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Hydro's dam plans generate excitement
Crown utility welcomes first nation to negotiations
doug Nairne, Winnipeg Free Press, 23 March 2000, front p

AFTER NEARLY a decade without putting a spade into the northern dirt, Manitoba Hydro is drawing up plans to get back into the dam-building business.

And this time, the utility, the provincial government and the aboriginal people who have suffered the ill effects of past megaprojects all vow that things will be different.

Manitoba Hydro president Bob Brennan said the Crown corporation is considering three proposals, any one of which could see construction start sometime in the next six to eight years. Two of the plans involve generating electricity with relatively small dams on the Burntwood River.

The third option, a 600-megawatt dam on the Nelson River near Split Lake, seems to be the front-runner.

Brennan said dams are massive undertakings involving billions of dollars, thousands of jobs and years of planning, so it is prudent management to be looking toward the next decade.

"We are certainly looking at the opportunities that may be there for building dams and exporting power," he said. "It's all very preliminary right now, but we need to plan ahead."

Just talk of Manitoba Hydro megaprojects is enough to get a lot of people's attention.

The utility is still dealing with the fallout from flooding and pollution complaints from projects completed more than a decade ago. One community -- Cross Lake -- is to this day working to discourage potential buyers of Manitoba power.

The proposed Gull Rapids dam on the Nelson River would be built about 60 kilometres downstream from the community of Split Lake, and people there are already talking to Manitoba Hydro about how the project could affect them.

Chief Norman Flett said the seductive prospect of jobs and economic strength for the community of 2,000 is a powerful motivator to work with Manitoba Hydro rather than against the utility.

"We won't allow this project to proceed unless our concerns are met, and we've made our position clear," he said.

Flett says there seems to be a new era of relations between aboriginal communities and Manitoba Hydro.

"There are things being discussed that Hydro and the government would never even have considered even a year ago," he said.

Flett said that what had been taboo issues like revenue sharing and partnership in the dam are now being discussed. He credited the NDP government for the change in attitude, but said that relations were improving even under the Tories.

About 60 per cent of the people in Split Lake are younger than 25, unemployment is high and there is a housing shortage. Flett said a steady stream of revenue from the dam and more jobs would help make his community the envy of other first nations.

The dilemma facing the government is that not many customers are willing to sign a long-term power deal. Without a deal, there is a reluctance to undertake a massive construction project that could run into the billions of dollars.

Megaproject mothballed

Premier Gary Doer said unless Manitoba Hydro lands a major contract, it is unlikely the $5.7-billion Conawapa generating station and transmission line will be resurrected. The megaproject was mothballed when Ontario cancelled a 1,000-megawatt-a-year contract in 1991.

The utility estimates it would have to borrow $6 billion to get it going. The interest payments alone would amount to almost $500 million a year.

But the smaller projects, like Gull Rapids, are a more likely possibility, Doer said.

Manitoba Hydro also recently announced it will build a $180-million gas turbine power generator in Brandon. It will have the capacity to produce 225 megawatts of electricity as a back-up power source when water at hydroelectric dams runs low.

And although construction is years away, the dirt is already flying south of the border.

The U.S.-based Sierra Club is lobbying the Minnesota government to pull the plug on hydroelectric contracts with Manitoba.

On its Web site, the organization claims Manitoba Hydro is "destroying 32 million acres of boreal forest and devastating the lives of 12,000 Cree aboriginal people. And the problem is about to get worse," it warns.

But Flett said problems should be worked out because all parties are working together this time.

"We're looking for a way to make these things happen."

2000 Winnipeg Free Press. All Rights Reserved.