Conservationists in Vanderhoof are questioning the motive behind Rio Tinto’s Summer Temperature Management Program (STMP), and whether it’s helping salmon or the health of the Nechako river.
The Summer Temperature Management Program typically runs from July 20 until Aug. 20. The purpose of the program is to help cool the water in the Nechako River during the summer season to help the swimming salmon.
To keep the river below 20 C, water must flow at 170 cubic metres per second to 283 cubic metres per second at the Cheslatta Falls.
Wayne Salewski, director of the Nechako Environment and Water Stewardship Society (NEWSS) wrote a letter to Rio Tinto in August, asking them to consider extending the temperature management program to help the swimming salmon who have not yet come up in their expected numbers to the Nechako River.
According to Salewski, even though the STMP helps Sockeye salmon, it is detrimental to the Chinook salmon.
He says the temperature management program is set up to keep the river at 20 degrees or less, to help transport Sockeye at a less stressful temperature.
Whereas Chinook salmon need 18 degrees or less.
Salewski said 50 percent of the salmon population is still not up in the Nechako River for this time of the year.
Currently, Kenney Dam, the reservoir operated by Rio Tinto on the Nechako River is full to capacity, and Salewski requested the company to extend their temperature management program by “metering out the water.”
Salewski said metering out the water, as opposed to “opening the flood gates”, would help with the erosion challenges faced in the Nechako, and would also assist the rest of the salmon to migrate.
No response was provided by Rio Tinto in regard to that inquiry.
As per a presentation by Czornohalan to council on Aug. 10, the current reservoir level is 2798.8 ft. The reservoir is designed to operate to a level of 2800 ft.
In his second request to the multinational company, Salewski asked whether having hard calendar dates to run the temperature management program is ensuring the health of the salmon population.
“So we had a calendar date decided by the courts, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the province of B.C. that said from July 20 to Aug. 20, water temperatures will be less than 20 degrees for salmon, and the salmon aren’t here.”
“Now we have hard calendar dates that are not really about salmon anymore. And these numbers do not represent what we need for Chinook Salmon,” he said.
In a letter response to Salewski, Andrew Czornohalan, operations director, Power and Services for Rio Tinto said the company cannot makes changes to the Spillway management decision as per the 1987 Settlement Agreement.
“Rio Tinto does not have flexibility to operate in any other way except to manage flood risk. Changes in river discharge are a result of the established STMP protocols,” Czornohalan wrote.
As per Salewski’s interpretation of the letter, he said as Rio Tinto is currently in court with Saik’uz First Nation, and “they do not want to do anything out of their legislative requirements.”
If the reservoir is running at full capacity, Salewski said Rio Tinto can produce hydro for their BC Hydro contract for a lesser cost to them, and higher profit.
In his letter to Salewski, Czornohalan said the STMP “is designed to minimize the occurrences of water temperature above 20 C, for the benefit sockeye salmon migrating through the Nechako River in late July to late August, while also avoiding flooding of agricultural lands.”
“The STMP monitoring data shows that on average, temperature exceeds 20 C on a few days of most years, but otherwise remains below 20 C. Currently the water temperature in the Nechako River at Finmore is below 17 C,” Czornohalan wrote.
Salewski reached out to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans requesting them to “instruct, demand, ask” Rio Tinto to increase their temperature management program for a longer period of time, and is waiting for a response.
“I am disappointed that we haven’t heard back. Because of DFO orders Rio Tinto to do that, it doesn’t affect their BC Hydro obligations and doesn’t affect their court case currently with Saik’uz.”
Meanwhile, Salewski says he understands the business decision made by Rio Tinto.
“I understand the parameters of the court case and I understand that these are hardened decisions that are previously there.”
“My concern was that we have an opportunity here to demonstrate to the community that we can actually be concerned about the health of the river and the health of the salmon population,” he said.