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Changing the flow of water: The Kenny Dam and disruption of systems

By Amy Klepetar

July 10, 2023


Amy dam

It’s hard to tell this massive story of a massive dam, and resultant massive changes to ecosystems, Indigenous lands, settlements, and traditions; and of the economy and infrastructure of BC, in fewer than 1000 words. But it’s a story we all should know something about…

After the end of World War II, when possibilities for development and economic growth seemed limitless, the government of British Columbia sought ways to entice industry investment into their huge province. During this era, over 100 hydroelectric dams were built in the US by the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers to provide cheap and pollution-free energy to the western states (Lee, 2023), and BC saw similar potential in the Nechako River watershed, which drained nearly 5500 square miles of the central part of the province. However, it could only work if the dam and reservoir were built in such a way that reversed the flow of the water, changing from eastward flow out of its headwaters into the Fraser system and south, to a new flow west out to BC’s north coast. As part of its promotion campaign with various industrial giants, the BC government invited the Aluminum Company of Canada to see if any of the BC coast was suitable for siting a huge aluminum smelter (notorious for requiring large amounts of energy). The combination of this potential energy source along with a deep sea port that could be used for importation of raw materials and exportation of aluminum, sold them on a piece of land at the head of the Douglas Channel, which had been inhabited for countless generations by Haisla people (Kitimat Museum & Archives, ND).

NFCP maponly 01The Kenney Dam stopped the flow of water into the Nechako River and began the creation of a huge reservoir behind it. At the time, it was the largest rockfill dam in the world and, in total, 900 square km were flooded (Kitimat Museum & Archives, ND). Hydroelectric power was not generated at the dam on the east side of the newly-created reservoir, though. Reversing the flow of the waters meant that water accumulated on the west side of the dam and power was generated once the water flowed through a 16-km long tunnel built through the Coast Mountains, and through series of penstocks covering a nearly 800-metre drop to the Kemano power generation station. This power station and mini-town to house workers was built on the traditional homelands of the Kitlope (Xenaksiala) people (Mussett, 2021).

In addition to the Haisla and Xenaksiala lands that were used to build the smelter, company townsite, and power generation station, over 400 square km of Cheslatta Nation territory was flooded by the creation of the dam, reservoir and accompanying spillway in 1952. Historical accounts from those living in villages now underwater tell a tale of water levels rising without notice or proper compensation, and certainly without consent. Ancient and recent gravesites were flooded, villages had to be abandoned and traplines were unusable (Hosgood, 2022a). The losses and damage were incomprehensible and traumatic. What had taken countless generations to build were seen as minor (if noticed at all) bumps in the road to “progress”, “ingenuity” and economic prosperity. There is no yardstick to measure benefits related to healthy, sustainable food systems or the cost of losing knowledge and culture resulting from living on the land since time immemorial, so these were never part of the equation.

Amy SalmonSo What? The changes to ecosystems on both sides of the Coast Mountains are almost too huge to comprehend. The Nechako was one of the largest tributaries of the mighty Fraser River, and now two-thirds of its flow was no longer entering that major river system. Behind the dam, forests were submerged as water levels rose, with trees rotting underwater and clogging shorelines once they became untethered from their previously rooted locations (Hosgood, 2022b). The loss of traplines and hunting and foraging grounds is incalculable, for cultural identity, as sources of healthy land-based food, and as history. Salmon and sturgeon spawning were impacted as ancient pathways embedded in the biology of these fish were altered by construction, silt buildup, new waterways and physical barriers (Hosgood, 2022b). Salmon represents not only the foundation of survival for most First Nations in the region, but also a centrepiece of culture, ceremony, and traditional day-to-day life as it was harvested, processed, and preserved. The impact on nearby Stellat’en and Saik’uz First Nations, although their villages were not flooded, has been especially devastating as they have watched salmon and sturgeon numbers plummet in their traditional fishing grounds since the dam was built. Warmer river temperatures due to lower water volumes and buildup of silt and sand from lower flows, have damaged fish habitat and spawning grounds in those areas. Nechako white sturgeon are now endangered. Countless generations of Indigenous children had thrived, eating food from the land and waters, but in the blink of an eye, much of this was lost in the name of progress and profit.

There is little evidence to show that meaningful consultation was done with any of the impacted and displaced First Nations. The compensation that was given was done to appease guilt or government, and could in no way make up for the huge losses. This was one of many instances that devastated culture and tradition, broke relationships with the land, and affected the health of Indigenous communities in countless ways. Many, including the province of BC and the shareholders and executives of the Aluminum Company of Canada (ALCAN), and now of the new owner, Rio Tinto Alcan, have become very wealthy as a result of this project. Beyond just water systems, this dam and accompanying infrastructure have disrupted nearly all systems in the region. The eco-systems, the human-land systems, the land-water systems, the human-to-water systems, the human-to-human systems. By accepting these disruptions, we are accepting a trade-off from ways of life that resulted in sustainable co-existence between humans and the natural world, for one that prioritizes human thriving above all else.

Amy totem
Small totem outside Saik’uz First Nation Potlach House
Now What? The changes to these systems cannot be undone. Reversing the flow of water back to the way it had been created could not likely solve these problems, but reparations flowing from those who benefitted most to those who lost the most is one way that justice can be served. There have been many associated lawsuits brought against the province and ALCAN, some with settlements, some still in the courts, and some interrupted or stalled due to the recent sale of the aluminum smelter to mega-corporation Rio Tinto, whose reputation for human rights and environmental violations across the globe and especially in developing countries, reads like an evil villain’s playbook. But salmon and oolichan/eulachon still spawn up the Kemano river from a place near the town of Kitimat, and Haisla residents of nearby Kitimaat Village harvest from these runs. Rio Tinto is providing millions of dollars to fund an archeological excavation of ancient Cheslatta village sites, along with recovery of ancient human remains which have eroded from the banks of flooded waterways (Hosgood, 2022c). This may be an important step toward healing and connecting with history. An appeal currently underway in the BC courts by the Stellat’en and Saik’uz First Nations seeks not to destroy the dam, but to regulate the flow of water back toward the Nechako such that downstream fisheries are not as impacted. Both the province of BC and Rio Tinto have contributed millions toward conservation of the Nechako River white sturgeon (Government of BC, 2013) and these little bits of light show that new co-benefits can grow, even in the face of massive destruction. 

For more information, see:

Government of BC (2013) Conservation program aims to save endangered sturgeon

Hosgood, A. (2022a) 70 years after the flood: Cheslatta’s fight to reclaim its territory.

Hosgood, A. (2022b) How the Kenney Dam broke the Nechako River.

Hosgood, A. (2022c) Repairing the devastation of the Nechako Reservoir.

Kitimat Museum & Archives (N.D.) Alcan project history: The vision

Lee, G. (2023) Energy History: The big dam era. Yale University teaching units.

Mussett, B. (2021) The Birth of Kitimat.

A good map and photos of Kemano can be found here:

To get an idea of the scale of the Aluminum smelter, see images on the Rio Tinto site:

Historical Kitimat development photos:


1. Rio Tinto Aluminum Smelter at Kitimat
Iain Cameron, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

4. Information about the appeal by Stellat’en and Saik’uz First Nations:

Nechako River System with Kenney Dam, Kemano Power Station and Kitimat.

Image used with permission from Nechako Fisheries Conservation Program:

3. Small totem outside Saik’uz First Nation Potlach House By User:Themightyquill - Own work, CC BY-
SA 2.5,
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.

4. By Bureau of Land Management - My Public Lands Roadtrip CC BY 2.0,
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.