The Fight to Save the Kokish Ends with Tough Loss

Story by Mark Hume

The Kokish River drops quickly down out of the mountains along the backbone of Vancouver Island, in British Columbian, near the small town of Port McNeil.

It supports endangered summer and winter runs of steelhead, as well as five species of wild salmon, cutthroat trout and Dolly Varden.

It’s steeps sides make “the jungle” difficult to fish but those who have learned its secrets, including Willie Mitchell, a defenceman for the L.A. Kings and a former Vancouver Canuck, say it is a magical river.

Willie Mitchell with a Kokish River Steelhead. Photo by Felix Geiser

But now it is threatened by a proposed hydropower project that would not only dam it, but which would divert 11 kilometres of the river into a pipe.

In a decision that shocked environmentalists, and saddened Mr. Mitchell, the government announced in May 2012 that it had approved the project by Brookfield Energy Group.

The B.C. Ministry of Environment and the federal department of Fisheries and Oceans, said the project would damage fish habitat, but that the effects could be mitigated.

“Sufficient instream flow is the primary mitigation measure to reduce impacts to fish and fish habitat, and significant alterations were made to the originally proposed regime,” states a screening report issued under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.

The government promises to ensure that enough water is released for the fish, and to compensate for lost habitat by breaching an existing berm in the estuary to create new habitat.

When the British Columbia government began to promote small hydro projects several years ago, it did so by proposing that they would all be built above natural barriers, in waters that did not have fish.

Slowly, and steadily, however, these projects have been pushing into valuable fish-bearing waters, and now the Kokish proposal makes it clear that any river is fair game.

NHL players don’t often get involved in controversial public issues, but Mr. Mitchell  dropped his gloves on this one, because he said he just couldn’t stand by  and watch a river he loves get destroyed.

His involvement in the movement to stop the project spurred others to step forward – and soon he found  himself part of a movement that had more than 50 B.C. wilderness tourism businesses, fishing and outdoor groups, river advocates and others urging government to reject the project.

“The Kokish River is an excellent example of where not to put a run of the river project,” said Perry Wilson, President of the BC Federation of Fly Fishers.

Brian Braidwood, President of the Steelhead Society of BC, wrote to B.C. Premier Christy Clark, telling her that “In terms of potential anadromous fisheries impacts, the Kokish proposal may be the worst example of an existing or proposed small hydro project in British Columbia.”

Mark Angelo, a nationally known rivers advocate, called the project “just far too risky” to be approved.

And Gwen Barlee, Policy Director with the Wilderness Committee, said that the broad coalition that  formed against the proposed dam showed just how valuable the river is.

Vancouver Island from Google Earth showing the location of the Kokish River

“The Kokish River is one of the last places you should put a hydropower project and that is why hockey players, lodge owners, fishing groups and wilderness tourism operators are standing up for this river,” she said.

“The Kokish is close to my heart,”  said Mr. Mitchell , who grew up in Port McNeill, just a few kilometres from the river on northern Vancouver Island.

“I learned to steelhead fish on that river as a boy . . .I call it my little therapy place. I missed time with a concussion when I was with the Canucks. Where did I go to heal? I walked up and down that river every day,”  he said.

“I have travelled the world because of hockey and I can tell you I don’t see many places like that,” he said of the Kokish.

“That river is a gem  . . .I am not against IPP’s [independent power projects], but this is not the right place,” he said.

“Do I think we need clean power? Yes. Do I think this is  the right place for it? No,” said Mr. Mitchell, who loves fishing in B.C.’s wild rivers.

Mr. Mitchell said there are lots of watersheds on Vancouver Island where hydro projects can be developed without damaging fish habitat.

The development proposal map from Brookfield Renewable Power

“Let’s use up all those resources before we tap greats ones like the Kokish,” he said. “I am just talking common sense here.

“I’m not out to kill jobs on the north Island. We can still have economic development in that area. But let’s put these projects where they won’t damage salmon and steelhead runs.”

The provincial government, however, embraced the project,  with ministers saying the $200-million project will create jobs and produce green power.

And the N’amgis First Nation, who are partners in the project,  also supported it, with Chief Bill Cranmer saying he thought it was possible to have both hydro generation, and fish.

The Kokish project will significantly dewater the lower 9 kilometres of the river, where it plunges down rapids to the ocean.

Mr. Mitchell said that fast falling water is what make the steelhead in the Kokish so spectacular.

“We call it ‘the jungle’ because it’s so steep in there and it is choked with old growth forest,” he said. “The river is perfect for power generation, so I can see why Brookfield wants to be in there. But it’s perfect for steelhead too.”

In granting an environmental certificate the B.C. government declared that the project would not have significant impact on fish.

But conservationists disagree.

“This project is so bad that many people didn’t think it would go ahead,” Gwen Barlee of the Wilderness Committee says in an email. “What it shows is that no salmon bearing stream is safe from IPPs.”

Aaron Hill, an ecologist with the Watershed Watch Salmon Society, says the project will clearly destroy fish habitat.

“Fish need water, and this project is authorized to divert between 52-85% of the Kokish River,” he said in an e-mail. “It’s a big experiment.”


Kokish River. Photo by Willie Mitchell