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SMRID releases Terms of Reference for Chin Reservoir Expansion Project

Posted on January 5, 2023 by Sunny South News
Chin Reservoir. Sunny South News file photo.

By Erika Mathieu
Sunny South News

Correction: It was previously reported the Alberta Wildlife Association filed a request for designation. This article has been corrected to show Ecojustice (on behalf of nine interested parties, including the Alberta Wilderness Association) filed the request for federal IAAC designation in 2021. Documents of support for this IAAC designation request were submitted by The Blood Tribe/Kainai, and Siksika First Nations. We apologize for this error.

The St. Mary River Irrigation District (SMRID) has announced the proposed terms of reference for the Chin Reservoir expansion project.

Following the publication of the proposed terms of reference (PTOR) on Nov. 3, a public engagement period commenced. The current project stage allows for public comment to be submitted to the director by Jan. 3, 2023. The director in this case is the Alberta Environment and Protected Areas (AEPA).

The existing Chin Reservoir is located just 15 km outside of the Town of Taber. The project will involve constructing a new dam and expanding the existing reservoir. The existing east and west dams were built in 1955, but neither of these have undergone any major modifications since their construction nearly 70 years ago. The PTOR also notes since the 40 Mile Coulee Reservoir was added to the SMRID for water storage in 1989 and demands have increased significantly for irrigation. According to the PTOR, “to meet the increased demand for irrigation SMRID has proposed to expand the existing Chin Reservoir which resides on privately-held land. Landowners continue to be included in the planning of the project.”

Section one of the terms of reference includes information about the public engagement currently underway as well as Indigenous consultation and how this feedback will be implemented, including concerns raised during public meetings. The proponent’s (SMRID) analysis of those concerns and the subsequent actions being taken to address those concerns are referred to in the PTOR.

SMRID is required to submit an environmental impact assessment report examining the potential environmental and cultural impact as a result of the Chin Reservoir’s expansion and the environmental impact assessment report is required to be drafted in compliance with the PTOR.

SMRID will be required to provide an overview of economic, environmental, and social impacts compared to benefits, as well as discuss their involvement in regional and cooperative efforts to address environmental and socio-economic issues associated with regional development and will be expected to report on the anticipated effects on water losses and gains resulting from the project’s operations.

Although a request for federal designation was submitted on behalf of multiple groups, the project was rejected for Federal Environmental designation (Impact Assessment Act, or IAA) earlier this year. However, the project will be subject to the provincial Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).

The SMRID will be required to identify fish species as at risk, may be at risk, threatened, endangered or sensitive, as well as species of cultural significance and must assess fish and species occurrence based on spring and fall sampling events. Studies must be conducted in sensitive (geographic) areas to determine spawning, rearing, and over-winter habitats and will require the SMRID to assess the potential impacts to fish and fish habitats and other aquatic resources as a result of the construction and operation of the project.

The PTOR’s Section five refers to historic resource studies and will require the SMRID to provide a summary of studies conducted to better assess the impact of the project on these historical resources including through a process of ongoing consultation with Indigenous groups impacted by the project. However, it is not clear how the proponent will specifically resolve any concerns of the project’s cumulative impact on Indigenous people and historical resources within the boundaries of the Blackfoot Confederacy.

The PTOR outlines “If consultation with Indigenous groups reveals traditional use areas and spiritual sites within project affected areas,” the proponent must work to mitigate these impacts “if the Indigenous community or group is willing to have these locations disclosed.” The PTOR stipulates the proponents (SMRID) must “discuss limitations to access for traditional uses during all stages of the Project,” and determine the impacts of the project on traditional uses and identify possible mitigation strategies to limit the degree to which the projects development conflicts with traditional land use. The PTOR further outlines consideration for how the project may alter or impact the abundance/availability of vegetation and wildlife with cultural and/or medicinal applications. However, the PTOR does not list potential steps to ensure these or other intangible Indigenous resources of cultural or historical significance will be protected.

In 2021, Ecojustice, (on behalf of nine interested parties) requested a a federal impact assessment of the entire project which included the expansion of the Chin Reservoir as well as Deadhorse Coulee in the Bow River Irrigation District and Snake Lake in Eastern Irrigation District.

Documents of support filed by the Blood Tribe and Siksika First Nations, supported this request for.  federal designation, which expressed the cumulative effects of the project were enough of a reason to uphold a federal environmental assessment. SMRID’s PTOR includes a section on these cumulative effects as the project is part of a larger initiative to expand irrigation infrastructure in Alberta. According to the PTOR, SMRID will be required to “discuss the project’s relative contribution to cumulative effects on regional groundwater with respective changes in groundwater quality, quantity, and conflicts with regional groundwater users.”

The Blood Tribe’s correspondence in support of an IAAC  designation claimed “the project will impact Blackfoot historical Resources by flooding an additional 650 hectares of land and due to this there is a higher likelihood that historical resources and artifacts belonging to the Blackfoot will be lost.” The letter also noted the precise value of these artefacts are intricately linked to place, geography, and story, particularly as the areas around streams and rivers in Southern Alberta are of “significant historical and cultural importance to the Blackfoot people.” The document drafted on behalf of the Blood Tribe, by lawyer Blair Feltmate also states ”to date, Canada has failed to recognize and accommodate Kainai’s water rights in relation to its Reserve lands. Alberta has adhered to an aggressive denial of Kainai’s water rights.”

While the PTOR acknowledges the requirement to consult with Indigenous groups throughout the project’s construction, the correspondence filed on behalf of Kainai, calls into question the will and capacity of “the Province” and its processes, to dutifully uphold legal obligations to the Blackfoot people. As the process is ongoing, SSN was not able to obtain a comment from the Blood Tribe on this matter.

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