James Bay Project

James Bay Project

The James Bay Project (in French, "projet de la Baie-James") refers to the construction of a series of hydroelectric power stations on the La Grande River in northwestern Québec, Canada, and the diversion of neighbouring rivers into the La Grande watershed. It is located between James Bay to the west and Labrador to the east and its waters flow from the Laurentian Plateau of the Canadian Shield. The project covers an area of the size of the State of New York and is one of the largest hydroelectric systems in the world. The project has cost upwards of 20 billion US dollars to build and has an installed generating capacity of 16,000 megawatts, three times more than all of the power stations at Niagara Falls, eight times the power of Hoover Dam, and over twice the power of all eight CANDU units at the Bruce Nuclear Generating Station, the largest in North America. If fully expanded to include all of the original planned dams, as well as the additional "James Bay II" projects, the system would generate of 27,000 MW, making it the largest hydroelectric system in the world.


As early as 1950, the Quebec provincial government investigated the energy potential of torrential rivers flowing through its sparsely populated north. Until the late 1960s, development interest was limited due to the distances involved. While the cost alone was discouraging, politics also delayed realization of the project. Not until the election of Premier Robert Bourassa, a noted technocrat, did construction on the James Bay Project begin. A successor to the Lesage Liberal legacy of the early 1960s, Bourassa felt the extensive hydro-electric resources of Quebec were the most effective means of completing the modernization of Quebec. Northern Quebec seemed to hold almost unlimited energy resources whose inexpensive surplus power would attract business and subsidize unmatched social services in perpetuity.

The early steps.

On April 30, 1971, Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa unveiled plans for the construction of several large hydroelectric power stations on the rivers flowing into James Bay, either on the Nottaway, Broadback, Rupert and Harricana Rivers in the south (NBR Project), or on the La Grande and Eastmain Rivers to the north. The choice in favor of the more northerly rivers was only made in May 1972 and involved the construction of four generating stations on the La Grande River and the diversion of the Eastmain and Caniapiscau rivers into the La Grande watershed. Responsibility for the project would be overseen by the Société d'énergie de la Baie-James, a newly-created mixed corporation (public/private) controlled by Hydro-Québec.

As environmental assessments were not then required under Quebec law, construction of the main 700 km road to the La Grande River was begun in 1971 and completed by October 1974 at a cost of about 400 million dollars. In 1973 and 1974, a temporary winter ice road was used to bring in the heavy equipment required for the construction of the roadbed and some 13 major bridges spanning the many rivers of the region.

Although the Aboriginal Crees had traditional hunting and trapping areas in the region, no seasonal or permanent roads existed at the time. Opposition to the project, however, was strong among the 5,000 Crees of James Bay, the 3,500 Inuit to the north and several environmental groups. They believed the government of Quebec was acting in violation of treaties and committing unlawful expropriation and destruction of traditional hunting and trapping lands. Furthermore, the Cree and Inuit had not been informed of the hydroelectric project until after construction of the access road had begun. In later years, the Cree and Inuit were given a settlement of $150 million, negotiated by Cree chief Billy Diamond.cite web |url=http://www.powertochange.ie/changed/bdiamond.html |title=Billy Diamond |accessdate=2008-02-03 |quote=I became chief of our Cree community when I was 21. ... Four years later I became the first Grand Chief of the Cree Grand Council. I used this position to help my people develop. We modernized the villages, built housing and schools and encouraged health and economic development. I was very successful in this position. But like all successes, it had it's drawbacks, especially in my personal life. |publisher=Power To Change ]

In November 1975, the governments of Canada and Quebec signed the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement with the Cree of the James Bay region and the Inuit of northern Quebec, granting exclusive hunting and fishing rights to about 170,000 km² of territory and about 250 million dollars in financial compensation in return for the right to develop the hydroelectric resources of Northern Quebec. The planned La Grande-1 power station would be built about 50 km further away from the Cree village of Chisasibi than originally planned. The Agreement also provided for an extensive environmental follow-up of all aspects of the hydroelectric development on the La Grande and Eastmain rivers and the establishment of a joint environmental assessment process for any future hydroelectric project involving other rivers of Northern Quebec.

