Manitoba Hydro fundamentally alters the five largest rivers in the province and six of the 12 largest lakes. It does so according to values and oversight mechanisms from the past. That is bound to change. The question is, how soon?
Hydro has had its way with Manitoba’s water for 50 years. The extensive, ongoing damage it causes to traditional industries, community well-being and ecosystems has been discussed elsewhere. Now it’s time to focus on bringing our utility into the current era.
A more spirited form of change is also required.
In January, Selinger travelled north to publicly apologize to First Nations affected by Hydro development. He spoke about reconciliation, a term with growing currency. Many Canadians sense the need for change. Indeed, reconciliation is a better starting point than regulation when it comes to Hydro. But what could reconciliation look like?
1. Joint licensing
Does the province have a legitimate right to unilaterally grant water-use licences that dramatically re-engineer major bodies of water on treaty land? Licences should be granted, or denied, jointly by the province and affected indigenous governments. This would fall in line with the notion of “free, prior and informed consent,” something even the World Bank speaks of.
2. Water rentals
Hydro paid the province $117 million last year in rental fees for water. That money should be shared with affected people and tied to long-term community-improvement plans. Hydro pulls about $4.5 million worth of electricity out of the north on an average day. Local people deserve access to the abundance around them. Treaties are about sharing, and there is plenty to share.
3. Operational review
The province should commission an independent, credible body to conduct an operational review of the hydro system. It would identify specific opportunities to adjust hydro operations for ecological gain. For instance, stabilization of water levels in certain areas for certain periods could improve fish spawning and waterfowl nesting. Similar reviews have worked well in Ontario.
4. Shared decisions
For each waterway, the province should establish a multi-party governance body with significant control over water flow. These bodies would include indigenous leaders as well as fishing and trapping representatives. This would be an immensely difficult exercise, with competing interests and tough choices. But it is the hard work of democracy. Lessons could be learned from B.C.’s experience.
5. Churchill River diversion
Lack of oversight is most glaring in the case of the Churchill River diversion, by which Hydro diverts 75 per cent of the second-largest river in Manitoba a few hundred kilometres southward toward its main dams. The project permanently floods about 800 square kilometres and raises the level of Southern Indian Lake by three metres, creating what might be the biggest mess in the history of Manitoba. It operates under an interim Water Power licence issued in 1973 — sort of. For most of 40 years, Hydro has deviated significantly from the licence. By an annual exchange of letters with the province — no community input — it can raise the lake six inches higher, drop it a foot lower and fluctuate levels more dramatically than allowed in the licence. Hydro has requested “finalization” of the antiquated interim licence but wants the deviations included. In fact, it is asking for a new, different and worse licence. The answer should be no.
Manitoba Hydro has rearranged the major waterways of the province and the fortunes of many indigenous people. Collectively, we need to work at making things right. We need to do so with creativity, common sense, urgency and a good heart.
We’re all in this together. Non-indigenous people are not getting back on the boat and indigenous people are not going to abandon their homelands en masse and simply meld into the cities. Surely we can learn to respect each other and share. The era of reconciliation is now.
Original article by Will Braun, Interchurch Council on Hydropower.
Featured in the Winnipeg Free Press on October 31st/2015