‘Caught Between Two Worlds’ : Modern Man’s Encroachment in Quebec Forever Alters Cree Way of Life : Hydro-Power May Doom Wilderness

The Hartford Courant

In the wastes of northern Quebec, where the winter temperature sometimes falls to 60 degrees below zero, caribou outnumber people 40 to 1.

Pike and whitefish grow huge but multiply slowly in 30 rivers and in uncounted thousands of frigid lakes. Stunted black spruce, larch and jack pine form sparse forests where the trunks of the biggest trees, the ones that have been growing for 100 years, are only 6 inches across.

The forests fade into desolate reaches where little but moss and lichens grow. Beavers, unable to find wood, sometimes build their dams with stones.

Massive Projects


Life’s hold on the region is tenuous. Gash the poor soil with a bulldozer and it is likely to be 20 years before anything grows back.

In this vast, fragile wilderness, Quebec’s government-owned electric company is building the largest complex of hydroelectric dams on Earth.

Already the company, Hydro-Quebec, has built more than 1,000 miles of roads to remote work sites, erected scattered villages for up to 18,000 construction workers, constructed 94 miles of dams and dikes, diverted the courses of six rivers and flooded an area the size of Connecticut.

This is just the beginning.

Hydro-Quebec, which has invested $11 billion in the province’s great north since 1971, plans to spend up to $46 billion more building hydroelectric installations there in the next 20 years, according to the company’s development plan. Hydro-Quebec officials boast that they are engaged in the biggest construction project in the history of mankind.

But Jan Belyea, senior staff scientist for the National Audubon Society in New York, says that Hydro-Quebec’s plans mean the destruction of one of the last great wildernesses in North America.

The gigantic undertaking is intended to satisfy a sharply increasing demand for power in Quebec as well as to provide thousands of megawatts of electricity for sale to electric companies in New York and New England.

Andre Mercier, Hydro-Quebec’s vice president for systems planning, said that 10% of New England’s electricity will come from northern Quebec by 1990. For Connecticut, the figure will be about 5%, said James F. Meehan, consumer counsel for the state Department of Public Utility Control. About 10% of New York’s electricity will come from Hydro-Quebec by the middle of the next decade, Mercier said.

May Be a Good Deal for U.S.

As the dam building continues, some experts say, the figures for New England and New York could grow to 15%.

In most respects, Canadian power looks like a good deal for the northeastern United States.

Hydro-Quebec provides a ready answer to worries about a shortage of electricity in New England and New York in the coming decades, said David Lavine, a member of the Connecticut House of Representatives and a strong advocate of Canadian hydroelectric power.

The only negative impact on New England’s environment, Lavine said, is the construction of two transmission lines that will bring the power south from the Canadian border. A consortium of New England electric companies, including Northeast Utilities, has committed $550 million for the construction of a line along the Vermont-New Hampshire border. Environmentalists and utilities officials are wrangling over a second line through western Maine.

The impact on northern Quebec’s environment is another matter, but Meehan said that the subject has never come up at the many meetings he has attended with Hydro-Quebec and New England electric company officials.

Belyea said that the environmental damage to Quebec’s great north has stirred little opposition in the United States because the area is remote and inaccessible.

“If you are only concerned about your local environment and don’t care about the rest of the world, you should encourage this trashing of the Canadian environment,” Belyea said.

Says Few Are Worried

Even in Quebec, it is difficult to find anyone who is worried about what is happening, said Daniel Green, director of the Society for the Vanquishing of Pollution, a Montreal environmental group. The vast majority of Quebec’s 6.5-million people live in a crescent of land along the St. Lawrence River and have never visited or even heard of the distant places being dammed and flooded.

“Fifty years from now,” Green said, “the people of Quebec will wake up and discover that we have destroyed all the wild rivers. They will say, ‘How could we have let this happen?’ And they will weep.”

Hydro-Quebec’s first northern dams are on the La Grande River about 600 miles north of Montreal in the middle of a wilderness so vast that New England and Texas could fit inside it with enough room left over for 10 Connecticuts. The farthest reaches of the territory are as far north of Montreal as Florida is south.

Before Hydro-Quebec and its chief subsidiary, the James Bay Energy Corp., built access roads, the nearest a car could get to the La Grande was the Cree Indian village of Matagami, 350 miles away.

Stands 500 Feet High

The biggest of the northern dams, 500 feet tall, plugs the La Grande River about 65 miles east of its mouth on icy James Bay. Hydro-Quebec has named the hydroelectric installation “LG2.”

Beside the rock-fill dam is a spillway designed like a gigantic staircase. Each of the 13 steps is 400 feet wide and 33 feet high. When the spillway gates are open to release excess water in the spring, water surges down the rock steps at a rate equal to the average daily flow of the Mississippi River.

Behind the dam and spillway, the waters of the La Grande back up in a man-made lake the size of Rhode Island. It is one of five artificial lakes in the La Grande project, and it is not the largest. The Caniapiscau Reservoir, 440 miles farther up river, is nearly twice as big.

Indians Note Changes

Evaporation from the huge reservoirs is causing local increases in rain and snow, say the Cree Indians who live in the area. Nicole Chartrand, head of Hydro-Quebec’s department of environment and public health, disputes that. Belyea says the reservoirs are so huge that it is almost certainly true.

The reservoirs are swollen by water diverted into the La Grande from six other rivers. Hydro-Quebec dammed sections of the rivers, built scores of dikes to prevent their waters from running off into side valleys, and funneled the water into the La Grande. The most impressive of the diversions is 180 miles long. Along one stretch, diversion dams force the Caniapiscau to flow backward along its natural course.