Phase I

The period of construction of the first phase of the project covered about 14 years. By 1986, the largest power stations and reservoirs on the La Grande River were mostly completed, including the Robert-Bourassa (originally named La Grande-2), La Grande-3 and La Grande-4 generating stations, with an installed capacity of 10,800 MW, and five reservoirs covering an area of 11,300 km². The Eastmain and Caniapiscau river diversions each added about 800 m³/s of water to the La Grande River. The power plants of the first phase of the James Bay Project produce about 65 TWh of power each year, operating at about 60% of their maximum rated generating capacity.

During this first phase of construction, over 155,000,000 m³ (203 million cubic yards) of fill, 138,000 tons of steel, 550,000 tons of cement, and nearly 70,000 tons of explosives were used. Concurrent employment by the project reached 18,000. Of the 215 dikes and dams, many surpassed the height of skyscrapers, with one reaching 56 stories. The terraced diversion channel at Robert-Bourassa Generating Station was carved 30 m (one hundred feet) deep into the side of a mountain. Water tumbles from the reservoir to the river below at a height greater than that of Niagara Falls. A 4,800 km (3,000 mile) network of transmission lines was necessary to bring generated power to consumers in southern Quebec. The network contains several 735 kilovolt lines and one 450 kilovolt DC line directly linked to the U.S. power grid.

Phase II

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, construction of the second phase of the James Bay project centered on the construction of five secondary power plants on the La Grande River and its tributaries (La Grande-1, La Grande-2A, Laforge-1, Laforge-2 and Brisay), adding a further 5,200 MW of generating capacity by the end of 1996. Three new reservoirs covering an area of 1,600 km² were created, including the Laforge-1 Reservoir covering 1,288 km². The generating plants of this second phase of the project produce about 18.3 TWh of power per year, operating at between 60% and 70% of their maximum rated generating capacity.

On March 13, 1989, a massive solar storm caused a failure of the La Grande complex which plunged most of Quebec into darkness for nine hours.

Great Whale River project

During the construction of the second phase of the James Bay Project, Hydro-Québec proposed an additional project on the Great Whale River (French: "Grande rivière de la Baleine"), just to the north of the La Grande River watershed. Opposition among the Cree was even more vocal this time than in the early 1970s. In 1990, Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come organized a canoe trip from Hudson Bay to the Hudson River, in Albany, New York, and this very effective public relations stunt brought international pressure to bear on the government of Quebec. The Cree had experienced considerable culture shock with the introduction of permanent transportation routes to the south and very few Cree were employed on the construction site. Poverty and social problems remained important in the isolated Cree and Inuit villages of Northern Québec, even in areas where there were no hydroelectric or mining activities.

By the 1980s, the natural ebb and flow of the La Grande, Eastmain and Caniapiscau rivers had been severely modified, notably delaying the formation of a solid ice cover near the Cree village of Chisasibi, and about 4% of the traditional hunting and trapping territories of the Cree had been lost to the rising waters of the reservoirs, including about 10% of the territories of the Cree village of Chisasibi. At the same time, new roads, snowmobiles and bush airlines facilitated access to distant hunting territories of the interior. While highly motivated, the Cree's opposition to the Great Whale River Project was mainly ineffective until 1992 when the State of New York withdrew from a multi-billion dollar power purchasing agreement due to public outcry and a decrease in energy requirements. In 1994, the Government of Québec and Hydro-Québec suspended the project indefinitely.

Rupert River diversion

In 2002, the Quebec government and the Grand Council of the Crees signed a landmark agreement, "La Paix des Braves" (literally "The Peace of the Brave"), ensuring the completion of the last phase of the original James Bay Project: construction of the Eastmain-1 generating station, with a capacity of 480 MW, and the Eastmain Reservoir with a surface area of about 600 km².

A subsequent agreement in April 2004 put an end to all litigation between the two parties and opened the way to a joint environmental assessment of the projected diversion of the Rupert River, to the south of the Eastmain River. The project entails the diversion of about 50% of the total water flow of the Rupert River (and 70% of the flow at the diversion point) towards the Eastmain Reservoir and into the La Grande Complex, and the construction of two additional generating stations: Eastmain-1A and Sarcelle, with a combined capacity of 888 MW. The Rupert diversion would generate a total of 8.5 TWh of electricity at the new and existing power stations.

