The Wilsey Dam Fish Passage Committee and the Whitevalley Community Resource Centre hosted a community meeting on Thursday to present the concept for the Natural Bypass Channel at Shuswap Falls and the dam that was recently presented to BC Hydro. About two dozen community members, stakeholders and representatives (from all parties) attended the event to discuss the most recent developments in the process — one that has been a public issue for almost 90 years.
The hydro dam was built in 1929 by the privately owned West Canadian Hydro-Electric Corporation to supply power to the North Okanagan. The company was taken over by the BC Power Commission in 1946 and by the water rights Board Province of BC in 1954. It now falls under the jurisdiction of BC Hydro.
The construction of the hydro dam subsequently blocked fish migration to the 32 kms between the dam and Sugar Lake upstream. While the original design of the dam considered the construction of a fishway, the priority had been to generate hydro.
Due to the Hell’s Gate slide in the Fraser Canyon in 1913 during railway construction, salmon stocks had been decimated in the Fraser system. The government of the time waved the requirement for the fish ladder citing the economic cost of construction would create a financial hardship to the privately held power company.
The Wilsey Dam Fish Passage Committee (and its predecessor group) has been working formally towards a fish passage solution at Wilsey Darn since 2003, building on the work of others that dates back to at least the 1970s.
In 2008 BC Hydro established the BC Hydro Fish and Wildlife Compensation Coastal Region Board and a seven-step fish passage decision framework to evaluate opportunities to restore fish production above BC Hydro facilities that previously blocked fish passage. Since then, the Wilsey Dam Fish Passage committee has worked directly with agencies, local governments, Indigenous communities, and various stakeholder representatives and groups looking at options.
In May, the committee presented its final report to FWCP board which now endorses the “Plan for Fish Passage at Wilsey Dam.” This milestone of the process represents successful completion of both: Step 4, ‘Preliminary Technical Feasibility’ and step 5 ‘FWCP Endorsement’ in the Fish Passage Decision Framework.
Several members in attendance on Thursday have been involved with the project for decades. While some voiced skepticism with the prolonged delay, others voiced their optimism in the project now that it has been endorsed by FWCP.
Board member Bernie Bauer said the biggest difference is in DFO, who have been at this since 1977.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen in the corporate structure from to the extent that we’ve had support, it’s been a much more open conversation with them [BC Hydro and the DFO] than what would have been 20 years ago,” said Bauer. “I think we’re moving in the right direction.”
A main focus of this project has also been on Indigenous relations and accomodating their needs.
“We’re allies of the crown but the fact is that we were denied our fishery when the ally was built. We expect that to be restored,” said Dan Wilson, a councillor of the Okanagan Indian Band. “I just want to let everybody know that we’re in full support of this and we’re really proud of all the people who are involved in doing this right because we are all doing it for future generations.”
The next two steps involve BC Hydro completing a ‘Business Case Development’ for the project and announcing a final decision to proceed if deemed equitable. The final stages and decisions are still to come but the Wilsey Dam Fish Passage Committee is hopeful.
“Ultimately what type of fish passage that comes out of this process has not yet been confirmed,” said Committee Chair Gay Jewitt. “That is what we would like to pursue as a concept and to prove that it is possible at this point and that’s really important to understand.”
Bauer extended his gratitude to BC Hydro and FWCP for their efforts in the progress up to this point. To those who are invested and interested in seeing this come to fruition, he urged people to commit to community engagement, writing personal letters to the powers involved in an effort to keep government accountable and to make sure BC Hydro doesn’t forget about the project.
“We’re going to need community iniatives,” he said.
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