The flows of the Caniapiscau, Opinaca and Eastmain, the three biggest rivers affected, were reduced by 48%, 87% and 90% at their mouths, according to Hydro-Quebec figures.

LG2 produces enough electricity for a city of 4 million people, or about enough power for the entire state of Connecticut and western Massachusetts. It is the most productive hydroelectric plant in North America, said Giles Saulnier, Hydro-Quebec vice president for information and public affairs.

Large Source of Power

LG2 is just one of three generating stations in Hydro-Quebec’s La Grande River complex. Together, the three stations produce 10,000 megawatts of power. By comparison, all of the atomic, coal-burning, oil-burning and hydroelectric generating plants in New England produce about twice that much.

Saulnier said that the $11 billion spent since the first access road was cut to the La Grande River in 1971 “is a bargain for what we’ve got.”

About $180 million of that money was spent to undo some of the environmental damage done by the digging and flooding. Hydro-Quebec officials dismiss the environmental damage as minor, but the company’s publications on the La Grande environment document massive effects on plants, animals and the landscape.

The damming submerged more than 4,000 square miles of forest dominated by black spruce that look like bottle brushes with bristles missing. The La Grande, Quebec’s third-largest river, now has few free-flowing stretches. It has been turned into a 500-mile-long chain of artificial lakes.

Waterline in Trees

Thousands of miles of river and stream banks are under water. Once, small mammals including red fox, beaver, snowshoe hare, lynx and otter lived along the banks in a low growth of green alder, sweet gale and dwarf willow. Now, the waterline along the new reservoirs is in the trees, and the natural riparian vegetation is missing. A Hydro-Quebec report said: “The edges of the reservoirs will not be a preferred habitat for small game for a long time.”

Near the upper reaches of the Caniapiscau, a major caribou birthing area has been submerged. A Hydro-Quebec report said that females have found other birthing areas nearby, but added that it is “difficult to evaluate . . . if the survival chances of the young will be affected.”

In October, 1984, 10,000 caribou drowned as they tried to reach their winter feeding grounds by crossing an abnormally swollen section of the Caniapiscau. Environmentalists such as Green blame the drownings on Hydro-Quebec’s diversion of the river. The company blames heavy rains and caribou overpopulation.

Fish Populations Change

The dam-building destroyed natural fish-spawning areas and altered fish populations all along the La Grande. Species such as cisco and rainbow trout, which prefer flowing water, are declining. Others, such as lake whitefish and northern pike, which prefer lakes, are increasing.

Several species of fish including pike, whitefish and lake trout have become so contaminated with mercury that they are dangerous to eat.

Hydro-Quebec has undertaken massive projects to mitigate environmental damage.

The company has planted 400,000 green alder, rough alder, sweet gale, reed Phalaris and willow seedlings to reduce erosion on banks and to produce new habitat for small mammals. It has planted 10 million young trees on construction sites. It has built four weirs along the Opinaca and Eastmain to reduce erosion.

Those efforts cover only a fraction of the environmental damage done by the construction and flooding; and the plantings will take decades to produce results.

Bare Spots Remain

Along roadways and at construction sites, for example, Hydro-Quebec planted bushes in 30-foot circles, hoping that the new plants would seed the enclosed barren spaces. Although some of those plantings are up to 10 years old, the ground inside and between the circles remains bare.

Hydro-Quebec’s plans, as outlined by Mercier, call for massive new construction in the north to produce 18,000 megawatts of capacity over the next 20 years.

The construction schedule outlined by Mercier assumes that at least 3,500 megawatts of capacity will be needed for export to the United States. It also assumes demand for electricity in Quebec, which relies heavily on electric power for home heating and industrial processes, will grow 3% a year.

Green and Belyea said that if all of Hydro-Quebec’s projects are built, the huge new reservoirs will change Quebec’s climate.

Warming Trend Feared

Precipitation will increase, they said, and the temperature will probably rise. Trees and underbrush adapted to the harsh Quebec environment might begin to die off and new species might encroach.

The National Audubon Society is arguing that because of the potential harm to migratory birds, Quebec’s hydro-power cannot be imported to the United States without an environmental impact study under the provisions of U.S. law. Belyea said that if the U.S government does not agree, the society is prepared to bring suit.

See Only a Delay

Because Hydro-Quebec says that the projects will be built eventually regardless of how much power is exported, such an action could delay dam construction but probably not stop it.

Green said environmentalists have little recourse under Canadian law to fight Hydro-Quebec, a company so big that it accounts for 20% of the economic activity of the province. Quebec’s northern wilderness is exempt from tough environmental laws that govern development in the province’s populated southern section, he said.

Furthermore, Green said, “The environmental I.Q. of Quebec is low. We see nature as something to conquer.”

Remaking the North Quebec’s government-owned electric company is turning the province’s great northern wilderness into a vast hydroeletric complex for the production of electricity to meet the needs of Quebec p1919907433already built three power stations, one of them the most productive hydroelectric plant in North America. Other Quebec rivers face a similar fate.

Hydro-Quebec plans to divert the waters of the Nottaway and Rupert into the Broadbeck River. Dams will turn the Broadbeck into a chain of six big reservoirs, with 11 generating stations.

Its waters diverted north into the La Grande reservoirs, the Eastmain River is now nearly dry at its mouth.

The Grand Baleine, or Great Whales River, will be dammed for electricity production in the 1990’s.

The Canlapiscau River now flows backwards along part of its natural course, its headwaters diverted to swell the reservoirs along the La Grande.

Once one of Quebec’s great wild rivers, the La Grande River has been dammed and transformed into a 500-mile-long chain of artificial lakes.