“They weren’t interested in the facts. They just wanted to get the land for nothing.”
OLIVER BUERGE, DISPLACED LANDOWNER, BURTON
In the Columbia Basin, the waters mirror the sky and reflect a vast and spellbinding landscape of thick green forest and dramatic mountain peaks. At the heart of the Basin lies the Columbia River. The river’s headwaters flow from Columbia Lake, nestled deep in the Rocky Mountain Trench of southeastern British Columbia. From there, the river winds northwest through the Columbia Valley until it bends southward, rushing downstream and gaining strength from its many tributaries. Stretching 2,000 kilometres across two countries, the Columbia River runs through British Columbia, Montana, Oregon and Washington before it meets the Pacific Ocean.
Life in the Basin has been guided by the powerful waters of the Columbia River for thousands of years. This is the traditional territory of the Ktunaxa, Lheidli T’enneh, Secwepemc, Sinixt and Syilx Peoples, whose ancestors relied on the Columbia and its tributaries. The lands and waters of the Basin are central to their creation stories, to their cultures and identities, and they are the source of their livelihoods. The first Europeans arrived as explorers, mapping the terrain, waterways and resources of the Basin. They were followed by fur traders who forged trade relationships with First Nations and established routes along the waterways, the arteries of the fur trade. In the 1860s, hundreds of hopeful prospectors flocked to the region after gold was discovered at Wild Horse Creek on Kootenay River and on the Big Bend of the upper Columbia River. After the glitter of the gold rush faded, prospectors stayed to mine lead, copper and zinc. Others turned to agriculture or forestry. Communities grew and new ones sprang up, populated by settlers carried to the region on the newly completed Canadian Pacific Railway.
The growth of settlement and industry created new demands for power. In 1896, British Columbia’s first hydropower plant opened on Cottonwood Creek to supply electricity to the city of Nelson. The following year, hydropower was used to fuel industry for the first time when a plant opened in the mining town of Sandon. The plant fuelled operations at Silversmith Mines and the local mill.
The Basin is particularly well-suited for hydropower because of the abundance of water and the diverse landscape through which it flows; deep valleys and tall mountain peaks create natural changes in elevation, which are needed to produce power. Small powerhouses and hydropower dams continued to be built throughout the region on tributaries of the Columbia River. Hydropower was still a young technology, and these smaller, less powerful waterways provided enough energy to meet the demands of turn-of-the-century industry and infrastructure.
The 1930s marked the beginning of North America’s “big dam era,” when large-scale damming projects were built not only to generate hydropower, but also to control flooding and improve irrigation. By this time, technology had advanced enough to harness the mighty Columbia River. Grand Coulee Dam in Washington was the largest project to be built on the Columbia River during this era, and remains so today. When completed in 1942, seven years after construction began, Grand Coulee was the world’s largest dam, chronicled by American folk singer Woody Guthrie as “the biggest thing that man has ever done.” Although it decimated the fish population, Grand Coulee was a boon to agriculture and industry, and the United States quickly began plans to build additional dams on the river.
The flooding of Arrow Lakes Reservoir in 1967 displaced 2,000 people and submerged entire communities, like Arrow Park, Galena Bay, Needles, Renata, Syringa Creek and others. While most buildings were burned or bulldozed, some were saved and moved to higher ground, including St. John the Divine Church in East Arrow Park. The church was loaded onto a barge and floated 20 kilometres north along Upper Arrow Lake until it reached Nakusp, where it was reconsecrated as St. Mark’s Anglican Church.
Left. Although Grand Coulee Dam, completed in 1941, was the largest dam built on the Columbia River, the first one completed was Rock Island Dam, in December 1932. Bonneville Dam (pictured) was the second dam completed. It too drew many visitors, who flocked to the site when it opened in 1938.
THE COLUMBIA RIVER TREATY
In Canada, wartime industry sent power demands soaring and it too began to contemplate large-scale hydropower development on the Columbia River.1 In 1944, three years after Grand Coulee Dam’s turbines began to spin, the United States and Canada ordered an investigation into how they might jointly develop the river.2 Both countries hoped to benefit from the construction of a series of storage dams on the upper Columbia River in British Columbia that would allow for the manipulation of water volume and supply, optimizing power generation at facilities downstream.
