Today marked the grand opening of Campbell River’s new water supply plant, a building adorned with fine carvings by Laichwiltach artists from Wei Wai Kum First Nation. It was a celebration of two essential elements of Campbell River: vibrant Indigenous culture and the water resources that all residents depend on.
The opening of the facility comes as BC Hydro prepares to bring the new John Hart Generating Station online, a project that required an overhaul of the city’s 70-year-old water supply system.
The front doors of the building are flanked by intricately carved totems, one with a swirling fish motif, another with a beaver standing upright. A third pole on the corner of the building represents an upright bear with a salmon between its paws.
Bill Henderson, who carved the figures with his nephews Junior and Greg Henderson, said it seemed natural to represent creatures that were once plentiful in the Campbell River watershed.
“When I thought about what we’re going to put on these poles, it was quite simple,” he said. “It became the beaver, plentiful, hundreds of them, hundreds of years ago, building dams up and down every river you can think of.”
The carved cedar doors show a Kwakwaka’wakw fisherman and two bears catching salmon, with a thunderbird presiding over the scene from the mountains above.
Junior Henderson noted that his people fished the river for generations.
“This is why we took care of the rivers, more than just for drinking water,” he said. “It fed us as well, nurtured us in many different ways.”
He said the work was part of a “lifetime commitment to restoring and preserving this way of life, this cultural way of life that we still are fortunate to have today.”
The event foregrounded Indigenous culture with a blessing of the building, followed by ceremonial dances by a group of Laichwiltach youth and elders.
Among the speakers who addressed the crowd was Chief Chris Roberts of Wei Wai Kum First Nation, who described the prominent artwork as an acknowledgement of Indigenous sovereignty.
“The fact still remains of these being unceded and unsurrendered territories of the Laichwiltach people,” said Roberts. He added that residents of the area shouldn’t take for granted First Nations culture in the region anymore than access to natural resources like clean drinking water.
About 50 people were in attendance for the event, including city staff, local dignitaries and at least one senior BC Hydro official.
Mark Poweska, executive vice-president of operations for the power utility, explained how the old water supply system used penstocks, large pipes that channeled water into the old generator while also providing the city with its water. BC Hydro is removing those penstocks as part of the John Hart project, and using an underground tunnel for the new power station.
“The water had been coming off those penstocks since 1949, so it really was a significant change that we had to work through with the city,” said Poweska. He noted that putting the water system in place was critical for the new power system’s operations.
BC Hydro covered roughly two thirds of the costs of the $29.1 million water supply centre, with the City of Campbell River covering the rest, said Mayor Andy Adams, who added that the city increased its contribution to “add the amenities and features to recognize our First Nations neighbours.”
Adams said the six-year water supply project involved a “very aggressive work schedule” and gave a nod to city staff for making the project happen “without interruption of this essential service to our residents.”
The event gave the Mirror with a chance to look behind the scenes at the operation. While the water-pumping system loudly hummed, Nathalie Viau, the city’s water supervisor, pointed to a red buoy floating in John Hart Lake.
“That’s our deep intake,” she said, explaining that it marks a spot about 16 metres beneath the lake’s surface. A large tunnel directs the water into a 19-metre-deep chamber beneath the facility. From there, the water is pumped through a UV reactor, which disinfects the water.
The water is disinfected again with chlorine produced on-site using a ClorTec machine that combines salt, water and electricity. That chlorine is transferred to a pair of huge white tanks before the chemical is added to the water. The double disinfection process is required by Vancouver Island Heath Authority, Viau said.
The water doesn’t require any filtration, however, because of the outstanding water quality in the area, said Jennifer Peters, the city’s utilities manager for water and sewer services.
After the disinfection process, the water flows 3.5 kilometres through a large main to the distribution infrastructure at the bottom of General Hill. In case of a power outage, the site is equipped with a diesel generator.
The site isn’t currently open to the public, but the city is planning outreach that would involve bringing schoolchildren to the facility, Viau said.