Cash-strapped Washington State seeks funding to build new dam in British Columbia

Legislative accountability needed for millions spent by State’s dam-building agency.

  • Jan. 14, 2015 12:00 p.m.

Yesterday Sierra Club sent a letter to Gov. Inslee and Department Director Maia Bellon opposing Washington State funding a new dam in Canada.  The state’s Office of Columbia River (OCR), the dam-building arm of the Department of Ecology, has proposed allocating $1.6 million to a private utility to study building a new dam on the Similkameen River in British Columbia.  The Washington Legislature recently convened, and will vote on funding requests for the Office of Columbia River.

“Our cash-strapped state government is wasting millions of tax dollars on new dams and other water projects, this time in British Columbia,” said John Osborn, a Spokane physician who coordinates the Sierra Club’s Columbia River Future Project.  “Office of Columbia River operates as a political-rewards slush fund for irrigated agriculture. The Legislature convening this week needs to account for these public funds.”

In 2013, Fortis BC, (a subsidiary of Fortis Inc. based in St. John’s, Nfld.) applied for permits to conduct studies on the Crown land required for the reservoir (12 miles long) and the dam site for a 541-foot-high concrete dam in the Similkameen Canyon, 9 miles upstream from Princeton, with a generation capacity of 45-65 megawatts.  To pay for the project, Fortis approached downstream parties in the United States with interests in hydropower and irrigation.

On September 4, 2014, Fortis announced that it was not moving forward with the new dam “at this time.”   The utility “may re-evaluate the viability of the project in the future based on customer demand and market conditions.”  On September 17, Ecology Director Bellon submitted a request to fund Fortis to study building a new dam as part of the agency’s 2015-17 budget.

“The Similkameen River has been identified as one of B.C.’s top ten most endangered rivers. A new dam on the Similkameen will provide bulk water for American water users, without any consideration of the impacts here in B.C.” said Bob Peart, Sierra Club BC’s Executive Director. “Fortis’ proposal seems designed to avoid triggering any kind of regulatory review. It is imperative that this proposed dam undergo a full review by the B.C. Environmental Assessment Office and/or the B.C. Utilities Commission.”

The record of the United States funding dam construction in Canada shows benefits for the United States and British Columbia – while also creating a legacy of problems. For example, the Columbia River Treaty led to the construction of the three “treaty dams” in Canada, permanently flooding valuable wildlife habitat and agricultural areas while forcing 2,500 people from their homes.  Controversy also arose with a dam to permanently flood the Skagit Valley in B.C. for the benefit of Seattle City Light.

“The water frontier is over,” added Osborn.  “Given the over-appropriation of our rivers and aquifers, climate change, and limits to public funding, the elected officials need to insist on affordable, ethical, and sustainable solutions to water scarcity.”

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