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A creek apart on the Rutherford



The Sea-to-Sky region's land-use conflicts are starting to appear on local waterways

Along with the snowmelt that trickles into the headwaters of Rutherford Creek is an increasing amount of animosity.

Land-use conflicts that play themselves out in the Rutherford-Ipsoot area during the winter ? commercial heli-ski, snowcat and snowmobile operations fighting amongst themselves and with recreational users ? are making their way downstream.

Now the battle is pitting industrial developers versus recreational kayakers over the amount of water to be released from a small-scale, run-of-the-river hydro project.

Hydro developers and kayakers look for similar things in a creek ? a steep gradient and high-water flows.

Vancouver-based Rutherford Creek Power Ltd. is in the throes of planning a project for their namesake creek, which is located south of Pemberton.

RCPL was negotiating water release flows and schedules with local kayakers last month before talks broke down and the two groups chose opposite sides of the issue.

The Rutherford Creek project will include an inflatable weir that creates a head pond and diverts water back into a side channel.

The water will then flow into a small tunnel towards turbines housed in a powerhouse on a logging road. The water is returned to the river below the powerhouse.

According to RCPL spokesperson Nick Andrews, the project will divert 13 cubic metres of water per second from the creek.

Andrews says spring flows average between 30 and 40 cubic metres per second. Kayakers need a minimum flow of 12 cubic metres per second to be able to run a creek or river.

"It's a tough situation," says Andrews. "We spent a lot of time talking with the kayakers."

RCPL is also the developer behind a similar project on Miller Creek, north of Pemberton.

"We believe the project will leave a lot of water in the stream," he says. "It will not have a substantial effect."

But, according to local kayakers, the proposed water flows are not enough to satisfy the demand of an increasingly popular activity.

"The proposed releases would reduce the number of opportunities to run the river," says kayaker Steve Whittall.

Whittall, owner of Canadian Paddlequest and a member of the Whistler Kayak Club, estimates he paddles the Rutherford about 40 times per year. He says the project will substantially decrease that number.

"They were surprised that kayakers actually use Rutherford Creek," says Whittall. "But we look for the same things in creeks as the power companies do."

But Andrews says RCPL is trying its best to mitigate the effects of the projects.

According to Andrews, power generation will only take place during times of high-runoff levels in the spring and summer. RCPL has even offered to turn the project off during peak-paddling periods.

"We're willing to listen and work with the kayakers," he says.

RCPL has also offered to make real-time information on water-flow levels available to kayakers via a toll-free phone number and Web site, similar to a snow report.

But Whittall says kayakers were misled during negotiations.

"We were naive to think discussions were moving in the right direction," he says.

Andrews disagrees: "It's turning into a political issue."

One thing both sides can agree on is that the real debate is not about the Rutherford but the other undeveloped creeks in the area.

Andrews says the kayakers fear the Rutherford Creek project will be the first of hundreds to take place in Sea-to-Sky region and will set a precedent.

"It's becoming a polarized debate and that's not what we want," says Andrews.

According to Whittall, the Rutherford is one of the three most-paddled rivers in the Whistler area but there are a lot of high-quality creeks in the region. Whittall is more worried about the other undeveloped creeks.

"We need to look at a creek inventory and classification system for the whole area," he says.

Andrews has a similar feeling on a zoning process for the region's creeks.

"There's no doubt the Sea-to-Sky region needs kayaking and eco-tourism," says Andrews. "We have to take recreational use into account."

But for now the hydro developer and the kayakers are a creek apart.