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DamNation! (Bonus Episode)

Join our guest host, Professor Graham Strickert, as he hosts a panel of experts to discuss the pitfalls and problems of hydropower dams. Inspired by our screening of the award-winning Patagonia film “DamNation.”

Please note: For seasons 1 and 2, we were known as “Let’s Talk About Water,” so you may hear that title in this episode. Don’t worry, it’s still us!

Guest Bios

Graham Strickert

Dr. Graham Strickert is a social-systems scientist specializing in hazards, with an interest in how human behaviors influence the environment around us, especially in light of extreme environmental events. His work has taken him from avalanche hazards that plague the ski industry in New Zealand, to the intricacies of water security in the Saskatchewan River Basin, and many places in-between. He is very interested in bridging the gap that exists between academia and the public, and has been making research relatable to the broader public through innovative means, like forum theatre.

Sarah CoxSarah Cox

Sarah is the B.C. investigative reporter for The Narwhal, an on-line magazine that features in-depth and investigative reporting on Canada’s natural environment. She is also the author of the 2018 prize-winning book Breaching the Peace: The Site C Dam and a Valley’s Stand Against Big Hydro. Sarah’s reporting on the Site C dam for The Narwhal earned a World Press Freedom prize this year, which recognizes public interest journalism that overcomes secrecy, intimidation and refusal to comply with freedom of information requests or other efforts to foil reporting.

Jeff DudaJeff Duda

Jeff Duda is a research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Western Fisheries Research Center in Seattle, Washington. At USGS for 23 years, he has conducted research to determine the ecological effects of human activities and natural disturbance regimes on a wide variety of aquatic and terrestrial organisms and ecosystems throughout the United States. Since 2004, Jeff has led research teams and developed research studies and monitoring programs in freshwater, estuarine, and marine ecosystems to understand the ecological outcomes of the largest dam removal in U.S. history on the Elwha River in Washington State. He was a Principal Investigator on a recent project synthesizing the science describing physical and ecological effects of dam removal at the USGS John Wesley Powell Center for Analysis and Synthesis in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Video

Photo Credit

Graham StrickertGlobal Water Futures; Mark Ferguson
Jeff DudaResearchGate
Sarah CoxThe Narwhal; Taylor Roades

Full Transcript

Sarah Cox:
What some first nations have said again and again is that, it didn’t matter what they suggested, it seemed to them that the government and BC Hydro planned to go ahead with this project, no matter what, and they did not feel that even though there had been talks and letters and many elements of discussion, that they had been heard or that anything had been changed.

Erin Stephens:
Welcome back to Let’s Talk About Water. My name is Erin Stephens and I’m a senior producer with the amazing team behind the scenes. Last season, I organized our virtual film festival and short film competition, which is why I’m excited to introduce this final installment of our bonus episode series. It was part of our first ever viewing party this spring where we screened the stunning Patagonia films documentary, DamNation. We’re bringing you a condensed version of the conversation that followed the film. So sit back, relax, enjoy the show, and make sure you stick around at the end for some exciting updates coming your way soon.

Graham Strickert:
Thanks for joining us. My name’s Graham Strickert. I’m an assistant professor at the School of Environment and Sustainability at the University of Saskatchewan and a founding member here at the Global Institute for Water Security. Today, I’m joined by two remarkable individuals working to further understand the impacts, complications and controversy of hydropower dams. We have Sarah Cox, who is an award-winning author and journalist based in Victoria, British Columbia. She’s the author of the 2018 book, Breaching the Peace, which won a British Columbia book prize and was a finalist for the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing and the George Ryga Award for Social Awareness.

Graham Strickert:
We also have with us Jeff Duda, who is a research ecologist with the US Geological Survey. He’s been working for the US Geological Survey for 23 years and explores the ecological effects of human activities and natural disturbance regimes on aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. Jeff has led research teams to understand the ecological outcomes of the largest dam removal in US history on the Elwha River. He was also the principal investigator synthesizing the effects of dam removal at the USGS John Wesley Powell Center for Analysis and Synthesis in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Graham Strickert:
So first, let me say thank you both so much for joining us for this discussion today. We’re so happy that you could make it.

