Officials raise alarm over water, environmental ‘crisis’ in Baynes Lake area

Elko Dam. BC Hydro photo.

Local officials are sounding the alarm over a water and environmental crisis in the South Country over concerns that water from a nearby river isn’t getting into the aquifer system that feeds the region’s water supply.

Stan Doehle, the Area B director for the Regional District of East Kootenay, told the board that geological surveys show that water from the Elk River typically feeds into seven sinkholes near the head pond of the Elko Dam to supply the region’s aquifer.

Water levels in nearby lakes and ponds have dropped significantly over the last few years, according to Doehle, who blamed lower water levels at the head pool, that weren’t high enough to reach — and replenish — the sinkholes.

Doehle says that a berm was built at some point, either by BC Hydro or East Kootenay Power, blocking the river from accessing the sinkholes. In 2009, a portion of the berm was removed, and BC Hydro was ordered to maintain the water level required for full pool at the head pond to allow for water to flow to the sinkholes, which restored the community water supply, according to Doehle.

“This alone proves that the water in the sinkholes flows into the surrounding area,” he said.

BC Hydro says the dam has not been decommissioned, but stopped generating power in 2014 due to aging infrastructure.

A spokesperson says the crown corporation continues to maintain the dam in order to transfer river water across the dam structure until it has a need to generate power from the facility again.

Currently, the Elko Dam headpond is holding at just above 912 metres — five metres below Doehle’s request to have the dam operating at 917 metres.

Flashboards on the eastern side of the headpond were removed in Oct. 2017, but there is no way to safely re-install replacements as the structure is at its end-of-life. In order to operate the headpond at 917 metres, the dam structure would have to be entirely rebuilt, according to BC Hydro.

Since 2016, water levels have dropped in some of the area’s lakes and ponds, some of which have seen a steady decline of two feet per year, according to Doehle.

While the presentation to the RDEK board linked the sinkholes to lower water supply, BC Hydro pointed to two separate studies from the crown corporation and the Ministry of Environment that didn’t find any relationship between the headpond levels at the Elko Dam and Baynes Lake water levels.

While the cause of the water level drop may still be in dispute, both Doehle and MLA Tom Shypitka, who was present for the presentation, also expressed concern over adverse environmental impacts.

“The ecological damage right now that I’ve seen — the drying up of the channel between Surveyors and Engineers Lake is definitely noticeable and is of a serious concern because we all know there are species at risk in that area; the Western Painted turtle, among others as well,” said Shypitka.

Both Doehle and Shypitka sought support to take the matter to the provincial government for temporary and permanent solutions.

Following discussions, the board passed a motion to send a letter to two provincial government ministries requesting temporary and permanent fixes.

One permanent solution pitched by Doehle includes sculpting out a back-channel alongside the Elko hillside where the Elk River originally flowed that would allow the water to naturally flow into the sinkholes.

BC Hydro says it is not the authority on changing the flow of a currently established river, and that it is a complex undertaking that requires regulatory direction and consultation with Indigenous nations.

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