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A 'Green' Threat to B.C.'s Rivers?

Touted by BCHydro as renewable electricity, the rush to install privatized 'micro-hydro' schemes may change the flow of 76 B.C. rivers.

By Lisa Richardson 30 Aug 2004 |
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If you run a business, your next electricity bill might come with an invitation to buy green energy by purchasing a Green Power Certificate. It's part of BC Hydro's commitment to getting at least 50 percent of its power from green sources. So if you care about preserving the environment, buying into BC Hydro's green energy plan might seem a no-brainer.

But is that green power, much of it contracted from so-called independent power producers (IPPs), really as green as BC Hydro says?

Dietrich Jordan, a resident of the Upper Squamish Valley, says an unequivocal No.  Jordan, 68, has lived over half his life on a property that overlooks the Ashlu and Squamish Rivers. Now, someone else has their sights on the Ashlu drainage, and Jordan is at the forefront of a group of residents and paddlers who are gearing up for war.

Ledcor's plans for the Ashlu Ledcor Power, an independent power producer, is proposing to build a micro-hydro power generating station on the Ashlu. Micro-hydro, an approach also called "run-of-the-river", involves diverting sections of river through several kilometers of pipeline into turbines before dumping the water back into the watercourse downstream.

The Upper Squamish Valley Residents Association and the Whitewater Kayaking Association of BC are opposed to that kind of project on the Ashlu, the southernmost large tributary to the Squamish River, and one of the region's best paddling rivers. "Ledcor comes here as if it's a vacuum," says Jordan. "But in reality, there are a lot of people who live here, under difficult circumstances, exactly because we want to be in the Ashlu canyon.  People don't flock here to see noisy turbines and transformers." 

Jordan was one of 150 water-logged revelers who gathered recently for a whitewater festival at the Ashlu, one of province's ten most endangered rivers according to the Outdoor Recreation Council of BC.

Ledcor's plan, two years in the making, is to build an independent power project (IPP) on the Ashlu, diverting 7 kilometres of river through a pipe to a power station, before re-releasing it downstream. The $80 million project will involve Three turbines which would generate 230 gigawatt hours of "clean" electricity, enough to serve 23,000 homes. BCHydro has agreed to purchase that power for the next 20 years.

Siphoned water affects ecology

Micro-hydro projects like the one planned for the Ashlu can alter flow regimes, water temperatures and insect populations for fish feeding downstream, according to The Outdoor Recreation Council of BC. Residents north of the Squamish Valley in Pemberton were irate when the Miller Creek IPP run-of-the-river micro-hydro project unexpectedly released huge rushes of water from their project, causing damage to fish life and threatening several local farms.

Stuart Smith of  the Whitewater Kayaking Association of B.C. is concerned that the effects on the environment from the Ashlu project just can't be foreseen.  "Ledcor are planning to take the maximum volume of water allowable from the river," he says, which means the river's flows will be dramatically altered throughout the year.

Smith's concerns come, in part, from witnessing the impact IPPs have had on the nearby Mamquam River.  "There are two IPPs on the Mamquam, and six more in the same drainage, and we are starting to see the cumulative impact. It is the most stressed watershed [in the region]."  Another concern of opponents is that Ledcor's plan to decrease water flows by half at certain times will affect the ambient air temperature.

Residents are further concerned about the damage that will arise from the drilling of the water diversion pipe, which is to run 300 metres through the granite mountain-side.  Creation of the tunnel alone is expected to require a year of 24/7 tunnelling and rock hauling through the Upper Squamish Valley.

Reassurances from Ledcor

Kelly Boychuk, Ledcor's Project Manager on the Ashlu, says opponents of the project paint an overly negative picture. "Definitely, the kayaking community has expressed its concerns, as have a small group of residents. But do they speak for everyone? I don't think so," Boychuk told the Tyee.

A Ledcor brochure contends that "The project is designed to have low environmental impacts, particularly with respect to fish habitat."  Ledcor promises to  use biodegradable oil in the mechanical and electrical equipment, and tol deflate the rubber weir that holds back the river during high water flow, to allow gravel to move downstream naturally and replenish salmon spawning beds.

