Fortis, US mull massive Similkameen dam; Where is BC govt?

Fortis, US mull massive Similkameen dam; Where is BC govt?

US, Canadian dams threaten Similkameen Valley-BC govt doesn't care
A popular recreation site, the Similkameen Valley is threatened by dams (Photo:

By Ken Farquharson

The Similkameen River valley provides one of the most popular and scenic travel routes in BC. The campsites strung along the river, swimming at Bromley Rock, the old mining town of Hedley, the fruit stands of Keremeos, the wineries of Cawston, and the transition to the sage brush of the Okanagan, make for a varied and memorable BC travel experience. The river provides kayak and canoe runs for both the expert and the novice, and is one of only two free flowing transboundary rivers in southern BC that is not either managed for hydropower or in protected status of some sort.

However all is not serene in the Similkameen Valley, and the cause of this is the curious lack of interest of the BC government to protect the public interest in proposals to change the Similkameen River, the heart of the Valley.

BC govt sitting on sidelines of proposed US dam

The story starts in 2007 when the Okanogan Public Utility District, the small utility serving Okanogan County in Washington, applied to the US Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to study a dam proposed at Shankers Bend in Washington, which would flood the BC section of the Similkameen valley as far upstream as Cawston.

Given the lesson learned from the argument over the Skagit Valley from 1969 to 1983 that it is essential to participate early in the regulatory process, the Okanagan Nation Alliance (ONA) and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society ( CPAWS) immediately filed with FERC as intervenors. The BC government sat back, and, although Minister Barry Penner  was made well aware of the potential impacts in BC, declined to file as an intervenor leaving it to the ONA, CPAWS and the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen  to register their objections. The PUD eventually withdrew its application.

Fortis applies for 165m-high dam on Similkameen

In 2013, Fortis BC, the local utility, applied for permits to conduct studies on the Crown land required for the reservoir ( 20km long) and the dam site  for a 165m-high concrete dam in the Similkameen Canyon, 15km upstream from Princeton, with a generation capacity of 45-55MW. If the final proposed capacity is below 50MW, the project may not be required to go through the environmental assessment process.  As the plant is proposed as a market generator, it would not have to be reviewed by the BC Utilities Commission, as the cost would not be rolled into the utility’s rate base. It is possible the project could escape review entirely.

Map of proposed dam site on the Similkameen River
Map of proposed dam site on the Similkameen River

Fortis conceded in a meeting with the Regional District on 22 May this year that the project may not be economical based on generation alone and that it had already approached downstream parties in the US with interests in generation and irrigation as to whether they would be prepared to pay for the downstream benefits created by the project.

This action was confirmed by information that the Washington State Department of Ecology had allocated $1.6M in its budget for 2015-17 for a payment to Fortis for “Evaluation of a proposed hydropower and water supply….shared cost and water supply for Washington and Oregon” – no mention of BC needs.

This allotment was confirmed by the Director, Office of the Columbia River, Washington Department of Ecology, to Steve Arstad, editor of the Keremeos Review, on 9 June, when he advised that

[quote]Fortis was interested in developing a contract with us for scheduled releases of some of the water stored behind the dam. The timing of the releases would coincide with when water would be needed in Washington for instream and out-of-stream uses. The term of the contract would be for 50 years.[/quote]

It is clear, therefore, that if the project proceeds, control of the river would pass to Fortis and downstream US interests.

Fortis would be sole beneficiary of agreements

The Columbia River Treaty gave BC half the value of the downstream benefits in the US from provision of water storage in BC. The province took that money for itself. Queries to the BC Comptroller of Water Resources resulted in advice that, for this project, the province was leaving Fortis to negotiate any downstream agreements, and that Fortis would be the sole beneficiary of these agreements.  It should be noted that any agreement made between Fortis and US interests will be between private parties and thus not subject to Freedom of Information requests.

The BC Water Regulations allow the province to collect a fee from any licensee benefiting from payments from downstream generators in the US for benefits received for power generation, but have no such provision for benefits generated from flood control or water storage.

Province derelict of duty

In respect to this project, the province appears derelict in its management of the river in a number of ways, permitting Fortis to negotiate contracts that would mean control passing to US interests, not ensuring that the province would benefit from all downstream benefits, and lastly not having done the work to determine the future water needs of the BC section of the Similkameen Valley before contracts may be signed for water storage for US interests. It is possible BC interests could be locked out of access to such storage if it had all been negotiated away by Fortis.

There is already enough evidence to state that Fortis should be advised now by the province that this project is not in the public interest. Should the province continue to dither, there is a real risk that BC could lose control of this valued river, a public resource, for a sub-marginal project, with the benefits going solely to the shareholders of Fortis and downstream interests in Washington. The people of BC surely deserve better from our politicians and bureaucrats in planning for the future of this beautiful river and valley.



13 thoughts on “Fortis, US mull massive Similkameen dam; Where is BC govt?

