In 1909 my grandfather arrived in Nelson B.C. on the “Orchard Wave,” settling first at Syringa Creek on the Lower Arrow Lake.
He left Canada in 1915, destined for the carnage of the Somme, which he barely survived. After spending a year in hospital, he returned to Robson to establish an orchard and poultry farm on the bank above the Columbia River, our family home ever since. He later would become a justice of the peace, then a magistrate, and was regarded as a respected community leader, particularly within the vibrant farming community which had been established throughout Arrow Lakes linked to the Okanagan on completion of the Kettle Valley railway.
In 1965 most of our farm was taken over by BC Hydro to provide construction housing. As a summer student I found employment as a surveyor’s assistant with the consultant engineers on the High Arrow (Keenleyside) Dam, continuing each summer before progressing onto the Mica Dam Project, where I worked full time from 1970 until late 1972.
Accordingly, I have borne witness, and been a party to, the devastation and destruction of the communities, the farms and the way of life of literally hundreds of families throughout both the West and East Kootenay.
In the 1990s, as a director for the Regional District of Central Kootenay, I witnessed the very first visualization of the radical idea that, together with all the Kootenay municipal, regional and indigenous governments and our Provincial MLA’s, we could assert some claim to financial compensation from the downstream benefits payable under the Columbia River Treaty, including the right to develop hydro electricity. Hence the Columbia Basin Trust, the Columbia Power Corporation ,the Keenleyside and Waneta Power Projects and other countless community projects.
So here we are at the table on negotiations of probably one the more confusing, convoluted and complex international treaties ever negotiated between Canada and the USA — the Columbia River Treaty. We are now entangled within its renegotiation process, with the 18th round of talks just wrapped up.
The public notice of the negotiations highlighted remarkably beautiful photos of the filled reservoir with the overflowing Lower Columbia, but sadly these disguise an ugly reality — the Keenleyside reservoir, drained and left in a state of destruction, desolate and abandoned.
Consider also this: the Keenleyside power plant generation is now reduced to about 15 per cent capacity, which translates to the complete loss of over 500,000 kilowatts of electrically each month. Coupled with two months of no generation, over the next six months we have squandered millions and millions of kilowatts — leaving our reservoirs empty devastated wastelands.
Remembering flotillas of beautiful mahogany inboard pleasure craft coming upriver from Washington State, hearing the whistle of the S.S. Minto approaching the Robson wharves carrying passengers and producers connecting across Canada, I recall listening to my grandparents speak of the teeming salmon run, one of the world’s largest, destroyed by dam construction.
The fundamental purpose of the construction of the Columbia River Treaty dams — the Keenleyside, the Libby, the Duncan and the Mica, we were told, was to maintain flood control, however with the control of river flow completely subjected to the downstream demands of the United States, we really are selling water disguised as the infamous “downstream benefits.”
I have this dream that the renegotiated treaty will provide the opportunity to rehabilitate our reservoirs, to stabilize water levels and provide proper channels to allow the salmon to return to the Columbia Basin.
For example, a channel from the confluence of the Kootenay and Columbia Rivers across from Castlegar flowing through the land known to Sinixt, the Lakes People, as ki’pit’als, could provide a vital lifeline for salmon to access the Slocan River and it’s vast spawning grounds, largely unexploited.
Likewise, I know that if we have the ability to move mountains to plug our river with dams, we also have the ability to identify vast tracts of devastated wasteland that can be protected through construction of retaining walls and returned to productive use, including fish habitat, as well as recreational use.
Yes, I acknowledge, the volume capacity of the reservoirs may be somewhat reduced, but if water levels can be stabilized, at least some of the barbaric destruction could be avoided with proper rehabilitation and reclamation.
Returning to where I started, in the early 1970s my grandmother wrote to me when I was working at Mica with the startling news that “Premier WAC Bennett dropped by to pay his respects and enjoy a lovely cup of tea.” Apparently the premier had been attending the formal celebration opening of the Keenleyside Dam and remembering my grandfather, had stopped by. At first I thought that Granny had completely lost her grip; however, eventually I confirmed the truth of her assertion.
Last week, taking our grandchildren to Syringa Park to witness the empty scene of utter devastation of our first family homestead, I imagine that their great great grandfather must be spinning in his grave.
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