You may have heard about the Columbia River Treaty recently. That’s because for the first time, this 50 year old treaty between the United States and Canada can be modified, renewed, or terminated. The treaty was initially signed to provide energy and flood protection for both countries. This agreement has had enormous impacts on residents of the Kootenays, both good and bad. The dams provide a large economic boost to the area, they create emission-free energy, and they have protected areas like Trail from experiencing extreme floods. The dams have also been a detriment by submerging arable lands, altering fish passage, and disrupting ecosystems.
In exchange for water storage in Canadian reservoirs, the BC government receives 50 per cent of the revenue from the power generated by the American dams. Some of that money makes its way back to the Kootenays, most notably through a fund that was created in 1995 called the Columbia Basin Trust. But do these monetary benefits outweigh the negative social, environmental, and cultural impacts?
The effects on freshwater fish are one of the most obvious ecological impacts. The dams have affected the flow of nutrients, which has had negative impacts on the populations of species such as Kokanee salmon and Rainbow trout. Fluctuating water levels also have negative impacts on lake spawning fish like Rainbow, and stream spawning fish like the Kokanee.
The creation of reservoirs in the Kootenays has submerged large areas that were once productive agricultural and culturally important lands. Entire communities, such as Edgewood, were displaced by these dams, and many First Nations cultural grounds were lost without any consultation with those peoples.
The dams of the Kootenays provide over 7400 MW of power– roughly 10 times more than Kootenay residents use. There is big demand worldwide for energy and we know that the creation of dams comes with impacts. The province continues to look at creating more dams to meet those demands, but are dams the best way to generate energy?
Wind energy is the fastest growing alternative energy source out there, with BC getting its first two wind farms in the past 5 years. Wind farms in the Kootenays would have to establish nearly 2500 turbines to create the same power output as the current working dams.
The turbines need to be built away from buildings and be in highly windy areas. Access roads, transmission lines, and roughly 350 cubic meters of concrete are also needed per site to host a turbine. Matching the energy output of all dams with wind would cost approximately $11.6 billion. Although wind power is a no-emission and no-waste energy source, there would be a considerable physical foot print and a large price tag.
Solar energy is another hydroelectric alternative, one that looks quite promising for the Kootenays. We have 30 per cent more sunshine than Berlin, and Germany acquires 50 per cent of its energy from solar cells. The most environmentally sensitive way to do this would be solar panels installed on roofs. The costs of these solar panels can vary greatly, but upkeep costs are minimal and could eventually pay for itself.
To match the hydroelectric energy the dams create would require small projects on many rooftops or to establish large scale solar farms that would have a much larger footprint.
There are also other forms of non-renewable energy resources. One example is thermal coal, although there are currently no coal burning power stations in BC. This form of energy is very high in carbon emissions. Another energy source is nuclear, however, currently BC has a policy of no nuclear power.
Even though the dams have had great environmental and social impacts on the Kootenays, they cannot be easily replaced. The dams also provide cheap energy, and are not as environmentally harmful as some energy sources such as coal. While our energy needs are currently met with the dams, for future supply perhaps it is time to look a little harder at the alternatives.