Brian Mann for NPR
Seventy percent of the Rupert River will be diverted at a location just above this cataract in northern Quebec.
Seventy percent of the Rupert River will be diverted at a location just above this cataract in northern Quebec. Brian Mann for NPR
Alice Kreit, NPR
Hydro-Quebec's hydropower complex, the James Bay Project, consists of diverting a number of rivers in northern Quebec over essentially three phases, shown here.
Hydro-Quebec's hydropower complex, the James Bay Project, consists of diverting a number of rivers in northern Quebec over essentially three phases, culminating in the current project to uproot the Rupert River. The river diversions impact a huge swath of land: Over the last three decades, Hydro-Quebec has systematically re-engineered a chunk of wilderness the size of Colorado. Alice Kreit, NPR
Brian Mann for NPR
Though environmentalists and some Cree Indians have raised concerns, the massive diversion dikes are already under construction.
Though environmentalists and some Cree Indians have raised concerns, the massive diversion dikes are already under construction. Brian Mann for NPR
Brian Mann for NPR
The massive spillway from one of the main dams is known as the "Giant's Staircase." Each "step" is more than 30 feet high.
The massive spillway from one of the main dams is known as the "Giant's Staircase." Each "step" is more than 30 feet high. Brian Mann for NPR
Brian Mann for NPR
Hydro-Quebec has built a memorial to commemorate the traditional Cree burial sites flooded by the region's massive reservoirs.
Hydro-Quebec has built a memorial to commemorate the traditional Cree burial sites flooded by the region's massive reservoirs. Brian Mann for NPR
When politicians make speeches about America's reliance on foreign energy, they're usually talking about oil from the Middle East or other unstable hotspots.
But a growing number of Americans get their electricity from one massive hydroelectric complex in northern Quebec. The Canadian power company Hydro-Quebec has been building a series of hydroelectric dams since the 1970s on rivers that flow into the James Bay. The company is owned and operated by Quebec's provincial government.
The latest Hydro-Quebec project will uproot and move the Rupert River, an engineering feat that supporters say will rival the Trans-Alaska pipeline.
But the Rupert River is sacred to the Cree Indians who live nearby.
Forcing Out the Cree
Chief Josie Jimiken sits talking on his cell phone in a diner in Nemaska, a tiny Cree village roughly a thousand miles due north of New York City.
Jimiken grew up on the Rupert River. He calls a plan by Hydro-Quebec to divert roughly 70 percent of the river's water a kind of sucker punch for his tribe.
"I was 10 years old when the first projects were announced to harness the dam and divert the rivers up here in our territory. We ended up being forced out of our community site," Jimiken said.
Villagers moved to Nemaska in the 1970s, but they still spend summers back at their traditional camps along the Rupert.
Jimiken says those hunting and fishing grounds — along with ancient burial sites — will be lost when the project is finished.
"There've been changes to almost every aspect of our way of life, the way we used to live out on the land," Jimiken said. "I'm sure it'll just be compounded some more once this project is done."
Taming the Rupert
Hike along the bank of the Rupert River and the place feels like pure wilderness.
The river is two football fields wide and the amount of water surging through the rock canyon is awesome.
Waves the size of houses crash and roar. It seems impossible that a force of nature this massive, this muscular, could be tamed.
But a couple of miles upriver — an hour's drive from Nemaska — an equally massive construction project is underway.
An entire mountainside is being carved away. Workers armed with jackhammers move over the rock like tiny hieroglyphs.
"They'll just divert it. They'll put in dikes," according to Pierre Lavigne, who works for Hydro-Quebec.
The $5 billion dollar plan, which has the green light from Canadian environment officials, is to send the Rupert hundreds of miles north into an existing network of lakes and reservoirs.
Once tethered, it will generate enough electricity to serve up to a million additional homes, a lot of them in Massachusetts, New York and Vermont.
According to Lavigne, it's a treasure trove of safe, clean energy.
"In the '60s, '70s, nuclear power was very promising. Still, in Quebec we needed visionaries to say, 'Ooh la-la! Wait a minute! We've got water, let's stick to hydro-electric'," Lavigne said. "Today, we applaud these guys."
But not everyone is applauding. Over the last three decades, Hydro-Quebec has systematically re-engineered a chunk of wilderness the size of Colorado.
'Hydro-Quebec is the Mad Scientist'
Fly over the northern forest that flanks James Bay and you see untouched valleys framed by granite outcroppings. Brilliant gold tamarack trees frame russet-red muskegs.
But you also see a vast web of electric lines, power substations, roads and canals.
A half-dozen major rivers have already been dammed or diverted, creating artificial reservoirs that cover nearly 6,000 square miles.
That kind of human footprint in an area that was untouched a generation ago makes activists like Daniel Green cringe.
"We have severely modified almost a third of Quebec's northern water courses, hydrology," Green said.
Green is an environmental scientist with the Sierra Club, based in Montreal. He said the rivers being re-plumbed by Hydro-Quebec feed everything from beluga whale habitats in James Bay and Hudson Bay to spawning grounds for rare river trout.
"We are doing an experiment in Quebec's north and Hydro-Quebec is the mad scientist," Green said. "We do not know where this is going to go."
Tangled Political, Moral Calculations
In the 1990s, green groups joined with the Cree Indians and managed to kill a plan to dam the Great Whale River, which lies to the north of the Rupert.
That was a bitter defeat for French Canadians like Lavigne, who see the James Bay hydro complex as a symbol of national pride — an engineering feat to rival the Hoover Dam that also generates annual profits of $2.5 billion.
"They gave us bad press. They went to France, to Europe. They went to the States and said that we were eliminating — not eliminating a community, but a genocide or something like that," Lavigne said.
This time, the moral and political calculations are more tangled.
Dams built on the Cree's traditional rivers already feed electricity to millions of American homes and factories.
Environmentalists like Green concede that those consumers would otherwise rely primarily on fossil fuels like coal that contribute to global warming.
"There's no doubt about it. If you do the greenhouse gas budget on the Rupert River, hydro produces less impact on climate," Green said.
Even among the Cree, there's a debate underway over the costs and benefits of these projects.
Life Changed Forever
Five years ago, the Province of Quebec and the Cree Grand Council signed a treaty that provides roughly $70 million in annual compensation, if the Cree allow hydro development to continue.
Three villages refused to sign on. But in Nemaska, where opposition is strongest, Hydro-Quebec is paying individual Cree to clear-cut their own traditional hunting grounds in preparation for the river diversion.
Walter Jolly sits by the side of the road in his dusty pick-up truck, which has logging tools piled in the back. Jolly said he's taken a lot of heat from other Cree for signing on with Hydro-Quebec.
"We still got a lot of land. It's only about a not even a quarter," Jolly said.
If Hydro-Quebec keeps to its construction schedule, by 2012 hundreds of thousands of Americans will be turning on their light switches and without knowing it, they'll be drawing cheap, low-carbon power from the Rupert River.
But far away in the north, this wild landscape and the Cree way of life will be changed forever.
North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reports.