Directing the flow of water would also help the two countries prevent flooding. In 1948, the Columbia River swelled to near-historic levels. The flood destroyed the city of Vanport, Oregon, displacing 18,700 residents and killing at least 16.3 In British Columbia, the city of Trail was hit particularly hard. Winding through the city centre, the river divides Trail in two, and rising waters posed a significant threat. Ordinary life ground to a halt as flood levels reached between 30 and 40 feet. Homes were evacuated. Water crept up to the box office window of the local theatre and lapped at the roof of the old skating arena.4 Residents relied on canoes to navigate the streets. Similar scenes played out in towns and cities across the Basin. Canada and the United States were more motivated than ever to produce a water management system that might prevent another catastrophe.
However, it would take another 10 years before the necessary plans and recommendations for such a complicated strategy were completed. In December 1959, the International Joint Commission — which had been tasked with drafting this plan back in 1944 — released a report recommending the construction of three storage dams on the upper Columbia River in British Columbia. It also included the option to build an additional dam on Kootenay River in Montana; this too would require water storage north of the international border.
Top. Cottonwood Creek Dam was built by the Nelson Electric Light Company in 1896. It was the first hydropower plant in B.C.
Bottom. Today, Sandon is a ghost town, but in the 1890s it was a mining boomtown and the site of the first hydropower generating station built to fuel mining operations in B.C.
The Flood of 1948
Communities across the Columbia Basin were devastated by the 1948 flood. In British Columbia, the city of Trail was hit particularly hard. As waters surged up to 40 feet, many residents took to canoes and small boats to navigate city streets. Roads collapsed under the weight of the water, and pumps ran constantly to drain water away from the city, struggling to keep pace with the rising river. Downtown businesses closed their doors as water seeped in through the windows. When the two-week fight was finally over, newspapers celebrated the victory, and residents breathed a sigh of relief as they began to repair the damage.
“May this treaty which we launch today be an example of what nations can do by joint endeavour to contribute to the economic welfare of mankind.”
PRIME MINISTER JOHN DIEFENBAKER
After several rounds of negotiations between Canada and the United States, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker and President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Columbia River Treaty in Washington, D.C., on January 17, 1961. The process was far from over, though. Canada had yet to reach an agreement with the Government of British Columbia.
The federal and provincial governments had conflicting ideas about how to implement the Treaty. Prime Minister John Diefenbaker’s energy policy envisioned a national power grid in which hydro-rich provinces like British Columbia would share power with other provinces in order to evenly distribute access to affordable, reliable power. This would promote greater industrial and economic growth across the country, rather than restrict opportunities to regions that already had access to cheap hydropower.5 This contradicted British Columbia Premier W.A.C. Bennett’s provincial power strategy. Bennett wanted to build a series of hydropower dams on the Columbia and Peace rivers to generate cheap power for the province and make money that could be put back into the provincial economy.6 Sharing the power and profits gained through the Columbia River Treaty with Canada did not fit within Bennett’s plans. Instead, he wanted to see British Columbia paid cash in exchange for downstream benefits — the additional power that could be generated in the United States as a result of the dams.
Canada and British Columbia resolved their competing visions for the Treaty in 1963, when Diefenbaker’s Progressive Conservative government was replaced by the Liberal government of Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson. Pearson believed the Diefenbaker government had rushed into the Treaty, bowing to Washington’s demands rather than trying to advance Canadian interests. Contrary to previous federal policies that barred the long-term export of electricity, Pearson supported Premier Bennett’s wish to sell the downstream benefits instead of distributing electricity to other provinces.7 In July 1963, the British Columbian and Canadian governments signed an agreement to transfer the rights, benefits and operations related to the Treaty and proposed Treaty dams to British Columbia.8
Top. This political cartoon by Carl Bonelli was published in the Oregon Journal after the Columbia River Treaty was ratified in 1964.
Bottom. John Diefenbaker and Dwight Eisenhower at the signing of the Columbia River Treaty in Washington, D.C., January 1961.
In 1965, BC Hydro published an informational booklet on the Columbia River Treaty. The booklet provided details on the upcoming construction of the three Canadian Treaty dams, including High Arrow Dam (Hugh Keenleyside Dam), pictured above.
