A BC-based recreation group has put the Atlin River on its endangered list.
The river was added because Yukon Energy Corporation is considering building a weir on the river, which would retain water levels in Atlin Lake.
Keeping water in the lake longer would let Yukon Energy produce more hydroelectricity downstream in the energy hungry winter months.
Around two megawatts of power could be produced, displacing between 2.5 and 5 million litres of diesel fuel per year – avoiding the production of up to 12,600 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions annually.
That’s the good news.
The bad news directly affects Atlin.
“A dam there would, in all likelihood, destroy a superb grayling fishery,” according to the Outdoor Recreation Network of British Columbia.
“It could also impact a widely recognized and important migration route for lake trout and other fish between Atlin Lake and the other Southern Lakes.
“Ecological damage to Atlin Lake (and quite likely to other downstream lakes) is also a concern.”
So, last month, the recreation network called the Atlin River “a keystone for the entire watershed.”
This is the first time that the Atlin River has graced the endangered list, joining the likes of the Kettle River; the “Sacred Headwaters” of Skeena, Nass and Stikine; and the Taku River.
But there may be some errors in the Outdoor Recreation Council’s view of the situation, according to Yukon Energy Corporation spokesperson Janet Patterson.
“They call it a dam, we’re not talking about building a dam,” she said.
“There’s a huge difference between a dam, which floods areas that weren’t flooded before, and a weir.”
Water levels rise and fall naturally throughout the year, normally peaking sometime in August.
The weir would slow the rate at which the water leaves Atlin Lake, and would never increase water levels beyond that August peak.
“And we’ve always said that if we did go ahead with the project, we would ensure that there could be fish migration year round in the Atlin River,” said Patterson.
“We also said that there has to be boat passage.”
Yukon Energy is just playing with words, according to Jan Harvey, a member of the Protect Atlin Lake Society.
“They do like to call it a weir, but when you put a control structure in to regulate and hold back water it is, in fact, a dam,” she said.
“They just feel that weir sounds a little less threatening.”
And no matter what you want to call it, it’s pretty difficult to mitigate some of the effects of the weir, said Harvey.
“When they hold the water at the high level for a period of several months into the winter, that coincides with our windy period.”
There are very strong winds in the fall and winter months.
Residents are concerned that, if the water level is kept high during the windy season, there will be erosion as well as damage to properties along the shore.
There are also concerns water levels dropping slower throughout the winter months would affect lake ice, and therefore the safety of ice fishers and snowmobilers.
“These are forces of nature that they cannot mitigate or change.”
And there are also questions as to whether or not the BC government would ever allow the project to go ahead.
Nearly a third of Atlin Lake is part of a provincial park.
The Atlin Provincial Park and Recreation Area was created in 1973 by the BC government in reaction to another hydroelectric proposal, planning to redirect water from Atlin Lake to the Taku River.
Provisions in the BC Park Act disallow any project that would “disturb, damage or exploit” natural resources within a Class A park.
And the water levels of the lake are a natural resource, said Hanley.
“We cannot understand their reluctance to admit that it will have to get a park-use permit to do this project.”
But it’s not clear that Atlin Provincial Park is a Class A park, according to Yukon Energy.
“Depending on who you talk to you get a different answer,” said Patterson.
“There are different views and we’re trying to get clarification on that issue. At this time no one has been able to clearly say one way or another.”
“We’re just hoping that this is one more reason for Yukon Energy to take a good look at this project and see whether or not it is viable,” said Hanley.
“If I were a Yukon resident I’d be asking why they’re spending ratepayers’ money on pursuing something that is clearly, as far as we’re concerned, not going to go ahead.”
So far, Yukon Energy has spent $2 million collecting baseline research to see whether the project is possible.
Another $1.4 million has been allocated to continue research this year.
Contact Chris Oke at