Town divided over plans to dam Val-Jalbert waterfall
Published Saturday, April 6, 2013 4:26PM EDT
Last Updated Saturday, April 6, 2013 6:46PM EDT
A thundering waterfall is a majestic example of nature's will, but in the town of Val-Jalbert in Lac-Saint-Jean -- it's also the source of a bitter debate.
A project to dam the Ouiatchouan River and its waterfall is dividing the community: The dam would be a source of electricity and millions of dollars in revenue for a region badly in need of investment, but opponents say damming the waterway is a tragic mistake.
The Ouiatchouan River has power at every turn -- and its legends run deep, said Michael Paul of the Mashteuiatsh Innu First Nations community.
“It's a spiritual site for us. The water is life for us,” he said. “There's a pool, a beautiful place to fish, and it's very easy to go down. You can catch very beautiful trout.”
The rocks on the riverbed are said to symbolize the local Innu community's grandfathers; the water, its grandmothers.
That fishing spot will be nearly dried up under a plan to install a mini-hydro dam, one of seven mini-dams launched by the Liberal government.
The Parti Quebecois government has cancelled all those projects except Val-Jalbert, because the province’s energy minister says Quebec will have a surplus of energy until 2027.
Val-Jalbert, however, was the only project where builders already had final approval.
The dam will scar the landmark falls, said project opponent Claudette Martel whose family has lived near the falls for 60 years, and whose father and grandfather were mayors of Val-Jalbert.
“When I’m in front of the fall there is always a seat, a bench I always feel – and I know this is not true - that my father is there,” said Martel. “There’s no way I’ll go see a push-button waterfall.”
About a century ago, loggers used the Ouiatchouan River to send logs shooting downriver and over the falls, so promoters of the project today say they wonder what’s wrong with making a little more money from the falls, especially if you could preserve the beauty for the tourist season
The adjustable dam will reduce the waterfall to a third of its normal flow in summer when tourists flock to the falls and the 1920s historic theme park town right next to the falls.
At night and all winter, however, the falls will be cut even more to power up the turbines.
Making the falls look good for tourists is key, said Dany Bouchard of the historic village of Val-Jalbert.
“It doesn't make sense to think that we would go forward with a project like that without having the insurance that the falls are going to be there for the tourists,” he said.
The dam will generate 16 megawatts of electricity per year, enough to power 3,300 homes. The local municipalities and the Innu community expect to make a total of $90 million in net profit over 25 years.
“We need this project because we are in great economic difficulty,” said Pascal Gagnon of the Roberval Chamber of Commerce. “A lot of people have hope in this project.”
The profits will go to other local projects, he said, such as upgrading farms and boosting tourism.
Opponents, however, say people only woke up to the project last fall. Two recent polls say a majority now oppose the dam.
The dam won't begin to run until 2014, so opponents hope there's still time before a river thousands of years in the making in altered.