River Rights: Balancing Sea-to-Sky River Resources

words :: Carmen Kuntz.

Let’s blast the top off Mount Garibaldi and build a solar farm—or better yet, pave Brohm Ridge for wind turbines.

Hypothetical perhaps, but if such proposals were actually considered would skiers and mountaineers allow it? Would municipalities, districts and the Sea to Sky community back it? Or would pitchforks and torches win the day?

These seemingly far-fetched scenarios aren’t far off point when compared to discussions about the creeks and rivers of the Sea to Sky Corridor. In a rush to find alternatives to coal and fossil fuels, decision-makers are looking to the last undammed waterways of the world to produce ‘green’ energy. Yet for whitewater kayakers, a hydropower project (HPP) is the equivalent of a solar farm on a mountain face—a purposeful destruction of a natural resource and recreation haven in the name of sustainable energy.

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Edward Muggridge on Mamquam Falls, Squamish. KIERAN BROWNIE


Although kayakers make up a relatively small segment of the adventure sports community (with numbers nowhere close to the snow sports or climbing crowds) the whitewater contingent from Pemberton to Squamish is a strong, tight-knit group that revels in dropping into the gorges and remote canyons of BC’s wild, coastal rivers. These are pockets of true wilderness, without tourists or lineups, and often inaccessible and invisible to all except those able to paddle through them. It is a privilege to float through these magical canyons: to play in places even the oldest locals have never seen. And with this privilege comes a duty—a responsibility to protect the rivers that belong to all.

Sea to Sky has some of the best whitewater runs in the world—rivers perceived as playgrounds by some, and power potential by others. The threat of hydro development on the Callaghan Creek, just south of Whistler, has loomed over the kayaking community for almost 10 years. Recently, discussions about banning kayak access to Mamquam Falls in Squamish has sprung up as construction of a viewing platform and coffee shop are in consideration. In response, local kayakers are organizing to protect and defend river access.



“There are a finite number of rivers available and when they get taken away, that’s it, they are gone,” says Steve Arns, a Squamish resident, whitewater figurehead and the man behind Liquidlore.com, arguably the most comprehensive resource on Canadian recreational whitewater available worldwide.

Arns recognizes the role rivers play in the province’s energy production but adds, “responsible development doesn’t mean taking away one of the most valuable resources in the Sea to Sky.”

With this in mind, Arns and a handful of local paddlers have formed BC Whitewater, a not-for-profit that mobilizes the paddling community on all river-related issues. “We want to ensure people can enjoy unrestricted access to whitewater and also to restore access to rivers that have already been altered. BC Whitewater will provide a unified voice for whitewater kayakers.”


Joe Morley and Phil Mitchell enjoying the wild Callaghan. RAPHAEL BOUDREAULT-SIMARD


The rivers of the Sea to Sky represent a mosaic of managed and unmanaged watersheds. Some HPP projects like Ashlu River were designed with recreation in mind, providing planned releases to enable summer kayaking when water levels would otherwise be too low. But in 2012, the Canadian government dissolved the Navigable Waters Protection Act, and Canadian 
rivers were left exposed. The HPP on Rutherford Creek is an example of an attempt to compensate rather than mitigate the destruction of a world-class section of whitewater. Independent Power Producer (IPP) Innergex built an artificial kayak course to replace sections of the natural river they destroyed. But the concrete channel remains dry and unused most of the year.

“Why would I want to paddle through a dirt parking lot when I could paddle a beautiful river through the forest?” says Arns. “Personally, I would rather be at the mercy of nature than at the mercy of the pocketbook of a corporation.”

A decade ago Arns spotted a group of Innergex employees walking the Callaghan river bank, exploring options for a hydro dam. This motivated him to start the Callaghan Creek Race, a kayaking competition to showcase the river and unify the paddling community to protect what is arguably one of the best roadside creeks in the world. This year marks the tenth anniversary of the event, which draws 50-70 competitors and more than 100 spectators.

“A lot of effort is put into the Callaghan Creek Race to give people the opportunity to watch and experience this sport and river,” says Liam Fournier, a kayaker who moved to the area specifically for the rivers. “The Callaghan is the keystone of whitewater in the Sea to Sky. Every year, I meet amazing paddlers who travel from all over the world to paddle here.”

Discussions about energy production often focus on the by-products of creating energy: emissions, tailings and nuclear waste. Hydro is portrayed as a green alternative to dirty energy practices like burning coal or refining oil, but does a dry riverbed or a decimated salmon run make this form of energy production environmentally friendly? Re-defining and exploring the idea of ‘green energy’ becomes part of the story.



A 2016 study published in BioScience Journal found the rate of methane emissions from decomposing plant material in hydro reservoirs was 25 per cent higher than previously estimated, contributing billions of tons of greenhouse gases annually. Examining the issue more recently and more locally, a UBC report used BC Hydro’s own greenhouse gas estimates to determine that the emissions from this province’s massive Site C dam project on the Peace River make it no cleaner or greener than other renewables.

With the demand for hydro energy expected to increase up to 295 per cent by 2050 as a result of the province’s push for emission-free cars, exploring and employing alternatives will become key to keeping rivers wild. According to investigative journalism outlet The Narwhal, Eastern and Atlantic Canada are on their way and Nova Scotia and PEI derive about 13 per cent of their electricity from wind power. Will other provinces follow suit? The fact remains that all energy production harms the environment in some way. It’s creative alternatives that we need.

The simple act of kayaking a waterfall in the in the Sea to Sky region has become a microcosm for big politically saturated topics discussed provincially, nationally and globally. Rivers feed into energy production arguments, public lands debates and the pursuit to balance development with natural resource conservation. As stakeholders continue to face off over whether the true value of a wild river is it measured in biodiversity, kilowatts, or tourism dollars, it’s clear that rivers are both a resource and a recreational paradise and everyone wants a piece.

From ML Coast Mountains, Summer ’19.