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Posted: March 16, 2013

Playing with our rivers is not a good idea

Perceptions by Gerry Warner

What goes around comes around, so they say, and the same is true about history repeating itself, especially here in the Kootenays.

The latest example of this hearkens back to the ill-fated Baillie-Grohman Canal diversion project which went bust in short order more than 100 years ago and would be a fitting fate for the project being contemplated now because of minor flooding on Kootenay Lake last spring.

In a news release earlier this week, BC Hydro announced it’s considering dredging Grohman Narrows, a narrowing of Kootenay Lake just downstream from Nelson, which acts as a natural berm holding back water during spring runoff. Not very much water mind you, but if there’s anything engineers like to do it’s play with water and make it do what man wants rather than Mother Nature. And haven’t we seen a lot of that in the Kootenays over the years?

The Kootenay River below Nelson already has close to half a dozen dams on it before you get to Castlegar less than 20 miles downstream. Then there are the four dams on the Canadian section of the Columbia system upstream from Castlegar, not to mention the huge Libby Dam on the Kootenay River just downstream from the Canadian border. That’s an awful lot of dams, don’t you think? And now they want to build an “undam” so to speak about two miles below Nelson where the river has flowed freely for millennia until now.

I say no bloody way!

Kootenay Lake north of Creston.

No, I’m not having a senior moment or being cantankerous for the sake of being cantankerous or contrary just because I enjoy being contrary, which I don’t. I’m speaking as a life-long Kootenay boy, who can still recall when the greatest salmon river on Earth (the Columbia) flowed freely from its source in Columbia Lake, right next door to the senseless Baillie-Grohman project in what is now known as Canal Flats and when the Kootenay River – the Columbia’s brother – flowed freely from high in the Rockies near Mount Assiniboine across the Canada/US border to Kootenay Lake.

The Kootenay River east of Canal Flats

Those were the days! Both rivers during spring were wonders to behold. They would rise as much as two feet a day during the spring runoff in May and June and they provided some of the best trout, kokanee and dolly varden fishing in the world. The Creston Flats would  be resupplied with fresh silt every spring producing one of the most fertile farming areas anywhere in Canada and the rivers and lakes they spawned were recreational paradises for fishermen, campers and swimmers, if a mite cold. Mind you, that didn’t bother us as kids when we swam in the icy, turquoise, waters of the Columbia as early as April without our parents knowing of course and swung out over the glacial waters and the sandy, white quartz beach on a huge hemp rope tied to a giant cottonwood tree at Guido’s swimming hole in Kinnaird.

Lord, I still thank you for those days when no one had ever dreamt of computers, smart phones or a digital universe.

And to be honest, the Kootenays are still a recreational paradise today even if the current generation doesn’t know what they missed. Mind you, the fishing’s not nearly as good. That quartz, white sand disappeared after the Celgar pulp mill was built just upstream and the frothing white rapids in the Big Bend of the Columbia that David Thompson had to carefully navigate his way through is all flat water now. Progress eh.

So now they’re going to dredge Grohman Narrows, named after that eccentric, British promoter William Baillie-Grohman who abandoned the diversion project shortly after it was completed after only three boats passed through it. Even back in those days, long before the environmental movement, what few settlers there were objected to one river being diverted into another and the impacts it would have downstream.

Sounds sensible to me and I think it also makes sense to stop playing with our rivers because they’ve been played with enough. If Kootenay Lake gets too high in the spring tell the Americans to release more water downstream. The Columbia River Treaty dams built in B.C. because of their bequest caused a lot of damage to the environment here and destroyed several communities.

It’s time our American friends shared some of the pain.

Gerry Warner is a retired journalist and Cranbrook City Councillor. His opinions are his own. Warner is going to be in Ethiopia on a Rotary volunteer project until the end of March. His column will resume in April.

Lead photo: Creston flats/Kootenay River. Ian Cobb/e-KNOW


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