Jeff Duda:
You’re welcome. Thank you for the invitation. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Sarah Cox:
Happy to be here.

Graham Strickert:
So maybe before we jump in, we could just do a quick hydropower dams 101. So what is a hydropower dam? Why are they so important? And why can they be so detrimental?

Jeff Duda:
I can take the first crack at that one. Hydropower dams have been at around for a long time. They operate in a way that can harness the energy that is created by running water. The earliest forms of this were things like mill dams to physically move a wheel. As technology developed over time, dams became larger. They became electrified. And a lot of dams that operate today for hydropower are connected to a grid and they provide electricity to the grid.

Jeff Duda:
Dams, in general, including hydropower dams, depending on how large they are, how they’re operated, where they’re located in the watershed, how many other dams might be present in that watershed, can really affect the ecology of the river. There’s a couple of things that can happen. One is you change the natural flow regime of that river. Another thing that is typical of a dam is they can sequester a sediment and nutrients and other materials that can be transported by a river. Another thing that dams can do, no matter their purpose or their size, is they can cut off connectivity for migratory organisms as they travel through the ecosystem. If there’s no provision for any passage for organisms like fish, then they’re pretty much limited in their ability to navigate through that river.

Graham Strickert:
Great. Thanks so much. Sarah, did you want to have a response to that as well?

Sarah Cox:
That was a fantastic summary. I will just kind of add from my perspective here in Canada, and I’m joining you today from Victoria on the territory of the Lekwungen speaking peoples, we have an issue with a methyl mercury contamination of fish that cause harm, not just to wildlife, but also to people eating them and disproportionately to Indigenous people who rely on fish and other country foods still very much for subsistence. We have many examples, gearing Canada of dams, cutting off connectivity. One important species that it’s cut off connectivity for, and again, that is closely related to the needs of Indigenous people, are caribou. We’ve had most of our caribou here in Canada are now endangered. And in many instances, the downward spiral began with large dams cutting off migration roads.

Sarah Cox:
We also see that dams are disproportionately located in rich agricultural areas. We have that issue ongoing with one of the large dams under construction in Canada, the Site C Dams. So they led in many instances, rich agricultural land. This is land traditionally where people have settled. They sever cultural riverways, networks of transportation for indigenous peoples, and they have a huge impact on species that are already vulnerable to extinction. And again, we have the Site C Dam, which of course is the dam I’m most familiar with, is going to destroy habitat for more than 100 species that are already at risk of extinction.

Graham Strickert:
Wow, thank you both for kicking us off with such a comprehensive response. So our conversation today will be informed by the themes explored in this award-winning Patagonia film documentary called DamNation. And in case you missed it, you can watch DamNation for free. So the DamNation documentary that we watched earlier highlighted a number of dams that were located in the state of Washington, specifically along the Elwha River. Jeff, why is this river so popular? What makes it so popular? And why is it at the forefront of the conversation that we’re having?

Jeff Duda:
The Elwha has been a highlight of dam removal and the discussions around dam removal started in the mid 1980s when the dams were up for relicensing in the US. You’d have to have a license in order for them to operate, that license needs to be renewed, but in the case of the Elwha dams that was built before the enabling legislation and the other dam, the Glines Canyon Dam, actually occurred inside of a national park. And so once the proceedings began in earnest for the relicensing, and they were privately owned, number of entities, including, and especially the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, brought legal proceedings to consider the effects that they were having on fish, particularly salmon populations. Having one of the dams inside of a national park also was a big issue because everything was protected inside of Olympic National Park.

Jeff Duda:
And so all of these factors really coalesced to make the Elwha a well known, notable project. Then once the project brought approval, it was basically an Act of Congress, 1992, Elwha River Fisheries and Ecosystem Restoration Act. And so then a number of years of study occurred where they looked at all the various possible alternatives, building fish ladders, taking out one or the other of the dams, or removing both dams. And then it was determined after study that the best way to accomplish the goals set forth in the act was to remove both dams. And so once that happened, there was a lot of anticipation for a number of years because there were elements of the Elwha act that said you have to protect downstream property owners, you have to protect the water supply for city of Port Angeles, receives the drinking water from the river, there’s industrial water users, and all of that required some significant mitigation to occur prior to getting to the jackhammers.

