Cheslatta begin Nechako Reservoir clean-up

Written By Michael Cranny

A stranger, standing on an agate-strewn hillside on the shore of Knewstubb Lake, might be tempted to think the Kenny Dam had created a recreational playground, or in modern speak, “value.” The lake, often serene, seems an idyllic northern fishing and boating paradise. Remote and attractive, it covers many square kilometres.

Unfortunately, a drowned forest lies beneath the waves, and water levels can fluctuate dramatically, so recreation is extremely limited.

Part of the vast hydro-electric impoundment created by Alcan, the Aluminum Company of Canada, in the early 1950s, Knewstubb Lake occupies the historic territory of the Cheslatta Carrier Nation, and its creation did them a great deal of harm.

On Feb. 27, 2020, the Cheslatta and mining conglomerate Rio Tinto, which bought Alcan in 2007, took steps toward redressing this harm when they inked the “New Day Agreement.”  

According to a company media release, the agreement includes support for skills and business training, the creation of the Nechako Reservoir Stewardship Program, and a commitment to promote recreation and tourism opportunities “consistent with ongoing Cheslatta stewardship activities.”

Daunting rehabilitation

Although the reservoir is vast, and the challenges of rehabilitating it daunting, Cheslatta senior policy advisor, Mike Robertson, sees recent developments as positive.

In particular, plans for a water release spillway at Kenny Dam will allow for the re-watering of the bone-dry Upper Nechako, plus greater control of water temperatures critical to spawning salmon.

On the herculean task ahead, Cheslatta “has to play the hand we’ve been dealt,” said Robertson. “Which means that cleaning up the reservoir will be a long-term project. Going forward necessarily means picking away at selected portions of the lakes.”

The Nechako Reservoir is larger than the entire Lower Mainland. Rehabilitation will be a long-term challenge.

[Map by Michael Cranny]

The New Day deal was the Cheslatta’s second important recent agreement related to the reservoir. In 2019, they signed a settlement agreement with the provincial government that seeks to redress historic wrongs.

According to a July 2020 govTogetherBC bulletin, the settlement agreement provides financial payments and land transfers and tenures to Cheslatta over a 10-year period in return for full and final settlement of Cheslatta claims against B.C. related to impacts of the Nechako Reservoir on their rights and title interests.

It also includes collaborative management of protected areas, fish and wildlife, and community-led cultural, heritage and training initiatives, including language revitalization.

Redressing past wrongs is challenging. After dams stoppered the Nechako, the reservoir’s waters rose rapidly, partially or fully submerging millions of standing trees and many hectares of forest debris. Today, drowned and floating wood interfere with animal migration and make boating and collecting fish samples difficult at best.

In a 2005 study by the Nechako Enhancement Society, surveyors couldn’t use sinking nets “because of the abundant submerged wood.”

Drowned timber impedes boating, and blocks wildlife swimming across the water in the Tahtsa and Ootsa Lakes sections of the Nechako Reservoir.

[Photos Mike Robertson, Cheslatta Carrier Nation] 

When the reservoir was created, the promise of a new aluminum smelter at Kitimat captivated both Canada and the province – aluminum was the 20th century’s miracle material. The smelters that produce it, however, are energy hogs. They need big stuff – big reservoirs, big “drops,” big turbine generators – to produce the necessary hydro power.

An initial survey by Alcan chose the Nechako watershed for its massive reservoir, but outside of an emergency archaeological survey by Charles Borden, there are no known records of impact studies, as we understand the term today.

After the Alcan survey, the company began work on the Kenny and ancillary dams. It dug giant tunnels, called penstocks, through the mountains; built a power station with massive turbines and a smelter; and laid out the town of Kitimat, which currently has a population of around 8,000 people.

‘Uninhabited hinterland’

Fred Dodsworth’s Dec. 15, 1951 article in Maclean’s magazine captured the excitement then surrounding the project:

“Like a restless sourdough, Canada’s vast aluminum industry is always on the hunt for new frontiers. When the frontier is tamed, civilization troops in and Alcan heads for the bush again, panning remote rivers for nuggets of cheap power. Its latest strike will bring the world’s biggest powerhouse to the B.C. wilds.”


