Keeping the waters wild – Paddler challenges run-of-river projects

Paddler Ryan Bayes of Abbotsford says some of the waterways earmarked for run-of-river power projects locally and throughout B.C. have recreational value that will be lost through hydro developments.

For elite-level kayaker Ryan Bayes of Abbotsford, paddling B.C.’s myriad creeks and rivers is as close as he’ll get to heaven on Earth.

“I love the exploration and adventure of not doing the same old thing every day,” said Bayes, 27. “Sometimes, I’ll hike two or three hours to get to a creek that has no road going to it. Sometimes it’s a total waste of time.

“But sometimes I’ll end up in a canyon where no human being has probably been before.”

These days, Bayes’s paddling pursuit has an added element of urgency. He’s concerned about the proliferation of run-of-river Independent Power Producers (IPPs) – privately operated hydroelectric stations, generally on streams in heavily forested regions of the province.

Most people will never see an IPP hydro station up close, but Bayes and other kayakers regularly paddle streams that have pending applications for water-diverting development.

While run-of-river proponents say effective measures can be taken to mitigate impact on wildlife and recreation, Bayes feels the construction of such facilities ruins the wilderness experience.

Bayes attends public forums on IPP development, and is sending a letter to the Navigable Waters Protection Program and Transport Canada.

But perhaps the most practical element of his activist strategy is proving that some of the waterways earmarked for development are navigable and of recreational benefit. He attaches a camera to his helmet and posts video of his exploits to the fraservalleywhitewater.com website.

“It’s hard for someone to defend something they’ve never seen,” Bayes said. “If (a TV network) flew up in a helicopter with a high-def camera, it wouldn’t be an issue anymore. People would say, ‘No way, it’s way too beautiful.’”

In total, BC Hydro has 114 electricity purchase agreements (EPAs) for IPP developments. As of Oct. 1, 2010, 65 of those were operational, including 50 hydro projects. The remainder are biogas, biomass, wind or gas-fired thermal stations.

More river-based IPPs are on the way – 19 of the 27 EPAs that BC Hydro approved following its Clean Power Call request for proposals in 2008 were run-of-river projects.

Vancouver-based Cloudworks Energy Inc. has proposed developments on a series of waterways in the Harrison Lake area – Big Silver, Tretheway and Shovel creeks, and the Northwest Stave River – that are currently going through the environmental assessment process. The company already operates six run-of-river projects in the Squamish-Lillooet and Harrison regions.

Graham Horn, executive vice-president for Cloudworks, said his company seeks to work with kayakers by releasing periodic water flows for recreational use, and by offering online gauging of water levels.

“We seek to build these renewable power projects with as little impact and as much value as we can,” Horn said. “We do several years of baseline research before we go into a project. We understand what the fisheries are, what the invertebrates are in the creek, what the water temperature is, what the water flow or the geomorphology of the creek is.

“Once the project’s operating, we track whether we’re affecting any of those things. It’s in our licence that we can’t be having any detrimental impact in those areas.”

Bayes’s family owns Western Canoeing and Kayaking in Abbotsford, and he’s hearing feedback from European tourists that B.C. is making the same mistakes that many European nations have made, in terms of overbuilding hydro development.

B.C. is currently the world’s No. 1 kayaking destination, Bayes said, but he’s concerned that in a couple of years, that reputation could deteriorate.

“In the world paddling community, B.C. has gotten a lot of bad publicity lately for the rate at which we’re doing the projects,” he said. “The Ashlu Creek project (near Squamish) made it into European magazines, Australian magazines. That was one of those runs everyone wanted to do in their lifetime. Now, you have to arrange it with the dam to divert flow back into the creek if you want to paddle it.”

Bayes said he’s not opposed to hydroelectric power in general, and pointed out he doesn’t fight every run-of-river proposal, though the privatization of waterways does concern him.

The problem is, the two factors that make a stream appealing to paddlers – flow and gradient – are precisely what make them attractive to IPP developers.

“There are a lot of projects that most people aren’t even aware of,” he said. “They’re a lot more abundant than people think, and for the most part, companies do a good job of keeping them out of the public spotlight.

Horn said his company chooses to voluntarily opt into the full assessment process through the Environmental Assessment Office, which includes public consultation. Projects with a capacity of less than 50 megawatts are not required to go through the provincial EAO, and Cloudworks’ stations average around 25 MW.

“We like the transparency of it,” Horn said. “Kayakers are able to go onto a government website, and it’s a very rigid and transparent process where stakeholders can go and look at it. In our opinion, it makes for better projects.

“We want to protect these habitats. We’re in this process voluntarily, to find out these kinds of things and have these conversations. And we plan to have more with the kayakers.”

At times, Bayes feels his struggle to preserve the natural flow of wilderness streams is akin to David vs. Goliath.

“The part that’s kind of frustrating, I’ve done meetings in Pemberton, driven out to Chilliwack a bunch of times,” Bayes said. “That’s all voluntary – me and my friends volunteering our time, and it costs us time and money to do it.

“Whereas with these projects, there are guys making big salaries whose jobs are to find ways to make it move forward.

“It’s not a level playing field, and I recognize I don’t have the legal background to go about fighting this, aside from raising awareness with the public.”

For more information on waterway preservation, visit citizensforpublicpower.ca; wildernesscommittee.org; ippwatch.info; or bc-creeks.org

Diverting water to make power

A run-of-river Independent Power Producer is a small-scale hydroelectric development.

A weir diverts water into a generating station, after falling through a screen that filters out fish and river debris. Only the water that’s needed goes through the screen and into the station. The rest of the creek volume carries on in the channel, as it would naturally.

The captured water falls through a pipeline, called a penstock, which can be buried, or at other times it sits above the ground, depending on the topography of each project.

The water is sent to a powerhouse, where it flows through two turbines. The turbines create the energy, which is sent to a switchyard. Some of the energy powers the station itself, and the rest flows into BC Hydro’s main power supply.

Once the water travels through the turbines, it flows out into the tailrace – a new waterway that rejoins the diverted water back to the natural stream. Run-of-river technology works best in waterfalls with a grade of at least 10 per cent.