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.
[quote]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.[/quote]
Over 30,000 acres to be flooded or impacted
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.
[quote]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.[/quote]
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
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:
[quote]The land to be flooded by Site C is capable of producing high-yielding fresh fruits and vegetables for over a million people.[/quote]
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.
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
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.
[quote]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.[/quote]
Process designed to fail the public
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.
[quote]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.[/quote]
What’s more important: energy or food?
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?