BC Hydro is asking the United States to take “all reasonable measures” to limit flood damage on both sides of the border given near-record levels on the Kootenay River. But the director of the province’s water management branch and two MLAs say there isn’t much more the US can do.
The request from BC Hydro follows a motion adopted last week by the Regional District of Central Kootenay asking the premier to intervene.
The board contended high water resulting in local states of emergency around Creston isn’t entirely Mother Nature’s fault but also due to discharges from Montana’s Libby dam.
RDCK chair John Kettle said following the motion he called Kootenay East MLA Bill Bennett, who in turn contacted Rich Coleman, minister responsible for BC Hydro.
“Because the resolution we passed would probably not reach the Premier’s office until later in the week, I felt we needed to see if there was some immediate assistance we would receive,” Kettle said.
The upshot was a letter sent Monday from BC Hydro executive vice-president Chris O’Riley to the US Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the Libby dam, noting the extraordinary levels on Kootenay Lake.
“Public infrastructure around the lake, such as marinas and community water supply, has also been damaged,” he wrote.
While acknowledging high runoff in the basin presented “some very difficult decisions” around the operation of the Libby dam, O’Riley asked the US to take every step to prevent flood damage.
But Glen Davidson, director of BC’s water management branch, told radio station 103.5 The Bridge only so much can be done.
“They’re trying to minimize the impacts,” he said. “They’re releasing just enough to offset the flows, but in these very high conditions there’s a limit to what you can do with your dams. You can’t store it all.”
Davidson said the US was being “proactive” by spilling water now.
“Partly they’re avoiding that big release when the dam is full. And the forecast is for it to fill, certainly.”
Davidson said late snow melt and heavy rains have posed similar challenges on both sides of the border. He added the Libby dam backfills into BC on Lake Koocanusa, which is also extremely high, while farm land at Bonners Ferry is being flooded.
Libby was built expressly for flood control, and in concert with the Duncan dam, has provided “extensive” flood control for downstream residents, Davidson said.
Kootenay East MLA Bill Bennett agreed the US is “doing everything they possibly can,” but thought the letter from BC Hydro was still useful.
“To call to their attention the imminent threat on Kootenay Lake and other places in West Kootenay is well worth doing,” he told The Bridge. “I think we have their attention and they’re responding very well.”
Bennett said he received co-operation from both BC Hydro and the Engineers Corps and the situation demonstrated the value of the Columbia River Treaty.
“Even if we do get some flooding, it would be so much worse if we didn’t have the co-ordination between the US and Canada with all of our reservoirs,” he said. “It’s actually a pretty successful enterprise.”
Nelson-Creston MLA Michelle Mungall said although no regional directors approached her before or after their motion passed, she immediately followed up.
(RDCK chair Kettle said no slight was intended against Mungall, “as the motion did not ask for a letter to be sent to [NDP leader] Adrian Dix or I would have called her. Situations like this transcend bias.”)
Through discussions with government staff and a meeting Wednesday with a representative of the US Army Corps, Mungall reached the same conclusion: if Libby reduced its spillage, it would result in extreme floods in East Kootenay.
Koocanusa is already expected to reach maximum capacity today or tomorrow.
“The water has to go somewhere,” she said. “It’s a delicate balance and we sometimes take our ability to manage flooding for granted.”
In any event, she said, the premier can’t simply step in, as flows on the Kootenay and Columbia river systems are governed by a “tremendous amount” of regulation.
She also said anyone with questions about water levels or who has been affected by flooding and needs information can call her office at 1-877-388-4498.
Kootenay Lake stood at 1,753.1 feet (534.34 m) at Queens Bay this morning and 1,750.3 feet at Nelson, about the same as yesterday but a little lower than Wednesday. It’s the highest the lake has been since 1974.
RDCK warns boaters
The Regional District of Central Kootenay is advising anyone boating on Kootenay Lake over the long weekend to use “caution and restraint.”
Many structures like docks, wharves, and retaining walls that are ordinarily visible may be partially or fully submerged, so boaters are urged to be careful, especially near shorelines.
“Reduced speeds and the decrease in corresponding wake will minimize wave impacts on the shoreline and prevent the overtopping of sandbags protecting properties in low-lying areas,” said spokesman Bill Macpherson.
The extended freshet and high lake levels also mean large amounts of debris are entering the lake. Floating or submerged logs, trees, and other items are common.
Debris on the Kootenay River is also causing intermittent delays on the Glade ferry.
Kaslo remains on water quality advisory
Both a water quality advisory and strict conservation measures banning outdoor water use will remain in effect over the long weekend in Kaslo.
They were implemented following a slide on Kemp Creek that took out the village’s dam.
A message from the village office this afternoon said they hope to move back to level two water conservation beginning next week, allowing outdoor hand watering.
It’s harder to say when the water quality advisory will be lifted; Kaslo’s water remains turbid and the village says that’s expected to increase over the weekend.
Those with weakened should take precautions, either by boiling their water or finding an alternate source.