relatively quickly.
"It is critically important that we start now," Mr. Campbell said, after describing the province's growing power needs. "There will always be someone who counsels waiting."
When he flew into Hudson's Hope earlier in the day, Mr. Campbell was greeted by about 50 protesters, who waved placards saying "Site C Sucks" and "Damn that dam."
Mr. Campbell praised the late Mr. Bennett, who was premier from 1952 to 1972, for having the vision to proceed with big power projects on the Peace and Columbia rivers. He said that two-river power policy had allowed B.C. to grow and prosper, and he hoped the Site C project would do the same for a future generation, although it would be the last big dam in the province.
A government news release on Site C says a new clean-energy act will "enshrine in law B.C.'s historic Two Rivers Policy by prohibiting future development of large scale hydro-electric storage dam projects on all river systems in British Columbia … it will also preclude further dams on the Peace River system other than Site C."
Mr. Campbell said B.C.'s energy needs will grow by up to 40 per cent over the next two decades and the population will increase by one million. "We need all the energy we can create in British Columbia," he said.
The proposed dam would be built downstream of both the W.A.C. Bennett and Peace Canyon dams, and it would create a reservoir about 83 kilometres long and two to three times the existing width of the Peace River.
Energy Minister Blair Lekstrom acknowledged the dam would flood some prime agricultural land and would have other environmental impacts, but he said the benefits would far outweigh the costs. The government will have to make the case that it's environmentally acceptable, he said, and will also have to accommodate the interests of the area's Treaty 8 First Nations.
Ralph Spinney, who retired from BC Hydro in 1989, said there were critics when he was construction manager on the W.A.C. Bennett Dam in the 1960s. He said people complained the dam would create more energy than the province needed, and that, located in northeast B.C., it was too far from where the power was needed.
"I sort of had doubts too," he said. Does he have doubts about Site C? "No. None whatsoever."
Mr. Spinney said that by building downstream of the existing dams, Site C gets to make use of the reservoir behind W.A.C. Bennett Dam, by reusing the water. "That's 640 square miles of reservoir out there," he said. "Look at it. That's the envy of the world when you are talking power generation because that gives you firm power."
He said without big dams, B.C. would have had to turn to power-generation methods that would have been more environmentally damaging. "These projects have kept us from coal, oil and gas, and nuclear for all these years. I think it's great we're now going ahead with Site C."
But Karen Anderson, mayor of the District of Hudson's Hope, doesn't share his enthusiasm. She said local residents don't want to see their valley flooded, and the council had previously taken a position opposing the dam. Now that the province is going ahead, she said, council would have to revisit the issue, but she didn't think the project would win favour in her town of about 1,000.
"It's old technology and we don't need it," said Deborah Peck, who lives on a ranch in the valley and who was among a small group holding up protest signs at Hudson's Hope airstrip. "We've suffered through two dams already. That's enough."
Brian Churchill, a director of the Peace Valley Environment Association, said his group has been preparing its arguments for years and is ready for the review process. "This dark cloud has been hanging over this valley for 30 years," he said. "We're going to win this fight and remove that dark cloud."
John Horgan, NDP energy critic, said the project isn't green because it will destroy prime agricultural land, and questioned whether B.C. needs the power. But he welcomed the environmental assessment, saying it is a good opportunity to find out the true cost of the proposed project.
"My concern is the Premier is looking at this as a legacy project," he said. "What I hear the Premier saying is, 'Look at me, I'm almost as big as W.A.C. Bennett.' "