Residents of Nakusp and surrounding areas met last week to share their concerns over low water levels on the Arrow Lakes, gathering at the Village of Nakusp gazebo on August 28.
Local media and Alaska Highway News were invited to hear criticisms of BC Hydro and concerns over the low water level impacts.
The meeting was organized by members of an online group called ‘Slow the Flow of the Arrow Lakes’. Over 1,500 residents have joined the social media page, exchanging information, pictures of the low water level impacts, and responses from BC Hydro.
An August 3 meeting was held online by BC Hydro to explain the lower-than-normal water levels this year, which they say is a result of severe drought conditions and snow pack being depleted early.
While residents understand the drought explanation, they feel BC Hydro has mismanaged the water levels in the Arrow Lakes, and that Canada took a bad deal in the original negotiation of the Columbia River Treaty, signed in 1964.
A modernized treaty is being negotiated between the United States and Canada, but residents in the Arrow Lakes say they would like it halted until their concerns have been addressed. A round of negotiations wrapped up in Seattle on August 10 and 11.
Shelter Bay resident Stan Chorney was in attendance at the gazebo, and said he’s very concerned about the environmental impacts, noting the drastic drops are particularly destructive to fish, which creates a domino effect on local wildlife.
“It’s a trickle-down thing, and the whole Columbia valley all the way from Columbia Lake, and Kinbasket, Revelstoke Lake, and this lake is impacted environmentally,” he said. “Fish stocks, and that goes on to the shore birds, and all the mammals, and so forth - the vegetation, the reptiles, you name it, everything is impacted, and it’s a huge domino effect that happens.”
A marsh near the airport has gone completely dry, says Chorney, with turtles, frogs, and birds devastated by the lack of water. Fish are also trapped in pools of water near his residence, slowly waiting to die.
“Everything that lives there is completely dead, because instead of being a marsh, it’s a big sand pile, and that’s one tiny area within the whole basin,” he said.
Chorney says it’s challenging for citizens to take action and keep BC Hydro accountable, noting he feels the crown corporation is more concerned about maintaining their bottom-line.
“A big part of that revenue comes from both the water that flows through the U.S., and the water sales that they make to the U.S.,” said Chorney.
Tourism and recreation are his other main concerns, said Chorney, with many business owners and residents missing out on their peak season due to the unexpected drop in water.
“The communities like this all the way down this valley rely on tourism in the summertime, it’s their peak season,” Chorney said. “The folks at Galena Bay that have places there, they go there because they wanted to enjoy the lake frontage of the water that’s there and put their docks into it.”
While the reservoir does normally drop some, docks and shores have been left high and dry a lot sooner compared to 2022. Chorney said his house is typically 15 metres away from the lake, and now it’s roughly two and a half kilometres.
The reservoir currently sits at 1,400 feet, with a draft operating range of 1,385 by the end of September. The required licence minimum level is 1,378 feet. While the levels are seasonally lower than average, BC Hydro says the low inflow conditions are not unexpected, with lower fall levels seen in 2015 and 2001.
BC Hydro Stakeholder Engagement Advisor Mary-Anne Coules said they did negotiate with the U.S. to hold back additional water in the spring, which resulted in the Arrow Lakes Reservoir being 8 feet higher from May to August.
Coules also explained that the changes in reservoir levels are not related to a navigational lock which was broken, and has since been repaired as of September 2, 2023.
"The navigational lock design allows BC Hydro to safely de-water the lock to complete repairs regardless of the reservoir elevation," wrote Coules. "The navigation lock is not used for water management or dam safety purposes. Water discharges and reservoir levels remain safely managed with the spillway gates and low-level outlet gates."
Arrow Lakes resident Jane Robertson reached out to the constituency office of MLA Katrine Conroy, MLA Kootenay West and did receive a response, which reiterated the drought explanation, and why water is held back in the upper reservoirs.
"It is necessary for BC Hydro to hold back water in Kinbasket Lake so that power production can continue in the winter. At the same time, the Americans need to store water in Lake Roosevelt for power production in the winter for their side," wrote the constituency office.
"With no more snow-pack or significant rain, that leaves Arrow Lake in the middle with no way to replenish. Meanwhile, we recognize that seeing the American side enjoy the benefits of a full reservoir while we experience devastating impacts of a drought sure is very hard to witness, and we agree it isn’t fair."
The office further explained that they are still bound by the treaty, which wasn't written to encompass climate change.
"There was less concern for environmental and social impacts and when climate change and the droughts we are seeing now were not even imagined. It was a time when water and resources seemed endless, and they did not expect water to recede low enough to reveal debris dumps and to leave fish to die," they noted.
Resident Colleen Lakevold says the valley is haunted by BC Hydro pushing the reservoir on an unwilling populace during the 1960s, hearing many first-hand accounts from her own family.
Homes were burnt, farm equipment left behind, and residents never truly compensated for the homesteads they had no choice in abandoning. The debris is still there today, lining the shores, and becoming exposed whenever the water gets low.
“The wounds have not healed 60 years later. The citizens were kept in the dark; as darkness fell on the valley, when Hydro entered it,” writes Lakevold. “They were forced off their land, they lost their homes, their farms and their livelihoods, many to die shortly after their forced relocation. The stress was simply just too much.”
Broken promises continue in the valley today, added Lakevold, with frustration and resentment towards BC Hydro rising.
“Voices go unheard, concerned citizens watch as hundreds of thousands of fish perish, being trapped and landlocked. Reaching out for help or even acknowledgement from any level of government is at this time, falling on deaf ears,” she writes.
Nakusp business owner Heather Maxfield says the whole situation has been a disaster, as many people are still financially recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We have just got over the effects of COVID and now we get hit with this,” writes Maxfield. “We have to put our orders in for summer stock before Christmas, so had no warning whatsoever that the water level was going to be so low to destroy our beach for tourists and locals.”
The Arrow Lakes Environmental Stewardship Society (ALESS) has offered to help the Slow the Flow group with research and advocacy on the water level impacts, and is actively looking for new members.
Village of Nakusp councillors were also in attendance at the gazebo meeting, coming to listen in and hear concerns from residents first-hand. Nakusp Mayor Tom Zeleznik has been collecting comments and photos to forward to BC Hydro.
“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," wrote Zeleznik.
The reservoir was never wanted by Nakusp, nor most of the Arrow Lakes - a region which had largely been left alone until hydroelectric development came to the valley.
The community was blindsided by the provincial and federal governments of the day, as the treaty was signed with the intention of developing reservoirs before anyone living in the valley was properly informed - essentially rubber-stamping the project.
James Wood Wilson, a former BC Hydro employee, was in charge of the resettlement process during the creation of the three dams (Mica, Revelstoke, and Keenleyside) and wrote about the impacts and displacement of the populace at length in his 1973 book, People in the Way - The Human Aspects of the Columbia River Project.
“Many people, though not all, believed that when the Arrow Reservoir was full the region was generally an improvement over the old days,” writes Wilson. “But when the reservoir was low and stumps and mud flats were exposed, and as long as dust storms continued, all agreed the Arrow Lakes were far less pleasant than they used to be.”
According to the book, roughly 600 people were displaced near Revelstoke, another 1,100 by the Central Arrow Lakes, and 250 near Castlegar. While many did stay either near Revelstoke or Castlegar, about half in the Central Arrow Lakes left the region entirely.
Tom Summer, Alaska Highway News, Local Journalism Initiative. Have a story idea or opinion? Email [email protected]