Common Sense Canadian
 

Peace Valley’s “extraordinary” farmland could feed a million people, agrologists tell Site C Dam review

Posted January 16, 2014 by Damien Gillis in Food
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Peace Valley extraordinary farmland could feed million people-Site C Dam

The Peace River Valley is one of Canada’s most fertile regions (Damien Gillis)

A pair of highly-respected agricultural experts made a compelling case this week for sparing some of BC’s best farmland from a proposed dam on the Peace River. Together, veteran agrologist Wendy Holm and soil scientist Evelyn Wolterson argued that BC Hydro’s error-ridden study of the flood zone for the $10 billion proposed Site C Dam missed the unique soil and climate values that would enable this land to feed up to a million people – were the focus to shift from hydropower to farming.

Conversely, if a third dam on the Peace were built, it would create the single largest loss of land in the 40-year history of the province’s Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) – drowning or severely impacting over 30,000 acres of largely exceptional land.

On Tuesday, the Joint Review Panel investigating Site C  heard from Holm, a highly-decorated former President of the BC Institute of Agrologists with 40 years’ experience in the field, and agrologist and farming consultant Evelyn Wolterson – both presenting their findings on behalf of the Peace Valley Environment Association and BC Women’s Institue.

“The Peace River Valley has extraordinarily high value for agriculture,” Wolterson told the panel from the outset.

It is our opinion that the public interest is better served [by] agriculture and other uses for this valley, rather than a hundred years of power production…Power has other alternatives; agriculture doesn’t.

Over 30,000 acres to be flooded or impacted

Site C Dam location

Location of the proposed Site C Dam (Damien Gillis)

In all, the project would impact 31,528 acres of class 1-7 farmland, roughly half of which lies “within the project’s flood, stability and landslide-generated wave impact lines,” notes Holm’s report to the panel. The other half will be permanently lost beneath the reservoir and access roads. Of the total land impacted and compromised, over 8,300 acres  are class 1 and 2 soils – making it some the best farmland in the country.

According to Holm, Hydro ignores the half that won’t end up under water immediately but will nevertheless be heavily compromised over time and rendered largely un-farmable. Meanwhile, in its Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the project, the crown corporation determines the loss of the other half “is insignificant, because all ‘costs’ associated with any such loss can be mitigated and/or compensated.” Holm charges that the crown corporation understates everything from the amount of land impacted, to the long-term damage from the project to the local farming economy.

And that’s just the beginning of the problems with BC Hydro’s EIS which Holm and Wolterson unearthed for the panel.

The Peace Valley’s surprisingly “extraordinary” land

The panel seemed genuinely interested to learn from Holm and Wolterson about the special properties of the valley that make it so productive agriculturally.

For starters, the Peace River’s largely east-west orientation means the valley gets more sun, thus experiencing longer growing days and seasons than other land that far north. “The best farmland in BC is in the southern valleys,” Wolterson told the panel. “The notable exception is the Peace River Valley.”

Other factors like lower wind speeds, excellent Spring moisture, and a longer frost-free period mean, counterintuitively, that “crop yield goes up as you go from the south to the north,” Wolterson explained.

These are all elements of this valley that make it absolutely unique…not only in the region but in all of British Columbia, and perhaps Western Canada.

Even a BC Hydro representative acknowledged to the panel in an earlier presentation Tuesday, “Our assessment certainly accepts that this is highly capable land and a favourable climate.” If anything, he conceded, the climate has improved since the last major study conducted by BC Hydro 30 years ago.

Yet throughout the project proponent’s 15,000-page report, “flawed data is leading to faulty conclusions,” Wolterson asserts.

Hydro cultivates wrong idea about valley’s farmland

Peterson farm

A sampling of the diverse produce grown at the Peterson market garden in the 1980s (photo: Larry Peterson)

Both experts ticked off a long list of problems with Hydro’s methodology for the EIS. “The panel does not have in front of it reliable information on which to measure the economic loss to agriculture and the public interest,” Holm stated at the top of her presentation.

Wolterson gave several examples of BC Hydro’s flawed analysis. For instance, a higher-elevation region above the valley known as the Uplands was given roughly same growing season as a monitoring station at the Fort St. John Airport, while the dam proponent ascribed 30 fewer growing, or “crop opportunity” days to the valley itself. “There’s something wrong with that data,” Wolterson told the panel.

“What it shows here is the capability of these [valley] lands in Attachie Flat and Bear Flat are equivalent to what they are at the Fort St. John airport. I’ve worked in this community for 20 years…I know that’s not true,” Wolterson testified, offering an example of crop yields 30% higher in the valley, compared with farms closer to Fort St. John.

