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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Public policy and hydroelectric development in the Canadian North : the case of the Snare Forks Project Helfinger, B. Michael (Bruno Michael)


This study of the Snare Forks hydroelectric development in the Northwest Territories has two basic objectives. The first is to provide a critical assessment of the institutional framework (both structural and procedural) within which resource planning decisions are taken in the Canadian North, with reference to the cirteria of 1) democratic accountability, and 2) technical and economic efficiency. The second objective is to suggest (if shortcomings in institutional design are found) means of upgrading structures and procedures to conform with the normative criteria. The Snare Forks (or Strutt Lake) hydroelectric development was first conceived during 1971, when the Northern Canada Power Commission (NCPC) began to consider construction of a third hydro dam on the Snare River, which flows into the north arm of Great Slave Lake, to meet the growing demands of the City of Yellowknife and adjacent mining operations, 130 kilometres to the southwest. A water use licence, required under the Northern Inland Waters Act, was obtained by NCPC after one public hearing before the Northwest Territories Water Board in February 1974. Construction commenced during the spring of that year. However, shortly afterwards the commission was notified of a mining claim existing within the area designated to be flooded. It also became evident that bedrock and permafrost conditions at the site would not support the dyke structures. In September, 1974, the commission decided to relocate the dam 1.4 kilometres downstream, away from the mining claim area, and at a lower elevation (173.5 m above sea level, as opposed to 183m), to eliminate the need for dyking on permafrost. Peak power output was thus reduced from 14 megawatts to 9.6 megawatts. An amendment to the original water licence facilitating the design changes was approved by the Water Board in March, 1975. This was done without the normally required (under NIWA) public hearings, as the Board ruled that an emergency existed. It was not until after the amendment was approved that a press release was issued revealing the construction problems to the general public. The Snare Forks plant was commissioned in November, 1976, one year behind schedule. The final cost of the project was $27.1 million, as opposed to the original estimate of $14.1 million. As a consequence of the Snare Forks cost overruns, electric power rates in Yellowknife and other Northwest Territories communities were immediately raised by as much as ninety per cent. The account of the Snare Forks job history and planning process is based almost entirely on primary sources, including documents and correspondence of the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, Environment Canada, the Northern Canada Power Commission, and the Northwest Territories Water Board. The criteria against which the decision-making system is assessed are derived from the survey of the leading contemporary literature on public administration and organizational behaviour, with an attempt to relate the theories thus obtained to the conditions prevalent in the Canadian North. It appears that circumstances over which decision-makers concerned had no direct control, particularly inflation and adverse weather conditions during construction, contributed in a major way to cost overruns. However, a review of the administrative and planning process reveals a failure by NCPC to adequately take into account possibilities regarding design and scheduling, as well as a closed, secretive decision-making process that effectively excluded local community interests. The failure of existing institutional mechanisms to prevent serious conceptual flaws in a public project and secrecy in decisionmaking gave rise to a widespread sense of alienation and mistrust among Snare system consumers in the aftermath of the project. At the same time, the project history points to a number of social and economic conditions present in the North that act as barriers to the attainment of optimal levels of democratic accountability and technical/economic efficiency in decision-making; and cannot be fully addressed by any set of institutional prescriptions.

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