The Grand Chief of the Crees of Quebec, Matthew Mukash, [http://www.radio-canada.ca/actualite/v2/dimanchemag/niveau2_5256.shtml] elected in late 2005, is opposed to the Rupert River diversion and favors the construction of wind turbines.

Hydro-electric installations

The hydro-electric stations in the La Grande watershed are:
*La Grande-1 generating station
*Robert-Bourassa generating station (formerly La Grande-2)
*La Grande-2-A generating station
*La Grande-3 generating station
*La Grande-4 generating station
*Laforge-1 generating station
*Laforge-2 generating station
*Brisay generating station
*Eastmain-1 generating station
*Eastmain-1-A generating station (under construction)
*Sarcelle generating station (under construction)

Environmental impact

The James Bay Project diverted the waters of the Caniapiscau and Eastmain rivers into the La Grande River watershed, submerged about 11,000 km² of boreal forest and substantially modified the water flow of the La Grande River. The water flow was reduced by 90% at the mouth of the Eastmain River, near the Cree village of Eastmain, by 45% where the Caniapiscau River flows into the Koksoak River, and by 35% at the mouth of the Koksoak River, near the northern village of Kuujjuaq. The water flow of the La Grande River, on the other hand, was doubled, increasing from 1,700 m³/s to 3,400 m³/s (and from 500 m³/s to 5,000 m³/s in winter) near the Cree village of Chisasibi at the mouth of the La Grande River. The planned diversion of the Rupert River into the La Grande Complexe will further increase the flow of the La Grande River by about 420 m³/s; the flow of the Rupert River will, on the other hand, be reduced from 840 m³/s to about 420 m³/s at its mouth, near the Cree village of Waskaganish.

Decomposing organic material in the reservoirs further added to the high levels of organic mercury in local lakes and rivers, which stems from geology and atmospheric pollution from the coal-fired electric generation plants of the United States and Ontario, Canada, but this impact has been shown to dissipate after 20 to 30 years. [Hayeur, G. 2001. Summary of Knowledge Acquired in Northern Environments from 1970 to 2000. Montreal: Hydro-Québec, p. 46. The original source is: SCHETAGNE, R., and R.VERDON. 1999a. Post-impoundment evolution of fish mercury levels at the La Grande complex. Québec, Canada (from 1978 to 1996). In Mercury in the Biogeochemical Cycle: Natural Environments and Hydroelectric Reservoirs of Northern Québec (Canada), (edited by M. Lucotte. and others). Berlin/New York: Springer. pp. 235–238 ISBN-10: 354065755X] Although environmentalists had originally feared the project's impact on migratory waterfowl of the James Bay region, the project has in fact submerged only 1% of the areas used by the waterfowl and their numbers have remained stable over the last 30 years.

Important variations in the water flow of the Caniapiscau River from 1981 to 1984, during the period when the Caniapiscau Reservoir was being filled, may have contributed to the death by drowning of 10,000 caribou in September 1984 (about 1.5 percent of the herd at that time). However, the reduced flow of the Caniapiscau and Koksoak rivers has permanently reduced the risk of natural floods on the lower Caniapiscau during the period of caribou migrations. About 30,000 caribou are killed each year by Inuit, Cree and southern hunters, mostly American and European.

The potential for massive greenhouse gas emissions in large hydroelectric reservoirs has also generated considerable debate since the Kyoto conference on climate change of 1997. However, greenhouse gas emissions from the northern reservoirs of the La Grande complex are between 2 and 8 percent of the emissions associated with any conventional (fossil fuel) power generation (and from 1 to 4 percent of the greenhouse emissions of the typical coal-fired power generation plant of Canada or the United States).

ocial impact

The James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement was a milestone on the road to economic and social modernisation in the Cree and Inuit communities of Quebec. At a time when hunting and fishing activities had been on the decline in the Cree villages, the James Bay Project provided considerable financial and administrative resources for the Crees to deal with the environmental and social consequences of the project and provide for future economic development, such as the creation of the local airline Air Creebec. The James Bay Project also was an impetus for the forging of a collective identity among the Cree of Quebec and for the establishment of the Grand Council of the Crees (Eeyou Istchee). The Agreement notably provided for major institutional structures for local government, economic development, schools and health services, mostly under the control of the Grand Council of the Crees and the Kativik Regional Government, in Nunavik.

