A Diary in the Age of Water: The Rocky Mountain Trench Inland Sea

Diary Water cover finalIn my novel A Diary in the Age of Water (Inanna Publications) the diarist writes about the huge 800-km reservoir complex built in the late 2020s in the Rocky Mountain Trench to rehydrate the United States. Of course, it’s science fiction, but it was based on real plans that went all the way to Congress in the 1960s.

Snaking along the length of the Rocky Mountain Trench, the reservoir promised to submerge numerous British Columbia towns such as Dunster, McBride and Valemount and pose an existential threat to northern communities of BC and Alaska.

 

The Trench

The Rocky Mountain Trench is a long and deep valley walled by sedimentary, volcanic and igneous rock that extends about 1,500 km from Flathead Lake in the Bitterroot Valley of northwest Montana through British Columbia to the Liard Plain just south of the Yukon Territory. Blanketed mostly by white and black spruce, subalpine fir and lodgepole pine, the northern trench stretches 3–20 km wide to accommodate the major river systems that snake along its mostly flat floor. This rich ecosystem is home to bears, caribou, moose and wolves. To the south, where the valley meanders more at lower elevation, the forest opens up and gives way to grasslands, marsh and farmland. The Trench is sometimes referred to as the “Valley of a Thousand Peaks” because of the towering mountain ranges on either side: the Rocky Mountains to the east and the Columbia, Omineca and Cassiar mountains to the west.

The Trench is a large fault—a crack in the Earth’s crust—and bordered along much of its length by smaller faults. Major structural features resulted from the shifting and thrusting of tectonic plates of the crust during the early Cenozoic Era, some 65 million years ago to form mountains. The ridges of fractured crust then pulled apart and the land in between dropped, creating the floor of the Trench.

RMT near Golden-south of Kinbasket

Rocky Mountain Trench, near Golden, B.C.

Among the major rivers that flow through the trench are the Fraser, Liard, Peace and Columbia rivers. Construction of hydroelectric projects—particularly those at Peace Canyon and Mica Dam—have disrupted the seven major rivers that once flowed through the Trench. All but the Fraser and Kechika rivers now empty into reservoirs on the valley floor; these include several reservoirs along the Columbia River in the southern trench such as the Kinbasket reservoir (created by the Mica Dam in 1973 to form Canoe Reach), and Revelstoke Lake (created by the Revelstoke Dam in 1984). Williston Lake was formed by the A.C. Bennet Dam on the Peace River in 1968. I had studied the effects of pulp mill activities for the federal government’s Environmental Effects Monitoring (EEM) Program.

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The Rocky Mountain Trench is topographically visible as it follows the BC-Alberta border south from Williston Lake

 

The Inland Sea

Like pseudopods of a hunting amoeba, the Rocky Mountain Trench reservoir system would have sent tendrils of water up river arms, and drowned swaths of ancient oroboreal rainforest. The rainforest corridor of Robson Valley—a conservation area that continues to experience existential risk due to development, resource harvest, and other disturbance—would have been one of the many casualties.

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Ancient Redcedars in old-growth rainforest (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Una stopped the car and we stared out across the longest reservoir in North America. What had once been a breathtaking view of the valley floor of the Rocky Mountain Trench was now a spectacular inland sea. It ran north-south over eight hundred kilometres and stretched several kilometres across to the foothills of the Cariboo Mountain Range. Una pointed to Mount Mica, Mount Pierre Elliot Trudeau and several other snow-covered peaks. They stood above the inland sea like sentinels of another time. Una then pointed down to what used to be Jackman Flats—mostly inundated along with McLellan River and the town of Valemont to the south. Hugging the shore of what was left of Jackman Flats was a tiny village. “That’s the new Tête Jaune Cache,” my mother told me.

If villages had karma this one was fated to drown over and over until it got it right.  Once a bustling trading town on the Grand Trunk Pacific railway, Tête Jaune Cache drowned in the early 1900s when the Fraser naturally flooded. The village relocated to the junction of the original Yellowhead 16 and 5 Highways. Villagers settled close to where the Fraser, Tête Creek, and the McLellan River joined, all fed by the meltwater from the glaciers and icefields of the Premiere Range of the Cariboo Mountains. The village drowned again in 2025. I imagined the pool halls, restaurants, saloons and trading posts crushed by the flood.

“This area used to be a prime Chinook spawning ground,” Una said. “They swam over 1,200 km from the Pacific Ocean to lay their eggs right there.” She pointed to the cobalt blue water below us.

