Valleys of the Dammed

Valleys of the Dammed:
The Cost of Radical Environmental Change Versus Conservation


Ehor Boyanowsky

Presentation to Hearing of Commission Examining Marketing of BC Hydro.

The Puntledge River, to the casual visitor, appears paradisiacal: a luminescent green bower shelters a crystal clear mountain stream that suggests steelhead, trout and chinook in every pool. Nothing could be further from the truth. Whereas the Puntledge once provided estuarial angling for tyee larger than Campbell River's, this world-renowned fishery has long vanished. Where a highly prized summerrun steelhead fishery was the pride of the local citizenry, fewer than a dozen fish now return, despite ideal spawning and rearing habitat upstream.

Years ago Lee Straight led an international group of anglers on a steelhead expedition to the Campbell River, perhaps our best known sporting river. In 1994, on the banks of the Varzina River in the Russian Arctic one of its members, Jack Hemingway, described to me how, when they got there, they found little more than an empty river bed. He never returned, but like hundreds of thousands of others, travels to the ends of the earth and spends tens of thousands of dollars each year to find good fishing even without contributing to the depletion of fish stocks.

The tyee of Campbell River have dramatically declined in size and number since, though the number of anglers rowing in the estuary has exploded. The wild summer steelheads of the Campbell have vanished. Hatchery stock originally from the nearby Tsitika temporarily provided exciting fishing and temporary euphoria, but like all artificial plants, after a few years went into a sleep decline.

Perhaps the greatest wilderness treasure of the lower mainland, if not all of British Columbia, is the Squamish River Valley. Ice clad massifs that soar to 8000 feet harbour mountain goats, grizzly bears and the world's largest gathering of bald eagles, less than an hour away from Vancouver and, amazingly, accessible to all, even the wheelchair confined. Returning to spawn in the watershed are some of the largest wild chinook, steelhead and coho to be found anywhere. But they too are in steep decline, even in the major nursery tributary, the Cheakamus.

On a hot, sunny day a few years ago, we took the Hurley Overpass back to Vancouver. We drove many miles through a dead world along the long lifeless sliver that is Carpenter Lake, a corpus of water, punctuated here and there by the skeletal remains of trees. Finally, at Gold Bridge we left the doomsday landscape and pulled into a pub. While our eyes adjusted to the gloom I noticed a photo over the bar of a cowboy in full regalia. He was gazing over a bucolic valley almost impossibly lush and green with a trout stream meandering through it and charming ranch houses surrounded by herds of cows and horses. "My God," I exclaimed. "How beautiful! Where's that? Somewhere in California?"

"You just drove through it," the bartender retorted laconically. How was the fishing then? Apparently wonderful. When had it happened? In the twenties? No, in the sixties. How could anyone have let it happen?

Progress? Benefits to BC?

The histories of these rivers have a common theme. A hydro dam was built for the "net benefit" of BC. Sometimes hatcheries, the alleged panacea of the first 75 years of the century - and part of our engineers' "edifice complex" - were put in - never successfully compensating for the loss of natural habitat or wild stocks. Hatchery stocks become increasingly less robust and cost the public more and more to produce less and less. In the most extreme case, the Bonneville Power Commission, according to Randall Hardie, is now spending $450 million a year, trying to restore fish stocks, in the Columbia River, to no avail. Amortize that over fifty years. Sport and commercial fisheries on the US Pacific coast are largely closed as they are in many parts of BC.

In some cases, gone forever are the great diversity of natural river valley with their wildlife, wilderness, farms, and biological and social mosaics. Gone forever are future options we haven't even thought of. All reduced to a single purpose.

Modern insurance underwriters base true value on replacement cost rather than alternate use. That must be the method of assessing all future radical changes in the environment. What would be the real cost of creating a river, developing myriad species of fish specifically adapted to that river over eons, along with the plants, trees, wildlife, and human life styles possible. No country much less corporation can afford many such undertakings. They contemplate them at their peril, for intact ecosystems are becoming increasingly shorter in supply. Energy is not.