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Nechako First Nations: water management endangering sturgeon

First Nations want new water management regime
Nechako River in Vanderhoof. (Aman Parhar/Omineca Express)

The Nechako First Nations are calling on B.C., Canada and Rio Tinto Alcan to immediately address what they call the ongoing mismanagement of the Nechako Reservoir and Nechako River.

They’re asking for the creation of a new water management regime, for the health of the Nechako River and to protect endangered Nechako white sturgeon and sockeye.

The recent deaths of 12 adult Nechako white sturgeon, according to a release issued Oct.3, are just the latest blow to this endangered species and the Nechako First Nations’ constitutionally protected aboriginal rights.

The large number of dead adults that have been observed over a short time strongly suggests acute stressors in the Nechako River have had severe effects on the remaining population of Nechako white sturgeon. With only about 300-600 Nechako white sturgeon left, this population is endangered and on the precipice of extinction. Given the population’s conservation status, these mortalities have very serious implications for the Nechako white sturgeon’s ability to recover and will drive the population closer to extinction.

“Sturgeon are a prehistoric species, 200-million-years-old that has outlived the dinosaurs. They have survived multiple mass extinctions and ice ages, but there is one thing that threatens the sturgeon’s survival; that is Rio Tinto Alcan’s Kenney Dam,” said Chunih Marten Louie, heredity and elected Chief of Nadleh Whut’en. “With only approximately 300-500 left of the Nechako sturgeon population, they are on the brink of extinction. Before the Kenney Dam was built, the population thrived and was food for the Yinka Dene people. The federal and provincial governments, along with Rio Tinto Alcan must sensibly act urgently before it is too late for the recovery of the species from extinction.”

Rio Tinto said they are aware of this summer’s sturgeon deaths in the Nechako River and other rivers in B.C., including the Fraser River; they said they are actively committed to the recovery of the Nechako white sturgeon.

“We are deeply saddened by this and are working with our partners such as the Nechako White Sturgeon Recovery Initiative (NWSRI) and the province of B.C.” according to Andrew Czornohalan, director, Power and Projects, Rio Tinto B.C. Works. “We have offered technical capacity via the Water Engagement Initiative to identify the possible causes of this unprecedented event.”

The province of B.C. and the government of Canada regulate Rio Tinto Alcan’s water management of the Nechako Reservoir and Nechako River. In January, a decision from the Supreme Court of B.C. found the regulation of the Nechako River is the root cause of the dangers to the Nechako white sturgeon and the flow regime results in warmer water temperatures during sockeye salmon migration, which in turn causes pre-spawning mortality that contributes to the overall decline in the sockeye population.

The court went on to declare that the Nechako First Nations have constitutionally protected rights to fish in the Nechako Watershed and the ongoing regulation of the Nechako River is resulting in an infringement of their rights.

So far, Rio Tinto Alcan, the province, and Canada have not taken any steps to change how the Nechako Reservoir is being regulated, to the ongoing detriment of the Nechako white sturgeon and sockeye, the Nechako First Nations and the general public.

According to the release, Rio Tinto Alcan should also be required to live up to its commitment to build a water release facility at Kenney Dam. That facility is urgently needed to address elevated water temperature levels in the Nechako River, which will only continue to increase with global climate change.

The facility is also needed to enable Rio Tinto to cease flooding First Nations gravesites and destroying important archaeological sites in the Cheslatta system, reads the release.

“Since time immemorial, the Stellat’en people have lived beside and on the Nechako River. The River was our economic and spiritual lifeblood—our grocery store, our highway, our church. It was taken away from us and converted into an industrial canal without any consultation or compensation,” said ​​Robert Michell, elected Chief of Stellat’en First Nation. “The Supreme Court has found that the ongoing regulation of the Nechako River is an infringement of the Nechako First Nations’ rights, and can no longer be justified. This infringement must stop, and the River and its White Sturgeon populations restored to health. When it is, everyone in the region will benefit.”

According to Czornohalan, Rio Tinto believes governance of the flows on the Nechako River should be an inclusive process.

“Over the last two years Rio Tinto has been working with First Nations and local communities to improve the water flow into the Nechako River while still monitoring for flood risks in Vanderhoof,” said Czornohalan in a release. “We will continue to collaborate with First Nations, governments and other stakeholders to review all aspects of the Nechako Reservoir management process in hopes of improving the health of the river and ensuring Rio Tinto can remain a driver of economic opportunities in B.C.”