The provincial government will soon decide whether to disregard our wishes and grant Manitoba Hydro a final licence for the Churchill River Diversion, a project that diverts up to 95 per cent of the flow of the second largest river in the province — at great cost to us.
The final licensing decision should have been made 44 years ago when the water first went up, but that didn’t happen. The history is complicated, but one thing is clear: the diversion was built without our consent, and against our wishes.
Though Manitobans benefit from the Churchill River Diversion every day, few people have seen it or know about the severe, widespread and ongoing harm it causes. The Churchill River carries five times more water than the Red River; by means of control structures and a nine-kilometre channel, the CRD backs up the Churchill at Southern Indian Lake and sends it southward into the Nelson River, where Manitoba Hydro’s main dams are located.
The immense undertaking affects the territories of our First Nations: O-Pipon-Na-Piwin Cree Nation centred at South Indian Lake, and Tataskweyak Cree Nation at Split Lake.
The diversion floods Southern Indian Lake — the fourth largest lake in Manitoba — by three metres on average. We estimate that hundreds of islands have been lost to flooding and erosion. Most of the lengthy, pristine beaches on the lake are gone. The entire village of South Indian Lake was forcibly relocated.
Imagine forcing the residents of a cottage community on Lake Winnipeg to move and burn their homes.
South Indian Lake used to be home to the third-largest lake whitefish fishery in North America. It was the economic heart of a prosperous and self-reliant community. In the 10 years prior to diversion, our annual catch averaged 400,000 kilograms. In the past decade it has been less than one-tenth of that.
Downstream of the diversion, a 415-km stretch of the Churchill River — the Lower Churchill — is a de-watered shadow of what it was. The culturally important sturgeon on the river have been driven to the brink of extinction. Despite scientific and traditional evidence, the federal government has not yet recognized these sturgeon as endangered.
The Lower Churchill suffers from both extremely low flows and exceptionally high flows. Hydro occasionally releases sudden flushes of water down the Lower Churchill far exceeding the highest pre-diversion flows. These releases wreak havoc with wildlife and destroy our cabins, docks and equipment.
With basic planning and foresight these flushes could be avoided. Instead, our lands are sacrificed. Where the diversion route empties into the Nelson River system at Split Lake, the massive unnatural flows dump silt and sediment into the lake, choking out vital fish habitat, degrading water quality and killing the fishery in that area.
In all, the diversion affects more than 10,000 km of shoreline through flooding, de-watering and unnatural fluctuations.
Various agreements have been signed and compensation payments made — in most cases only after great struggle to overcome efforts by Hydro and government to downplay damages and delay action. Despite the agreements, fairness and respect remain elusive. Government oversight of the CRD has been feeble — Hydro gets its way; we get trampled.
In 1973, the province issued an interim licence that allowed for construction of the project. Among other things, it set limits on flooding and the amount of water that could be diverted. Instead of issuing a 50-year licence when the project was completed in 1976, as the law contemplated, the province granted Hydro’s wish to experiment with higher levels of flooding and diversion. This experimentation continued for years.
In 1986, the province rubber-stamped the new water regime and called it the “Augmented Flow Program.”
The AFP augments harm, permitting higher flooding levels and increasing the allowable annual drawdown of Southern Indian Lake, from 0.6 metres in any 12-month period to 1.37 metres over an unspecified period. This has greatly increased ecological harm.
Every year, an assistant deputy minister sends Manitoba Hydro a letter approving the AFP deviations. That means a civil servant in Winnipeg has more control over the water in our territories than we do. As far as we know, neither this person nor Minister of Conservation and Climate Sarah Guillemard has even visited the waterways they manipulate.
The province will make a decision regarding a final licence in coming weeks. And while Manitoba would say it has been engaging with us about this for years, its consultation efforts have fallen far short of its constitutional obligations. Based on actions to date, we worry Manitoba will ignore our concerns and allow Hydro to continue with business as usual, as if nothing has changed and nothing has been learned in the past 44 years.
The interim licence issued in the ’70s is a licence to destroy our lands. Hydro wants no changes to that licence, other than inclusion of the AFP deviations. Our First Nations recognize that each Nation is impacted in different ways, and therefore specific accommodations will differ. While further consultation and study are essential, the demands of our two communities include:
suspension of the AFP
higher flows down the de-watered Lower Churchill
no massive flushes down the Lower Churchill
measures to support recovery of lake whitefish and sturgeon; and
a meaningful say for us in CRD operation.
We would like to think times have changed since the 1970s. We’ll see.
Shirley Ducharme is chief of O-Pipon-Na-Piwin Cree Nation and Doreen Spence is chief of Tataskweyak Cree Nation