With negotiations complete, Prime Minister Pearson, United States President Lyndon B. Johnson and Premier Bennett signed an updated Columbia River Treaty on September 16, 1964. The signing took place at the Peace Arch, located on the international boundary at Surrey, British Columbia, and Blaine, Washington. Like the 1961 document, the ratified Treaty covered two main objectives: optimize hydropower production and coordinate flood control. To accomplish these outcomes, Canada was required to provide 15.5 million acre-feet of water storage annually through the three storage dams it would construct in British Columbia at Duncan, Mica Creek and Arrow Lakes. The Treaty also gave the United States the option to build a fourth dam at Libby, Montana, which would rely on British Columbia for water storage. There was a strict timeline for the completion of the Canadian Treaty dams. Duncan Dam and Reservoir were to be completed by 1967, followed by High Arrow Dam (Arrow Lakes Reservoir) in 1968 and Mica Dam (Kinbasket Reservoir) in 1973. The Treaty had no expiration date but was guaranteed for a minimum of 60 years. The earliest date either country could terminate the agreement was 2024, providing they gave written notice 10 years prior to withdrawal.9
The Treaty also included what is known as the Canadian Entitlement. In exchange for water storage, and the additional hydropower and flood control that this storage enabled, Canada was entitled to half of the anticipated downstream power benefits generated in the United States.10 For the first 30 years, British Columbia opted to exchange this entitlement for a cash payment. Rather than collecting its share of the downstream benefits in the form of hydropower, British Columbia received a total of $254 million US. This number was based on the revenue the excess power was expected to generate over 30 years. British Columbia used much of this money to finance dam construction. After the first 30 years, the agreement could be renegotiated.
With an agreement in place and dam construction set to begin, these massive hydropower projects were under way. The Basin was on the cusp of irreversible change and, as Basin residents would soon discover, power came at a price.
Top. On May 19, 1965, B.C. Premier W.A.C. Bennett detonated a ceremonial explosion to mark the beginning of construction on Duncan Dam.
Center. Premier Bennett (middle) welcomed Canadian Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson (right) and U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson (left) at the September 1964 signing of the Columbia River Treaty.
Bottom. U.S. President Johnson signed the Columbia River Treaty, September 1964.
Hydropower is produced from the energy of falling water as it flows through a turbine. Hydropower generating stations are built on rivers where there is a natural drop in elevation or alongside dams, which create a reservoir of stored water that can be released according to power demand. By controlling the volume of water and the elevation at which it falls, dams can increase the amount of power that is generated.
Water from the upper elevation, or forebay, flows down a pipe called a penstock, and hits the blades of a turbine, causing it to turn. The turbine is connected to a generator by a drive shaft. As the generator spins, magnets inside move past copper coils, stimulating electrons to create an alternating current (AC) of electricity. Power lines convey the electricity to a substation, where the electrical energy is transformed to a higher AC voltage (HVAC) for long-distance transmission to faraway markets. The HVAC is transformed back to lower voltage AC before reaching its final destination in the homes and businesses of consumers.
THE PRICE OF POWER
If the voices of Basin residents seem absent from the origin story of the Columbia River Treaty, it is because, on the pages of the Treaty, they were. The Treaty was negotiated and ratified in the interests of national and provincial economic growth. Despite their vocal opposition, the people of the Basin became casualties on the road to prosperity. Had their concerns been considered and acted upon, the Basin and those who called it home might have been spared some of the severe social, economic and environmental impacts of the Treaty dams. Instead, both land and lives were forever changed by an agreement that rendered residents powerless against development.
To store the 15.5 million acre-feet of water required of Canada under the Treaty, British Columbia needed land — 270,000 acres of it.11 The dams would create large reservoirs that flooded lowlands in the river valleys, either permanently or intermittently throughout the year.