In some cases, the valley beats even the Lower Mainland’s farms for productivity. For instance, Larry Peterson, who ran a successful market garden there with his wife Lynda in the 1970s and 80s, would get 13.6 tonnes per acre for potatoes, compared with the average yield in the Lower Fraser Valley of only 10.2 tonnes per acre.

In broader terms, Holm emphasized:

The land to be flooded by Site C is capable of producing high-yielding fresh fruits and vegetables for over a million people.

BC’s food security withering on the vine

“There is a misperception that there is a vast amount agricultural land that is waiting to be exploited. It’s simply not true,” Wolterson warned the review panel.

Much of the Peace Valley's best farmland is already under the Williston Reservoir, behind the WAC Bennett Dam (Damien Gillis)

Much of the Peace Valley’s best farmland was flooded in 1968 by the WAC Bennett Dam (Damien Gillis)

According to the Ministry of Agriculture’s own 2007 assessment, titled BC’s Food Self-Reliance (download here), BC grows just 48% of the food it consumes. Vegetable production per capita has fallen to half of what it was in 1970. And the problem is only getting worse, says Wolterson. “Over the last 10 some-odd years, there’s been a serious and alarming decline in agricultural land area” – driven by everything from urban encroachment, industrial projects, and declining of productivity.

The combination of a shrinking food supply and growing population has put BC on a path to serious food security challenges, both presenters emphasized.

In that sense, Site C Dam should be viewed in the context of a wide range of cumulative impacts, together whittling away BC’s food security. Issues like fracking, roads, and segmentation of farmland for other industrial projects have all made farming more difficult and dragged down productivity, says Wolterson.

Moreover, BC Hydro’s flood reserve – a land bank it has accumulated over the years, buying out farmers in preparation for a future dam (Site C has been on the books for three decades now) –  has had an “enormous”, detrimental impact on agricultural investment in the valley, giving a false impression of the productivity of the land. Hydro’s EIS and rationale for the dam leans heavily on this fiction.

Economic value of farmland underestimated

Peace corn

Cash crop: Is Hydro underestimating the economic value of farmland?

Holm’s presentation focused in part on the economic value Hydro assessed to farmland that would be lost from the dam, arguing it has made some dangerous miscalculations. With “global loss of farmland, water shortages, soil salinization, higher energy costs, transportations costs, supply chain concentration, population growth, there is no question that there is going to be intense pressure on food prices as we move into the future,” cautioned Holm.

In other words, land that is fallow and of seemingly little value today could see its economic worth – and value as a local food source – skyrocket in the future, something we may rue when we can no longer depend on truckloads of cheap tomatoes from California rolling across the border.

British Columbians currently spend 11% of household income on food, Holm noted, but that figure could rise significantly in the not-too-distant future, based on these myriad shifting factors. Viewed in that light, Hydro is recklessly lowballing lost economic value from flooded farmland, pegging it a a paltry $20 million.

The Shadow of the Dam

Holm came back to the flood reserve issue as well, suggesting that Hydro’s assumptions of the productivity and economic value of the land are erroneously based on a false dynamic that discourages farmers from working the land to its full potential.

The ‘shadow of the dam’ refers to the flood reserve that fell across the farmland in 1957. Considerable farmland was purchased by BC Hydro, farmers were told not to get too attached to their fields as Site C moved on, then off, then on again to the provincial drawing boards. Naturally, this has prejudiced farm decision-making. As a result, current land use does not reflect the agro-economic potential of the land.

Process designed to fail the public

Audio: Why Site C Dam is a bad deal for taxpayers, environment

The proposed Site C Dam – artist’s rendering

Much like the Liberal Government did to the BC Utilities Commission –  barring the public’s independent energy watchdog from reviewing the economics and need for Site C – it has also stripped the Agricultural Land Commission (ALC) of its lawful oversight of the biggest potential land removal in its history

“This independent body, which was specifically created to ensure a thorough, non-partisan assessment of large projects like Site C, is not going to be allowed to do its job,” says Peace Valley Environment Association (PVEA) Coordinator Andrea Morison. The PVEA wrote to the Joint Review Panel, suggesting it ask the ALC for details on the process that they would have undertaken in assessing Site C – despite the provincial government’s attempts to exclude it from the conversation. The panel declined the request.

And so it is that both public watchdogs designed to keep the government and Hydro in check in this very situation curiously find themselves sitting on the bench for the biggest game of their careers.

