Atlin laces up its gloves, invites YEC into the ring

Gernot Dick looks forward to his monthly hydro bill. There's always new information and incentives to save power, said the longtime Atlin resident.

Gernot Dick looks forward to his monthly hydro bill.

There’s always new information and incentives to save power, said the longtime Atlin resident.

BC Hydro even gave him a cash prize of $100 for cutting his energy consumption by 10 per cent.

“But I talk to my friends in Whitehorse and they get nothing,” he said.

“Yukon Energy should be sending out literature on how to preserve power, especially in our day and age.”

Instead, the Yukon’s Crown-owned power utility is considering raising the level of Atlin Lake.

By submerging a weir in the lake, Yukon Energy could control the flow of water from it in the fall. The water level would never exceed the lake’s annual high, but the weir would keep it at that level much longer.

“By storing (Atlin’s) water for winter usage, Yukon Energy could increase the amount of hydroelectricity we produce, displacing up to 4.8 million litres of diesel per year,” says the company’s blog. “This translates into a savings to Yukoners of $4.8 million per year in diesel costs and it would avoid the production of up to 12,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions annually.”

Atlin’s all for green energy, said Wayne Merry, president of the new Protect Atlin Lake Society.

“Just not at the expense of unknown effects on a Class A wilderness area.”

Keeping the lake at high levels through the fall could affect fish, their spawning, change the annual temperature of the lake, create more erosion, increase the turbidity of the water, compromise ice quality and damage the shoreline, he said.

“The major problem with the whole thing is that it’s all unknowns,” said Merry.

Atlin Lake’s water level fluctuates by two metres a year, reaching its high in August, and dropping right back down by mid-fall.

Holding water levels at their high for up to six months could be “devastating,” said lake society secretary Jan Harvey.

Atlin gets high winds in the fall, but the lake is usually low. “If the water’s still high, the winds could cause flooding and erosion,” said Merry.

If the lake freezes at such a high level, ice is likely to destroy the shoreline, added Dick. And if water drops under the ice, it will be dangerous for anyone who uses the lake in the winter.

There are also fears the lake may not freeze at all, if higher levels keep it warmer longer, said Merry.

And no one knows what it will do to fish habitat.

How will holding the lake water at its highest affect the spawning habits of the lake trout, whitefish, cisco, grayling and pike in the lake? asks Atlin taxidermist and lake trout guide Gary Hill, in the society’s inaugural newsletter.

Yukon Energy does not plan to cause “undue harm,” said its spokesperson Janet Patterson.

“For the next two years, we’re going to be gathering information, and then make our decision.”

This summer, Yukon Energy studied channel depth, stream flow, sampled aquatic organisms, collected whitefish feeding data, and did a spring fish survey.

It also surveyed aquatic bird breeding, amphibians, wetland habitat and vegetation.

Yukon Energy hired AECOM to do the work.

But having studies done by a company Yukon Energy hired is questionable, said Harvey, who’d like to see this work carried out independently.

“And doing a few weeks’ worth of studies every summer is not going to be enough to study something as complex as fish.”

Over the next two years, the Atlin Lake studies are going to cost the utility roughly $3 million.

This money could be better used developing alternate energy sources, said Harvey.

“Because we’re committed to fighting long and hard on all possible levels to ensure that the project does not happen.”

Yukon Energy is examining three possible sources of new power, said Patterson.

Atlin Lake, Marsh Lake and Gladstone are all possibilities.

By keeping Marsh Lake high, Yukon Energy could generate another nine gigawatt hours a year, while Atlin would generate twice that. (Atlin, which gets all its power from a run-of-river turbine, would not benefit from the additional power.)

More than 40 per cent of the water pushing turbines at the Whitehorse dam originates in Atlin, said Patterson.

Gladstone is a chain of five lakes that could be flooded to reverse their flow, sending more water to the Aishihik dam. It would also generate another 18 gigawatt hours a year.

To put that in perspective, the Yukon uses 370 gigawatts of power annually.

Spending money studying these possibilities “is the cost of doing business,” said Patterson.

And even though Atlin residents are opposed, “the Yukon Utilities Board wants us to explore all these options for clean power,” she said.

Atlin Lake is a provincial park, which could throw a wrench in things.

“We’re exploring that,” said Patterson.

“There’s a question whether the water in the lake is part of the park.

“There are still so many questions.”

If Yukon Energy gets to the point where the Atlin project is feasible, then it will have to go through BC’s various environmental reviews.

There is also the possibility Yukon’s Socio-economic and Environmental Assessment Board will be involved, because water levels in Atlin Lake also impact lakes and rivers in the territory.

It’s not the first time a Yukon energy company has eyed Atlin Lake, said Harvey.

Back in ‘82, Northern Canadian Power Corp. considered putting in a dam, “and did all kinds of studies,” she said. But Faro shut down, Whitehorse Rapids got another turbine and the Atlin project fell off the radar.

Until now.

“We are going to go down all avenues available to us to try and stop it,” said Harvey.

The community is rallying and is “as close to unanimous on this issue as I’ve ever seen it,” said Merry.

It’s not NIMBYism, added Harvey.

“We’re all for green energy.

“We just need to look for a situation that’s less invasive.”

The Atlin Lake society is having a public meeting at the Atlin rec centre to discuss the issue on September 15, at 7 p.m.

Contact Genesee Keevil at