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Kinbasket Reservoir

The reservoir sparkled in the sun like an ocean. Steep shores rose into majestic snow-capped mountains. The village lay in a kind of cruel paradise, I thought. It was surrounded by a multi-hued forest of Lodgepole pine, Western red cedar, Douglas fir, paper birch and trembling Aspen. Directly behind the village was Mount Terry Fox and across the Robson valley mouth, to the northeast, rose Mount Goslin. Behind it, Mount Robson cut a jagged pyramid against a stunning blue sky. Wispy clouds veiled its crown. I couldn’t help thinking it was the most beautiful place I’d seen. And yet, for all its beauty, the villagers had lost their principle livelihood and food. The reservoir had destroyed the wildlife habitats and the fishery. And its people with it.

Una pointed to where the giant reservoir snaked northwest and where towns like Croydon, Dunster, and McBride lay submerged beneath a silent wall of water. Her eyes suddenly misted as she told me about Slim Creek Provincial Park, between what used to be Slim and Driscoll Creeks just northwest of what used to be the community of Urling. She told me about the Oroboreal rainforest, called an “Antique Rainforest”—ancient cedar-hemlock stands over a 1000-years old. She described how massive trunks the width of a small house once rose straight up toward a kinder sun. The Primordial Grove was once home to bears, the gray wolf, cougar, lynx, wolverine and ungulates. It was the last valley in North America where the grizzly bear once fished ocean-going salmon. Now even the salmon were no longer there, she said. Then she bent low beside me and pulled me close to her in a hug. She quietly said to me, “This is what killed Trudeau.”

I stared at her and firmly corrected, “but that was an accident.”

“Yes,” she agreed. Then added, “a planned one.”

A Diary in the Age of Water

 

NAWAPA (North America Water Power Alliance)

The original NAWAPA Plan was drawn up by the Pasadena-based firm of Ralph M. Parsons Co. in 1964, and had a favorable review by Congress for completion in the 1990s. The plan—thankfully never completed—was drafted by the US Army Corps of Engineers and entailed the southward diversion of a portion (if not all) of the Mackenzie and Yukon rivers in northern Canada and Alaska, now flowing into the Arctic Ocean as well as the Peace, Liard and other rivers flowing into the Pacific by creating massive dams in the north. This would cause the rivers to flow backwards into the mountains to form vast reservoirs that would flood one-tenth of British Columbia. The water would be channeled south through the 800-km Rocky Mountain Trench Reservoir into the Northern USA, and from there along various routes into the dry regions of the South, to California and reaching as far as Mexico.

NAWAPA proposal Ralph M. ParsonsCo-1960s copy

NAWAPA was envisioned as the largest construction effort of all times, comprising some 369 separate projects of dams, canals, and tunnels, for water diversion. The water diversion would be accomplished through a series of connecting tunnels, canals, lakes, dams, and pump-lifts, as the trench itself is located at an elevation of 914 m (3,000 feet). To the east, a 9 m (thirty-foot) deep canal would be cut from the Peace River to Lake Superior. NAWAPA’s largest proposed dam would be 518 m (1,700 feet) tall, more than twice the height of Hoover Dam (at 221 m) and taller than any dam in the world today, including the Jinping-I Dam in China (at 305 m).

Conspiracy theorist and convicted fraudster Lyndon LaRouche was a principle proponent of the environmentally destructive NAWAPA plan. Although the plan was scrapped in the 1970s due to environmental concerns, it resurfaced in 1982 particularly by Parsons engineer Roland Kelley, who wrote a report called NAWAPA Plan Can Work. LaRouche and his movement revived interest more recently. In 2012 the LaRouche Political Action Committee released their NAWAPA XXI special report, which contained a detailed plan for the revival of an updated and expanded version of NAWAPA. The LaRouche movement continues to promote this outlandish plan today with support from various American politicians and industrialists.

In his book Cadillac Desert, environmental writer Marc Reisner described the plan as one of “brutal magnificence” and “unprecedented destructiveness.” Historian Ted Steinberg suggested that NAWAPA summed up “the sheer arrogance and imperial ambitions of the modern hydraulic West.”

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Expanded NAWAPA XXI plan

Rocky Mountain Trench near Radium Hot Springs, BC

Rocky Mountain Trench near Radium Hot Springs

 

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Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press (Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Waterwill be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Smoke Descending

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Port Guichon in Ladner at 6 pm (photo by Nina Munteanu

Today—as writing friend Sylvia and I decided to have our coffees inside Stir Coffee House rather than its pleasant patio under the peach-coloured haze of Ladner—much of British Columbia was under high evacuation alert, was being evacuated or was under an air quality advisement. More than 20,000 people have evacuated their homes or are on alert while over 500 fires burn across the province.