Even the public hearing process was scheduled over the holiday season and limited to the region of the dam, despite the enormous bill taxpayers around the province would foot to build it. The whole process has been anathema to public participation.

Hydro’s work “weak and meaningless”

In the ALR’s place, BC Hydro has done a predictably poor job of assessing these agricultural issues and planning for their mitigation, say Holm and Wolterson.

“BC Hydro acknowledges that the mitigation plan and the compensation program that they’ve put together…they don’t really know how much is needed; there’s no specifics in how it would be implemented; there’s no evidence of possible uptake; there’s no proof that there’s a benefit,” Wolterson said in her conclusion.

I think it’s weak and I think it’s meaningless and it gives me no confidence and I can’t see how the panel can determine if this plan is going to adequately compensate for the loss of these incredibly valuable lands.

What’s more important: energy or food?

Arlene Boon

Arlene Boon’s family would lose its century old farm at Bear Flat to Site C

Beneath the 15,000-page reports, the political shenanigans with the review process, and all the rhetoric about economic development lies a simple truth: Last year, BC generated about 110% as much electricity as it needed, but produced, at most, 48% of the food it consumed. In other words, while we have plenty of electricity to power our homes and businesses well into the future, the same thing cannot be said about our food security.

The problem is virtually invisible to British Columbians today. Most of us have no idea we exported a net surplus of 5,840 gigawatt hours of power last year (at a loss!) – you certainly wouldn’t learn this listening to BC Hydro, which has a long history of exaggerating future demand. And as long as those trucks keeping rolling north from California and Mexico – as long as Superstore’s shelves remain stocked and Costco keeps selling giant bags of tri-coloured peppers for 5 bucks – most of us will never know how real the danger is, how foolish the choices are that our government is making today.

The fact is, the only reason we really “need” this dam, according to Premier Christy Clark herself, is to power incredibly energy-intensive liquefied natural gas (LNG) plants on the coast, her government’s one big – if not bright – idea.

So the choice we face with Site C Dam – if you can even call it a choice for BC’s marginalized citizens and First Nations – is this: Power that we don’t need…or food that we do?

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About the Author

Damien Gillis

Damien Gillis is a Vancouver-based documentary filmmaker with a focus on environmental and social justice issues - especially relating to water, energy, and saving Canada's wild salmon - working with many environmental organizations in BC and around the world. He is the co-founder, along with Rafe Mair, of The Common Sense Canadian, and a board member of both the BC Environmental Network and the Haig-Brown Institute.

60 Comments


  1.  
    Michel Beauchemin

    I find it interesting how people think of big hydro power projects like this one as a low impact source of renewable energy. Valley bottom ecosystems have the highest biodiversity and productivity of any region. Unfortunately, they are also the most disturbed by man. Why flood such fertile grounds with water when solar and wind farms could be built? A lack of vision is what this is.




  2.  
    Clare

    no mention of the poor girl, Kristin Henry, who has been on a hunger strike for the last 20 days in protest.




  3.  

    This article is well written and worth the read.

    We have to be more diligent and better protector of the lands. https://thedestinywithin.blogspot.ca/2016/03/re-its-not-you-its-us.html




  4.  
    Farm Jockey

    We have at least 5 months of solid winter, usually and a very good chance of a foot of snow in early May. Usually about a week or so into seeding. Nothing new.
    Tomatoes don’t much like that.




    •  
      Damien Gillis

      Bottom line: longest growing seasons in BC north of the South Coast.




    •  
      Bryan

      I know it’s hard for most people to look 50 years into the future, but with global climate changes, biogeoclimatic zones will push further north. Season length is likely going to change, growing degree days will rise, and the region may have a higher capacity than it does today.




  5.  
    Farm Jockey

    Why not go farm in Peace River?
    Same valley, same river.
    Only reason they don’t flood the whole valley is because of Taylor.




    •  
      Damien Gillis

      We shouldn’t be destroying ANY farmland of this quality when we import 60% of our food in BC and our main exporter (California) is in a perpetual state of drought. You must be a wealthy person who is unaffected by the 30% jump in food prices at the supermarket over the past year. Newsflash: Many British Columbians are not like you and it’s hurting them.




  6.  
    Farm Jockey

    I know of probably a half dozen farms that any two of total over 30,000 acres.
    Suzuki would have us believe that little valley (and it is) is the ‘breadbasket’ of BC.
    Yes, David, we grow GRAIN here.




