Comments are pouring in from the public on the Upper Lillooet hydro project and like many similar initiatives the feedback is largely negative.
Comments on the Upper Lillooet project run a gamut of subjects from the aesthetic value of Keyhole Falls, a large waterfall whose flows could be reduced as a result of the project, as well as impacts on fish and wildlife habitat in the vicinity of the three facilities that could be built as part of the cluster.
B.C.'s Environmental Assessment Office is gathering comments as part of a review that all proposed hydro projects must undergo in order to ensure they are developed in a sustainable manner.
Jayson Faulkner, a longtime Whistler resident and head of a committee that's looking into a hiking trail around the Spearhead Traverse, wrote on Dec. 13 that Whistler's success depends on its ability to have adjacent areas of "unspoiled, non-industrial backcountry."
"This tourism resort which generates hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of jobs in the region, year after year after year, can only do so if it has the ongoing ability to attract people from around the world to see the environs in which it is situated," he wrote.
Meanwhile Jeanette Helmer, co-owner of Helmer's Organic Farm in the Pemberton Meadows, wrote that she wants to see a study showing the impacts of "dewatering streams and rivers," as well as impacts on fish, invertebrates and wildlife from development of run-of-river projects.
Speaking in an interview last Thursday, she said her concerns about the Upper Lillooet are similar to the ones she holds about independent power producers more broadly.
"It's such a beautiful part of the valley," Helmer said. "We were just talking to one of the old timers and he was talking about all the fish that spawn up there, below Keyhole Falls. Everybody that I've talked to seems to admit that if you take water out of a river for miles, then put it back in, the river is affected, the river level changes and the nutrient quality of the water is affected."
Richard Blanchet, vice-president, western region for hydroelectric energy for Innergex, one of two companies behind the Upper Lillooet project, said in an interview that the proponents are doing a number of studies that assess Keyhole Falls at different flows, and that based on those studies the company will be able to demonstrate the impacts of flow restriction in the falls.
"We are going at different times of the year, looking at different flows," he said. "Really reading the flows and really trying to assess what will be the visual impact on the falls."
As far as impacts on fish and wildlife habitat, because the cluster is planned for a fish-bearing river, the environmental assessment has also triggered a review by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, which includes a referral to Fisheries Canada.
The public comment period is a key part of the process. Comments gathered by the EAO are reviewed and considered by staff before figuring out ways to re-design or change a project in response to concerns raised.
People are asked not to be too broad or partisan in their submissions or else staff will not be able to give much consideration to such comments.
Run-of-river projects are often assailed with negative comments during environmental assessments. Feedback submitted to the EAO is often uniformly against private run-of-river projects, with members of the public remarking that the provincial government is "privatizing" B.C. rivers by allowing private companies to develop projects whose electricity is then sold to BC Hydro.