In Vanderhoof, where good friend Anne lives on her ranch, the air quality index is beyond the high limit of the scale (over 600 on a scale that only runs to 500).

An air quality advisory was issued for Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley on Tuesday. Then the smoke from higher elevations descended that night. Wednesday morning, I walked into Ladner village through a haze that smelled of old fire. An uneasy disquiet stirred inside me. Then I realized it; the air wasn’t that easy to breathe. The AQI was over 150 and steadily climbing. By the time Sylvia and I left the café, the AQI would measure over 200 (considered “very unhealthy”).

 

According to Environment Canada meteorologist Lisa Coldwells, a broad dome of high pressure is sitting on top of the province, providing only slight winds even at high altitudes. “The smoke doesn’t have a chance to dissipate. It just comes up off the fire(s) and it’s just sort of gently moving towards Vancouver, the southern tip of Vancouver Island and the most populated areas,” she says. A temperature inversion is making the situation worse, effectively trapping the smoke.

Fine particulate matter, also known as PM2.5 (measured as particles at or smaller than 2.5 µm) is causing most of the haze and driving the health warnings. These particles pose the greatest health risk. Much smaller than the width of a human hair these particles can go deep into the lungs and bloodstream, resulting in oxidative stress and affecting the heart. Smoke will also carry coarse particulate matter, known as PM10 (particles that measure 10 µm to 2.5 µm). Coarse particles are of less concern, given they are more easily caught by our filtering systems (like nose hairs and phlegm) but can irritate your eyes, nose and throat. Concentrations of PM2.5 greater than 25 micrograms per cubic metre prompt health warnings. According to Chris Carlsten, UBC public health associate professor, these higher levels dysregulate the normal balance in the lungs, leading to inflammation that causes difficulty in breathing and wheezing.

AQHI-MetroVancouver

The Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) was developed by Environment Canada, the BC Ministry of Environment and BC Ministry of Health, Metro Vancouver and the BC Lung Association to measure air quality on a scale. The index typically goes from 0 to 10 with 7-10 representing “high risk” conditions. Numbers higher than 10 are unusual and indicate a very high risk to health. The 0 to 10 index corresponds roughly to the Air Quality Index (AQI), which measures concentrations of particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and ozone and converts these to a number on a scale of 0 to 500.

AirQuality-Map

As you can see, an AQI of over 100 is moderately polluted and considered unhealthy, particularly for sensitive groups such as people with asthma, respiratory issues, elderly or small children. Today, Ladner’s AQI rose steadily during the day until it was well over 200, considered very unhealthy.

AQI-concentrations-health

According to Tiffany Crawford of the Vancouver Sun, the air quality in Vanderhoof—30 kilometres south of the more than 86,000-hectare Shovel Lake wildfire—measured over 600 on the AQI; more than double the level considered hazardous to health. The AQI in Houston measured 410 and in Burns Lake it was 408—all levels way beyond ‘hazardous’.

To give you an idea of how that feels, someone developed an app using Berkley Earth’s findings on the equivalence between air pollution and cigarette smoking. According to Berkley’s formula one cigarette smoked per day equals 22 µg/m3 of fine particulate matter.

PM2.5-cigaretts

The current air quality rating in Vancouver measured 10 today, which is like smoking 7.4 cigarettes. In Abbotsford in the Fraser Valley, that comes to 8.3 cigarettes. Further north in Fort St. John you’re smoking 11.8 cigarettes and in Prince George you’re smoking 16.7 cigarettes. By contrast, in Gwallior India—one of the most air-polluted places in the world—the equivalent daily cigarettes smoked is only 3.5.

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Smoky sun over Ladner at 6 pm (photo by Nina Munteanu)

As the coffee machines ground and wheezed with the sweet aroma of coffee, Sylvia and I talked about an exciting project that involved ecology and empowerment. Of course, we talked about the wildfires too. How could we not? It was on everyone’s mind today. With such overt signs, who couldn’t think of them. It was the smoke. We saw it coil and loiter along the street corners. We smelled it. Breathed it in. Felt it inside us. The remains of so many trees that had burned to the ground. “The souls of trees,” as good friend Anne had blurted out. Their ashes and smoke had soared high into the atmosphere and now descended on us, kilometres away. I couldn’t help feeling a sadness. Not just for so many people in hardship. But for so much living tissue, burnt up in smoke.

Sylvia later told me that she didn’t make her next appointment in Vancouver. Feeling the effects of the smoke, she had decided to go home, where her HEPA filter awaited. Smart move, Sylvia.

