Competition between the Canadian government and one of the country's biggest corporations for control of the waters of a salmon-rich British Columbia river threatens to become a major constitutional and economic issue.
The government, through its Fisheries Department, has won the first wound with a temporary injunction from the Supreme Court. The high court ruled tht the Fisheries Department acted correctly when it ordered Aluminum Company of Canada (Alcan), with assets exceeding $14 billion, to raise the water level of the Nechako River to facilitate the passage of salmon to their spawning grounds. The increased flow of water was designed to cool the river's temperature and thus remove a threat to the cold-water-loving salmon, which in the Nechako has a potential production of 5 to 6 million fish.
When the Fisheries Department was convinced this summer that the existing water level was harmful to the salmon, it ordered Alcan to release more water from its dam and improve the environment for salmon. But the order was ignored on the basis that the company had been awarded virtually monopolistic rights on the Nechako, and that the salmon had not been adversely affected. The response of the federal government was to take the case to court.
Alcan was granted a license by a provincial government 30 years ago to impound waters of the Nechako for powerhouse purposes and allow it to divert up to 9,500 cubic feet of wate per second. Supported by this authority, the company proceeded to build a dam on the Nechako and with the power thus provided build a major aluminum smelter at Kitimat on British Columbia's west coast.
When the court, presided over by Judge Tom Berger, issued its injunctions against the company Aug. 5, he remarked that the situation was a classic example of the conflict over resource management in the federal system.
Alcan promptly complied with the order and raised the water level as sought by the Fisheries Department, but it seems highly unlikely that the issue has been closed.