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Fortis looking for site to build dam on Similkameeen

Map of proposed dam site on the Similkameen River. - Submitted
Map of proposed dam site on the Similkameen River.
— image credit: Submitted

Inaccurate newspaper advertisements have generated fresh concern about a possible hydroelectric dam on the Similkameen River.

According to notices placed in three Similkameen newspapers over a two-week period this summer, Fortis Inc. intends to apply for disposition of Crown land on the river for “industrial purposes.”

However, a B.C. government official said the company has only applied for an investigative-use permit that would allow it to do unobtrusive studies.

“Normally, we wouldn’t advertise this. It was a bit of a mistake because there’s nothing invasive about it. They’re not out there cutting trees or digging dirt or anything like that,” said Peter Lishman, regional authorizations director for the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations.

“We’ve responded to probably 25 different organizations already that are concerned, and that’s understandable,” he said.

The ads were designed by B.C. government staff.

Although the public comment period on the permit application closed Aug. 23, Lishman said if Fortis Inc. does eventually apply to lease Crown land on the Similkameen, a “lengthy public process” would be triggered, either through his ministry or the B.C Environmental Assessment Office. Lishman expects to decide on the investigate-use permit within a month.

“There’s probably no reason why we wouldn’t approve it,” he added, “because, as I say, they’re just gathering information.”

The only publicly available information on the project is a set of three maps on a government database. The maps show the proposed dam site and reservoir near the Copper Mountain Mine about 15 kilometres upstream of Princeton.

Fortis Inc. spokesperson Ruth Sulentich said in a statement the location “has been identified as a possible generation site for many years,” and the company is currently seeking only to complete further “environmental studies.”

Sulentich said the process could take two years, during which time the company would also conduct information sessions and seek community input, and more details are expected to be released next week.

Brad Hope, the area director for the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen, said Fortis Inc. has done a poor job explaining its plan for the site.

“People need to have a chance to look at it, and when they don’t put out the facts as they really are, it makes people wonder,” he said.

Hope needs more information before he takes a position on the dam.

“But I think if Fortis wants to be successful, they’re going to have to keep the public informed all the way along,” he added, “and there’s a lot of people looking at it.”

Among them is Peter Wood, terrestrial campaigns director for the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.

He saw the flawed newspaper advertisements and contacted the government for clarification.

“If this is the case, they’re proposing a ...  dam on one of the last remaining wild rivers in southwestern B.C.,” Wood said.

“You’d better believe there’s going to be some people interested in talking about it.”

CPAWS already has some “significant concerns” based on the few details it has about the dam, Wood said, and is also worried about the integrity of the regulatory process. Hope said the possibility of a dam at the site was floated in the 1990s by the Princeton Light and Power Company, and again by Fortis Inc. several years ago, so some residents are unsure what to make of the latest developments.

“I think people are wondering: Is this a serious look or not?” Hope said.

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