EDMONTON -- It was a narrow vote by city councillors Tuesday to give the go-ahead to a $30-million solar farm in Edmonton’s river valley.

When finished, the farm will consist of 45,000 solar panels on 54 acres of land south of the E.L. Smith Water Treatment Plant, which provides 65 per cent of the water used in the greater Edmonton region but is EPCOR’s second-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Seventy per cent of the power generated by the future solar farm will power the plant directly, while the rest is exported to the electrical grid.

Approving the project was a contested debate at City Hall, as councillors weighed the project’s environmental impact and historical significance.

The vote ended up being as close as is possible: seven councillors voted in favour, trumping those against by just one.

“Next to the water treatment plant, on land that is reserved for its expansion, that’s previously disturbed, on a temporary basis to help us achieve our climate goals... Makes sense to me,” Mayor Don Iveson said.

Ward 11 Coun. Mike Nickel, who voted against EPCOR’s proposal, said part of his opposition was to give up a section of the river valley to an industrial site.

“What does not change is that people want their river valley to stay pristine, that’s at least my opinion.”

Despite the GHG reductions promised to come from the solar field, there have been other concerns the farm’s approval sets a precedent for developing the river valley, or will endanger birds who mistake the panels for the river.

“We have done changes to the project to try and address those concerns,” said Gold Bar water treatment plant director Craig Bonneville, referencing an increase in the distance from the panel array to the river to 100 metres.

“We share that love of the river valley and we recognize our importance place as a steward, given our major facilities are located there.”

As well, the land – which is owned by EPCOR for the water treatment plant’s expansion in about three decades – was once Indigenous burial land.

Enoch Cree Nation councillor Lyle Morin believes the area should have been designated a historical site.

He voted earlier this year against his council’s signing of a memorandum of understanding with EPCOR.

“Just with this one area, it seemed to not get the respect it deserved,” he told CTV News Edmonton.

“This whole river valley is full of our people. I’d appreciate not disturbing them.”

Panel installation will begin next spring and the farm will begin producing energy in early 2022.