A plan to build a $100-million facility that would have released cold water to help salmon in the Nechako River appears to have been abandoned, a federal inquiry has heard.
“Cold-water release is probably a dead duck,” Steve MacDonald, a research scientist with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, told the Cohen Commission on Thursday.
Dr. MacDonald, an aquatic habitat ecologist, was testifying about a much-talked-about project the B.C. government and resource company Rio Tinto planned to jointly fund to compensate for the environmental damage done by a dam.
The province has been promising the project for years as a way to cool off the Nechako River, which Dr. MacDonald described as the “hot spot” that sockeye salmon encounter when migrating up the Fraser River into northern tributaries.
The Kenney Dam was built in the 1950s by Alcan to divert water out of the Nechako River into a reservoir for power generation at an aluminum smelter in Kitimat, B.C. In 1997, the province and Alcan agreed to provide $50-million each to build a cold-water release facility on the dam. Discussions and studies began, but the project never materialized.
In 2005 then-premier Gordon Campbell announced the cold-water release facility would be built, saying: “It’s been 50 years since the Nechako River was dammed and it’s time for us to take a major step in revitalizing the Fraser River’s most important salmon-spawning tributary and reviving a watershed that is integral to our fisheries heritage.”
But Dr. MacDonald told Commissioner Bruce Cohen it has now been concluded the proposed cold-water release wouldn’t do all that had been hoped to help salmon, and that it might create other problems.
Dr. MacDonald said there is a program in place in which large volumes of water are released into the Nechako from the Skins Lake Spillway, 80 kilometres west of the Kenney Dam, and it has been determined that it is effective in holding down river temperatures.
He said the releases take place in July and August, whenever the Nechako threatens to heat up to 20 C, the maximum temperature sockeye can tolerate.
Dr. MacDonald said the proposed Kenney Dam facility would have put smaller volumes of colder water into the Nechako, but that might not have kept the more distant reaches of the river cool enough.
He said ideally fisheries managers would have both a cold-water release and the Skins Lake Spillway to manipulate water temperatures, but the costs and technical challenges of the Kenney Dam project seem prohibitive.
“I believe the issue of a cold-water release is no longer being considered,” he said.
Rio Tinto couldn’t be reached for immediate comment.
John Rustad, the Liberal MLA for Nechako Lakes, hadn’t heard officially that the cold-water release facility is a dead proposal, but he said it isn’t a surprise.
Mr. Rustad, who has long shown an interest in the rehabilitation of the Nechako River, said studies by the Nechako Watershed Council had indicated cold-water release “is not be the panacea we first thought.”
He said the B.C. government has been in discussion with Rio Tinto, which bought Alcan in 2007, about alternative fisheries-enhancement projects to replace the cold-water release proposal.
Mr. Rustad said there is also a need to restore a dwindling and endangered population of white sturgeon.
He said the fish have trouble spawning in the Nechako, which has not had a natural flow since the Kenney Dam was built, and the population is gradually fading away.
Mr. Rustad said the funds the government and Rio Tinto had proposed putting into the cold-water release facility could be redirected to other uses. One proposal is to build a sturgeon hatchery on the river, and there are various other environmental projects that could be undertaken.