Jeff Duda:
And so that was a drawn out, long process. During that time, there was just a lot of anticipation and a lot of people talking about the Elwha. And then of course, once it started, it just received a lot of attention. And it’s one of those projects where you could have a significant action to hopefully fully restore an ecosystem. And so it really represents a symbol that a lot of people rally behind in terms of what the possibilities are for dam removal.

Graham Strickert:
Great. Thanks so much, Jeff. Sarah, over to you now. I know there’s three dams on the Peace River in British Columbia. Maybe you can shed some light on what’s going on there.

Sarah Cox:
Sure. And I was just going to say, in terms of the Elwha, we have heard of the Elwha, of course, here in Victoria, and I’ve actually been there before it was decommissioned. And interestingly enough, we’re not talking about dam removal here in Canada. In fact, we are building large dams. The US is no longer building large dams, but we are. And so, the three dams that you’re talking about on BC’s Peace River are in the Northeast of the province, and they’re very much out of sight and out of mind for many people in BC, but not of course for the people who live there. So of those dams, the first, the W. A. C. Bennett Dam, was built in the late 1960s. It’s just an absolutely mammoth dam with a mammoth reservoir. And then around 1980, a smaller dam on the Peace River opened, it’s called the Peace Canyon Dam.

Sarah Cox:
And for decades, there had been plans to build a third dam on the Peace River, which was called the Site C Dam, and that is the dam that only proceeded after the government changed the law to remove the watchdog utilities commission from determining whether the project was in the public interest. And this dam is also just over halfway through construction. Right now, the price tag is $16 billion, almost sure decline making it the most expensive dam in Canadian history. The power will likely be exported to the US for a fraction of the cost of producing it. And success and governments have just decided to continue, no matter the price tag, and to try to surmount all of these geotechnical problems, which were flagged right from the very beginning.

Graham Strickert:
Wow. Well, I wonder if we could talk a little bit about what happens even before the dam’s built. So specifically the consultation process with local communities, that’s one of the things that’s really important to me. Based on your book, Sarah, the consultation process for new dams results in what you describe as a David and Goliath situation. So individual community members against a province, or even the federal government. Can you tell us about the process of consultation for the development of new dams?

Sarah Cox:
Yes. So there was extensive consultation, there has to be, according to federal and provincial laws. And so in terms of crossing the Ts and dotting the Is, there were many meetings, many letters, with everybody affected and in particular with Treaty 8 First Nations on whose territory the dam is being built. But what is a matter of contention here is whether consultation means that accommodations need to be made and what some first nations have said again and again is that, it didn’t matter what they suggested, it seemed to them that the government and BC Hydro planned to go ahead with this project, no matter what, and they did not feel that even though there had been talks and letters and many elements of discussion, that they had been heard or that anything had been changed. And I just want to talk for a sec about the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which BC has now enacted into law and is changing provincial legislation to bring it into line with the UN Declaration.

Sarah Cox:
So one primary plank in that declaration is the right of pre prior and informed consent for large industrial projects. The dam did not have the free prior and informed consent of any Treaty 8 First Nation before it was approved. After it was approved, nations began signing economic benefit impact agreements. One deal was reached last year with Prophet River First Nation which stated when they signed the economic impact benefit agreement that the project had not received their free prior and informed consent. Another Treaty 8 First Nation, West Moberly First Nations, has launched a treaty rights case which will be heard in court starting next March. It will be a landmark treaty rights case. Their case alleges that the Site C Dam, along with the previous two dams on the Peace River, constitute an unjustifiable infringement of their treaty rights. Everybody’s watching this case. It will be a landmark case, and we will just wait and see what happens with that.

Graham Strickert:
Oftentimes Indigenous people and their cultures, that are thousands of years old, are affected more than the rest of us who may live in cities or not in the immediate vicinity of the dam. How does dam construction affect Indigenous cultures and people and their livelihoods?

