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BC Hydro failing to fix environmental damage from dams, claims audit request

Conservation groups allege BC Hydro is not allocating enough money to correct dam-triggered damage to fish and wildlife.
An aerial view of the dam site area in May 2021. Construction on the Site C project began in July 2015 and is now expected to cost $16 billion to complete.

BC Hydro is failing to properly compensate for the destruction its 82 dams have on fish and wildlife across British Columbia, according to a request to audit the corporation submitted to the province last week. 

In a letter and report sent to B.C. auditor general Michael Pickup, the BC Wildlife Federation and the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre point to the Peace and Columbia rivers, where large dams have caused “some of the most serious environmental harms in British Columbia’s history.”

“A number of our most fertile and ecologically productive river valleys have been permanently flooded, destroying vast areas of habitat and heavily impacting species,” reads the request to audit.

As a result, BC Hydro’s water licences on the two rivers require it to compensate for the negative effects of dam construction through its Fish and Wildlife Compensation Program (FWCP).

But over the past eight years on the Peace River, about 70 per cent of that program’s annual funding has been put towards monitoring wildlife and other projects that don’t compensate for losses. On the Columbia River, such programs accounted for 13 per cent of FWCP’s annual funding between 2014 and 2022, according to the report.

“These compensation dollars are paying for baseline obligations that are core responsibilities of the province,” said BC Wildlife Federation executive director Jesse Zeman.

“We're in such a poor state here on this file that things are essentially circling the drain and we're counting them as they disappear.” 

BC Hydro says local groups decide what to fund

In an email, a spokesperson for BC Hydro noted FWCP operates independently from the corporation and pointed to a third-party evaluation and financial audit of the program in 2019. (Zeman said the request for audit stems from that evaluation). 

FWCP “funding decisions are made at the local level in an open and transparent way: each region has a local independent board and local Action Plan, which includes priorities for the region,” wrote spokesperson Simi Heer.

Heer pointed to restoration projects in the Squamish River estuary, habitat restoration in the Courtney River watershed, and work to help the Columbia Basin’s shore-spawning kokanee reclaim habitat on the West Arm of Kootenay Lake.

“Those local boards guide the work in each region. They’re also responsible for collaboratively reviewing and approving all FWCP project funding decisions and grant applications,” added the spokesperson.

Heer said FWCP doesn’t fund “core government activities” and instead focuses on actions that support habitats, species, research, securing land and monitoring and evaluating the situation.

If the auditor general pursues an audit, “BC Hydro would welcome the opportunity to provide further information,” Heer wrote.

Glacier Media reached out to the office of the auditor general, but it wasn't immediately available for comment.

B.C. not living up to neighbouring jurisdiction

On the Canadian side of the Columbia River watershed, the river has permanently lost an estimated 600 square kilometres of habitat.

Along a river where a treaty with the United States has provided the country with vast sums of electricity for decades, B.C. provides a fraction of what’s spent to restore nature south of the border. 

In 2019, the US Bonneville Power Administration spent $240 million in 2019 compared to BC Hydro’s $5.5 million through FWCP. After adjusting for its 70 per cent share of the Columbia River, the Washington state-based hydro utility still spends over 14 times as much money every year to correct the damage dams do to the natural environment. 

“We are living in a completely different reality in terms of how much money we spend on compensation,” said Zeman.

In addition to devastating a number of salmon populations, BC Hydro dams are also pressuring declining populations of white sturgeon and have led to an increase in environmental methylmercury concentrations, as well as significant changes in water quality, according to the report.

All that has meant “drastic losses in ecosystem productivity,” the report says, leading to an estimated 800,000 tonnes of carbon lost per year in the Columbia Region alone.

In the Peace Region, dam construction has led to the loss of at least 1,500 square kilometres of habitat and thousands of moose when it was flooded, according to Zeman. 

“Why is [the FWCP money] going to educate people on how to treat bears?” questioned legal director of the UVic Environmental Law Centre Calvin Sandborn. “These are good things to do. But those things aren’t having the on-the-ground impacts. We should be focusing on remediating habitat, buying habitat, restoring fish streams, restoring wildlife.” 

“They’ve kind of strayed away from that.” 

Balancing dam damage with decarbonization

Last fall, BC Hydro released its electrification plan, a framework to move the province away from fossil fuels. 

Critics have said the plan does not properly account for rising electricity demand, even with the construction of the $16-billion Site C dam on the Peace River. 

To meet that demand by 2030, a team of University of British Columbia energy experts estimated earlier this year it would take hundreds of new wind turbines, solar panels and a ramped-up biofuel industry to make up for what they calculated was a 20 per cent energy shortfall (BC Hydro has denied the projected shortfall).

But it’s not a simple two-way balance between economic prosperity and decarbonization. Between 2014 and 2022, only 26 per cent of the funding allocated to the Peace River basin has gone toward fish and wildlife compensation, says the UVic Environmental Law Centre report.

Even if funding was properly spent on compensating for fish and wildlife losses, both Zeman and Sandborn say B.C. requires hundreds of millions of dollars more to even approach the spending seen in jurisdictions like Washington State. 

“We’ve lost the balance,” said Sandborn. “It’s important to move away from fossil fuels, but we also need to make sure that the polluter pays when that damage is done.”

“We have to pay Mother Nature back.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misquoted Calvin Sandborn when he said the FWCP program has "stayed away" from restoring habitat and wildlife restoration. In fact, he said. "...strayed away from that."