 

nina-munteanuNina Munteanu is an ecologist, limnologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

 

 

 

Coming Home to Water at Stir Coffee House

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Nina on Ladner pier

For several years I’ve been returning from Toronto—where I teach at The University of Toronto and George Brown College—to Ladner, BC to spend my summers.

I cherish the time as a chance to see family and friends and to enjoy a different pace of life—one I enjoyed when I used to live and work here and where I brought up my family. We lived in a comfortable house on a quiet street and our back yard faced one of Ladner’s sloughs and beyond that a vast tract of farmland, most often scored with rows of potato plants. My son Kevin had grown up swimming in the slough and jumping off the rope swing his dad had constructed. Pilgrims from close and far came to use that swing and enjoy the murky waters of our back slough.

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Kevin on the rope swing

Parties at our place always involved water and getting wet. We even had a fleet of kayaks and canoes that we took on paddling adventures through farmland and under highways, with the occasional siting of muskrat, carp, heron, or eagle. Coyotes whined and barked at night as bats dipped through the night air, foraging for food. My female cat poised for the hunt and sometimes brought in her “catch of the day.”

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Cathleen and Nina at Stir

This summer, good friend and writer Cathleen Chance Vecchiato decided I should give a talk to my old community on Water Is… my recent bestselling book on water. With that, she immediately made it happen. The venue was already decided: the best café in Ladner, Stir Coffee House. I’d taken Cathleen there the previous year as part of a tour of the old farming and fishing village. Cathleen was charmed by the village atmosphere.

Stir Coffee House was happy to host a talk and Robert and Cathleen proceeded to plan it. Ian Jacques at The Delta Optimist wrote a wonderful piece on my journey, the talk and the book.

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On the evening of August 16th a growing crowd of people, eager for more on this precious substance flowed into the café until there was hardly a seat left in the cozy venue. I recognized some locals as well as colleagues from my environmental consulting days in Vancouver. It was a good crowd.

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Water Is… snug against an iced latte

I shared the story of how I came to write this book—not a limnology book for non-scientists, as I thought I was going to write—but something that was more than science. Something that encompassed so much more about water: what it means to each of us and how we still don’t understand its many magical anomalous properties. I confided my discovery that the synchronicity of important moments in my life were all connected to water, which compelled the book to evolve into a study of “what water means to us.” Good friend Emmi Itäranta, author of Memory of Water, called Water Is… a biography of water.

Travelling the world has helped me realize that I was blessed with an abundance of water. I lived my entire life in a country of plentiful and healthy water. And for most of that time I didn’t even realize it. Canada holds one fifth of the world’s fresh water in lakes, rivers, and wetlands, as well as in our underground aquifers and glaciers. Canada’s wetlands, which cover more than 1.2 million square kilometres, makes Canada the largest wetland area in the world.

Nina-Hope-Trevor Stir copy

Nina with hosts Hope and Trevor

Perhaps it is no coincidence that Canada is steward of the world’s largest wetlands. Wetlands include marshes, swamps, fens, and bogs, all irreplaceable habitat for a huge diversity of nesting, feeding and staging waterfowl, reptiles, amphibians and mammals—many at risk. Wetlands provide a major filtration system, removing contaminants, improving water quality and renewing water’s vitality; wetlands serve as reservoirs, controlling and reducing flooding toward a more balanced hydrological cycle. Wetlands are a source of oxygen and water vapour, serving a vital role in our global atmospheric and climatic cycles. As ecotones— transitional areas—wetlands protect coasts from erosion and provide exceptional opportunity for boundary interaction and the emergence of vitality. Like a good metaphor, wetlands “recognize” and encompass similarities between dissimilarities. Wetlands powerfully connect. Canada’s strong multi-cultural policies and its open tolerance in embracing and celebrating diversity makes it the “wetland” of the world.

When I turn on the water tap in my house in Canada, it is pure drinking water. I don’t need to boil it or filter it or test it for impurities and toxins. I am confident that it will nourish and hydrate me like water should. I can bathe without restriction. I can play with it.

My water hasn’t changed; but I have. I do not take it for granted. I know that I am blessed.

I am home and I am so grateful.

 

In the Moment-anthology copyPart of this article is an excerpt from Nina Munteanu’s “Coming Home to Water” first published in “In the Moment” (A Hopeful Sign) edited by Gary Doi, September 2016; reprinted in “The Earth We Love” (Mississauga Writers) edited by Elizabeth Banfalvi, September 2018; and “The Literary Connection IV: Then and Now” (IOWI) edited by Cheryl Antao Xavier, upcoming 2018.

 

nina-munteanuNina Munteanu is an ecologist, limnologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.