Sarah Cox:
In Canada, dams mostly impact Indigenous people and I think there’s a case to be made for environmental racism where the benefits are felt, in places, far away and the impacts are suffered by Indigenous communities. So in the case of Treaty 8 again, the area of the Peace River that the Site C Dam will flood, it’s the last tract of the Peace River Valley for traditional practices like hunting and fishing and trapping. It’s rich in culture and history and people are deeply connected to the land. And then if you look at Northern Manitoba where there’s another large diameter construction, the Keeyask Dam, that is having absolutely horrendous impacts on Cree people.

Sarah Cox:
And then if we go over to the Muskrat Falls Dam in Labrador, a huge boondoggle, that’s what the head of the [inaudible 00:13:23] corporation that was building the dam called it, a boondoggle, also enormously over budget, enormously behind schedule, devastating impacts. It just has layer after layer after layer of impacts. And not to mention that, again, the ties to the land, the cultural history, the landmarks, the stories that emerge, the languages that come from the land, all of that is just wiped out.

Graham Strickert:
Wow. Jeff, I wonder if you can tell us about the communities that you’ve worked with and how they’re impacted by dams before the removal process.

Jeff Duda:
And my connection is really with the Elwha and the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe has a very deep spiritual, cultural, and economic connection to the Elwha River and the lands that surround it. And they were devastated by the loss of opportunities for fishing because of the dams and also specifically the creation site for the Lower Elwha Klallam people was inundated behind the Elwha Dam, the lower of the two dams. And when dam removal occurred, that was, I think, one of the first and most important elements is the restoration of that creation site.

Jeff Duda:
One thing that is not discussed in the film, or a lot of the presentations that you see about the Elwha, is that there’s a fishing moratorium that’s been in place since the start of dam removal. So pretty much all commercial and recreational fishing is stopped on the Elwha to give the river and the fish the best chance possible to recover. And so the Elwha Tribe has shown great amount of patience. They want to fish. I mean, it’s a huge part of their culture and the economics of their tribe. And so we’re hoping that one day, sooner rather than later, that can return.

Graham Strickert:
It’s really striking, the similarities of how Indigenous people in particular have been affected and continue to be affected. I wonder if we could shift gears a little bit, we’ve put a lot of trust in construction of these projects and even the removal projects, but sometimes things don’t go as planned. Sarah, you wrote about the lack of transparency in safety and cost of the Site C Dam, and I wonder if you can tell us a little bit more about that?

Sarah Cox:
Sure. So this has been a project that’s just been plagued by a lack of due process from the get go. It’s been very hard to get information about it, much of the information that we have has been through freedom of information requests that take a long time to get, and that you have to duke it out to actually get back something that’s not redacted. I once got back 800 redacted pages within a larger request, I’m repeating what people who will be directly impacted by the dam have said, well, if everything is so above board, then why all the secrecy? Why is this so secret? Why we, as rate payers in the province, are paying for the project? Why don’t we have this information? We have a situation where there’s no bid contracts being given out by unknown people at BC Hydro that total millions, if not tens of millions, of dollars. We have some of these contracts going to numbered companies.

Sarah Cox:
I tracked down one of the numbered companies and it turned out that it was registered to executives of a company that had just gone bankrupt and had been dismissed from the Site C civil works consortium. There’s a lot that is not in the open and people think of Canada as a great democracy and a country with a lot of transparency. In fact, it is very hard as a journalist to get information and we have a marked lack of transparency when it comes to publicly funded projects. And again, this is public money. The public should have a right to know how the money is being spent, who is profiting, and who is giving out these direct award contracts. And so when the public does have access to this type of information, it champions much better, I think, more democratic decision making.

Graham Strickert:
Yeah. Well, another question I’ve wondered about is over the next 100 to 150 years, we’re going to have very big decisions to make about whether to keep some of the dams and which ones to remove, and how are we going to cover the cost of refurbishment for the ones that we decide to keep or deconstruction for the ones that we decide we need to remove?

Sarah Cox:
That’s a very interesting point. It all goes back to the election cycle and here, we have pretty much four year election cycles, and we can’t seem to think beyond that. And we are certainly not thinking about what happens in 60 years or 80 years or 100 years or more than 100 years, and who’s going to pay for the decommissioning or the refurbishment. And I think that what people are up against is this whole notion, and it’s really a branding notion that just because something is hydropower, that it’s clean and green.

