Features & Images » Feature Story

A river runs through it

Independent hydropower energizes debate in the Sea to Sky



Page 4 of 5


So how green and responsible is hydropower? No energy source has zero impact on the planet: fossil fuels release greenhouse gases, wind turbines can threaten birds and solar panels require toxic elements that need to be mined and disposed of responsibly. The little evidence that exists about the overall impact of hydropower shows it can be seen as green or not green, depending on how you look at it, and on how specific projects are run.

In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, run-of-river projects are king. Over a project's lifetime, it produces as little as 0.5 kg of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour of power produced, mostly from building the power plant in the first place. Compare that to about 50 kg/MWhr for wind, up to 250 kg/MWhr for dammed-reservoir hydropower (thanks to emissions from rotting, flooded vegetation), 400-500 kg/MWhr for natural gas, and a whopping 900-1200 kg/MWhr for coal.

Some, including the Green Party's Weaver, argue that this green advantage should be weighted extremely heavily when considering overall environmental impacts of hydropower.


But there are impacts on the water and forests. One recent study by water resource engineer Kelly Kibler of Oregon State University found that, in China at least, the ecological impacts of many small hydroprojects can be larger, overall, than those of a single dam, particularly since regulatory oversight can be weaker on smaller projects. "You cannot call them green or clean," claims Ludlam-Taylor.

The stretch of river between the intake and powerhouse of any IPP holds much less water than usual — at times it can run dry thanks to equipment malfunction or other errors. Problems can happen downstream too, according to the Tamed Rivers report by Watershed Watch. A diverted river might flood less frequently than a natural one, for example, and that can create a buildup of fine sediments that make it hard for fish eggs to survive. The shallow stretch can also warm waters in summer, or allow them to freeze in winter. No one yet knows the precise impacts of these effects.

The documented number of fish killed per project per year is small: there were just 94 fish deaths reported in 2010 from seven incidents at three hydropower stations — far fewer than the number of fish killed by recreational fishing. The total number of fish killed by all projects is undocumented and unknown.

"It's very difficult to measure fish mortality. The precautionary thing is to look at damage to fish habitat," says Gwen Barlee, policy director for the Wilderness Committee.

IPPs are meant to control the water flow fluctuations, but this doesn't always happen. A freedom-of-information request by the Wilderness Committee in 2010 found more than 300 instances of non-compliance with such rules in B.C. "I'm concerned about the Department of Fisheries and Ocean's ability to monitor these things; they've had a lot of staff cuts," says Watershed Watch's Orr.

Worryingly, adds Barlee, "where there are documented issues, there don't appear to be fines or repercussions." Some wrist slapping might be going on behind closed doors, she notes.

For local Pemberton potato farmer and IPP-protestor Jeanette Helmer, the most frightening thing is the tendency for large corporations beholden to their share-holders to seek out profit at all costs. "We the people have trusted the government to take care of our land — and now they're selling it off," she says. "The Utilities Commission used to have teeth but that's been watered down. These great big companies couldn't care less about us."

Curt Walker, chief administrative officer for the Lil'wat Nation, has a different view. He notes that they have logged about 7,000 hours in consultation and study with Innergex about the Upper Lillooet project, and the band will manage its own compliance and monitoring program. "They've taken a number of steps on the environmental side," says Walker about Innergex. "They not only say they're going to do stuff, they actually do it."

The Pemberton Wildlife Association (PWA) has flagged several rivers in the Sea to Sky region as particularly unsuitable for development, including the Birkenhead River because of its fish, and the Ryan River because of its grizzly bears. "We have asked for a moratorium on IPP's in the Upper Lillooet River watershed, pending the completion of a land use planning process," says the association's Allen McEwan. They'd like to see all stakeholders get together and develop a plan for the entire region, rather than waiting for power companies to initiate projects one creek at a time. "The current process appears to be driven by the proponents, with no overall land-use planning in place," he says.

Others say such a strategy is impractical. "There's an idea that every river in the Sea to Sky should be assessed, so we can put together a plan that would maximize potential and minimize impact. But when you get into what it takes to assess a waterway, each one needs a full-on assessment," says Sturdy. "Those are long-term, big ticket items."

The Upper Lillooet watershed is home to about 40 grizzly bears in two threatened populations: the Squamish-Lillooet and South Chilcotin Ranges. Construction could theoretically frighten bears away from their dens or foraging grounds on the river, or allow poachers easier access along new roads. Innergex has promised to contribute to grizzly research projects, and avoid construction when bears are foraging for spawning salmon, amongst other things. But this doesn't satisfy everyone. "With grizzly bear numbers as low as they currently are, the loss of a single bear is a major concern," notes McEwan.

How much will these projects really affect wildlife in the region? No one really knows. "There's not a lot of actual science or data to inform the conversation," says SFU's Palen, a researcher who is aiming to fix that. Now is a great time to be filling in the blanks on the evidence, she says, given the lull in new IPP projects. "There was a big flurry, and now there's a catching of breath. That's why this project is so important. We know there's a ton of capacity, so we need to step back and see if we have overstepped the science here."

Palen and colleagues have been working for about a year and a half on a new, web-based tool that will let users set their priorities (how much they want to weight the importance of the welfare of individual species, habitats, and financial cost, for example) and toggle them to see which projects make the most sense under different conditions.  "What's worse? 250 new IPPs, or one site C dam?" asks Palen — their tool will help to answer that, depending on how you define "worse." They expect to have a first product in about a year's time.

They're also out in the field helping to do monitoring on species at risk to see how they fare. One project, for example, is focusing on tailed frogs — a unique kind of frog that only lives in the Pacific Northwest. "They live in rivers that happen to be the right size and shape for run-of-river. So we want to understand what these projects actually mean to them," says Palen. "We're going to look at regions a couple of years before and a couple of years after an IPP, along with a nearby river. That's going to take a lot longer to mature."