Yet, the social consequences of the hydroelectric project itself pale in comparison to the social impact of the Cree coming into direct contact with the society and economic forces of francophone Quebec. The greatest impact stems from the construction in the early 1970s of the "Route de la Baie James" (James Bay Road) from Matagami to the new town of Radisson, near the Robert-Bourassa generating station (La Grande-2), and on to the nearby Cree village of Chisasibi. During the main construction period of the late 1970s, Radisson housed a population several times greater than the Cree population of Chisasibi, although it currently has a population of about 500.

Nevertheless, the Cree communities have themselves continued the push to build additional roads from the James Bay Road westward to the Cree coastal villages of Wemindji, Eastmain and Waskaganish. These roads, opened between 1995 and 2001, have further facilitated access to hunting areas of the interior and encouraged commercial and social exchanges between the Cree villages and with southern Quebec. A separate road ("Route du Nord") also links the James Bay Road to Chibougamau, via the Cree village of Nemaska. The building of these newer roads was largely the work of Cree construction companies.

The James Bay Road also opened the region to further mineral exploration and clear-cut logging in the southern James Bay area and substantially reduced the cost of transport. These activities have put further strains on the traditional hunting and trapping activities of the Cree in the southern James Bay region, notably the villages of Waskaganish and Nemaska. Such activities, however, only accounted for about half the economic activity of the Cree communities in 1970 and less than 20 % by the late 1990s. Hunting and fishing in the Cree villages mostly involves young adults and older Cree with few professional qualifications. Such activities are furthermore sustained by an income replacement program financed by the government of Quebec that offers the equivalent of a modest annual salary for hunters and their families who live in the bush for at least several weeks of the year.


While the impact of the James Bay Project was important, above all for the Crees of Chisasibi and Eastmain, there is still some debate within the environmentalist community over its overall environmental impact. While the La Grande complex has disrupted parts of a vast pristine ecosystem, it has also given the opportunity for thousands of gigawatt-hours of electricity to be generated pollution-free: unlike the reservoir of the Three Gorges Dam in China, the northern reservoirs of Quebec neither receive silt from the upstream tributaries, nor produce important quantities of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.

ee also

* Baie-James, Quebec
* List of hydroelectric stations in Quebec
* Quebec - New England Transmission


Further reading

* [http://www.hydroquebec.com/sustainable-development/repertoire/pop/doc_specialise_06.html Hayeur, Gaëtan. 2001. "Summary of Knowledge Acquired in Northern Environments from 1970 to 2000." Montreal: Hydro-Québec, 110p.]
* [http://www.springer.com/sgw/cda/frontpage/0,,1-10006-22-35070329-0,00.html Tremblay, Varfalvy, Roehm and Garneau (Ed.). 2005. "Greenhouse Gas Emissions - Fluxes and Processes." Springer, 732 p.] ISBN 3-540-23455-1
*Turgeon, Pierre. 1991. "Radissonie, le pays de la baie James." Montreal: Libre expression, 191p. ISBN 2-89111-502-3
*Hornig, James F. (Ed.). 1999. "Social and Environmental Impacts of the James Bay Hydroelectric Project." Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press. ISBN 0-7735-1837-1
*Jean-Jacques Simard, "Tendances nordiques, les changementss sociaux 1970-1990 chez les Cris et les Inuits du Québec." Quebec City: Laval University, 1996. ISBN 2-921438-12-7

External links

* [http://www.hydroquebec.com/generation/hydroelectric/la_grande/index.html The La Grande Complex and commission dates] (Hydro-Québec)
* [http://www.hydroquebec.com/transenergie/en/reseau/bref.html Hydro-Québec Transmission lines]
* [http://www.hydroquebec.com/eastmain1a/en/pdf/milieu_humain.pdf Human Environment of the James Bay region] (Detailed map of the James Bay region)
* [http://www.municipalite.baie-james.qc.ca/html/e_accueil00.htm James Bay Municipality] (English, French)
* [http://www.gcc.ca Grand Council of the Crees (of Quebec)] (English, French, Cree)
* [http://www.hydroquebec.com/sebj/en/index.html Société d'énergie de la Baie-James] (English, French)
* [http://www.bip-pio.qc.ca/ Public Information Office on the Rupert River Diversion Project] (English, French, Cree)

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