  1. My Great Great Grandparents settled in the blue lake area years ago. I have pictures and journals that lead back to when they crossed a lava flow on there way to school. What I know is that Greed of money makes me vomit and it’s time we get back to the heart of this land and water.! I have felt the pressure changes and shifts. I have become very observant in this area. As far as the money goes I assure you that The Creator is Greaterand powerful than any Human resource management system and I say System could ever compare , and what know to be true is that this future Generation reaches out for more than some System or hydroelectric power supply. We are a Generation already given the Power within to Move a Mountain. I Believe that we are the Sons and Daughter of the Creator with Power from above and below to stand firm . Thanks for hearing me out. 🐾🐦🕊️🦇🐸🐑🐄🐾🐾🐾🐾🐾 🦅🦆🦊🐯🦄🦄🦄.

  2. I’ve been living around the Keremeos Princeton area for decades. Their is no falls on the Similkameen past Similkameen falls. Their used to be fish ladders at this location until they were removed. They need to be put back.

  3. There have been no salmon in the Canadian part of the Similkameen for thousands of years. There is a story told by our elders about the end of days if the salmon return.

    If Washington state ia in the need for extra flow would BC not get the same as it must flow past us first? Also how is this a free flowing river when just over the US border there is a dam?

    1. I hosted chaired the Princeton Anadromous Fisheries conference in Spring of 1993 in Princeton, B.C.. During which experts from both side of the border estanlished that the salmon disapeared in 1908 when the construction of the Enloe Dam on top of the falls near Oroville washinton was constructed. The Oroville confederated tribes south of the US Border confirmed that the legend of “The Coyote” sprang up about that time period.

  4. There is more than one series of waterfalls on the Similkameen River. The one that historically stopped salmon from going further upstream is just below the Enloe Dam in Washington State and a remnant of its past glory remains. These falls are known as Similkameen Falls or Coyote Falls. Evidently, it was changed when the dam was built. First Nations used to fish at this site, As far as First Nation lore goes, the salmon never advanced beyond this point. Some say they did, others say not.

    The Similkameen flows into Okanagan River a few kilometers south east of this point, below Orville,
    Another falls are in a very narrow canyon not far below where the Pasayten River enters the Similkameen just east of Manning Park.

    Then there is the canyon just just south of Princeton and immediately below the Copper Mountain mine complex where Fortis is considering constructing the dam. Google earth clearly illustrates just how huge the mine is. This section of river is known for its white water and for its fishing.

    Whether or not salmon ever spawned in the Similkameen or its tributaries is not important in discussions about a dam on the Similkameen. Of prime importance is the fact that Fortis has had the Washington State Department of Ecology allocate $1.6M in its budget for 2015-17 for a payment to Fortis for “Evaluation of a proposed hydro power and water supply…shared cost and water supply for Washington and Oregon” – no mention of BC
    needs and the fact that the B.C. government is handing over the assets of the people of B.C. to a Canadian company and a department of a foreign country.

    Simple logic suggests that future water needs of the BC section of the Similkameen Valley should be evaluated before any consideration of storing water for US interests.

    Why has the B.C. government allowed Fortis, a private company, enter into negotiations with a foreign country on divvying up Crown assets?

    1. Le actually several Fisheries Biologist both from BC and the US Dep of Fish and Wildlife as well as the Bonneville Power Admin, establish that the fall that lay beneath the Enloe dam were not big enouhg to present a velocity barrier to salmon, and the salmon stopped when the dam was built.

  5. The water body shown on the map which will feed the powerhouse is in fact an active pit in the Copper Mountain Mine. You can see it on Google Maps at:


    There is at least 10 years life left in the mine, at current copper prices, so I think the company which owns the mine will have something to say about this proposal.

    I can’t see it going ahead for a while. Then there’s the issue of figuring out whatever might be leaching out of the mine pits and tailing ponds at an accelerated rate once flooded.

  6. No salmon in the Similkameen. They can’t get up the waterfall where it flows into the Columbia basin in Washington state. First nation lore has it that this was the price the creator exacted in exchange for the copper found in the valley. There may have been salmon a few thousand years ago. Check out the Museum in Hedley next time you go through The Similkameen, there’s some very interesting stuff in it.

    1. Not correct. First, Similkameen Falls are located in BC near Princeton, about 150 km north of the border. Second, before the Enloe Dam was built in the 1920s on the U.S. side (with no fish ladders), salmon routinely migrated to Similkameen Falls and were harvested near there by First Nations.

      As far as I know, the debate continues about the defunct Enloe Dam. Some want it formally decommissioned and removed, others want it rebuilt. Given that it is never likely to generate meaningful hydro power, the answer should be obvious.

  7. I believe the boundaries water treaty signed by WAC Bennett back in the 1950’s expires this year. The negligence of the BC Government may be related to a desire to privatize cross border water sales. This is bigger than it looks.

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