Kemano River, Gardner Canal

Kemano River, Gardner Canal

by | May 14, 2022

Kemano River flows from the Kitimat Ranges to Kemano Bay on the northern shore of Gardner Canal, where a historically important eulachon run and a village were located prior to the construction of a supply terminal and access road for the Kemano generating station, about 45 miles (72 km) south-southeast of Kitimat and 10 miles (16 km) southwest of Kemano, British Columbia. The name Kemano derives from the Henaaksiala name for the small macoma clam which was known to occur at the mouth of the river, and the name was used to refer to a tribal subdivision of the Henaaksiala people that inhabited a village here. In 1950, the Aluminum Company of Canada, also known as Alcan, was mining bauxite deposits in Jamaica and the British Guiana and extracting powdered aluminum oxide from the ore that would ultimately be converted to metal aluminum. However, the power requirements to produce the metal are enormous with almost 13,000 kilowatt-hours needed to produce one metric ton of aluminum from two tons of aluminum oxide. In 1950, Alcan was granted a water license from the province of British Columbia to manufacture aluminum and generate hydroelectric power. In 1951, the company began construction of a powerhouse on the Kemano River about 10 miles (16 km) upstream from Kemano Bay on Gardner Canal, and a tunnel extending 10 miles (16 km) eastward through the Coast Mountains from the powerhouse to Tahtsa Lake, the westernmost of a chain of lakes draining eastward across the Nechako Plateau to the Fraser River. The Kemano-Tahtsa tunnel is situated at the eastern border of the Coast Batholith, a belt of igneous intrusions underlying the Coast Mountains. Within the development area, the Coast Mountains are comprised of Middle Jurassic igneous rocks of the Tahtsa complex, Early Jurassic volcanic and metasedimentary rocks of the Hazelton group, Cretaceous sandstones and shales, and Jurassic granitic gneisses and massive igneous rocks of the Coast Batholith.

The Henaaksiala are Wakashan-speaking peoples of Gardner Canal, particularly the tributaries of the Kemano and Kitlope Rivers, and have close ethnolinguistic connections to the Haisla. The Haisla homeland encompasses the upper region of Douglas Channel to the Kitimat River and its tributaries. Many ancient sites in these areas bear Henaaksiala or Haisla names in recognition of their value as cultural landmarks such as temporary encampments for resource gathering or processing, winter villages, locations of ceremonial activities or legendary events, or notable natural formations. In 1874, the Hudson’s Bay Company steamer Otter visited Gardner Canal and Arthur T. Bushby documented the large Kemano village at the mouth of the river where large quantities of eulachon were caught, allowed to purify, and then squeezed to extract oil for food and trade. The villages on the Kitlope and Kemano Rivers were the two principal winter villages of the Henaaksiala. The inhabitants were probably more numerous than the Haisla at Kitamaat until about 1918 when an influenza outbreak that started at the end of World War I caused a large drop in population, and they moved en masse to Kitamaat between 1948 and 1952. The present-day Haisla are considered to represent an amalgamation of Henaaksiala and Haisla bands including the Bees, Kaasa, Kemano, Kitlope, Haisla, Nalabila, and Gildalidox. To the west of the Henaaksiala and Haisla territories lies the homeland of the Southern Tsimshian and immediately to the north, those of the Coast Tsimshian. The Salishan-speaking Nuxalk people, or Bella Coola, are located to the south, and to the east are the traditional territories of the Cheslatta T’En, who speak an Athapaskan language. The traditional lands of the Cheslatta T’En, or Cheslatta Carrier Nation, were mostly flooded by the impoundment of water behind the Kenney Dam on the Nechako River that formed the Nechako Reservoir. The dam was constructed in 1952 to power the Alcan aluminum smelter in Kitimat.

Between 1951 and 1954, about 6,000 construction workers were involved in building the hydroelectric project and smelter that included the Kenney Dam, diversion tunnels, powerhouse, transmission line, and townsites at Kemano and Kitimat. A company construction town was built on the Kemano River at the base of Mount Dubose to support the workers and maintenance of the Kemano Generating Station. There was no road to the Kemano River and everything had to be brought in by air or sea. Construction equipment and supplies were barged over Tahtsa Lake to the eastern end of the diversion tunnel. The tunnel is 9.9 miles (16 km) long, and the width of a two-lane highway drilled and blasted through the Coast Mountains to carry water to the penstocks of the Kemano powerhouse. The generating station was housed in a cavern blasted 1,400 feet (427 m) inside the base of Mount Dubose. It produces 896 megawatts of power from eight generators, each of which has a capacity of 112 megawatts. When the power station was automated in 2000, the residents were moved out and the town was abandoned. Two 300 kilovolt power transmission lines cross 51 miles (82 km) of the most rugged mountain territory from Kemano to Kitimat. It was the largest hydroelectric power generator in the province when it was built, and is now the fifth-largest in British Columbia. Starting in the 1960s, Alcan was no longer producing energy solely for the Kitimat aluminum smelter. The company began selling the extra energy produced by the Kenney Dam to BC Hydro, a publicly owned electric power company. Because the BC Hydro grid is linked to the North American grid, Alcan began selling energy to Alberta and the United States.  In order to meet the energy demands in its new market, Alcan began diverting more water into its reservoir, resulting in lower water levels in the Nechako River and an increase in the water temperature. By 1980, water temperatures in the Nechako River had risen above what Fisheries and Oceans Canada considered to be safe for migrating and spawning salmon. In 2007, Rio Tinto purchased Alcan and began upgrading the smelter in Kitimat. In 2018, work began on a second tunnel that runs parallel to the first and will ensure long-term reliable electrical power for the Kitimat aluminum smelter and BC Hydro. A second tunnel will also permit repairs to be made to either tunnel while still supplying water for electricity, and is expected to be operational in 2022. Read more here and here. Explore more of Kemano River here:

About the background graphic

This ‘warming stripe’ graphic is a visual representation of the change in global temperature from 1850 (top) to 2021 (bottom). Each stripe represents the average global temperature for one year. The average temperature from 1971-2000 is set as the boundary between blue and red. The color scale goes from -0.7°C to +0.7°C. The data are from the UK Met Office HadCRUT4.6 dataset. 

Credit: Professor Ed Hawkins (University of Reading). Click here for more information about the #warmingstripes.

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