Canada Looks to Expand Hydro Exports to US

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as clean, it’s in the context of air emissions.” But often utilities use the term “clean” categorically, without caveat or qualification.  This is misleading. Just because dams do not have carbon-spewing smokestacks does not make them clean. A dam is not an environmental improvement or favor to a watershed, as the assertions of cleanliness almost suggests.

Canadian dams permanently flood forest lands, negatively impact water quality and disturb the fragile ecological balance of highly productive riparian zones. The ecological decline they cause is ongoing and cumulative. Tony Maas, who works for the Canadian branch of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), said the natural fluctuations in water levels are the “master variable in organizing a river ecosystem,” giving key “cues” to other species. Dams destroy the ecology of river systems by changing the volume, quality and timing of water flows downstream. The evidence of this is visible in dammed Canadian rivers, as it is in the hundreds of millions of dollars paid to mitigate and compensate for damages caused by dams. Manitoba Hydro alone has spent over C$700 million to address damages from its “clean” hydro projects.

A 2011 report about Canada’s boreal forests by the Pew Environment Group considers both pros and cons of hydro. The report says that although hydropower projects are “comparatively low carbon emitters in comparison to many conventional energy sources,” they cause “significant impacts to wildlife habitat, ecological processes and aboriginal communities.”

The argument for hydropower as a climate solution tends to dodge these complex trade-offs, relying rather on over-simplified assumptions. In response to one of humanity’s greatest challenges, the hydropower industry simply offers the revival of energy mega-projects first conceived of decades ago. While a case can be made for spending tens of billions of dollars to increase exports of hydropower from Canada to the U.S., the stronger case is for making conservation the dominant, immediate energy priority. That is the only way to ensure that Canada doesn’t become an enabler of a notoriously wasteful continent  that is fiddling while the planet burns.  

Will Braun works for the Interfaith Task Force on Northern Hydro Development in Winnipeg, Canada ( A version of this article first appeared in This Magazine.