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Site C hearings: B.C. Hydro proposes $20-million fund for farmers

B.C. Hydro is proposing a $20-million fund to compensate farm producers affected by Site C. However, some question whether its a fair figure for farmers, and whether or not it will fully mitigate a global food crunch over the next 100 years.

B.C. Hydro is proposing a $20-million fund to compensate farm producers affected by Site C. However, some question whether its a fair figure for farmers, and whether or not it will fully mitigate a global food crunch over the next 100 years.

After a line of questioning at Tuesday's public hearings, Hydro revealed for the first time the dollars it was committing to an agriculture compensation fund should Site C receive its environmental certification.

Siobhan Jackson, environmental and social issues manager for B.C. Hydro, said the fund is based on net present values of economic activity in the valley.

"A fund would be capable of responding to presentations, and recommendations, and proposals from the region itself, in terms of what would be best improvements to agriculture," said Jackson.

Hydro, through the agriculture ministry, would consult with the region to how the fund would be established and governed, and its monies divvied out, said Jackson.

"The fund could have higher distributions in short term periods, or, could be preserved for a longer period with less distribution on an annual basis," she said.

However, Tim Howard, a lawyer for the Peace River Valley Environmental Association, which opposes the project, believes the fund will hold a paltry sum and is inadequate to meet the long list of projects Hydro has proposed it could support, from land base development to research initiatives.

"It's a page long list," he noted.

Jackson said the fund is only one aspect of how Hydro plans to compensate for the loss of agricultural land and its impact on farm operations. Hydro is also working with landowners on an individual basis to talk compensation to ensure any farms in the area can continue to operate.

Jackson called the fund "seed money" and would bring further investment from private industry, the public and the government to agricultural development in the region.

"The actual expenditures triggered by fund and monies attracted into the area would be higher than fund itself," she said.

If built, Site C would flood 83 kilometres of the Peace River just south of Fort St. John upstream to the Peace Canyon Dam outside Hudson's Hope. A total of 6,469 hectares of agricultural land would be lost due to dam's reservoir, realignment of Highway 29 and the construction of access roads. It's about 12 per cent of the farmland in the valley, according to Hydro documents. Jackson noted 3,800 hectares lost would be Class 1 through 5 lands capable of cultivation, however, noted 8,000 hectares Class 1 and 2 land, considered prime for vegetable growing, would remain unaffected in the Peace Valley.

Pat Brisbin, an agrologist for B.C. Hydro, says the impact on that farming can be mitigated, and farmers compensated for their business losses, but the loss of farming can also be made up by improving production elsewhere in the region and valley.

"We concluded there was sufficient land left within the valley capable of producing vegetables that would be more than adequate to meet vegetable needs within the region for several decades… well over 100 years," he said.

However, soil scientist Eveline Wolsterson expressed concern that Canada and the world has seen an alarming drop in agricultural land area over the last decade due to urban encroachment and industrial development.

Wolsterson said B.C. Hydro data on the valley's microclimate was leading to faulty conclusions and underestimating the value of farmland in the valley. Hydro data claiming growing season temperatures and frost-free days were equivalent or less than the data recorded at the North Peace Regional Airport would indicate farmland on the plateaus around Fort St. John are more desirable than those in the valley.

"I know that's not true," she said.

Across the western prairies, crop yields improve the further north one travels, due to higher precipitation, higher amounts of sunlight, and lower wind speeds,

Hydro's plan to compensate farm owners and work to replace lost agriculture in the region lacked detail and were “boiler plate” in nature, Wolsterson said, adding the monitoring of issues and land instability for five years fall short of what’s needed for the region. Issues around the Keenleyside and Arrow Lakes dams have been ongoing for 30 years, she said.

"It's kind of their best guess," she said. "We don't know how they will deliver."

Agrologist Wendy Holm told the panel global food prices are being pressured by the loss of farmland, water shortages, and rising energy and transportation costs, while demands on production are only increasing as the planet's population continues to surge.

The Peace is capable of producing crops similar to those found in the Fraser and Okanagan valleys, she noted. By flooding the valley, British Columbia won't be able to fully moderate the effects of a global food shortage with domestic production, she said, noting the province already imports 57 per cent of its fruits and vegetables.

"What benefits to farmers, the community, the public could this land have generated over 100 years?" she asked.

"This dam may have life of 100 years, but this land has life in perpetuity."

