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Mining giant Rio Tinto’s control of Nechako River waterflow in B.C. challenged by First Nations

Mining giant Rio Tinto’s control over the Nechako River watershed in Northern B.C. is being challenged by three impacted First Nations and the Regional District of Bulkley Nechako.
The Nechako River winds its way towards Vanderhoof. Ric Ernst, Vancouver Sun

Mining giant Rio Tinto’s control over the Nechako River watershed in Northern B.C. is being challenged by three impacted First Nations and the Regional District of Bulkley Nechako.

According to a Memorandum of Understanding signed between the regional district and the Saik’uz, Stellat’en and Nadleh Whut’en First Nations, the parties want to see a new water flow regime for the river “that benefits all people within the watershed,” plus the establishment of a new river governance regime.

The Nechako River was dammed at its source on the eastern edge of the Kitimat Ranges in the early 1950s to provide power to the Alcan aluminum smelter in Kitimat that is now owned by Australian company Rio Tinto. As a result, communities were consumed by the 230 km reservoir system west of the dam, while the original flow of the river to Prince George — where it enters the Fraser River — was reduced by two thirds.

The river was a significant breeding ground for salmon and Nechako white sturgeon and an integral part of Indigenous life.

In a prepared statement, Stellat’en First Nation Chief Robert Mitchell said the river was taken away from First Nations “and converted into an industrial canal without any consultation or compensation. We need what was lost to be returned. And when it is, when the river is brought back to health, everyone in the region will stand to benefit.”

In 1987, Rio Tinto Alcan signed an agreement with the federal and B.C. governments that sets out water flow requirements for watershed management and salmon stock. Since then a number of other different agreements have been made between those three parties — including electricity supply agreements between the province and Rio Tinto in 1997 and 2007.

In a nutshell, the more water that gets stored in the dam the more power that is produced, some of which is sold to B.C. Hydro while the bulk is used to fuel the recently-upgraded smelter.

The Memorandum of Understanding states the 1987 agreement between Rio Tinto and the governments must be replaced with a new agreement that includes the Aboriginal bands and regional district.

The new regime would “deliver a new flow to the Nechako River which mimics the shape of the natural hydrograph and at minimum delivers a new flow equivalent to the lowest natural flow in the Nechako River prior to the construction of the Kenney Dam.”

In a prepared statement, a spokesperson for Rio Tinto said the company “actively supports efforts to improve the health of the Nechako River and is working with the Nechako First Nations, other First Nations and a wide variety of stakeholders to contribute to these efforts.”

The spokesperson said that governance of the flows on the Nechako River should be an “inclusive process that evolves over time.”

“Reservoir management is a complex matter where a number of interests must be carefully considered and balanced. For the past three years we have been working with a variety of parties at the Water Engagement Initiative for the benefit of the Nechako River. We are committed to working with the Nechako First Nations, other First Nations, government and stakeholders to review all aspects of the Nechako Reservoir management process.”

According to the Regional District of Bulkley Nechako, between 1985 and 2018 the average flow of the upper Nechako River was less than 36 per cent and the 11 kilometres below the dam are dry (because water enters the river via a spillway several kilometres downstream from the dam).

“The Kenney Dam has fundamentally altered the Nechako River and interfered with the Nechako First Nation’s Aboriginal title and rights,” the Regional District of Bulkley Nechako states. “The ongoing unjustified infringements of the Nechako First Nation’s Aboriginal title and rights are inconsistent with the principles in the recent legislation passed by the B.C. legislature to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”

The Saik’uz and Stella’ten First Nations are also awaiting a ruling from the Supreme Court of British Columbia from action they took against Rio Tinto in 2011 seeking a court order to restore the natural flow to the Nechako River. The trial began in October 2019 and concluded in spring of this year.