The sites of the Treaty dams — Mica Creek, Arrow Lakes, Duncan and Libby — were already home to dozens of small communities that were now in the way. Lloyd Sharpe, a lifelong resident of the East Kootenay whose land, along with that of 70 other property owners, was expropriated for Libby Dam in 1971, voiced the distress of people living throughout the Basin when he said, “We were people in the way. And the attitude was to get rid of them.”12
Across the basin, the people in the way totalled 2,300. The majority resided in the Arrow Lakes region, where High Arrow Dam (later renamed Hugh Keenleyside Dam) displaced over 15 communities, like Burton, Edgewood, Fauquier and Howser. Christopher and Jean Spicer had a 60-acre farm in Nakusp that they tended for 15 years before it was flooded to make way for the dam. Like other landowners in the area, the Spicers hoped a Treaty promising such significant profits would surely take care of those most affected by it. Yet, as time went on, landowners’ hopes for compensation began to fade. Jean Spicer wrote a letter to the editor of Arrow Lakes News: “Are not we, the main sufferers from High Arrow, entitled to a major slice of the pie or have not my first suspicions been confirmed, and there is really no pie at all?”14
From the signing of the Treaty to the flooding of the reservoirs, Basin residents living in the shadow of the dams felt confused, angry and powerless. Though advocates of the dams were confident there would be total compensation and resettlement plans, and saw opportunities for recreational lakes, tourism and economic prosperity, residents realized this was not going to happen. Many felt the provincial government and BC Hydro, which was the Canadian entity responsible for constructing and operating the dams, had prioritized profits over people in their development plans.
“We were under Hydro’s big stick because we had no choice: either be expropriated or sign. We had no choice,” said Robson resident Daisy Welsh.15 Welsh and her family had a large lakeshore property with an orchard and rental cottages. They had moved to Robson just a few years before discovering that Hugh Keenleyside Dam would be built in the exact place their land was located. Despite promises of fair compensation, BC Hydro’s first offer to the Welshes was just $5,000 for all buildings and the entire 2.88 acres of land.
Top. Daisy Welsh remembered setting up her easels “to do some painting and try to live a little normal life” amid the uncertainty that surrounded flooding and land deals. One autumn day, she was painting when several BC Hydro workers arrived unannounced to inspect the house. Daisy was often left angry and upset by these visits, which she felt were meant to bully landowners into accepting low offers.
Bottom. Brian Gadbois was a young boy when his family lost portions of their Revelstoke farm to Arrow Lakes Reservoir. He was too young to remember the negotiation process but recalled watching the survey crews working in their fields.
The Berry Family
Ethel Berry couldn’t watch as her husband, Charlie, set fire to their family home near Burton in 1967. Although it was customary for BC Hydro to burn any buildings located below the highwater level on dam reservoirs, Charlie wanted to do it himself. The land had been in the family since 1938. This was also the couple’s first home together and the place where they had started their family. Still, the Berrys felt fortunate they were not losing their land entirely.
They had struck a deal with BC Hydro known as a “flowage easement,” which allowed them to keep their land as long as they didn’t interfere with the portion flooded by Arrow Lakes Reservoir or the new access road that cut across their property. BC Hydro owned the water,
but the Berrys owned the land. It was not a solution offered to others, as far as Charlie knew, but one he had insisted upon. “This is our property,” Charlie told BC Hydro. “Our name is on the deed. You cannot take it from us.”
However, they did have to agree to leave the property for several years while construction and flooding took place. They moved to Nakusp, along with many other families in the Arrow Lakes region who lost their lands permanently. Burton had been a close-knit community, and the Berrys missed that sense of connection with their friends and neighbours. Though people kept in touch, Charlie and Ethel’s daughter Vivien remembered “there was still that sense you lost something along the way.”
