The second of two stories on the state of dams throughout the world.
The proposed Site C Dam on the Peace River in British Columbia (a reincarnated brontosaurus) should be visualized in the context of worldwide dam projects. An unusual factor is involved, in that “Soil at Risk, A Report on Soil Conservation by the Standing Committee on Agriculture, Fisheries, and Forestry to the Senate of Canada” in 1984, states:
• Less than nine per cent of Canada’s land area is capable of being cultivated and of that, only about one-half is actually cropped. This 4.5 per cent, quite literally, is spread from coast to coast.
• The other 4.5 per cent is used for pasture, forest, recreational lands, transportation corridors and urban or industrial land.
The extreme shortage of agricultural land in B.C., and the intent to flood more land in the Peace River Valley, boils down to the sad truth that technomania takes precedence over food production.
An April 2004 Vancouver Sun article quoted a BC Hydro estimate that the Site C project will have a footprint of 5,125 hectares, “Of this, 3,940 ha. is farmland of agricultural significance… much of it is class 1 agricultural land.” Nearby, high quality agricultural land would be downgraded because of localized climate change — such as increased fog — caused by large reservoirs. This reservoir would be 83 km long.
When I wrote an article entitled “Dammed Today — Destroyed Forever” for BC Outdoors Magazine (June, 1977) a scientist predicted that my article identified problems that will get worse as mankind continues to disregard the isostatic stability of Earth. He suggested we will learn the hard way that once potential energy stored above dams becomes kinetic energy unleashed by dam failures, inconceivable destructiveness will occur.
The article repeated a warning given at a public hearing in Revelstoke, B.C., by an internationally famed engineer and authority on earth fill dams, Thomas F. Thompson. He said that none of the existing downstream dams have the spillway capacity to handle the runoff that could occur from failure of an upstream Columbia River dam: “The imposition of a possible flood on the order of a million cubic feet per second could result in a chain reaction of failures of dams that would represent a catastrophe of unprecedented magnitude.”
After the Columbia River leaves B.C. it flows for over 700 miles in the U.S. before entering the Pacific ocean. It is a technological paradox to think of flood control dams that might form an extensive Grand Canyon of the Columbia river. Yet even technologists know that water flows downhill.
Dam builders and government officials self-righteously overlook the menace their ventures produce. A deliberately deferred, but much needed interest in species survival is needed to moderate obsessive technological frittering with poorly understood ecological parameters.
Regarding climate change for instance, it has been hypothesized that the large northern dams in B.C. and elsewhere, for example the 700 sq. mile area flooded behind WAC Bennett Dam may have collectively reduced cold winter temperatures in the north and triggered survival of mountain pine beetles and subsequent destruction of pine trees on nearly nine million acres of forest land.
For years, B.C. residents have criticized BC Hydro’s single vision as it ignores less damaging power generation methods that would not destroy river valleys and kill thousands of animals (6,000 moose behind the current Peace River Dam and 8,000 moose behind Alcan’s Kenney Dam). Our mercilessness towards other animals suggests a serious deficiency in human character.
Both on the Nechako River and on the Columbia River in B.C., dams have been built, which, if failure should occur, would cause enormous damage. On the Columbia there is a “hazard factor” — a chance of “major slippage” of the 1.4 to 2 billion cubic yard Downie Slide above Revelstoke Canyon Dam and the 250 million cubic yard slide above Mica Dam. Yes, studies have been done and some modification of slide structure has been made, but Caseco the designer of Mica warned of “possible catastrophic failure at that site” and engineering and geological experts serving as a panel at the Revelstoke Canyon hearings would not guarantee its safety unless Downie slide was elaborately tunneled and drained “in a complex and lengthy procedure for which there is no precedent.” Some work has been done but not the amount recommended. The toe of Downie Slide has been flooded in spite of one expert stating it to be of “utmost importance that no reservoir pool be placed against the side of the Downie Slide.” To proceed with the high dam, he said, would be “the height of folly.”
Kenney Dam at over 2,300 feet above sea level, stores 873 billion cubic feet of water in a 358 square mile reservoir. If water should breach the dam or the gated Skins Lake spillway, contended to rest on false bedrock, the wall of water released would surge down the Nechako, sweeping away downstream communities such as Vanderhoof and Prince George (ca. 1,850 feet above sea level.) The Nechako enters the Fraser River at Prince George, but floodwaters on the Nechako would back the Fraser up the Robson Valley for a number of days, B.C. highways would be obliterated as would railroads in the Fraser Canyon. Fort Langley, Richmond and adjacent areas would succumb to catastrophe.
The Nechako River is also one of the largest tributaries of the Fraser River, and once hosted one of the strongest salmon runs in B.C. Since Kenney Dam was built to divert water thru the Coast Mountains to serve Alcan Aluminum, the salmon runs have been greatly reduced due to artificially controlled water levels.
It is considered a cautionary principle to consider all guns loaded. All dams are equally loaded with enormous potential energy.
Even before completion of Columbia Dams the three volume series, Structural Engineering by Dr. R.C. Sexsmith noted, “Dams have had a particularly high mortality rate. In the first sixty years of this century (the 20th), about 1650 dams over 45 feet high were constructed in the United States., and 1.8 per cent failed with a release of water. Over 400 deaths were caused by these failures.” Major earthquakes are unpredictable.
Bob Harrington lives at Galena Bay, B.C. His latest book: Testimony for Earth and a new edition of The Soul Solution with a foreword by Dr. David Suzuki are now available at www.hancockhouse.com.