For the last several years, large numbers of proposals for hydroelectric development have sprung up all over British Columbia. Often, these proposals are referred to as IPP projects or RoR projects which stands for independent power producers and run-of-river, respectively. The predominant part of these proposals are coming from private companies that intend to use the water resource to produce hydroelectric power that they plan to sell back to BC Hydro (BCH). As the former minister of Energy and Mines, Blair Leckstrom, stated in early 2010, such power, once bought by BCH, would be mostly intended for the export market. The reason why we have only seen large numbers of RoR proposals in the last few years is that the current government tried to attract IPP developers to the province by making it very attractive to develop such power.

A typical RoR project is different from a classic dam in that it uses all the same ingredients as a large dam but in different proportions. Typically, for an RoR project, a dam is built in a location on a creek before a significant gradient occurs. These dams and reservoirs are often relatively small but can be up to several meters high and kilometres long, respectively. Then, throughout the section of steepest gradient on a river, the water is diverted into a pipe and redirected to a powerhouse. The steep section of the creek where the water is diverted (diversion reach), is largely dry with often only 5% of the median annual flow remaining in the creek.

The conflict with the kayaking community is obvious when considering this type of design. All the first-class kayaking stretches of rivers and creeks are also the most ideal for hydroelectric development. Some examples of rivers that have been lost to the community are Rutherford Creek, and the Ashlu River. Due to the aggressive government promotion of hydro-development, there are currently over 600 active applications for RoR projects in BC. Many of the rivers and creeks potentially impacted are still unknown to kayakers, others are renowned for their world-class whitewater. The future will likely bring increasing pressure to more and more creeks around the province. The hot-spots for development at the moment are Vancouver Island, the Sea-to-Sky corridor, Chilliwack and the Harrison Lake area.

However, the conflict is not only limited to how industrial development impacts recreational value. Many of us kayakers have witnessed that recreational users are often the only stewards for some of these creeks and form the only voice that will protect the natural beauty and the ecological value of free flowing rivers and creeks. Many do not think that the quick cash from exported power and the little long-term employment that projects offer is an appropriate reimbursement for the natural value lost to our province. Across the province, from the Kooteneys to Vancouver Island, kayakers have spoken up for free flowing rivers; in many places very successfully. The Glacier Howser projects near Jumbo Wild faces strong local opposition from kayakers that completed the first descent of the steep canyons of these rivers two years ago. The power company Axor offered the kayaking community deals including recreational releases and building put-in structures. The kayakers did not accept the offer, and stated that they value the experience of free flowing rivers over artificial structures and releases that are managed by a Quebec based corporation.

There have been mistakes made on the kayaker’s side, too. The play-course at the Rutherford, where a pristine creek was traded for a recreationally useless artificial structure, stands as a mostly silent reminder that cutting deals with the IPP industry leaves our community in the dirt. Making deals with developers means giving consent to development that permanently and detrimentally alters our free rivers.

Many believe that the kayaking community can have significant influence on protecting free rivers and creeks when we stand together to protect what we are fortunate enough to use. Kayakers pride themselves as being river stewards and not damaging the ecosystems by their use. All that remains after a paddle down a magnificent stretch of water are footprints in the dirt and memories of jaw-dropping scenery which can only be experienced in the moss drenched canyons of the west coast.

We can make a difference if we come together to oppose the rush for power-export. Not one free flowing creek should be given up for an artificial play course or feature so that air conditioners can run in California on power that is concealing creek destruction under a green veneer.

Jakub Drnec and Jan Dettmer
BC Creek Protection Society