  7.  
    Farm Jockey

    30000 acres is going to feed a million people. Contrary to what the uninformed visitors tell us, we know that the climate in the valley is on the same timeframe as the rest of us except for a period of a slightly shorter dry up season in spring. This is great farmland but the climate is a bit off of what these people think. I used to spray and spread fertilizer on those fields in that valley 20 years ago. You know what they grow? Grass. For seed and hay.




    •  
      Damien Gillis

      This piece is based on expert testimony on the soil quality, climactic conditions and growing seasons in the specific portion of the valley that would be affected by the dam, given by highly qualified agrologists – not “uniformed visitors”. You acknowledge it’s “great farmland” – why should we destroy any “great farmland” in this day and age, especially for electricity that we don’t need and which will come at an enormous cost to taxpayers?! Your logic is rotten like a bad crop of cabbage.




      •  
        Damien Gillis

        PS you keep referring to the rest of the valley like there’s a whole lot of it left. My family and many others lost their great farmland to the Williston. 67% of the Peace Valley has already been industrialized by layer upon layer of development – roads, powerlines, dams, mines, logging, and, oh yes, oil and gas. Now you want to destroy some of the best farmland left. That’s insane.




  8.  
    jonathan

    I’d like to see some firmer information. There is a lot of wish-wash here. How much class 1 and 2 land will actually be flooded? “land that may be impacted by landslide-generated waves” doesn’t really mean anything.




  9.  
    Rick

    As a lifelong resident of the Peace River country, I can attest to the agricultural capability of the area.

    As a teenager in the 1970’s I worked at the market gardens in Taylor. I know I personally could pick 600 – 1000 pounds of cucumbers every day while they were in season. We used to pick 60 tons of potatoes every year, plus a multitude of other crops including corn, peas, tomatoes, carrots, beans, pumpkins, onions, squash, melons and stuff I probably don’t even remember any more.

    Anyone who doesn’t think this is possible, needs to educate themselves. I grow apples 4″ in diameter in my yard and I live north of the valley. I know people in the valley growing apples and plums.

    The destruction of this valley is an utter waste and a huge, permanent loss for the province.




    •  
      Farm Jockey

      And the reason you didn’t farm the whole valley was?

      Different climate.




    •  
      Farm Jockey

      They’re called microclimates and they exist all over BC for some strange reason.
      I know a small mountain in the north Okanagan that has plants not found anywhere else in BC.
      You can’t do it everywhere.
      And not all of that valley is suitable for what is suggested it ‘could’ be. Because if it ‘could’ it certainly would have long ago.
      It is grass land for the most part.




      •  
        Damien Gillis

        It’s grass because it’s been under the shadow of this bloody project for going on four decades. Don’t confuse the quality of the land with its current use.




  10.  
    gragor

    Californian just allowed using Produced Water from fracking to irrigate vegetables . . .




  11.  
    mark

    Its time that the Canadian People Start Buying local and support the market gardens that were once abundant in the peace river valley in bc and the alberta side.The quality of the produce is world class yet people still go to the local grocery store and buy imported junk or other canadian produce that has come 3 or 4 provinces away.

    Could it support 1 million people well yes but to educate the people 1st that their is a need to support the local market gardens 1st thats where the key is otherwise that feeding a million people that these people say is no more than a pipe dream




  12.  
    Linda Studley

    Like the sign has said for many years – Site C Sucks. (anyone who’s taken the drive from FSJ to HH knows the sign I mean).




  13.  
    peter

    The recent report was an extensive joint provincial/federal report. It was NOT a BC Hydro report. The proposed flood zone currently generates only $231,000 of farm revue as per the report. ALR considers the area NOT prime which makes sense. That is why it is not being intensely farmed to this day. The majority of ALR in the peace is favourable to grain and cattle. Climate and short growing season severely restricts most other agricultural activity in the area.
    W.A.C. BENNETT series of dams provide BC with 2/3 of its electricity needs. GHG free, renewable, longlasting and reliable.
    As the report says, benefits of SiteC outweigh the costs.




  14.  
    sharon

    Excellent article.
    How is it that “The panel seemed genuinely interested to learn from Holm and Wolterson about the special properties of the valley that make it so productive agriculturally.” and yet the BCUC and ALR were not allowed to present their findings?
    How is it that the panel could accept a 15,000 page flawed report, conduct hearings during a holiday season and only in a selected area?
    Because our province is not interested in its people – it is interested in money for big business interests.
    I guess we are to eat oil, gas, mine tailings and drink fouled water.




    •  
      holly birtwistle

      First and foremost, the area to be flooded is not prime farmland and never will be. It is too cold and too far north. Farming it to feed people is a fantasy. What people need is energy, which drives the machinery needed to farm in areas with appropriate climate for food production, which the site C area is not.
      The bottom line is energy feeds people, not farmland on its own.




