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Decades of fish passage advocacy leads to decommissioning of BC Hydro’s Wilsey Dam

Click to play video: 'Fish blocked from upper Shuswap River' Fish blocked from upper Shuswap River
Advocates are lobbying BC Hydro to decommission the Wilsey Dam on the Shuswap River in an effort to restore the fish passage for salmon to access spawning and rearing habitat – Sep 20, 2021

Following decades of advocacy by conservationists and First Nations groups, BC Hydro has announced it will decommission the aging Wilsey Dam on the Shuswap River east of Vernon, B.C.

The decommissioning of the dam and Shuswap Falls Powerhouse, first built in 1929, is to allow salmon access to a historical spawning habitat in the river.

“After extensive community involvement and our own studies, we have selected decommissioning the dam and powerhouse as the best way forward to restore the river to it’s original channel for spawning salmon,” said Jen Walker-Larsen, community engagement adviser with BC Hydro.

Read more: Early drawdown of Okanagan Lake compromised fish restoration efforts, says BC Wildlife Federation

The tenacious conservation work was led by the Wilsey Dam Fish Passage Committee. Its members were determined to restore Shuswap salmon populations as the fish couldn’t get over the dam.

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The Okanagan Nation Alliance (ONA), which represents eight First Nations communities in the Okanagan, was also involved in years-long consultations and welcomed the decision on Monday.

Click to play video: 'Okanagan Lake reaches 22 cm above full pool after ‘relentless’ rain: dam operator' Okanagan Lake reaches 22 cm above full pool after ‘relentless’ rain: dam operator
Okanagan Lake reaches 22 cm above full pool after ‘relentless’ rain: dam operator – Jun 16, 2020

“We have been working specifically towards fish passage at Wilsey Dam since the late 1990’s. This journey has been long with constant changes, circling around and morphing into what we are working with today. By decommissioning this dam we hope to see our social, cultural and food fishery flourishsaid Okanagan Indian Band Chief Byron Louis.

A statement issued by the ONA said there is an important spiritual cultural and economic significance with restoring salmon and resident species above Wilsey Dam.

Read more: Water restriction order issued for Salmon River, Bessette Creek areas

“As Syilx people, we have an inherent right and responsibility to continue working to bring ntitiyx back to all parts of our territory, including that on the spəlm’cin (Shuswap River),” said ONA tribal chair, chief Clarence Louie.

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“Decommissioning Wilsey Dam would be a step in the right direction towards not only salmon recovery but also ensuring that benefits for siwɬkʷ and the tmixʷ and all habitat.”

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Sockeye salmon to return to Okanagan Lake for first time in over 50 years – Oct 21, 2019

The ONA said it wasn’t only the salmon that suffered, but also bull and rainbow trout that were blocked from upstream migration.

The blockage prevented them from accessing nearly 30 kilometers of spawning and rearing habitat on the Shuswap River, the statement said.

The power utility said the Wilsey dam represents less than 0.1 per cent of BC Hydro’s total hydroelectric generating capacity.

Read more: Review of Okanagan water management needed to prevent flooding: water board

BC Hydro said it opted to decommission the facility entirely instead of refurbishing it as it’s the best option to allow salmon to access spawning habitats.

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“Decommissioning instead of refurbishing will return that portion of the river to its original channel,” said Walker-Larsen.

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Summerland discusses flood mitigation work following property damage in spring – Nov 14, 2018

“We expect this will provide a higher chance of achieving successful fish passage as it will create river conditions similar to what existed before the dam was built.”

BC Hydro said it will prepare an application to the BC Utilities Commission to obtain approval to cease operations at the facility within the next 12 to 18 months.

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