Dam that river act

Miners and muncipalities may find it easier to throw dams and bridges across Yukon rivers if tweaks to Canada's Navigable Waters Protection Act are allowed to sneak through Parliament. The Conservative government is quiet

By Genesee Keevil

Senior Reporter

Miners and muncipalities may find it easier to throw dams and bridges across Yukon rivers if tweaks to Canada’s Navigable Waters Protection Act are allowed to sneak through Parliament.

The Conservative government is quietly rewriting the act with the help of handpicked stakeholders to foster quick and easy development along all but the very deepest of Canada’s rivers.

“Right now, if you want to dam a river like the Wind or the Big Salmon, you have to go though a huge government process,” said Yukon National Outdoors Leadership School director Jaret Slipp.

“The super-old act essentially states you can’t develop on a river if it’s going to impede navigation.”

If the river is big enough to navigate a craft, even one as small as a canoe, then it falls under the current act’s protection. A proposed development on the river would trigger a lengthy environmental assessment.

But, through these changes, canoes and even large motorboats may not trigger federal review of dam or bridge proposals.

Ottawa wants to change the definition of navigable river to waterways able to accommodate a craft approaching cruise-ship size—it would have to have a one-metre draft, or more. Draft is the depth a boat sits in water.

“So suddenly, only the biggest rivers in Canada would be protected,” said Slipp.

Canoes have a 15-centimetre draft when loaded, so they obviously wouldn’t trigger a review.

“A one-metre draft is a sailboat with keel—even a motorboat wouldn’t have a one-metre draft,” he said.

“Right now, the act covers every single river that’s navigable, even those on Crown land. So someone can’t just put a dam up near their mining claim in the Richardson Mountains, unless it’s a river that’s not navigable, like a little creek.”

Last February, officials from Transport Canada appeared before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities to start developing new navigation protection legislation to replace the Navigable Waters Protection Act.

The changes were requested to reflect current economic needs and respond to the increased volume and variety of uses of Canada’s waterways, according to the standing committee’s government website.

The committee was also told there is a backlog of projects awaiting approval and new legislation would greatly reduce this backlog.

“There’s nothing wrong with eliminating unnecessary red tape,” said Wayne Donison, vice-president of Les Amis de la Riviere Kipawa, a Laniel, Quebec-based river advocacy group, in an interview on Thursday.

“But there’s something wrong with eliminating reasonable due process and changing the rules just so we can eliminate backlogs.”

After learning about proposed changes to the navigable waters act, Donison’s organization tried to meet with government.

It didn’t happen.

Virtually all of the groups invited to speak to the committee about proposed changes to the Navigable Waters Protection Act were developers.

Of 70 stakeholder groups invited to speak, only one pushed for the retention of the public right of navigation, and that was Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, according to I Speak For Canadian Rivers’ website.

“Shouldn’t you at least be talking to paddlers and hunters and fishermen and people that at least are along the rivers and have some vested interest?” said Donison.

“I mean, we’re stakeholders too.

“The government should not just be talking to municipalities and developers, who obviously have a vested interest in having the rules for allowing development be as simple as possible.”

Reclassifying navigable rivers so development can go ahead without a full environmental process, because it takes too long, is the wrong approach, said Donison.

“A lot of people realize development can be a good thing, and obviously if it takes too long to build a bridge that really should be built, that’s not good for the economy,” he said. “But what we don’t want to happen, is to use this economic downturn as a reason for saying, ‘OK, we can just bypass all the checks and balances that should be there to get development to move faster.’”

The Conservative government is looking at solutions to the economic crisis, said Slipp.

“I think they’re going to tie this in directly to the budget coming out next week.

They could try and sneak this through the budget implementation act, said Yukon MP Larry Bagnell.

“But it wouldn’t be the normal procedure of amending an act.”

“The government’s triaging ways to get infrastructure projects moving quicker to stimulate the economy and the navigable waters act is a barrier to shovels going in the ground quickly,” said Slipp.

“But quick action on a law like this—that has effectively protected an incredible number of rivers in Canada for over a century—is the worst way to revise an act.”

The government is proposing “minor waters, minor works, and projects involving dams, bridges, causeways and booms,” be eliminated from the act, according to documents posted on the standing committee’s website.

Figuring out a project’s environmental impact and how it will hinder navigation is “troublesome” to developers, noted Donison in a letter to the standing committee chairman Mervin Tweed, dated May 2008.

Which is why a developer might want the legislation changed.

“The way it is constructed right now, minor waters are such that I believe if you float a canoe in a body of water it is considered a navigable water,” said Infrastructure Canada’s Shirley Anne Scharf during a parliamentary committee meeting last March.

“From that point of view, streamlining the act and excluding things of that nature would be very advantageous,” she said.

The government’s streamlining the act for the wrong reasons, said Slipp.

“I think the rash dash to get it revised is a way to speed up dams and roads and bridges to kick start the economy is the kind of shortsighted attitude that got us into this economic crisis in the first place,” he said.

And excluding “minor works” from the act would essentially allow developers and bureaucrats to decide what projects require an environmental assessment of their impacts on navigation, wrote Donison.

“It would allow industry to do whatever they wanted on all these rivers, if they could convince (government) it was minor work,” said Slipp.

“It looks to me like they’re trying to rig the act so industry and development can abandon responsibility to other users of the resource,” said Rivers Without Borders US campaign co-ordinator Chris Zimmer.

Right now, all projects, no matter how small, fall under the act.

The navigable waters act was reviewed in 1990 when a development conflict on the Old Man River in Alberta went all the way to the Supreme Court.

The court ruled the act was intact and accurate and should not be amended. The Old Man River development was blocked.

“So why would we rule that our values as a nation have changed 20 years later?” said Slipp. “Especially when we, as a nation, are beginning to realize that the environment is a major concern and a political issue for us.”

The vast majority of the rivers National Outdoor Leadership School uses in the Yukon—the Big Salmon, the South MacMillan, the Huss, the Highland, the White, and the Donjek—are not under any jurisdiction, said Slipp.

If the act changes, mining companies, running everything off diesel generators, could suddenly put in a mini-hydro dam—there would be nothing stopping them, he said.

“We would see lots of development on smaller rivers.

“Anyone with a cabin, a trapline, a mine, or industry could put in a small tender to government; it would go in the newspaper for two weeks as public tender, and if nobody said anything—boom, there’d be a dam on a river a lot of people use for public recreation.”

Most of the rivers across Canada have been shielded from unfettered development because of this act, said Slipp.

Contact Genesee Keevil at