For Ledcor, whose revenues top $1 billion a year, the Ashlu is one of several "green" developments.  Other projects in the company's pipeline include a joint venture with ski resort Whistler Blackcomb to build a micro-hydro project on the Fitzsimmons that will power the mountain's operations, a windfarm in Squamish and the Brittannia Beach remediation project.  Ledcor Power also holds seven other water licences within the Ashlu drainage, including one on Sigurd Creek that would destroy Crooked Falls.

'Nature's gift to us'

The area between North Vancouver and Lillooet is dotted with mountain-fed rivers and has gained the attention of alternative power developers eager to capitalize on BCHydro's green power production targets.  As one industry insider said, "Hydrology is nature's gift to us here."  In pursuit of the BC government's goal that 50 percent of new power come from clean energy sources, 76 rivers in the region have water diversion proposals in the works.

Suddenly, it seems, water licences are the new Pokemon. Everyone's got to have at least one.

Ledcor's Boychuk says that "green power" is the wave of the future.  "That's the signal we've been getting from the province because of increasing energy demand in BC," he says.  "BCHydro are forecasting 1.5 to 2.5 percent demand increases every year, because of the mass migration of people to the west coast.  They're trying to match that increased demand in renewable energy." 

Smith of the Whitewater Kayaking Association of BC calls this the feeding frenzy.  "The biggest proponent of the IPPs is the provincial government. If they hadn't herded all these guys in a room and created this feeding frenzy, then we wouldn't be here. What we're seeing is that all the impacts are going to come here and all the energy will go elsewhere." 

Claim: Four of five rivers impacted

How green is micro-hydro? Stuart Smith says he is concerned that the due diligence just hasn't been done. There is no province-wide strategy for these projects, he says, which means that 80 percent of the region's most significant paddling streams are threatened or already impacted by IPPs.

"The raw fact is that one run-of-the-river is way more environmentally friendly than a big dam," says Stuart. "But are 100 IPPs, or twenty of them, more environmentally friendly than one Daisy Lake dam? It's just not a clear question. There are a lot of unknowns and the pace we are moving at doesn't allow us to monitor the impacts. This thing is happening way too fast."

Dietrich Jordan calls the surge of micro-hydro project "one of Gordon Campbell's schemes", part of an effort by the premier and his Liberal government to create more globally attractive business in B.C. "BC Hydro was instructed that they have to accept the IPPs. The IPPs are piggybacking on BCHydro. 'Independent Power Project' is a misnomer. They're not independent," says Jordan.

Energy for export?

"BC Hydro is under the gun to sell to the States," Jordan further charges. "The rain falls here, not in California. They're using our miserable weather to heat their swimming pools in the winter and cool their houses in the summer."

The Ashlu fight is not only pitting residents against the spectre of energy-hungry Californians, but against independent power developers and speculators.  Increasingly, residents are discovering that the project developers they dealt with during public consultation processes are not the owners and operators of the powerhouses down the line. Micro-hydro developments are being "flipped"- Pemberton's Miller Creek IPP changed hands during the public consultation process, leaving residents upset by abandoned undertakings.  The Mamquam River IPP was sold last month to a Calary-based company, TransCanada Power.

Ledcor did not deny their intention to follow suit, when asked by the Tyee.  Stuart Smith thinks it's not only a possibility, but a probability.

"There is no amount of money that can compensate us for the loss of the wild Ashlu," says Dietrich Jordan. "They want to take it away, not just from us, but from people not even born yet."

Jordan was speaking after the whitewater festival had wrapped up with a float trip down the Ashlu's lower reaches. Competing rafting companies and guides combined efforts to introduce nearly 20 visitors to the lower Ashlu. Inflatable boats spun slowly to capture the best views of Crooked Falls and Madden Falls, a blue heron nesting, a seal turning its attention momentarily to the boats from its salmon-chasing mission. 

At one point the rafters encountered a bedraggled camp on Anderson Beach defying the fire ban with campfires, and driving four-wheel drives along the beach.  In contrast to the garbage-littered campiste, when the last kayak-crowned truck pulled away from the festival site on Sunday afternoon, there was no trace of their passing apart from the flattened grass. 

"We have to make a decision," says Jordan. "Council here are facing it now. Which way do they want to go? They can choose the path that will create easy riches for some people and the destruction of the environment, or they can choose what is right."

Squamish-based journalist Lisa Richardson is a regular contributor to The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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