Will elite kayakers who paddle the famed whitewater showpiece feel the flow in the future? Words :: Todd Lawson // photos: Phil Tifo. From the ML archives, originally published in ML Coast Mountains, summer 2009.
The upper Squamish Valley, known as “The Guardian of the North Door” to the Squamish Nation, contains some of the most stunning natural beauty in British Columbia. Massive 8,000-foot volcanic peaks scratch the skyline and ancient fir trees and huge red cedars cling to steep cliffsides like mighty warriors protecting the pristine landscape below. Dripping with coastal rainforest character, this “Wild Spirit Place” is also home to the raging Ashlu River, one of the world’s most sought-after rivers for elite paddlers.
But the flow of the Ashlu may be changed forever. Due to North America’s voracious appetite for power, the demand for energy production has resulted in the construction of the controversial Ashlu Power Project, a run-of-river system now nearing completion. BC’s mountainous terrain and rivers provide good potential power generation from kinetic energy.
In contrast to hydroelectric-dam generation projects, run-of-river diverts only some of a river’s flow into a penstock and through to the turbine. A “tailrace,” or watercourse, allows the outflow to rejoin the streambed. unlike in large dam projects, there is little or no reservoir capacity, meaning no flooding of large areas.
Scientifically, these river IPP (Independent Power Producer) projects are the greenest means of power generation, but in today’s high-tech world of energy production, there’s always a cost. More often than not, Mother Nature foots the bill, but recreational kayakers are worried they might lose out as well.
“The best case scenario for us,” says professional kayaker and Squamish filmmaker Bryan Smith, “is to maintain an optimistic attitude that the developers will provide recreational water-releases that are good enough to run the river properly.” While almost all of the Ashlu is prime paddling water, many stretches, like the popular Box Canyon, will be unusable if the plant releases just a minimum stream flow into the river.
“This is absolutely world-class paddling,” Smith says. “until now a huge influx of boaters come and run the Ashlu in August and September because we have such a decent flow at a time of year when no one else has water.”
On a public-information website maintained by Ledcor Power Inc., one of the corporations responsible for the plant, statements aimed specifically at kayakers aim to alleviate concern. “The upper 24 kilometres of Ashlu Creek will remain free-flowing and will not be impacted by this project. This includes the upper Creek Run, Play Run and the upper Mine Run. Along the affected lower portion of the creek flows will be decreased to desired levels during spring run-off and will be increased on the weekends of the ‘shoulder’ seasons. For the affected lower runs, the diversion of water will reduce high flows during spring run-off to more desirable levels for kayaking.”
Some members of the kayak community say they’ll believe it when they see it but until the IPP is fully functioning the end result remains unknown.
Smith, producer of 49 Megawatts, a documentary film that explores many of the local characters involved in and around the Ashlu IPP, points out that although the paddling experience itself hasn’t changed yet, the mindset of entering the river has. “Coming here in the past, you’d be dwarfed by these huge overhanging trees dripping with moss, it was all pure untouched beauty. Now it’s a swath of power lines and you have to check in at the gate then drive through a pretty major industrial construction site. There’s definitely a footprint. It makes it a lot harder to enjoy it all.” Of course everyone that goes home after an enchanting day on the river to flick on the lights, crank up the heat, and plug in the kettle for a hot cup of tea needs to realize that that power has to come from somewhere.
Steve Davis, President of the Independent Power Producers Association of BC (IPPBC) agrees. “BC Hydro forecasts that the demand for electricity will grow 45 percent over the next 20 years. We can either import it or we can generate it right here in British Columbia.”
The IPPBC points to jobs, economic stimulus, private-sector investment and streams of revenue for those involved in the development, construction and operation of run-of-river hydro projects, especially in rural areas. “Virtually all the renewable power projects in British Columbia are located in rural communities, so we’ll be creating jobs for British Columbians where they really need them,” says Davis.
The paddling community understands these benefits but, like the clear water in the river, they believe the entire IPP process in BC needs to be more transparent. “It’s totally naive to say that nothing comes back from these projects,” says Smith, “but the scales seem to be tipped towards the developers. Sure, we’re gonna have to dam some rivers for power, but it needs to be more about the process rather than the project. There are too many questions that need to be answered.”
The fight over the Ashlu has been a drawn-out affair with a mass of politicians, developers, First Nations Chiefs, river recreationists and concerned Squamish Valley residents all putting on the gloves at one point or another. Power politics won in the end, but paddlers still have access to run the river, and will run it as much as possible before the flow is diverted.
“The Ashlu represents such a strong connection to nature,” says Smith. “It’s definitely the most majestic river canyon in the Sea to Sky. Everybody talks about the Ashlu and the presence of its captivating beauty but other than paddlers not a lot of people get up there. For many people, the Ashlu IPP is now out of sight, out of mind, but we see it all the time and we hope that more people will go up there and see it for themselves.”
Postscript: The Ashlu Creek run-of-river hydroelectric power generating plant started operating in December, 2009. Its average annual energy output is 265,000 MWh.