An exposed shoreline near Nakusp, with water levels dropping quickly, fish species are at risk. Tom Summer, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Residents in the Arrow Lakes region say they’ve been impacted by drastic drops in the water levels, which can fluctuate quickly as the once pristine valley turned hydroelectric reservoir is bound by conditions under the Columbia River Treaty. 

The treaty, which was negotiated in 1964, was created for the development of the Duncan, Hugh L. Keenleyside and Mica Dams on the Canadian side, and the Libby Dam on the American side. Since then, communities have been dealing with the fluctuating water levels and loss of land. 

An August 3 meeting was held by BC Hydro, with engineers and forecasters who manage the Columbia River System to explain the lower-than-normal water levels this year – a combination of severe drought conditions and snow pack being depleted early. More than 160 people were in attendance to share their comments and concerns. 

By the end of July, the Arrow Lakes reservoir stood at 1,417 feet and was expected to fall 1,400 feet by the end of August. It’s the second lowest flow in 63 years, with levels more than what one would expect in September.  Levels are expected to stay at the required licence minimum at 1,378 feet. 

The communities of Nakusp, Edgewood, Burton, and more say they’ve been grappling with the drops, which are putting people’s property and businesses at risk. 

Residents Doug and Rachel Elliott live in Burton and manage the local campground, which is leased by the community. They say the drastic change in water levels could affect camping for summers to come, with several guests cancelling reservations – a threat to their livelihood and the local economy. 

We are supposed to be a lake front campground and that is not the case this summer. Some have been coming for upwards of 30 years and are absolutely shocked to see what is happening this year,” wrote the Elliotts. “People bring their families to enjoy our beach, kayaking, paddle boarding and boating. Our boat launch has now been land-locked since August long weekend.”

Waterfront users are also at risk of injury, say the Elliotts, with debris exposed from the receding shores.  

“This has also exposed many hazards from the old town site which creates a danger to our campers who go down to explore or try to find their way down to the water’s edge which is now hundreds of feet away from the campground, and basically a giant mud pit. There is shattered glass everywhere and rusted metal littered all along the flats,” they wrote. 

Nakusp Mayor Tom Zeleznik has been collecting comments and concerns from residents, and has passed the sentiments on in a letter to BC Hydro Stakeholder Engagement Advisor Mary-Anne Coules, and MLA Katrine Conroy for the West Kootenays. 

“We have seen since 1968 massive erosion along our reservoir with this annual 60 to 70 feet fluctuation of levels that has affected our main highways, fisheries, limited or no access for the returning spawning fish, and many lakes front properties eroding away, which is very visible to see by boat or driving along our eroding highways due to these constant fluctuations,” writes Zeleznik, asking for a more gradual drop on behalf of residents. 

In his correspondence with Coules, Zeleznik has also asked if BC Hydro would be willing to meet for an open consultation with residents, in addition to a walk around to see the impacts first-hand. 

Several species of endangered fish are at risk with the sudden drops which exposes riparian zones along the shoreline, including provincially red listed ‘Umatilla dace’ carp and blue listed sturgeon and bull trout. The carp is endemic to the Columbia Basin, and isn’t found anywhere else. 

Toxic minerals are also kicked up during the drops, with large amounts of silt, and can create oxygen depleted water, a danger to all fish species. 

Some further comments from residents collected by Mayor Zeleznik: 

“Whatever we ask for the Arrow Lakes reservoir isn’t likely to get much traction if it doesn’t account accurately for the broader context of the treaty,” writes resident James E. Cunningham. “The renegotiation of the treaty is quite far along now, and a lot of public engagement efforts were and are being made, but somehow, they seem to be missing the mark in communicating that context.” 

Cunningham goes on to explain that before the dams, an average of 62.4 millions of acre feet in water trickled down into the Canadian portion of the Columbia, with 41 coming from Kootenay Lake and another 21 entering from above and below Nakusp. 

According to Cunningham, the treaty requires Canada to have three reservoirs at Kinbasket, Arrow Lakes, and Duncan, adding up to 15.5 millions of acre feet of water stored – ultimately leading to unstable lake levels, either too much or too little, and inconveniencing communities all along the basin. 

“Stabilizing the water level in the vicinity of Nakusp will require alteration of the storage capacity of the entire reservoir (roughly Castlegar to Revelstoke),” adds Cunningham, noting a weir by Needles could be one potential solution. 

Long-term residents Pat and Jan Dion wrote to MLA Conroy in July, outlining their concerns – noting that BC Hydro’s financial benefit shouldn’t take away from the community’s tourism and quality of life. 

“After living in Nakusp for the past thirty years we have noticed how much the water levels have gone down and how rapidly. It is devastating to see the foreshore disappearing before our very eyes. This has been the earliest and fastest that our water levels have gone down,” write the Dions. 

Canada doesn’t have full autonomy over the flow of the Arrow Lakes, bound by the treaty, it requires consultation and to abide by terms set with their American counterparts. The treaty is being renegotiated in an attempt to modernize – the 18th round of negotiations was completed on August 10 and 11 in Seattle. 

The Canadian negotiating team included representatives of the governments of Canada and BC, in addition to the Ktunaxa, Secwepemc and Syilx Okanagan First Nations.

First Nations in the Arrow Lakes region have been advocating to return salmon to the Canadian portion of the Columbia River, as the fish has been absent for 80 years. The long-term vision is to return salmon stocks to the area for social and ceremonial needs, in addition to food and rebuilding the ecosystem. 

A letter of agreement was signed for the initiative between the Syilx Okanagan Nation, Ktunaxa Nation, Secwépemc Nation, Canada and the Province of BC on July 29, 2019 in Castlegar. 

Promises made 

It’s long been expected that BC Hydro would manage any impacts to the area from their hydroelectric projects, with former chairman Hugh Keenleyside writing directly about the Nakusp waterfront in a August 3,1966 newsletter published by BC Hydro on development in the Columbia Basin. 

“We are not only willing but are anxious to meet the desires of the people of Nakusp concerning their future waterfront,” wrote Keenleyside to village councillor J.A. Parent. 

A referendum was planned to be held on August 6 the same year, by the village council regarding the Nakusp waterfront. Keenleyside further notes that a large beach area proposed could be extended, and that a slope could be built out from the banks, asking council to agree to development as needed, without disrupting waterfront property owners. 

“I assure you again that the provision of an attractive waterfront for Nakusp is a matter of serious concern to B.C. Hydro. Our reputation is fully involved in this matter and it is as much in our interests as it is in the interests of the Village that the waterfront redevelopment should be of a high standard,” Keenleyside further wrote.

Tom Summer, Alaska Highway News, Local Journalism Initiative. Have a story idea or opinion? Email tsummer@ahnfsj.ca

With files from John Boivin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Valley Voice. 

Editor’s note – An earlier version of this story had the Elliotts’ names as the Hilmans, which is used just for social media. They also clarified that they do not own the campground, but lease it from the community. 

By Tom Summer, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Aug 23, 2023

This item reprinted with permission from   Alaska Highway News   Fort St. John, British Columbia

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