…twentieth century engineering…will have transformed a rugged uninhabited hinterland the size of Ireland, now occupied only by forest mountain and grizzly bears, into an industrial colossus…”

The Cheslatta, whose lands were about to be flooded, would have been no doubt shocked to learn their ancestral homelands were part of this “uninhabited hinterland.”

According to Robertson from the Cheslatta, Alcan gave people two weeks to leave, telling them to return to their homes in the summer. By that time, however, village sites were under water, and contractors had looted and torched villages.

With their homes, social structure, and livelihoods gone – and promises made to them forgotten – many Cheslatta were ruined. Today, the 325 members mostly live around Southbank on Francois Lake, at Grassy Plains, and on several small nearby reserves.     

Fighting for compensation

Over the past 70 years, the Cheslatta have fought for both compensation and a significant role in managing the Nechako and the reservoir. In this, they are joined by the Saik’uz First Nation near Vanderhoof, and the Stellat’en First Nation near Fraser Lake.

As Saik’uz Chief Priscilla Mueller pointed out in an 2019 article in the Vanderhoof Omineca Express, “The river is no longer acting like a river.”

The Nechako is still is one of the province’s great salmon streams despite the Kenny Dam cutting off much of its flow – leaving 10 per cent in low years and 30 per cent in high – barely enough for spawning salmon.

Other times, when the reservoir is over-full, too much water is released, occasionally flooding the village of Vanderhoof, and destroying salmon “redds” – scoops in the gravel where females lay eggs. As well, the reservoir releases warmer surface water, not the needed cold water from the depths. A degree or two difference can seriously impact the fish.

Indigenous Fishing Equipment: a sturgeon rig, baited with chicken or other meat, and equipped with a chain could hold fish weighing many kilograms. In 2021, the Nechako White Sturgeon Conservation Centre reported trapping a fish weighing 152 kg, the biggest Nechako sturgeon ever recorded.

[Photo Michael Cranny]

Brian Toth, an independent fishery biologist, recently assessed the present health of the river as “poor,” noting the endangered Nechako White Sturgeon is in crisis, and the full impact of the Big Bar slide of 2019 on migrating salmon remains unknown.

Like the Cheslatta’s Robertson, Acting Saik’uz Chief Jackie Thomas, and others, Toth said sound management of the river environment, from the Nechako Reservoir to the Fraser, is critical to its survival as a functioning ecosystem.

A storied river

The Nechako is a storied river, winding through the lives of everyone who has lived in its valley – fur traders, Mennonite settlers, ranchers, loggers, and others. The Dakelh, the Indigenous peoples of the region, have been especially connected to it. The four First Nations along its length – Saik’uz, Stellat’en, Lheidli T’enneh, and Cheslatta – have depended on it for their livelihoods for millennia.

Salmon has always been a mainstay for the Dakelh.

Many years ago, Veronica George, a Saik’uz elder told of how she and her aunt, the only members of her family to survive the flu epidemic of 1918, subsisted on salmon preserved more than 20 years earlier in cache pits.

The generally reliable salmon runs – plus the safety during lean years provided by trade and social links with people on the fish-rich pacific side of the Coast Range – allowed for a relatively comfortable existence in times past.

Fish were cured in an accompanying smokehouse and stored in a raised salmon cache, thereby protected from bears and other predators.

[Photo Michael Cranny]

Mary John family smokehouse in the 1980’s.

[Photo Michael Cranny]

River management, or rather flow management” of the Nechako is now crucial.

In this regard, Saik’uz and Stellat’en First Nations await a court decision, which is expected to determine future developments. Although bound by a non-disclosure agreement, Acting Chief Thomas said she is “cautiously optimistic.” Recent cooperation between Saik’uz and the Bulkley-Nechako Regional District on this issue was also “encouraging” and “much better than it was in the past,” Thomas said.

Kemano began at a time when economic development took priority over potential human and environmental impacts. While the Kitimat smelter, its reservoir, and the Kenny Dam are now here to stay, stakeholders seem to agree that protecting the health of the Nechako and its natural resources is vitally important, especially for those who live within its watershed.

In mid-July with the 10 o’clock sun setting over the water, it’s sometimes easy to forget the Nechako may never again be a natural river.