The Aishihik Dam, seen here in a 2008 file photo. Champagne Aishihik First Nations are calling out the Yukon Energy Corporation (YEC) for ditching a signed agreementconcerning how a dam project would be run. (James Munson/Yukon News file)

Champagne Aishihik First Nations spar with Yukon Energy Corporation over Aisihik hydro

Cooperation between the First Nations and Yukon Energy Corporation unraveled in September

Champagne Aishihik First Nations are calling out the Yukon Energy Corporation (YEC) for ditching a signed agreement concerning how a dam project would be run.

“We signed the agreement fully expecting to live up to that commitment and in good faith that Yukon Energy meant to live up to it as well,” said Chief Steve Smith in a written statement. “Yukon Energy’s recent actions are contrary to this purpose.”

YEC and the First Nations, united by a protocol agreement in early 2016, have been working together in a bid to reach a consensus about the Aishihik hydro facility’s future. But cooperation fell apart in September.

The First Nations want Aishihik Lake — part of their traditional territory — to be restored to its natural water levels in order to keep wildlife healthy, a point that’s at odds with the corporation. This is what caused the dropout in September.

“The science that we’ve done has shown that the health of the lake is good, so there’s no scientific basis to change the basis of the water license,” said Andrew Hall, president of YEC. “Unfortunately, the First Nations (have) taken a position that they want to return the lake to the pre-dam conditions. Economically, what that would mean, would be an additional about $10 million operating costs to the utility a year.”

Coupled with that, would be a loss of 37 megawatts of electrical capacity in the wintertime, Hall continued.

The facility produces roughly 25 per cent of the Yukon’s energy annually, a number that climbs between 40 and 50 per cent during the winter, according to a fact sheet.

“It would materially impact our ability to keep the lights on and Yukoners warm in the winter,” he said. “In order to replace that lost capacity, would cost us north of $100 million.

“As the utility in the Yukon, we have to look at the interests at all our customers.”

But Smith said the the impacts of a business-as-usual approach on the waterway are too great to ignore.

“Our community has witnessed significant changes in the fish, the lake and the watershed,” he said. “The numbers of some species of fish in the lake have declined. In the spring when the lake levels drop to half a meter or more below its natural level, the spawning grounds dry out and we see fish die-off.”

Smith added there’s erosion, flooding and deforestation downstream.

“To be clear,” he said, “like all Yukoners, Champagne and Aishihik First Nations want responsible and clean energy. We want to be part of the solution when it comes to Aishihik and when it comes to creating a long-term vision for developing and managing renewable energy in the Yukon.

“Aishihik (Lake) has been pushed beyond its reasonable limits and it is time to give the lake a rest.”

The corporation is to submit an application to Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board (YESAB) to renew its license by the end of the month, Hall said. Its current permit will expire next December.

Hydroelectric power has been generated at the facility since 1975.

“For better or worse, we simply timed out on the process,” Hall said, “and the prospect of continuing to negotiate, where we sat so far apart, we just didn’t think that was going to be workable.”

In broad strokes, the dam would run the way it is now.

The protocol agreement, which expires on Dec. 31, 2019, spurred the creation of a steering committee. Two advisory committees were formed, too.

Included in its YESAB application, YEC is proposing to monitor potential effects downstream, curtailing excess flow over Otter Falls and providing a rest period for the lake three out of five years to ensure fish are kept healthly.

Hall said the First Nations were part of talks concerning these proposed changes.

Contact Julien Gignac at julien.gignac@yukon-news.com

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