That Damned Churchill River

In 1976 the Churchill River water flow was diverted into the Nelson River at Missi falls at the mouth of South Indian Lake. This diversion, caused the Churchill River to have 15% of the original flow and created controversy stemming mainly from Cree and aboriginal groups concern over their native lands resources.

Affects on wildlife habitat and communities along the river to the north have never been adequately measured so affects on fish and the beluga whale population are relatively unknown. In Churchill, a weir and marina was constructed as part of the mitigation process by Manitoba Hydro. Although the observation tower the marina gives a nice view of the inlet off the river, the marina gets minimal usage. The weir allows the regulation of water levels south of that point for fishing and boating excursions. The beluga whale population ventures shorter distances up-river in summertime due to the tidal flow and shallow water. This might have had some affects on the population or it may have caused some whales to change habitat location and venture to other estuaries with warm rivers flowing into them. When belugas give birth and nurture their young they have an easier time with the moderate temperature warm waters flowing from the south.

Churchill marina observation tower.

Observation tower at the Churchill marina. Steve Selden photo.

I can’t imagine what the flow of the Churchill River would be like at 85% more pressure. Guiding over a decade of Churchill Arctic summer seasons I have experienced just about every type of conditions on the river and in the Hudson Bay. Although higher water flow would not have  a profound affect within the main part of the river, the mouth and inlets would be very different at tidal changes. It’s very tricky at times to maneuver through the mouth of the river due to the currents and topography below. With more flow this could be easier or harder but would most likely have a bearing on fish and whales.  Inlets and calving/ nurseries would be larger and deeper farther up-river…that is a surety.

Beluga sow and calf swimming in sync through the Churchill River.

A baby calf beluga swimming in his mother’s slipstream to stay close. Steve Selden photo.

The affects on southern communities associated with the diversion have been quite harmful in many instances. South Indian Lake was forced to relocate and has since lost most of their original one million pound whitefish production…down to 100,000 pounds at last count.In the end, the benefits of the diversion and Nelson River power plants output have not been without issues. Having to ship the power to far southern communities has taken more resources and money than originally planned. The original water levels negotiated by Manitoba hydro have been disregarded and a push to adopt the newer levels by law is underway.  One has to wonder, as with all these massive projects that alter our natural environment, are the benefits worth the effects felt by our wildlife populations?

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