      •  
        Regina

        I still think you work for Christy Clark or BC Hydro




      •  
        Damien Gillis

        Yes it is prime farmland, Holly. Read the story. Listen to the experts. You know not of what you speak.

        Moreover, people cannot eat energy. What they absolutely need is food. There are lots of more sustainable ways to derive new energy if and when we need it – geothermal, solar, wind. Fact is we’re self-sufficient in electricity far into the future as it is. What we cannot do is create new Class 1 and 2 farmland.




        •  
          Farm Jockey

          30000 acres.

          Let’s boil that down.

          640 aces per square mile.

          47 square miles

          6.85 miles north by 6.85 miles west.

          Not that much.

          The people I work for own more than that.




  15.  
    Adam

    Okok so all the poor dieing country’s who have no food but have power um ya ever heard of hydro and a light bulbs maybe they should grow some tomatoes and potatoes but they choose not to rather ask for donations ranges a few questions.I guess they like living in the stone age. Sorry but its true cant grow none cant have none.




  16.  
    Kathleen Froese

    PLEASE keep fighting this important battle. The government is prepared to sink billions of dollars into a dam that would destroy amazing land, and do what? make a little more power for another home….this valley is windy, put money into a wind farm to produce the energy, and let the families that live in this incredible valley, let them grow more food and crops, and just let it BE what it is.




  17.  
    Sharon Labchuk

    While all mega dams should be opposed, the question, ‘what’s more important, energy or food?’, is deficient. In either case, the land is destroyed, even supposing the entire 30,000 acres were given over to organic agriculture. Leave existing farms in this area alone but at the same time, leave wildlands wild. Humans need to take responsibility for curbing the population growth that threatens to destroy us rather than mindlessly expanding our activities into every corner of the planet.




  18.  
    Damien Gillis

    Thank YOU, Wendy, for that additional bit of food for thought – and for yours and Evelyn’s excellent presentations. I listened to and read your reports Tuesday with great interest. I’m sure you’ve given the panel something to really think about.




  19.  

    Thanks Damien for GREAT coverage of this important issue that should be top-of-mind for all British Columbians who eat for a living! Worth noting too is that when you use an appropriate social discount rate and add a few scenarios for moderate and robust horticuture cropping 15 years down the road, BCH’s “net present value” of the 100 year loss of valuable alluvial soils in class one climate increases BY ORDERS OF MAGNITUDE. For more see http://holmonfood.blogspot.ca/2014/01/site-c-is-our-plan-b-get-involved.html




    •  
      holly birtwistle

      Wendy, you are dreaming. Try viewing this subjuct in realistic terms. The site c area is too far north to be farmland, thats why it isn’t farmed for food today. That’s the reality. The global climate has not warmed in 18 years or more, despite increasing CO2 emmissions. This is according to real data, numbers given by satellite and surface temperure, that are grudgingly admitted to be correct by the IPCC, NASA, and other pro-warming groups, which is why these groups are saying “the missing heat” is hiding in the oceans somewhere. It is not warming in the north of Canada; the site c area is not going to “feed a million people”, that is a fantasy. Energy supplied to the machinery in areas where food can be produced is what is important. They say love makes the world go ’round, that’s true, in the sense that it makes the world a better place.. But so does energy. It keeps you safe from the cold, heat,and weather of our climate, which is harsh, especially in the fall/winter months. Energy keeps you fed, it allows you to get around, it enables us to have hospitals, continual research in all fields, allows people to work and make a living, energy gives us clean air and water. As fossil fuel use has gone up over the decades, air pollution and water pollution have gone down. We produce, and have been producing fossil fuel energy for a century, and yet we live in a clean environment, healthy, safe, fed, and sheltered from our harsh climate. We are contsantly blamed for “trashing the earth”, for being human, by environmental groups with an “anti-human” ideology. But in truth, for every impact we have, we make amends, we mitigate the impact. Sometimes it takes years, but we get there. The truth is, we are making the planet safer for human beings, and at the same time looking after the envirnment and other species.




  20.  

    Thanks so much for this comprehensive piece, Damien! Energy to power our bodies vs. energy to power a crackpot LNG scheme is no choice at all. I’m more and more distraught by the farce that public participation and the democratic process has become in recent years. Keep on doing what you do at the CSC. We need people to get all learned up as much as possible so they know they are needed to get out there and start holding these clowns’ feet to the fire.





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