Comment: Site C’s farmland losses are wildly overstated

The July 15 editorial (“Site C damage not theoretical”) perpetuates the mythology of critics about massive environmental impacts of the project that are simply not true.

I am former resident of the Peace area and know the situation on the ground first-hand. I have even celebrated with a beer or two at a corn roast in the valley bottom.

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The alarmist view that family farms are being displaced and future food production is at risk by the project is an exaggeration of the worst sort.

I am infuriated that the media continually choose to show photos of idyllic farm sites to give the impression this is typical of the Peace River Valley but neglect to tell you that this is almost the only flat benchland along the 80-kilometre stretch of the river affected. Critics use this photo to speak about the loss of rural lifestyle and dire consequences of impact on agriculture. Most of this might be nostalgic, but it is mainly nonsense.

The reservoir will have surface area of 9,200 hectares, which is only double the size of the existing river. How can it then flood the 13,000 hectares of farmland as stated in the editorial? And if the actual surface area being flooded is that much smaller, then claims about massive loss of wildlife habitat are equally overstated.

Anybody who has seen Peace River country realizes the river valley itself is relatively narrow, confined by steep slopes with few terraces or benches. Unlike other areas, such as the lower Fraser Valley, there is no wide floodplain or series of terraces to be buried under a reservoir.

Building the Site C dam will not create a huge new reservoir, but will simply raise the water level — the river will be deeper, but not much wider. As such, the loss of valley bottom land with agricultural capability is closer to 3,800 hectares, of which only 1,600 hectares has farming potential. I would also point out that little of the land being flooded — less than 400 hectares — was actually being cropped; and that mainly for forage, not food crops.

While it is true the first W.A.C. Bennett Dam and the Williston Reservoir project constructed almost 50 years ago had significant upstream and downstream impacts, this proposed run-of-river project to build a third dam simply reuses water impounded behind two others and  has moderate impacts. To produce power for about 450,000 homes is an opportunity with not-unreasonable impacts.

The claim the farmland lost will feed a million people is pure hokum. In contrast, the vast rolling farmland of the Peace River region surrounding the river valley does have significant unrealized potential for food crops, recognizing the limitation of a short growing season. Admittedly, a portion of lost arable land is Class 1 — suitable for market gardens — but this is hardly a major issue in the Peace region with more than 485,000 hectares of Class 1-3 lands.

Most countries in the world are in envy of an opportunity for major hydro project with such minimal environmental impacts. I fully recognize that in the past, B.C. has suffered large hydro projects with massive reservoirs on the Columbia and Nechako rivers. However, Site C suffers none of those drastic impacts.

We can have vigorous debate about merits of energy projects, but let us do so on basis of understanding the facts, not misleading headlines. Hydro power is clean energy and renewable, always there when we need it, no need to burn coal or hydrocarbons.

I have no quarrel with those who debate the economic and social costs of the Site C project in terms of alternative supply and demand for electricity, but arguing against it on basis of major negative environmental impacts is fallacious.

James D. Anderson is a professional land-use planner who lives in Saanich.

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