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WHEN THEY BUILD WITHOUT A BLUEPRINT
Robert Cantwell
February 23, 1976
The architects of progress who constructed the massive Mica Creek Dam on the Columbia never considered the consequences to the fish and wildlife until water began drowning the land. Then it was too late
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February 23, 1976

When They Build Without A Blueprint

The architects of progress who constructed the massive Mica Creek Dam on the Columbia never considered the consequences to the fish and wildlife until water began drowning the land. Then it was too late

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In the silence and snow, through three winters, the Mica Creek reservoir on the Columbia River has been filling, inch by inch, mile by mile, up into the mountain canyons of British Columbia. The Rockies are on one side, the 7,000-to-11,000-foot peaks of the Selkirks and the Monashees on the other. Between stands that man-made mountain, the 800-foot Mica Creek Dam, which was built to control floods and develop hydroelectric power. Next fall the water will reach its maximum level. But already it appears this magnificent wilderness area will never reach its maximum recreational potential; those who expect it to be a vast tourist draw are discouraged. Plans have been scaled down and slowed down. "Mica Creek is a mess. It will never be usable," says one resident of Valemount, British Columbia, five miles north of the reservoir. Another man rose wearily at a public meeting and said, "Let the valleys go back to sleep." It is too late for that, but we can learn a lesson from what happened at Mica Creek.

Work on the dam began in July 1965. Two tunnels were bored through the east bank of the river and the flow of the Columbia diverted through them. The riverbed was dug down 150 feet to bedrock for the foundation of the dam. Seventy dump trucks moved ceaselessly between the dam site and a flood plain five miles upstream. This was the famous Big Bend of the Columbia. The Wood River and the Canoe joined the Columbia there, and the combined streams, creating a huge river, flowed south and west to the Pacific, 1,000 miles away. Centuries of glacial deposits had created an immense gravel bed at the Big Bend, 42 million cubic yards of which were hauled to the dam site. The loads were dumped, flattened and pounded down, and the dam rose with excruciating slowness, about 200 feet a year, until it reached its present height and was half a mile wide.

The gates were closed on March 29, 1973 and the water began backing up. Less than two months later the government of British Columbia established a study group to report on the resources and potential problems of the reservoir and surrounding areas. It consisted of 32 distinguished officials from nine government departments. The chairman was drawn from outside the government. He was Kenneth Farquharson, a 39-year-old engineer in private practice in Vancouver who earlier had worked on the dam's design. At that time he had joined other engineers in trying to persuade the government of Premier William Cecil Bennett to study the impact of the planned reservoir on the surrounding region, but Farquharson got nowhere. "The government was unresponsive," he says tersely, discouraging further questioning.

It was only when the reservoir began to fill that the government agreed to make the study. The premier at this time was David Barrett, whose attitude was more sympathetic to conservation. But the difficulties were formidable. The water was backing up over the countryside while the experts were preparing to study what its effects would be. "There is still time," Farquharson said stoically as the group began its work. Some exasperation was evident in his eventual report, which noted, "The Mica Dam was completed early in 1973 after 20 years of investigation and design, but with minimal study of the effects of the reservoir on local communities, the forest industry, wildlife and other natural resources."

It would be easy to dismiss the work of the group as a scrupulous collection of second thoughts made necessary by the absence of first thoughts, but in fact it is an astonishing document, a blueprint worth studying by architects of progress.

One result has been the enforced education of the provincial government about what was in the country that is now submerged. For example, it turns out that there were many more animals than had been thought. Stream fishing and spawning grounds were more important than had been suspected. The study group was an official government body, not a collection of crusading environmentalists, but the Sierra Club itself could hardly have come up with more damaging evidence than these unexcitable civil servants produced. The participants included British Columbia Hydro and Power, which built the dam and whose staff could not imagine so remarkable an engineering feat having harmful side effects; the Forest Service, which controlled the cutting of the timber and awarding of logging rights in the area; Fish and Wildlife, a branch of the Department of Recreation and Conservation concerned with protecting any birds or animals that showed signs of still wanting to hang around; and, among others, the departments of mines, agriculture, highways and water resources.

No study was even contemplated before the dam was built. It seemed to be enough that a great lake would be created in singularly beautiful mountain country, a lake 135 miles long and from one to 10 miles wide, walled in by 27 snow peaks, fed by six rivers and 139 streams and creeks, lined with primeval forests of cedar and spruce, fir and balsam, pine and hemlock, totally uninhabited, barely explored. There was talk of boating facilities, ski centers, hunting lodges, lake-shore summer cottages and trails through picture-postcard scenery—"an internationally famous resort" was a phrase sometimes used.

There were reasons for such sanguine expectations. This was a wild yet friendly country. Trees along the river screened out the mountains much of the time, until they were at once familiar and unexpected, coming into view suddenly at some open place in the woods, and the contrast between their enormous height and the pleasant valley land gave the place a comfortable grandeur.

Maybe the knowledge that all those glades would soon be buried under 200 or 300 feet of water heightened one's appreciation of them, but they seemed flawless, especially the cedar groves, 200-foot trees rising above open terraces floored with grass and ferns; long white sandbars at river bends, covered with the tracks of moose and bear; smooth pools where beaver slapped the water and ducks took off with fantastic velocity at the sight of a canoe. In one section 60 miles long and 35 miles wide, stretching between the Rockies and the Monashees, only seven structures stood before the dam builders arrived, five log cabins along the Canoe River and two shelters built by a mountain-climbing club on the heights—this the only evidence of human habitation in 2,100 square miles during the 165-year period since the valley was first explored. The Wood River was even less crowded. There were no houses along it, and it was known only because Hudson's Bay Company traders had used the route for crossing the Rockies from 1811 until 1884.

Every few miles along the big rivers, such as the Columbia, the Canoe and the Wood, streams poured into the valleys from the mountains. They were called creeks on the maps, but in any less-well-watered country they could qualify as rivers. They were noisy, turbulent, cheerful intrusions in the quiet woods, no two alike, sometimes dropping in thousand-foot falls over the cliffs, more often surging out of dark, timbered valleys that curved back into unknown country at the base of the mountains. They sparked an exploratory impulse in the most sedentary traveler, a desire to find out where they came from and what sort of country they passed through. The reservoir promised to open the way to them.

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