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Hudson's Hope flooded with Site C opinions

Site C Public Hearings

Though its entryways proudly proclaim it as the Land of Dinosaurs and Dams, residents of Hudson's Hope say building a third dam on the Peace River will increase the emotional and financial tolls they've endured from previous hydroelectric developments in the region.

More than 100 people turned out for two days of hearings in the small town some 90-kilometres south of Fort St. John, where the $7.9-billion dam is proposed to be built.

Common themes among the presenters included concerns over the district's shrinking population, property values "devastated" by decades of Hydro land acquisition, and doubts that Hydro will live up to and be held accountable to its proposed mitigation measures.

"We've lost this town to BC Hydro," Mayor Gwen Johansson said during an hour-

long presentation to the review panel undertaking the project's environmental assessment.

Hydro is proposing to build a 60-metre high earth dam and 1,100 megawatt generating station on the Peace River, about seven kilometres from downtown Fort St. John, adding to the WAC Bennett and Peace Canyon dams built on the river just outside Hudson's Hope in the 1960s and 70s.

The potential of Site C has hovered above the district and indeed the Peace River Valley since then, and though it will be built far downstream of the district, Johansson notes Hudson's Hope is looking at some 1,700 hectares of land loss to flooding, highway realignments, and Hydro right of ways for transmission lines.

The district is also bracing for two new major natural gas pipelines to run course through the municipality if the province's LNG dreams become reality, three new proposed mines in its vicinity, and a jump in exploratory permits for wind energy development.

"It's important that the panel recognize the power these corporations wield over community and its citizens," Johansson said.

The greatest obstacle for the district is keeping a sense of control over activities in its boundaries, Johansson said - decision makers are far away from Hudson's Hope, and that poses a serious risk to identity the district has been forging over the years as a community.

Hydro has become the biggest landowner in the district by scooping up the land it will need if Site C is approved, Johansson says. More often than not, Hydro has bought most of the most desirable properties in the district, reducing high-demand rural residential parcels to land with little value, which has in turn impeded growth and development in the district, Johansson said.

"What Hudson's Hope looks to get is a lot of disruption, a lot of lost land, and diminished quality of life. It will affect the nature of what this community is," she said.

"This community and the river and the valley are so intertwined they become one. Without it, we're just like any other town."

Hydro, for its part, has proposed a long list of mitigation measures for the district should Site C receive environmental certification and construction proceeds.

Among those measures are plans to realign several sections of Highway 29 that wind along the river in the district, along with other local road improvements.

Hydro is also planning to spend $150,000 to upgrade Alwin Holland Memorial Park, and add a number of recreation areas along the new shoreline created by the dam's new reservoir.

"We recognize that should the project proceed, this community sees meaningful and lasting benefits," said Susan Yurkovich, BC Hydro's executive vice-president on Site C.

Hydro will need to build a shoreline berm along the river to protect several downtown properties from erosion and sloughing, and will need to help relocate and rebuild the district's water intake station, which will be flooded by the project.

Yurkovich said Hydro recognizes Hudson's Hope as an important community for the project, noting the WAC Bennett and Peace Canyon dams currently produce 30 per cent of British Columbia's energy, and that many local families work at those dams.

Yurkovich said Hydro's goal is to minimize the amount of land required for Site C and maximize land use flexibility .

"Wherever possible, we want to support property owners so they can maintain maximum use on their property," she said.

Hydro would work with landowners on an individual basis to draft specific mitigation plans to ensure any farming operations in the area remain viable.

Still, many presenters in Hudson's Hope voiced frustration and opposition to the dam, and asked the provincial and federal joint panel assessing the project to reverse its course and recommend the project be shelved.

Former Hudson's Hope council member Elmer Kabush said Hydro has a poor track record of keeping promises in Hudson's Hope - while Hydro had put in a fish hatchery after the building of the Peace Canyon dam, it eventually took it out, he said.

"To put it in and walk away after a few years is poor corporate social responsibility," he said.

Kabush noted the dramatic and unpredictable shift in reservoir levels will severely limit recreational activities, he said, adding he considers it will be trap for both people and wildlife. Kabush added the maintenance of previous recreation sites created by Hydro have been downloaded onto the community.

"It goes on and on," said Kabush. "Things that have been promised have been done as minimally as possible."

Long time resident Richard Ardill said the 40-year battle over Site C is becoming tiresome for local residents given the wealth of new ways to generate power, including solar, natural gas, and wind resources.

"The valley has been awful good for us," said Ardill, noting the unique microclimate along the river gives farmers up to two weeks more of a growing season.

"I can't see for the life of me why someone would want to flood such a valley." Renee Ardill echoed those concerns, and expressed frustration over the revolving door of needs used to make the case for Site C.

Hydro has crisscrossed the purpose of project, first for the people of B.C., then for export demands, and then for the development of the province's LNG ambitions, she said.

"For that, we're going to lose this valley?" she asked. "This is very short sighted, this isn't visionary. Visionary is new stuff. (Hydro) is antique technology."

Hydro has said Site C, capable of generating 5,100 gigawatt hours of electricity, will produce 35 per cent of the power generated by the WAC Bennett dam with only 5 per cent of the reservoir's footprint. If built, 40 per cent of the province's electricity production will come from the Peace River.

Resident Ross Peck said that fact is one of many worth pondering and the consequences it may mean for the province.

"Is it wise to have 40 per cent of electricity production tied into one system 800 miles from main users?" he said. "There's so many risks that need to be considered."

Local school teacher and riverfront resident Caroline Beam called the valley a place of "great beauty and great bounty," noting it is a popular spot for earth sciences field trips across the region. She said the valley affords her Grade 11 biology students a chance to visit four different eco-zones in a single day.

"I don't know where else in world you'd be able to do that," she said. Peck said most in the valley want live out their days there and that flooding it will leave the Peace Country as a far poorer place to live.

"Has this valley given enough?" he said. "We certainly think it has."

Public hearings continue this week in West Moberly and Saulteau First Nations, along with sessions in McLeod Lake and Prince George, before resuming in January.

The panel will issue a report to the provincial and federal governments by spring.