Peterson Farm wheat harvest - 1990s (courtesy of Lynda & Larry Peterson)

Site C Dam: The Folly of Choosing Energy Over Food Security


I recently returned from a trip up to Peace River Country in Northeast BC, filming for a forthcoming short documentary on the Campbell/Clark Government’s proposed Site C Dam.

While I wasn’t raised in the region, I have a personal connection to the land and its history. I spent many summers and winter holidays there as a child visiting relatives. My family were early settlers in the Valley, circa 1910, and most of them still reside in the area. Some fifty years ago we lost our farm – Goldbar Ranch, West of Hudson’s Hope – to the province’s first big hydroelectric project, WAC Bennett Dam.

But that was a different time – guided by a very different vision for the future of a burgeoning young province. While it wasn’t easy for families like mine and First Nations who lost much of their ancestral territories and traditional way of life, there was a real purpose to building those early dams. Knowing what we knew then, it was an understandable decision that Premier WAC Bennett made, with the overall public good in mind (though he certainly should have consulted better with First Nations and local citizens, something that was sorely lacking).

By contrast, today, there are many good reasons why the final of three dams long planned for the Valley – Site C Dam, near Fort St. John – isn’t in the public or environmental interest, despite what our government has been telling us to the contrary.

Besides its breathtaking beauty and tremendous fish and wildlife values, the Peace River Valley is home to some of the best farmland in BC.

The soil is of very high quality: nearly 12,000 acres of good agricultural-grade land would be flooded for the project – several thousand of which bear class 1 and class 2 soils.

But it’s not just the earth that makes the Peace Valley ideal for a diverse range of food production. The valley also produces a unique micro-climate that yields a longer growing season than anywhere north of the Fraser River Delta and Valley (another critical food security region in BC under siege from development – in this case highways, ports, and housing and industrial development). Everything from corn and potatoes to cantaloupes and watermelon have been grown in the Peace Valley.

At one time, a single farm run by Lynda and Larry Peterson provided a quarter of the region’s potatoes and a market garden with fresh fruits and vegetables of a wide variety.

But today, the Valley isn’t producing nearly what it could, due to a flood reserve which has held vast tracts of land hostage to the recurring threat of another dam. Consequently, much of this land lays fallow, while the region has seen many of its farming and food processing services disappear, along with the market gardens that once flourished, supplying residents with locally-grown produce.

For me, the question of Site C Dam really comes down to a choice between energy and food security.

Despite what the public has been told about BC’s energy situation, the province is more than able to meet its own electricity needs without building Site C – or paying billions of dollars for exorbitant, unnecessary private river power. Our electrical consumption has actually been trending down, thanks to a slow-down of the global economy (which shows no signs of reversing) and power smart programs taking effect (from 53,500 GWh of electricity in 2009 to just over 50,000 last year).

Under pressure from BC Hydro’s CEO, a recent panel review of the public utility, and the media and public, the Clark Government appears to be backing away from its ill-conceived and improperly named “self-sufficiency” and “insurance” requirements that falsely inflated the province’s need for electricity.

By contrast, BC is facing a food security crisis. According to data from the provincial Ministry of Agriculture and Lands, as of five years ago, we were less than 50% self-sufficient in food and down from approximately 80% self-sufficiency in vegetables in 1970 to about 40% today.

It’s clear that food self-sufficiency is a far greater concern for the province than electrical self-sufficiency; ergo, the Peace Valley should be preserved for food production and wildlife habitat, not flooded for power we don’t need.

So where is this power really going? To natural gas fracking operations in the region. I’m told by people researching the matter that two of the major gas processing facilities in the Horn River Basin, northeast of Fort Nelson – Encana’s Cabin Gas Plant and Spectra’s nearby operation – could eat up close to a quarter of Site C’s total power output alone. And there are many other large operations being built for natural gas extraction and transmission – in addition to major coal mines throughout the region, all in need of significant power. Energy Minister Dick Neufeld told locals publicly in 2008 that half of the power from Site C was destined for Horn River shale gas operations – evidenced by the fact the government wants to build a major transmission line from the Fort St. John area up to the Horn River Basin, to carry this new power from Site C.

