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Water and power: my encounters with the small hydro dams

British columbia by Andraž Krpič

By Andraž Krpič.
Photos by Jordan Bastin

Calling the European Alps my home left me stunned by the amount of unpopulated nature and free-flowing rivers in British Columbia. European kayakers can only imagine how much of our good white-water has been lost to the dams.  Yes, I know I use electrical power every day and I’m aware that there’s a need to compromise in the contemporary world, but who can blame me for loving the untouched nature? BC still has plenty of it and I feel serenity and amazement every time I find myself far away from anything reminding me of human civilization, except for maybe an old deserted logging road, which often tends to present the only access to the rivers here.

British columbia by Andraž Krpič

While big dams’ impacts are quite evident, from big populations of people having to be relocated, huge changes to the environment and even effects on climate, there seems to be much less general public concern regarding small dams and diversions. Why should we care about a small creek in a middle of nowhere, right?

Hydro dams and diversions do not fit best into the wild environment and they tend to make river sections unrunnable for kayakers. Those are good enough reasons to have me opposing them, but they aren’t the only cons there are. Just from environmental point of view, small dams also fiercely affect fragile river ecosystems and can have devastating effects on fish populations. Most of them being hidden from our sight of view doesn’t change that fact.

Just around Squamish there have been two recent Incidents involving fish dying because hydro companies didn’t leave enough water in river channels. It is also notable, that many of these projects produce most of their power at a time of spring run-off, time when there is no shortage of power generated by existing facilities. Finding a right balance between satisfying power needs while trying not to leave major ecological impact is challenging enough, but there are some deeper concerns involved with the trends of hydro power plant development, not only in BC, but anywhere in the world.

Callaghan-race-putin

So let’s go back to a beautiful July morning, when a few kayaker buddies and myself decided to go run a small creek named Skookum, located just a few kilometres outside of Squamish. We knew that not too long ago Run of River Power inc., a private company, started building a diversion dam far above the classic kayaking section of this very small creek.

Having experience with European construction workers and security procedures involving such projects I expected being rejected before even asking about letting us kayak the section, on what would probably be a last attempt before they dam it. Instead very nice workers welcomed us, who were all trying to help us get to the river. I remember one of them saying, “We are locals too and we are trying to work in the best interest of land and our community.”

At the end we didn’t get to kayak, because we couldn’t find a put-in, after the landscape has been changed so much by construction work, that we couldn’t match it to the old river descriptions. It was my only day off for a while so sadly we didn’t make it back before the water level dropped too much.

British columbia by Andraž Krpič

Interesting is a story of Ashlu creek. Innergex is a private company that owns the controversial Ashlu diversion. After strong opposition from a local kayak community, a compromise agreement has been made, which granted kayakers flow release dates. At the end kayakers were left with even more days of runnable water levels than before. It seems that a great battle has been won and a case example set for better relations between kayakers and any energy corporation.

It almost seems like we should applaud these corporations for their concerns for the local communities and kayakers, but who especially needs applauding are their PR departments. This situation inherently reminds me of how ‘philanthropic’ financial institutions, like Rockefeller foundation since the 19th century, supported anthropological researches to better understand and communicate with indigenous people in faraway lands. Of course the agenda there was to avoid any resistance and to optimize conditions of exploitation of these lands.

After asking what do local communities, local environment and society in general gain with these interventions in nature, it is clear that something smells fishy. According to Hydropower Reform Coalition on a case of Washington State, about twice as much electricity could be made just by improving efficiency of existing dams, then as building new dams on potentially exploitable rivers. Energy corporations’ major argument pro building these is also providing jobs to locals. The fact is that most of workers on these projects aren’t locals and the jobs are available only for a time of construction. I believe that local communities can lose a lot more in the long term by scarring their beautiful untouched nature and making it less attractive for tourism.

British columbia by Andraž Krpič

Do locals get cheaper power after construction is done? Why do we all believe hydropower is green power? Who is making profit here? If energy corporations are making profit, they are making it by selling power to faraway lands (because BC has enough power in time of spring run-off and that’s the time when most excess energy is produced by small hydro dams) – and nobody but they themselves seem to be making profit of it. Learning all that makes it clear that somebody did a really good job in ‘educating’ locals, fishermen, environmentalists and us kayakers that in fact we are scoring a good deal.

Should we really let ourselves be silenced for getting some treats? The big question is where does this trend lead? If private financial entities can buy rights to exploit land, water, oil and other resources almost anywhere, where does it end? Maybe run-of-river projects aren’t as high profile today. But imagine the world decades from now. Who knows what can happen?

Northern countries have plenty of water now, but the climate is changing and the glaciers are melting fast. What does privatization of water sources lead to in times when water can’t be taken for granted anymore?

Callaghan-race-group-shot

I’m happy to see there is more and more concern and awareness about this issue. I love a short educational video Hydro Power Reform has published on the internet: Small Hydro Power. There has also been a noticeable revolt from the local kayaking community in the Southeast BC, though it has been largely limited to the rivers that are often used for recreational purposes. Cheers especially to the efforts of Steve Arns, Ric Moxon and other local kayakers for their swift and strong opposition to Innergex’s consideration of diverting one of south eastern BC’s most kayaked and overall most impressive runs around the Callaghan creek.

If they can divert a river with such importance to us, kayakers will be shown to have no real power at all.

Join a Facebook page ‘Save the Callaghan’ and educate yourself to help with the cause. The Callaghan race saw the most competitors in its four-year history so far. Fifty-two competitors showed up, not just to compete, but also to show tribute to this amazing creek and help support the efforts to leave this creek free flowing. We can’t do much if we are few, but these numbers and the efforts of some people leave space for optimism. And so do efforts of especially first nations and some local communities who have to live with negative effects of exploitation, while they’re obviously not the ones getting richer. Even though it seems like fighting with mills, we owe it to our children and our planet to fight the fight.

Join a Facebook page ‘Save the Callaghan’

British columbia by Andraž Krpič

About thepaddlerezine (577 Articles)
Editor of The Paddler ezine and Publisher of Stand Up Paddle Mag UK and WindsurfingUK magazines

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