Work to increase capacity of the Jacko Lake dam spillway, part of a “very high failure consequence dam” that stores water above Kamloops, is tied up in archeological and cultural heritage negotiations between two First Nations and KGHM, the company on whose land the lake sits.
However, the region’s dam safety officer does not believe the situation poses a safety risk.
“We are managing water levels appropriately and there is constant surveillance of the dam,” Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resources regional dam safety officer Darren Bennett told KTW.
While KGHM owns the land on which Jacko Lake sits, the lake’s dam is owned by private water users and the fish and wildlife branch of the provincial Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations. It is licensed for irrigation storage, serving properties downstream, and conservation.
As per dam safety regulations, which were strengthened in recent years following a breach that caused a mudslide and destroyed five homes near Oliver, a dam safety review was conducted by Jacko Lake dam owners in 2018.
The dam spillway, which discharges overflow water from the lake into Peterson Creek, was determined to be “inadequate in terms of its capacity,” Bennett said.
“It’s unable to accommodate peak flows in extreme events, so if there was an extreme event during freshet or spring time, spring flows, it wouldn’t be able to accommodate it, based on the regulations that are in place right now,” he said.
The Jacko Lake dam has been labelled by the province as a “very high consequence dam,” the second-highest classification based on potential impacts of a breach. To determine a dam’s classification, the province looks at population at risk, potential loss of life, environmental concerns, cultural heritage and infrastructure.
In the unlikely case of an extreme weather event causing the Jacko Lake dam to flood, Bennett explained that water could flow downstream through Peterson Creek into downtown Kamloops. Properties along the way could be at risk, including those in Knutsford along the creek’s path and those downtown, near the entrance to Peterson Creek Park.
As a result, the dam spillway has been ordered to be enlarged and armoured to prevent erosion. About two years later, however, that work remains in limbo. Bennett told KTW the province is doing what is “required based on our need to address First Nations rights.”
Bennett reiterated, however, he does not believe the situation poses a safety risk. He said a water bailiff pays close attention to water levels and water is released as needed.
“At this point in time, what we’re doing is requiring the dam owners to maintain a water level that can accommodate or attenuate any kind of peak flows,” Bennett said. “So, they’ll be lowering water levels, essentially, until the work can be completed.”
The land owned by KGHM — the Poland-based company behind the rejected Ajax copper and gold mine proposal — is at the centre of a legal dispute that has been before the courts for a half-decade.
The Jacko Lake area is known by local First Nations as Pipsell, a culturally significant area.
The Stk’emlupsemc te Secwepemc Nation, which consists of the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc and Skeetchestn First Nations, filed a land claim to Pipsell in B.C. Supreme Court in the fall of 2015, when KGHM was proposing the Ajax mine project.
The provincial government has stated its official opposition to the title claim, due to the fact it encompasses private property.
Calls by KTW to KGHM have not been returned.
Asked if the delay in completing the dam spillway work is linked to the SSN land claim and Pipsell, Bennet said: “We have to address each site individually. Certainly, the Pipsell area is of extreme importance to First Nations. We have to make sure that their needs are addressed and their concerns. That’s part of it, absolutely.”
Furthermore, Bennett said negotiations continue over who will do the archeological work.
“The province works towards the consultation requirements, but any archeology work that needs to be done off the ground is strictly a contract that’s put in place between the owners and whoever the archeologist is,” Bennett said.
A concerned water user, who agreed to speak with KTW on the basis of anonymity, said water users are prepared to spend the $100,000 necessary to complete the work and have agreed to an archeological assessment.
As the province works to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the water user said First Nations are no longer only consulted for work on waterways, but have the ability to approve the work.
The water user said the Skeetchestn band is, apparently, tying up the process.
“They said, ‘No, we don’t want the people that are going to do it to do it [archeological work]. We are going to sue,’” the water user said.
“The people that were to do the archeological investigation backed out because they didn’t want to be sued. It goes on and on and on and it’s totally unfair that they should have that kind of rights.
“All we’re trying to do is water the fields, grow hay for the cows and horses. We pay the taxes on the property, we pay all the water expenses. They don’t put a penny into any of it.”
Skeetchestn Chief Ron Ignace would not comment, telling KTW he has asked to put the issue on the agenda during an SSN joint council meeting this past Thursday.
“It’s a work in progress, that’s all I can say,” Ignace said.
The problem with archeological work, however, is that it requires digging into the ground.
Timing of that work is dictated by the season. At this point, the work likely won’t be completed until the spring, when flood risk is at its highest.
Last winter, as a safety precaution, water was released to lower Jacko Lake.
Fortunately for water users and anglers, a wet spring in 2019 helped to fill the lake back up, with some water users forced to alternate watering days.
Whether the same can be said for this spring remains to be seen. Water levels have yet to be lowered again this year.
That decision would be made prior to freshet in the spring, Bennett said.
Asked if lowering water levels could impact fish in Jacko Lake, Bennett said it could in the long term.
“They tell me that as a short-term solution, it’s not likely to impact the fishery element,” he said.
Meanwhile, water users remain on edge, noting significant impacts to their businesses should the taps run dry.
“I don’t believe that they should have the right to stop any work that we are doing,” the water user said.
“We are the keepers of the land, not them. They don’t want to have the work done and fields will dry up. That’s the bad part of it. They’re hurting the fish in the lake.”