All of this once again begs the question, why are talking about wiping out 12,000 acres of productive farmland and important wildlife habitat to subsidize natural gas and coal operations? (And bear in mind that not only will you be financing the $8-10 BILLION dam as a taxpayer and shareholder of BC Hydro, but you will continue subsidizing large industrial power users – who pay half or less what you pay for electricity – through your much higher power bills and tax bills well into the future).

Clearly this is the wrong direction for BC to be going in. What needs to happen now is for Site C to be cancelled once and for all, for the long-standing flood reserve to be lifted off the Peace Valley, and for local farmers to return to the land. If farmed to its full potential, this valley could feed the whole region and a significant portion of Northern BC.

Watch for a forthcoming short documentary by Damien Gillis on Site C Dam in early 2012.


About 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.

6 thoughts on “Site C Dam: The Folly of Choosing Energy Over Food Security

  1. How can BC’s Environment Minister, Rich Coleman state that Site C is on, when the environmental review has not even been done? The only value our government seems to have is money and increasing the gap between the few wealthy and the rest of us. How is it that BC Hydro has been granted $40 million for PR and consultation on Site C, and the Peace Valley Environment association who are the farmers, ranchers, wildlife advocates and long term residents of the Peace have resources of a few thousand locally raised dollars to combat the project. It’s not even David and Goliath. It is rigged for the fossil fuel industry and those with zero vision of the long-term interests of BC. Put fossil fuel subsidies into oil and gas technology for drilling for geothermal power at the same cost as a dam, in diversified areas of the province, on small plots of land, as a non-polluting and firm long-term energy base instead of destroying near 20% of BC agricultural land.

  2. I am utterly opposed to gas fracking and coal mines in Northern BC. The BC Liberals are blindly rushing forward with their ‘jobs agenda’ with absolutely no regard for the environment or for future generations. Currently less than one half of one percent of the world’s water is drinkable. With these clowns in power, our fresh water, our most precious resource, will be poisoned. The Liberals have just given Talisman Energy 20 years worth of water from the Williston Lake, a BC Hydro reservoir, for gas fracking. Essentially I see the Site C dam as an opportunity to provide power and water for gas, oil and mining, at the expense of British Columbians, to the tune of 8 billion dollars. I have never seen a government with such a blatant disregard for its citizens and the environment (except maybe Harper, but they are peas in a pod).

  3. when corporations run our lives and also control governments,we the people live in a capitalistic pigsty
    and not in a democracy.

  4. What needs to be made clear is that, contrary to many media publications, the proposed Site C dam is far from a “DONE DEAL”. This project is neither “CLEAN” nor GREEN as its reservoir will emit tons of carbon from decaying vegetation and dead wildlife trapped beneath its waters, and the power created will be used to produce the most carbon emitting, fuel sources of power in BC, oil, gas and coal. Also has been reported that 97% of the land is “OWNED” by BC Hydro, when only 8% of the affected land is Hydro owned, the rest is the peoples crown land, a wildlife preserve, and privately owned high producing farmlands. Before Campbell was skidded out of office he had this project made exempt from the public’s only way to voice their opinion and question this project, by taking it off of the list of projects to be scrutinized by the British Columbia Utilities Commission. Only a Government that is afraid of losing and/or has some falsehood to hide from its people, would play a game and cheat like this. This gov’t has projected an 8 billion dollar price tag to complete this project, for the consumers, taxpayers, their children and grandchildren to pay. What kind of warped legacy is this

  5. “our electrical consumption has actually trended down”

    And when our Hydro bills go way up, as they inevitably will do, I expect our consumption will go down even more.

    How can they justify Site C, to be used for natural gas production, when BC Hydro is supposed to be minimizing its use of gas-powered Burrard Thermal?

Comments are closed.