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'75 years too late': Yukon Energy criticized over Whitehorse dam relicensing proposal

Yukon Energy's hydro dam in Whitehorse. The company's proposal to relicense the dam for another 25 years is now before the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board.  (Archbould Photography - image credit)
Yukon Energy's hydro dam in Whitehorse. The company's proposal to relicense the dam for another 25 years is now before the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board. (Archbould Photography - image credit)

Yukon Energy is taking flak over its plan to relicense its Whitehorse hydroelectric dam, with some critics calling the proposal to do so "controversial."

Last week, during meetings of the Yukon River Panel in Whitehorse, one presentation focused on the facility and how it's long affected salmon, whose numbers have been dropping precipitously for years.

The Yukon River Panel is an international body that manages and researches salmon, and some attending last week's meetings took issue with Yukon Energy's bid to renew its water use licence — needed to continue to operate the dam and its ancillary structures  — until 2050. They also pointed to gaps in research.

Yukon Energy's proposal is in front of the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board (YESAB). This is the first time the dam has been reviewed by YESAB because the board didn't exist in 2000, when the company's last licence for the dam was issued.

Part and parcel of the current proposal seems to be about how to better help salmon swimming through the facility while balancing the fact that the dam is crucial to generating electricity that's renewable.

'75 years too late'

The Carcross/Tagish First Nation is against the company's bid to relicense the dam for 25 years, the maximum term allowed.

Jennifer Herkes, who works for the First Nation, says that's too long.

"The reason for that was, in our opinion, the lack of understanding of exactly what is happening to these salmon, and how we can help them," she said, noting that only now are problems being thoroughly studied.

"We feel this is 75 years too late," she said. "We feel that we need to fill those gaps and understanding so that we can develop a robust rebuilding strategy."

'We didn't agree to this dam when it first came through'

The dam — which was built in 1958, yoking the Yukon River since — affects local salmon in two primary ways, officials have said. First, it blocks migration routes and hinders salmon from spawning upstream and, second, the facility's heavy turbines are injuring and killing some fish migrating downstream through the dam.

According to one technical study obtained by an access to information request, some young salmon swimming downstream through the dam could be killed at a rate as high as one third.

Studies like those, while helpful, are just a start, said Brandy Mayes, the Kwanlin Dün First Nation's heritage, lands and resources operations manager, adding there's little-to-no information about other routes through the dam and whether those could be safer for fish — for instance, the spillway.

Other possible safeguards suggested in Yukon Energy's proposal include replacing the dam's four turbines — all installed between the 1950s and 1980s — with ones marketed as "fish-friendly."

Mayes suggested those could have little, if any, benefit.

"Really, if you're going to chop up something with a samurai sword or hit it with a baseball bat, it's still gonna hurt," she said.

"Having salmon go through turbines or through spillways when we're not sure what's going to happen to them — it makes the hatchery moot. It's like we're just putting fish in to kill them, maybe a few can come back through."

When the dam was built, the Kwanlin Dün First Nation, Carcross/Tagish First Nations and the Ta'an Kwäch'än Council had yet to negotiate their seminal treaties, which paved the way toward the creation of, among many other things, the assessment board itself.

"This is our first opportunity we've had to be able to do this," Mayes said. "We didn't agree to this dam when it first came through. We didn't have that opportunity. We didn't have a choice. But we do have a choice now."

Michael Muller, vice president of planning, environment, health and safety at Yukon Energy, pressed several times during the Yukon River Panel meeting, said the company acknowledges the dam has for decades affected First Nations, and that the company is taking strides to change that by, among other ways, helping salmon.

Questions about the fish ladder

Another point of contention is the fish ladder.

Robert Perry, a Canadian member of the Yukon River Panel, questioned why it's taken the company so long — since 1959, when the fishway was built — to get things right.

"Why hasn't it been effective to date?"

Muller replied that it's "not been ineffective."

"We're learning about things that we can do better."

Chinook salmon swim by the Whitehorse fish ladder. The Yukon River Panel's latest meeting focused on a peculiar finding, which points to fish failing to arrive at a sonar station as expected in 2020.
Chinook salmon swim by the Whitehorse fish ladder. The Yukon River Panel's latest meeting focused on a peculiar finding, which points to fish failing to arrive at a sonar station as expected in 2020.

Chinook salmon swim by the Whitehorse fish ladder in 2021. (Claudiane Samson/Radio-Canada)

Using a gate upstream of the fish ladder, Muller also said the company is looking into how it can better influence flows to draw more salmon into the structure.

"The goal is to have enough attractant flow, so that when the fish are moving upstream, they find their way into the fish ladder and up, as opposed to continually trying to go up the spillway, which they can't do."

'Controversial' proposal, says environmental group

Sebastian Jones, with the Yukon Conservation Society, calls the relicensing proposal "complex and controversial," and he expects it will be closely scrutinized by the assessment board.

"It's pretty clear this is going to get bumped to an [YESAB] executive committee review, which is going to really mess with your timelines," he said.

Executive committee reviews are intended for larger projects and have a legislated timeline of 16 months. Yukon Energy's proposal is currently being assessed by a designated office, tasked with handling most projects by region.

The dam's current water use licence expires in May of next year.

Muller said the company is just following the regulations, and he doesn't think that a more rigorous review is needed to relicense an existing facility.

"If we were building a new facility, yes, we would go to the executive committee," he said.