Jackson noted Hydro is willing to release 154 hectares of Class 1 through 5 land it owns outside the Site C project area, and nominate its land for inclusion into the agricultural land reserve, along with pushing the inclusion of some 1,400 hectares of Crown land.

A flood reserve has been in place on the Peace River since 1957, however Hydro removed a part of that reserve along a portion of river near the Alberta border in 1985. Since then, the amount of land cleared for agricultural use in the area has not increased much, either downstream or upstream, in the region, she noted.

Wolsterston argued the reserve that still exists, along with the fact Hydro owns much of the land along the valley, has “starved” a true economic evaluation of the loss of land.

“The whole point of investing in land, if you own it yourself, the investment makes sense. If you don’t own it yourself, they don’t make that much sense,” she said.

“It sets a productivity standard for right now that's not what it could potentially be.”

ALC, rare plants highlight afternoon discussions

Conversation at the hearing Tuesday afternoon shifted toward the history of the Agricultural Land Commission, the documentation of rare plant species in the province, and the preservation of sensitive riparian habitats in along the Peace River.

Former ALC employee and former provincial environment minister Joan Sawicki told the Joint Review Panel it’s left to deal with one of the province's boldest pieces of legislation now that the B.C. government has exempted Site C from further ALC review.

She gave a brief history of the Agricultural Land Commission Act, noting that when it was established 40 years ago it was met with staunch opposition, especially from farmers. Today, however, 95 per cent of British Columbians support the commission and the land reserve, and while each government has put its own "stamp" on the legislation, none have compromised its integrity.

"The minister's letter to Hydro exempting Site C from (the ALC) process is contradictory to the supportive messages the government has given to the land commission over last three years," she said.

Sawicki expressed concern that Hydro hasn't provided maps indicating what lands will be excluded from the reserve by the project, or what lands it would include in the reserve as a replacement.

"Even in the absence of an ALC application process, we need to know where all these impacts will occur," she said.

Once significant land is excluded or allowed into the reserve, it raises expectations and pressures on other communities in future decisions, Sawicki said.

"These lands are unique and scarce," she said.

For members of the Saulteau First Nations, the lands affected by Site C aren't just for farming, but have formed the basis of traditional medicine for aboriginals for centuries.

Elder Della Owens said the roots, herbs, tree bark and leaves throughout Peace Valley and along Moberly River have helped the sick and sustained diets, but many are risk being lost permanently due to flooding.

The land is our grocery store and the land is our pharmaceutical store," she said.

"What will we hand down to our future generation?"

Representing Saulteau, forest ecologist Dr. Sheri Gutsell said Hydro needs to commit to a wide range of measures to protect and reclaim native plant communities in the region.

That includes a complete assessment of plant species of traditional importance to First Nations, and working with the Twin Sisters Native Plant Nursery to source indigenous plant stock and procure reclamation work. That would ensure Hydro would have a detailed understanding of reclamation work needs to be done, and how.

"Unfortunately a common practice in reclamation … is to plant only a few trees and shrubs and then simply let the natural egress of plant species to repopulate disturbed areas," said Gutsell.

"This strategy is based on an unsubstantiated belief that many native plant species will simply return to disturbed area. Studies have shown … this leads to reclamation sites that do not resemble native plant communities in species composition, per cent cover, and density."

Saulteau councillor Tammy Watson said the work done in reclamation will go along way to restore traditional knowledge that has been lost in First Nations communities.

"It's a generational loss we're relearning now," she said. "That work is going to be so important moving forward."

Dr. Annette Luttermann, Treaty 8 Tribal Association concluded the day's hearing by issuing yet another call for a study on the cumulative effects of previous hydroelectric and industrial development along the river, particularly how it has impacted sensitive riparian habitats.

Riparian areas are transitional zones between land and water, and the most biologically productive places in an ecosystem. Riparian wetlands typically make up about 15 per cent of any given region.

Luttermann, speaking via teleconference, said wetlands along the river have been fragmented from the WAC Bennett Dam all the way into Alberta, as Hydro has taken control of the river's natural behaviour and the ecosystems it regulates.

"When you have shorelines that are bare of vegetation or have little riparian habitat, they don't provide useable migration routes for many species," she said.

"Resilience of the species in the much broader region, the watershed not just the study area, is likely to be reduced by this fragmentation."

Hydro says the study of existing conditions of natural and human environments capture the cumulative effects of a region, and how changes have impacted a landscape.

Public hearings resume today and Thursday to discuss wildlife issues.