Bonnington Falls
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Bonnington Falls Dam


Bonnington Falls Dam
Completed: 1906
Operator: City of Nelson
Type: Run of the river


Sketch of Bonnington Falls

Upper Bonnington Falls, located on the Kootenay River between Nelson and Castlegar was named by Sir Charles Ross, one of the founding members of West Kootenay Power and Light after water features on his estate in Scotland. It is the first of two falls located within approximately two kilometres (1.2 miles) of the river length and has a drop of about 18 metres (60 feet). The falls were both a barrier to navigation when the water routes were served as highways as well as for fish attempting to reach Kootenay Lake. Today Upper Bonnington Falls is the hosts two hydroelectric generating stations, one owned and operated by FortisBC and the other by Nelson Hydro.

The city of Nelson built its plant on the river beginning in 1905 as the Cottonwood Falls Dam located within the city became more and more problematic to the operate. The City's first water license on the Kootenay River at Bonnington Falls was granted to the city on January 14th, 1901. The license and the land grant were greeted with great protest by the West Kootenay Power & Light Company who had operated a plant downstream at Lower Bonnington Falls since 1897. They were concerned that the City's new plant would limit their ability to generate power at their plant.

The City of Nelson powerhouse was built following the passing of a bylaw in January 1905 allowing the city to borrow $150,000 for construction. A second bylaw was passed in September of the same year to borrow an additional $50,000. Completion of the powerhouse was hampered by a court injunction filed by West Kootenay Power to halt the work, on the grounds that construction of the plant was dislodging rocks and blocking the flow of water to the turbines at their Lower Bonnington Plant downstream. The claim was upheld in August of 1905 by the courts, was appealed by the City and decided in favour of Nelson in January 1906.

The City power plant began operations on January 27, 1907 and was finally approved by Council when all of the mechanical details and problems had been worked out in July 1908. By September of that year, residents of Nelson were again asked to approve a by-law of $85,000 for a second generating unit as capacity was quickly reached. The second unit was installed and accepted on June 10, 1910. Service was expanded to the east as far as Ainsworth in 1923 and by 1929 a third unit was installed. The fourth unit was installed in 1949 with the second extension to the powerhouse. The fifth unit, installed and operational by 1995 is contained within its own building.

The second major crisis for the City powerplant came in 1971 with the threat of land expropriation for the construction of the BC Hydro Kootenay Canal. After years of negotiations and deals falling through, an agreement was reached in 1989 between the City of Nelson and BC Hydro with the signing of the Water Rights Agreement. When the Kootenay Canal went into service in 1976 the power production of the city-owned plant was reduced by 15%. With the signing of the agreement, the province expropriated 10 hectares (25.26 acres) of land and the City of Nelson received $400,000 and an allocation of water from BC Hydro that brought the output back to pre-Canal levels and allowed the City to retain ownership of the power plant and electrical system.

Nelson has benefited from owning its power infrastructure. Over the years, large civic projects have been funded through profits and savings acquired from the power plant such as the Civic Centre sports and event facility built during the Depression, the subsidization of the Municipal Gas works and the Municipal Street Railway that wouldn't have survived with out help from the city power revenues.

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Bonnington Falls Dam
Bonnington Falls Dam

The Nelson powerhouse after the first addition.
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