Sarah Cox:
And going off on a bit of a tangent here, but as environmental concerns come more to the forefront, there’s an entire industry that exists to, and I put this in quotations, to mitigate the impacts of some of these stamps through building fish ladders, or again, in the case of Site C, an absolutely mind boggling scheme where they’re going to try to get bull trout to go up fish ladders because the Site C Dam will block their access to their spawning grounds and basically anesthetize them and truck them past the dam for its lifespan, which could be anywhere from 70 to 100 years. And again, these mitigation schemes, some of them are really not grounded in science. Like for example, salmon will use fish ladders, but there’s no evidence that bull trout will.

Graham Strickert:
Yeah, that’s a really great point, Sarah. I wouldn’t mind asking Jeff about fish ladders because we often hear, “Oh, well don’t worry. We’ll put in a fish ladder.” But do they work? And when do they work and when do they not work?

Jeff Duda:
So I think a lot of it depends on what the site conditions are of that particular location. It depends on how big of the dam is that they have to get past. I think in some cases they’ve been shown to work and in other cases, not so much. In some cases they have fish elevators where they take the adult fish, get them up the dam, you may have heard of the salmon cannon, the Whooshh system that basically is a way to transport individual fish through a tube to get them upstream of the dam. That’s only half of the equation, of course. Once the fish make it up past the dam to their spawning grounds and they spawn, then you’ve got the juveniles that need to migrate downstream. And so then they have to be collected in a way, you have to track the juvenile fish to the collector to get them safely past the dam so that they don’t go through the turbines or down the school way. And I think the jury is still out in terms of the effectiveness and the best practices.

Graham Strickert:
Thank you for that. We would love to take some questions from the audience. Will the transition to adopting electrical vehicles and the insanity of cryptocurrency mining power needs not necessitate more electrical power grid infrastructure? So basically the question is asking, given that there’s going to be such a huge increase in energy demand, probably not just with cryptocurrency, but with crypto communications, which is coming as well, there’s going to be huge energy demand. So what are our options?

Sarah Cox:
We hear a lot here that we need more hydro to deal with the electrification of our provinces and territories, but I haven’t seen that the numbers add up so far. I do know that the former CEO of BC Hydro announced that the energy conservation measures that we had here in BC before the budget was slashed, would have saved as much electricity as Site C would produce, so I just hold that up as one small example. Obviously electrification is very important to deal with climate change, it’s just how we deal with that and definitely the place to start is with energy conservation.

Graham Strickert:
Thank you. I’d like to go to one more question from the audience, if we could. Who do we talk to to enact change?

Sarah Cox:
That’s, again, a very interesting question that wraps together so much of what we’ve talked about today. I think elected representatives are a good place to go to to start, but I think it’s most important to go to the communities that are impacted by these projects and to hear their stories and to give them voice outside of their communities into not just other parts of Canada, but in the States as well. And it strikes me as a little bit ironic that the US is decommissioning dams to protect fish, and yet is poised to import power from new hydro dams in Canada which will have absolutely devastating impacts on all kinds of fish from bull trout, to brook trout, to sturgeon.

Graham Strickert:
Well, Sarah and Jeff, it’s been a real pleasure speaking with you. I thank you so much for your time this afternoon.

Jeff Duda:
Thanks Graham, Sarah.

Sarah Cox:
Thank you.

Jeff Duda:
It’s nice meeting you and thank you to all the viewers out there. Really appreciate it.

Sarah Cox:
Yes. Thanks for joining us today.

Erin Stephens:
And that’s a wrap, but before we go, I have to fill you in on a small secret. This is the last episode we’ll be known as Let’s Talk About Water. We’ll be back with a new name, but the same great content you know and love. Thanks to my fantastic colleagues who help to put the show together, including Shawn Ahmed, Mark Ferguson, Laura McFarlan, Jesse Witow, Fred Reibin, and Andrea Rowe. Special thanks and gratitude to Let’s Talk About Water’s founder, my mentor and friend, Linda Lilienfeld. Stay tuned to our social media for exciting updates and our first episode of season three, coming to you soon.