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Hydro deal raises questions

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An agreement signed last fall between Manitoba Hydro Misipawistik Cree Nation -- formerly Grand Rapids First Nation -- averted a battle over relicensing of the Grand Rapids Dam, but it also raises questions.

The agreement hinges on the dam's 50-year Water Power Act licence, which expires in 2015. Hydro has applied to renew that licence for another 50 years and Misipawistik leaders had signalled they were going to fight that renewal. But with the new deal, Misipawistik commits to "actively support Hydro's application for renewal of its licence without any amendment to its operating conditions for an additional 50 years."

In exchange, the Cree nation of about 1,700 members gets $58 million over 50 years.

Though the agreement clears away one of the pricklier obstacles on Hydro's crowded regulatory horizon, it must be asked, why the secrecy? Similar agreements with First Nations have been announced to the press and posted on Manitoba Hydro's website. Not this one. Hydro refused a recent Freedom of Information request for a copy of the agreement, though an unsigned draft of the deal, believed to be the version ratified, was subsequently obtained by the Interfaith Task Force on Northern Hydro Development.

When a Crown utility signs a $58-million deal, ratepayers and citizens deserve access to the details. If an agreement of this scale needs to be made in the shadows, something is askew.

Second question: Why now? Last March, Hydro reported spending $91 million over the lifetime of the Grand Rapids Dam on compensation and mitigation in Misipawistik and other affected communities. But judging by the recent deal, it knew it had substantial remaining obligations. Why did it address those obligations only when faced with a threat to an important licence, rather than decades ago?

Aboriginal people who suffer ongoing hydro impacts and who desperately need a share in the abundance of this country should be treated generously as a matter of principle, not just when they pose a regulatory threat or when their consent is required for a new dam.

The north is a region of wealth -- an average of $3.8 million worth of hydro power flows down from northern Manitoba every day -- but decades after the dams were built, affected First Nations still suffer poverty.

Third question: Do compensation agreements with affected people absolve Hydro and government of the responsibility to address environmental impacts? Despite various Hydro programs to mitigate environmental harm, widespread damage is clearly visible upstream of the Grand Rapids Dam and throughout much of the northern hydro system. The Misipawistik agreement, like many other deals Hydro has signed in the north, does not require the company to address these harms to Manitoba's waterways.

In an August 2010 letter to the Interfaith Task Force on Northern Hydro Development, a provincial official wrote, in relation to another northern hydro project, that agreements with hydro-affected First Nations "fully address the adverse effects of the Churchill River Diversion Project." This reflects the prevailing attitude in government and Hydro -- environmental harm can be overlooked as long as compensation deals are in place.

Of course, compensation is essential, but fish don't have pockets. Political solutions do not solve environmental problems.

Fourth question: Do old licences fit a new era? As stated in the Misipawistik agreement, Hydro wants the operating conditions set out in the original 1965 licence -- conditions that determine the limits within which Hydro can control water levels -- to remain unchanged when the licence is renewed.

The same is true for Lake Winnipeg Regulation and Churchill River Diversion, for which Hydro is seeking to have interim licences converted to final licences: Hydro proposes no changes to operating conditions.

Hydro's northern operations flood more than 2,000 square kilometres of boreal forest -- an area equal to two-thirds of the Whiteshell -- and despoil thousands of kilometres of shoreline. It manipulates the water regime of Manitoba's two largest rivers and three of its five largest lakes. These huge projects most likely would not receive approval if built today. We do things differently now. The science of environmental management has advanced. Societal values have evolved. The '60s are over.

Operating conditions must be reviewed and revised.

Manitoba Hydro has dodged a bullet by settling with Misipawistik, but it still faces other First Nations upstream of the Grand Rapids Dam.

Also, six more Water Power Act licences expire in the next three years, including the Kelsey Dam on the Nelson River and three dams on the Winnipeg River. According to documents submitted to the Public Utilities Board, Hydro projects spending more than $40 million on "water licences and renewals" from 2011 to 2015.

These licence reviews provide an opportunity for Hydro to bring its existing projects into the modern era. This will require not only compensation for First Nations, but also a commitment to concerted mitigation, openness to new licence conditions and a commitment to public accountability.

Will Braun works for the Winnipeg-based Interfaith Task Force on Northern Hydro Development.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 14, 2012 A10

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