NB Power has a huge decision to make by the end of 2016.
The Crown utility has to decide what to do with the Mactaquac dam, located almost 20 kilometres up the St. John River from Fredericton.
The hydroelectric dam came online in 1968. It cost roughly $100 million to build, and it was expected to last 100 years.
But an alkali-aggregate reaction between the concrete paste and the sand and gravel mix used to make the concrete means the dam must be decommissioned 40 years ahead of schedule.
That chemical reaction means the dam shifts and expands, which affects how the turbines and spillways function. Crews are already being brought in every year to cut slits in the concrete and alleviate the tension.
“It’s basically like your car – you can only take it for so long, then at some point in time, it’s not worth that value to put any more [money] into it,” said Brent Corey, an NB Power engineer. “You basically have to either replace it, rebuild it, or something like that.”
The expansion in the concrete has already caused equipment to move slightly.
Cracks in the floor of the generating station have been patched, and steel beams have been installed in the facility to mitigate the effects of the chemical reaction.
The problems with the concrete mean the dam is projected to reach the end of its useful life by 2030. NB Power has already ruled out rebuilding the existing generating station in sections to extend its life expectancy.
However, the utility is considering three options for the dam.
The first is to replace the powerhouse and spillway while keeping the current earthen dam and headpond.
The second one includes building a new spillway and maintaining the earthen dam, but removing the existing structures and keeping the headpond without generating power.
The third option is to drain the headpond, remove the earthen dam and concrete structures and restore the river to a free-flow state.
But this isn’t the first controversy surrounding the dam. In fact, it was born in controversy.
Many acres of farmland and small settlements were flooded when the headpond was raised.
Thousands of people were also displaced while the dam was being built, and some wondered if it should have been built at all.
Larry Jewett of Keswick Ridge was among those who were displaced.
The president of the Friends of Mactaquac Lake group – which wants the headpond maintained – said his family’s homestead property in the former village of Jewett’s Mills was expropriated.
“My father wasn’t that old, and we moved to a much better farm,” said Jewett. “The way the formulas worked out, he got a fair price for his property. A lot of people didn’t get a fair price for their property, there’s no question about it.”
Jewett said many of those who were affected at the time didn’t want to move, as there were a lot of cases where their properties had been in their families for a few generations.
“When you go through something like that in such a short period of time, there are winners and losers, and it’s never perfect.”
– Larry Jewett
Jewett said the building of the dam provided a significant economic boom for the Mactaquac region, but those who were the most devastated were seniors who were bought out and had their houses moved or destroyed.
“They were retired and lived in their house and likely had been there for their whole lives,” he said. “Their families were there, and the house had been handed down to them in many cases.”
It’s that kind of upheaval Jewett worries will happen again if the headpond is drained. Today, he owns the marina at Mactaquac Provincial Park, and he builds and rents houseboats for a living.
“The community has come to rely on that body of water.”
The town of Nackawic, located more than 60 kilometres west of Fredericton, was formed by homes that were moved from nearby communities before the headpond was raised.
Kings Landing Historical Settlement in Prince William, almost a half-hour drive from the provincial capital, was also created when the land where its buildings sat would be flooded.
As well, Mactaquac Provincial Park was developed across the river from the dam. Sport fishing is popular on the headpond, too.
The headpond has provided plenty of tourism benefits, but it marked the demise of some other tourist attractions. A couple of waterfalls and gorges in the Nackawic area now sit under several metres of water, and a renowned salmon fishing pool in Hartland was inundated.
An island where the park facilities were located in Woodstock was also flooded.
However, people’s livelihoods revolve around having more than 100 feet of extra water for 100 kilometres these days.
“It’s a big part of our economy, and it’s a good economy,” said Jewett. “It’s not heavy industry. Even the dam itself has no smokestack.”
“We kind of like having a factory in our community that has no smokestack.”
– Larry Jewett
When asked what it’s like to have his livelihood focused around what is essentially a massive man-made lake, Jewett said it’s the best job in the world.
“I don’t get much for a summer vacation, but it’s not a bad gig if you’re out on a sunny day pumping gas at the marina,” he said.
“It’s part of our community. It’s our way of life. If it’s there for 50 years, and it’s never threatened, you don’t realize how much you might miss it until you start thinking it through.”
There are also fears that property values throughout the headpond region could plummet if waterfront properties along the river end up having less waterfront someday.
As well, the dam serves as a key transportation link between busy roads on both sides of the river.
But NB Power’s decision for the dam – whatever that might be – won’t just affect tourism and the economy.
There are environmental concerns, as well, where the dam blocked fish passage and interrupted the natural flow of river sediment when it was built.
Jewett said the modern Mactaquac project would likely include ways to improve fish passage, but the effects of disturbing the sediment could devastate most of the watershed. Public opinion also varies regarding renewable energy and the cleanliness of the energy provided by Mactaquac.
There are also differing opinions about renewable energy and how clean the energy provided by Mactaquac is.
New Brunswick Green Party Leader David Coon said it’s hard to pick a preferred option for the dam without all of the information about the economic and environmental impacts.
He said the potential costs of the project should have been finalized when NB Power held public consultation sessions last fall, and a plan for improving fish migration should have already been in place at the time.
NB Power estimates that it could cost anywhere from $3 billion to $5 billion to proceed with any of the three options.
“That’s a huge ballpark,” said Coon. “You can’t do it at any cost because that’s not responsible. Without knowing what kinds of options they’ve got for significantly improving or even providing fish passage, how do you weigh those options?”
Kelly Bronson, a science and technology professor at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, is a consultant on the project. Her role is mostly process-oriented.
She initially favoured keeping the headpond intact, but now she’s not so sure.
“It turns out that, on every value component, a myriad of consequences – economic, social and environmental – are raised,” said Bronson. “The trick in making the final decision for NB Power is going to be trying to weigh those consequences.”
“The trick in making a decision … is that it’s not a clear-cut decision.”
– Kelly Bronson
The social concerns Bronson raised were similar to Jewett’s points about whether a similar upheaval to what happened in the 1960s in western New Brunswick could take place again.
“It seems like it was really devastating for lots of people,” she said, referring to the expropriation of land that made way for the headpond almost 50 years ago.
Jewett said that acquisition of property on NB Power’s part didn’t involve as much consultation as the modern-day project.
“That was the way government did things then,” he said. “Government decided and off they went.”
Bronson said that’s likely why NB Power is doing things differently today.
“It’s also the case that times have changed.”
– Kelly Bronson
“It’s [a matter of] what the land is used for today that it wasn’t [before] and how it has changed since 1968,” said Corey.
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