“I have a love hate relationship with the dam.”
That’s the way long time resident, Olive Silver, describes her feelings about the Kenney Dam; a structure that has, without a doubt, fundamentally altered Vanderhoof and which, today, is again the subject of discussion around the town as Vanderhoof braces itself for what could be another flood.
The dam is owned and operated by Rio Tinto (known as Alcan prior to 2007) but, in fairness, it came about as a result of a concerted effort by the provincial government to attract the aluminum industry to the province. A poll at the time (1949) showed an overwhelming support for the plans for the necessary hydro electric development on the Nechako River.
In fact, the company did not want to own and operate the dam, preferring to simply buy the poser from a publicly owned dam and hydroelectric development. The province declined and instead entered into the Kemano Agreement, which gave Alcan the rights to divert water from above the dam through a tunnel to a hydro-electric facility at Kemano.
Behind the dam, the Nechako Reservoir filled from 1952 to 1957, flooding a series of lakes in the drainage basin of the upper Nechako River and filling an area of 92,000 hectares.
The dam complex, which sits at the east end of the reservoir, also includes the Murray Dam and the Skins Lake spillway, which regulates water levels both in the reservoir and downstream.
That spillway was, constructed across the Cheslatte River to help cool water temperatures in the upper Nechako River in order to, amongst other issues, to minimize the dam’s impact on salmon and other fish in the Nechako.
The construction of the dam and spillway forced the Cheslatta First Nation people from their land. When the spillway was first opened a massive surge of water washed away the settlement and destroyed an ancestral graveyard at the west end of Skins Lake.
For years thereafter, bones, crosses and other debris could be found floating on the surface of the lake.
“I remember before the dam,” said Silver.
“The river was natural back then but the town (Vanderhoof) would flood pretty much every year. With the dam, we’ve had fewer floods but that’s meant that people have built in flood prone areas that they never would have considered (before the dam).”
Silver recalled that her father, the former editor of the Vanderhoof Chronicle, found out the date for the dam to become operational and travelled to the dam site to watch.
“The river just disappeared that day. There were dead fish all over in the mud, and my father was so upset he went back to the paper and he wrote ‘An Obituary for the Nechako River’ and ran it on the front page of the paper,” said Silver.
“I still hate the way the dam is used to make the river go up and down. I wish it were controlled a little better. What they do now just isn’t right.”
Silver’s house, in which she’s lived since 1961 and where she raised her family, sits above the Nechako River and she has an abiding love for the waterway and the town of Vanderhoof.
“The town would never have become what it is today without the dam, but it needs to be managed more responsibly with some concern for the people affected by floods,” she said.
“Like I say…it’s a love hate relationship.”