Charlie and Ethel returned to their property in the late 1970s. They built a new house on higher ground, away from the flood line. They felt like they were among the lucky ones. Years later, however, Ethel still found it difficult to see photographs of their burning home. They had gotten their land back, but never recovered the sense of home and community they had once enjoyed.13
The Welshes rejected the offer. The next offer was $8,000, then $12,000, then $16,000. Daisy Welsh believed the low starting price and gradual increases were deceitful — BC Hydro was looking for a way to get the land as cheaply as possible.16
Landowners like Oliver and Helen Buerge of Burton felt the same. They disagreed with the price offered for their 110-acre cattle farm and hired their own appraisers to see if the amounts lined up. They did not. The amount BC Hydro offered was four times lower than what the private appraiser calculated. “They weren’t interested in the facts. They just wanted to get the land for nothing,” Oliver said.17
Losing their homes and land was traumatic for many residents. “You hear lots of stories of people that were just devastated by it even though they knew it was coming,” remembered Brian Gadbois of Revelstoke. “Some of them stood there and watched as their house was lit on fire.”18 People forced from their communities looked back to see their homes, schools, churches and businesses destroyed. In some cases, buildings were picked up and moved, but this did little to soften the harsh reality. Families had to abandon the land or farms they had cultivated for generations and start over. Pete and Maria Peters had orchards in Renata but decided to move when most of the community — including the school, the post office and stores — was sacrificed to make way for Hugh Keenleyside Dam and Arrow Lakes Reservoir. “We’d still be at the Arrows if it hadn’t been for that dam,” Pete said. “We’d still be there.”19
The land had value that no amount of money could repay. When the reservoirs flooded, the water also washed away residents’ ties to home, land and community. Wally Penner grew up in Renata. “You can’t go back to the place where you were a kid, where you used to play in the sandbox, and your homestead,” he said. “You can’t do that and that’s one of the hardest things . . . Renata is still here but you look at the stumps of the trees that were cut, the fruit trees where you used to pick. You look at the foundation of your home that is left. I used to come back and look at what is there and try and picture it.”20
Starting over was difficult. Displaced landowners found themselves unable to find new properties comparable to what they already owned. Before the dams, Christopher and Jean Spicer’s family built their entire livelihood around their subsistence farm in Nakusp. “We were totally dependent on our land,” said their daughter Janet. “It was our security and it was our livelihood. We had no other income other than what we grew on the piece of land that was flooded out.”21 Once they learned their land would be flooded by Arrow Lakes Reservoir, the Spicer family drove across the province in search of comparable land where they could rebuild. They discovered that, although BC Hydro had offered them $60,000 for the farm, anything similar would cost at least $175,000. Their land was lost and so too the prosperity and livelihood they had enjoyed in Nakusp.
People living in affected areas received a Property Owners’ Guide with information on how the Treaty projects would impact their land. However, once land expropriations began, many property owners found the process inconsistent and disorganized. They were not given standard rates for their land or property, nor could they count on clear communication from BC Hydro.
As dam construction plans progressed, land and property in the way of the reservoirs had to be cleared. People living in affected communities often saw homes and businesses engulfed in flames. Less frequently, they saw buildings being loaded onto trucks and moved to higher ground — an expensive undertaking but still one that some chose to pursue.
“They weren’t interested in the facts. They just wanted to get the land for nothing.”
OLIVER BUERGE, DISPLACED LANDOWNER, BURTON
First Nations suffered the destruction of ancient and important cultural sites. Archaeologists estimate that Libby Dam and Lake Koocanusa reservoir alone flooded some 400 archaeological sites.22 “When those lands were flooded,” recalled Hazel Squakin of the Syilx First Nation, “they did not consider what damage it would do to the Native Peoples’ villages, to the Native Peoples’ sweat lodges. And they did not do it by consulting the people. There were burial grounds, which I know people protested loud and clear, but they were not heard.”23
The Ktunaxa suffered significant impacts from the loss of cultural sites and land that had long been a source of identity and emotional significance. “Our history forever changed,” said Kathryn Teneese, chair of the Ktunaxa Nation Council. “Access to ancient villages, ancient places, you know, they don’t exist anymore because they’re underwater because of a dam, because of a relationship that we have with the nation states south of the 49th.”24 The loss of territory also disrupted traditional activities, such as fishing, hunting and gathering, which First Nations had practised in the Columbia and Kootenay watersheds for thousands of years.
Oliver and Helen Buerge had a 110-acre farm in Burton before they lost their land to Arrow Lakes Reservoir. Aerial images of the property captured before the reservoir filled show that the Buerge’s farm and homestead would be left completely underwater. Years later, author Donald Waterfield wrote Land Grab, capturing the Buerge’s story and their fight for a fair deal against BC Hydro.
BC Hydro made many promises to Basin residents to ease their concerns about the impacts of the dams. Residents were assured reservoirs would create beautiful recreational lakes, with boating and beaches that would draw tourists to the area; however, they quickly learned this was not the case. During periods when water levels dropped, the lakes disappeared to reveal vast expanses of dust and gravel. Debris and tree stumps populated the land where BC Hydro had promised sandy beaches. “Nobody wants to come see stumps,” said Balfour resident Josh Smienk. “They want to see water lapping on the shores, kids running on normal beaches.”25 Any hope of tourism at the reservoir “lakes” was further dimmed by their questionable safety. Dust stirred up by high winds along the reservoir banks aggravated allergies and respiratory difficulties. Even today, airborne silica from Kinbasket Reservoir poses a health risk to nearby residents.
