In the dark about lights: When is hydropower not safe, clean and renewable?
Elaine Klaassen, Pulse [Minneapolis] 11 November 99, p7
Does anybody worry about where our electricity comes from? Does the power really
come from two little holes in the wall? Is anyone uneasy that 45 percent of our
power comes from coal and 25 percent from nuclear? Although many consumers
consider hydro power to be safe, clean and renewable, a small group of Twin
Citians is questioning NSP's reliance on hydro power it purchases from Canada.
About 12 percent of NSP's electricity comes for Manitoba; during the 1970s, a
megaproject of the Manitoba Hydro electric company reversed the flow of
thenorthern Churchill River and diverted the water southward into the Nelson
River. The augmented quantity of water, on its way to the Hudson Bay, now powers
the five dams built on the Nelson River between 1972 and 1992. The artificially
engineered water system has turned the lands and waterways of an area half the
size of Minnesota into an environmental disaster.
Since the summer of 1998, members of Pimicikamak Cree Nation from Cross Lake,
Manitoba, have been visiting the Twin Cities to let Minnesotans know about the
damage to the northern Manitoba environment, and consequently to Cree livelihood
and culture, brought about by the dams that produce the hydro power we buy. They
aslo say that their people are demoralized and discouraged by lack of
satisfactory compensation from the three Crown entities - Manitoba Hydro and the
federal and provincial governments of Canada.
At the end of October, six people interested in energy issues and sustainable
development from around the Twin Cities chartered a plane to Cross Lake,
Manitoba, where they spent two days in Cross Lake and one day in Winnipeg at
Brian Elliott of Clean Water Action Alliance of MN got interested in the trip
after hearing a presentation at Arise Bookstore in Minneapolis by two members of
Pimicikamak Cree Nation. Up until then, Clean Water Action had been concerned
about problems arising from the use of nuclear and coal fire power, but hydro
power had been less prominent on their list of concerns.
"The reason we need to get our heads around this issue," Elliott explained, "is
that when electricity is deregulated, NSP would like to label hydro power as
clean and renewable." Elliott needed to know how problematic hydro power is and
how serious it would be if Manitoba Hydro were to build future dams in order to
complete its projected expansion - power lines to Chicago and larger contracts
For the inhabitants of Cross Lake, as for thousands of other Canadian indigenous
people, life revolves around water. When the waters are troubled, people's lives
collapse. Contrary to seasonal patterns that have existed for thousands of
years, now, in summer, water from the Nelson River is stored in the giant
reservoir that Lake Winnipeg has become. In winter, water is released to
generate the higher amounts of electricity needed for heating.
Unnaturally fluctuating water levels wreak havoc with everything. The people
used to live off of trapping, hunting and fishing. It was their livelhood. Now,
because the natural water-dependent habitats of fish, wildlife and game are
damaged, animals are scarce. Elliott learned that migratory patterns of large
game have changed and fisheries are devastated. There is 85 percent unemployment
in the area.
The waterways that have served as highways are not dangerous and unpredictable
because of swirling debris and continuously changing topography. When new reefs
and sandbars materialize just below the surface, they often can't be seen
because the water is so dirty. When the water freezes, the ice is often not
solid enough to support the weight of vehicles. Also, it is impossible to tell
if there is air or water supporting the ice. Many people have died in navigation
Swimming and skating for children are joys of the past. Now, children get rashes
from swimming. Diving, they hit their heads on submerged logs. The eight skating
rinks that used to dot the lake shore are memories. Now, water seeps out from
under the ice at the shore and forms knee-deep slush. A 500-seat ice arena was
built by the government, but it is not used because the village can't afford to
People used to carry buckets of water from the lake for drinking and washing.
Now, even if it were possible to get through the mud along the shore to the
water, the water is too dirty to use. Water is hauled form "inland lakes," lakes
that are off the river, and stored in tanks.
"It's hard to grasp without seeing what it's like," Elliott reported.
Elliott feels it is important to make sure Minnesotans know the story and to
help people understand what is happening in northern Manitoba. Clean Water
Action's major solution is still conservation. The less energy we need, the less
we have to rely on undesirable energy sources. He now considers hydroelectricity
from Manitoba Hdyro an undesirable energy source.
For further information, call Clean Water Action Alliance of MN, 612-623-3666 or
Ann Stewart, information officer in the US for Pimicikamak Cree
[accompanied by two photos with the following captions: Since the construction
of five dams along the Nelson River, water levels are reversed from what is
natural. Now, the water is high in winter and low in summer. By December, high
mud-filled water will hide these "spiders" [photo shows treeroots and stumps] a
few inches beneath the surface, a treachery for small boats; Cross Lake,
Manitoba, Pimicikamak Cree Nation village of about 5000 residents, 450 miles
north of Winnipeg, October, 1999 [aerial view].]