Forgotten Giants of the Nechako River

Written by June Wood, Author,  Home to the Nechako
The Nechako River originates in the northern reaches of the Interior Plateau of British Columbia, in a vast chain of lakes that stretches to the north and to the south, on the eastern border of the Coast Mountains. Prior to Alcan’s construction of the Kenney dam in 1952, this chain of spectacular lakes was connected by vibrant, productive rivers that ultimately emptied into the Nechako River at the outlet of Natalkuz Lake. The Nechako was then the second largest tributary to the Fraser River. Now, approximately 70% of the Nechako’s water is diverted westward through a 16 kilometre long diversion tunnel through Mount Dubose in the Tahtsa Range. The diverted water is used to generate electricity to provide power for Rio Tinto Alcan’s aluminum smelter at Kitimat and also to sell to B. C. Hydro. There is no water outlet at the Kenney Dam, instead the impounded water is backed up and the flow regulated through gates at Skins Lake. From there the water moves through Cheslatta and Murray Lakes before emptying into the Nechako river-bed eight kilometres below the Kenney Dam.

Clouds drift lazily on a peaceful autumn day along the Nechacko River near Fort Fraser, BC Canada ©iStockphoto.com/eppicphotography
Clouds drift lazily on a peaceful autumn day along the Nechacko River near Fort Fraser, BC Canada ©iStockphoto.com/eppicphotography

The Metrics drawn up for the WWF’s Freshwater Health Assessment are very pertinent to the Nechako River, particularly, the mention of waterflow being a critical driver of ecosystem health.  An artificial flow pattern has been created in the Nechako that is designed mainly to accommodate sockeye salmon as they travel up the Nechako before turning into the Stuart River to spawn in that river system. No consideration has been given to the Nechako white sturgeon or to the health of the Nechako River ecosystem as a whole. The spring freshet in the Nechako has been drastically reduced from the historic volume and the white sturgeon is known to spawn on the declining freshet. Adding to the problem of an unseasonal flow volume and pattern, silting of the spawning habitat (thought to be a contributing factor in Nechako white sturgeon recruitment failure) has occurred. Two avulsions which occured when large amounts of water were released from the Skins Lake spillway (one in 1961 and another in 1972) may have contributed to silting the problem. How the mixture of sediment inputs (e.g. from the avulsions, bank erosion, agricultural inputs) have interacted with the flow, is the focus of currant investigations. Work by the Nechako White Sturgeon Recovery Initiative is aimed at enacting the actions required to ensure this remarkable fish continues to exist in the Nechako system. Visit www.nechakowhitewhitesturgeon.org for more information on the Nechako white sturgeon and the White Sturgeon Recovery Initiative.
A rare juvenile Nechako white sturgeon is released back into the Nechako River during the fall juvenile index program. Nechako white sturgeon are experiencing recruitment failure meaning that there are few young sturgeon to replace the aging population.” © NWSRI / Carrier Sekani Tribal Council
A rare juvenile Nechako white sturgeon is released back into the Nechako River during the fall juvenile index program. Nechako white sturgeon are experiencing recruitment failure meaning that there are few young sturgeon to replace the aging population.
© NWSRI / Carrier Sekani Tribal Council

June Wood is a long time advocate for Nechako Sturgeon and author of Home to the Nechako, the River and the Land published by Heritage House in March 2013.  For further historical background on the Nechako River visit the Nechako Environmental Enhancement’s website.