Not only did the dams fail to create the new tourist sites BC Hydro promised, but they flooded existing ones as well. The natural Canoe Hot Springs in Valemount was a prime example, lost under the waters of Kinbasket Reservoir. Recreational fishing and boating on flooded rapids and falls were eliminated. Residents and tourists had reduced access to sites such as Hamber Provincial Park; in 1961, the park boundaries were redrawn to make way for Kinbasket Reservoir, and Hamber was reduced to just a small fraction of its original size.26 Damming and fluctuating reservoir levels also impeded canoeing, kayaking and other boating activities.27
Construction on the Canadian Treaty dams began in 1965 with Duncan Dam. Duncan was the first to be completed, opening in 1967. It was followed by High Arrow Dam (renamed Hugh Keenleyside Dam), completed in 1968, and Mica Dam, completed in 1973.
Aerial photographs show the immense impact the dams had upon the landscape, not just once the reservoirs were flooded, but during construction as well. Large swaths of land were cleared to make way for the dams, leaving bare, sandy ground where there was once greenery and trees.
High Arrow Dam (renamed Hugh Keenleyside Dam)
Right. The dam reservoirs flooded entire communities, wiping some off the map completely. One of these communities was Renata, a small hamlet accessible only by ferry that once stood on the western shore of Lower Arrow Lake.
Bottom, left. Families were warned several years before Renata was flooded. Rose Rohn and her family were some of the last to leave, and they spent those years watching as their friends and neighbours packed up and left, their homes and orchards set ablaze to make way for the reservoir. When the Rohns finally left in 1967, Rose posed for a picture as her home burned.
Bottom, right. Aerial photographs from August 1965 show the striking difference between Renata’s original shoreline and the new shoreline (in red) that would be created once Arrow Lakes Reservoir filled.
The dams hurt the forestry industry as reservoirs destroyed thousands of acres of productive forest lands. Flooded logging roads cut off access to forests, and forestry companies lost money as they were forced to construct replacement roads or take longer, more expensive routes.28 Damage to the timber supply led to job loss; for example, up to 60 forestry jobs were lost in Valemount and 72 in Golden.29 Potential jobs were lost too; reports estimated that if the flooded forest lands had been harvested before dam construction, thousands of workers could have found temporary employment in places like Golden and Arrow Lakes.30
People hoped dam construction would at least create jobs and boost local economies. The Treaty required that Duncan, Hugh Keenleyside and Mica dams be completed by 1967, 1968 and 1973, respectively, so jobs were created to complete the work on time. At Hugh Keenleyside Dam, the workforce peaked at 1,600 workers in spring 1967. BC Hydro estimated that the construction of Mica Dam would employ an average of 1,200 workers at any given time, with a peak of 2,700.31
But construction introduced new challenges to nearby communities. The influx of workers strained social, health, educational and recreational services in communities like Revelstoke, where food and housing prices rose and the number of people requiring social assistance increased by 43 per cent.32 Employment was only temporary and created unavoidable cycles of boom and bust. Once the dams were complete, the jobs disappeared and local economies suffered.
Damage to the forestry industry is visible in diagrams showing wide
swaths of forest land slated to be flooded by Kinbasket Reservoir. Over 28,000 hectares were cleared to make way for Mica Dam and the adjoining reservoir. Clearing operations often left smaller debris behind, creating an unsightly scene when the water rose.
By the early 1990s, Basin residents understood the damaging emotional, social, economic and environmental impacts that occurred in the name of progress. Residents were forced to adapt to changing communities, environments and ways of life. As promises were made and broken, residents lost any hopes they might have had for the Treaty or for fair compensation. As the 30-year anniversary of the Treaty approached, so too did the end of the original Canadian Entitlement agreement. British Columbia would have the opportunity to draft a new agreement around the downstream benefits they had exchanged for money in those first decades. Basin residents wanted change. This was their chance to make sure that, this time, their voices were heard.