Mactaquac and Restoring the St. John River 1

Telegraph Journal - Commentary

Mactaquac and restoring the St. John River
Peter Cronin Commentary

In the first part of this two-part commentary, the New Brunswick Salmon Council wishes to acknowledge Mr. Keith Helmuth’s thoughtful commentary about the future of the Mactaquac dam (Telegraph-Journal, May 2).

We also wish to challenge several points raised by Mr. Larry Jewett (President, Friends of Mactaquac Lake) in his review (Telegraph-Journal, May 5) of Mr. Helmuth’s commentary. In the second part, we will suggest alternatives and give our perspective on the Mactaquac dam project.

An issue raised by both Mr. Helmuth and Mr. Jewett was whether it would be worth restoring the river if the primary intent were to benefit the depressed Atlantic salmon population of the upper St. John River system. The reason advanced by both gentlemen was that the St. John River may become too warm for salmon. Mr. Jewett brought up the Rivers Institute’s Allen Curry’s conjectures about future excessive St. John River warming. We contacted Dr. Curry, and he explained to us that,“even without the dams the salmon have to deal with a warming climate and . . . other species that out-compete salmon in warmer water . . . We don’t know how salmon will respond. I (Dr. Curry) also said that the best fish passage is no dams (plural) and the best chance for salmon in a warming climate is the“best”fish passage.”

The Salmon Council notes that almost all upper St. John River salmon are produced in the high-elevation Tobique River and its tributaries where there are healthy brook trout populations as well as salmon. Brook trout have much lower temperature preferences than do juvenile salmon. It would take an extreme temperature increase to make these streams too warm for salmon.

High ocean temperatures are probably contributing to salmon population declines in the southern range of the species. However, the North Atlantic Ocean’s temperatures shift suddenly (oscillate) between warm and cold phases of approximately 30 years’duration. The current warm phase started in the early 1990s, so we are due for a cold phase to occur before the chosen Mactaquac option is implemented.

On Mr. Jewett’s points:

He states that the Mactaquac Generating Station is a 650 Megawatt (Mw) facility. This value refers to its peak production. Mactaquac, however, operates at only 28 per cent capacity on an average annual average basis. So, the Mactaquac generating station could be better termed a 182 Mw facility.

Next, Mr. Jewett implies that solar power could not replace Mactaquac’s lost generating capacity because the largest facility in New Brunswick now produces only $1,200 worth of power per year. Assuming proper panel orientation, solar power production is simply a function of panel area and hours of sunlight. A program to encourage solar panel installation would generate power at a capital cost that is now competitive with that of the Mactaquac renewal. For example, the capital cost for solar power is now $3 per watt. The sun shines on average 4.5 hours per day in N.B. So solar’s efficiency here is 18.75 per cent (4.5 ÷ 24). This equates to $2.9 billion of capital investment (182 Mw X $3 X 18.75 per cent), which is in the ballpark of the current capital cost estimate for Mactaquac of $3 billion to $5 billion. The cost for the Mactaquac renewal will certainly increase, so we have used an estimate of $5 billion for the remainder of this commentary. Solar power cost will almost certainly decrease, and if adequately encouraged, the citizens of New Brunswick would gladly supply much of this capital requirement.

Mr. Jewett says that alternative forms of power such as solar are not developed to a point that we should be relying on them, and that we should not be abandoning dams that have served us well for 100 years. However, solar power infrastructure is being installed successfully worldwide right now. The Mactaquac generating station has served us for 50 years but is broken down. It will take $5 billion to fix. We are not suggesting abandoning functional generating stations that are producing power and revenue, as Mr. Jewett suggests for fossil fuel stations. We are advising the demolition of a facility that is at the end of its useful life.

Mr. Jewett brings up British Columbia’s Peace River site“C”as evidence that new hydropower development is financially viable. Site“C”has twice the generating head of Mactaquac, which requires a 60-mile long impoundment to gain a head difference of only 100 feet. Mactaquac is a marginal hydro-power site. To re-invest in this site is financial folly. As Mr. Helmuth said, if the dam did not already exist, it would never be considered for development.

Mr. Jewett’s statement that Mactaquac Lake is one of the top smallmouth bass lakes in Canada opens the question as to whether the Mactaquac headpond is actually a“lake”. Setting aside the debate as to whether smallmouth bass, as a non-native species, deserves the same protection consideration as the iconic native New Brunswick Atlantic salmon, the headpond is not a productive fish habitat.

With its huge upstream river basin, the Mactaquac headpond’s flushing rate is too great for the water body to adequately store nutrients. Algae and zooplankton are rapidly drained away, and the offshore, mid-water region of the headpond is a desert. The nearshore shallows, where detritus accumulates, are the only regions that produce significant fish biomass.

Mr. Jewett questions the value of the land exposed through river restoration. We suspect that this land is very valuable.

Mr. Jewett raises the point that the shoreline of the headpond is home to many tourist attractions. He did not bring up the value of private properties, but the same principle would apply to them: When the headpond was created, it was commonly understood that it had an expiry date. The builders of infrastructure on the shores of a temporary water body should be aware of this fact. The restored river and river valley will offer similar, but more permanent opportunities.

Peter Cronin is president of the New Brunswick Salmon Council