Politics govern Cheakamus water flows
By Alix Noble
Government politics and irreconcilable interests have kept B.C. Hydro from establishing a fish-friendly outflow rate for the Cheakamus River.
Hydro has recently been in the public eye for diverting more water than its water licence allows from Daisy Lake through the tunnel beneath Cloudburst Mountain to the generating station at Squamish River, leaving less water to flow down the Cheakamus for salmon habitat. Hydro has vowed to mend its ways and establish an optimal water flow plan for fish, but the promise is the same one Hydro issued five years ago.
Although B.C. Hydro has been doing tests and studies on fish in the Cheakamus since 1991, and claims it has been an internal issue for longer, the minimum water release into the Cheakamus hasn't changed in the 38 years since the dam was built. The minimum release is 70 cubic feet per second, an insufficient amount according to government agencies, and a far cry from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans original suggestion of 500 cfs.
Since no water comptroller ever signed a contract formalizing the minimum flow needed to maintain fish stocks, Hydro does not need to change the flow to be in compliance with its licence. Recent public scrutiny and government pressure has stepped up the demand on Hydro to reach an agreement with the DFO on water flow which will benefit the fish and still allow for power generation.
Hydro, the DFO and the Ministry of the Environment have long been at loggerheads over the issue of flow release. "The DFO has suggested certain flow requirements, but B.C. Hydro has tended to look at economics rather than at being stewards of the watershed," said DFO environmental engineer Barry Chilibeck. "The issue of flow release has tended to get pretty polarized."
This inability to agree on a water management plan which pleases both government agencies and Hydro has led to the lack of any regulation of flow for fish.
Officially, the federal fisheries department can impose regulations on B.C. Hydro, which is a Crown Corporation. But, said Chilibeck, "It gets political, because it comes down to the big questions, fish or power, federal fisheries versus the provincial water act, and which one supersedes the other."
Both the DFO and B.C. Hydro have applied for a water license for the 46 per cent of outflow from the Cheakamus not used by B.C. Hydro.
In the early 1990s, the DFO, Hydro and the provincial government joined forces and created the Cheakamus Fish Flow Team and jointly funded a study. The goal was to come to a resolution on water flows for fish. However, Chilibeck says, "The climate has changed. We stopped working together. It's fallen apart in the past few years, due to a purported change in Hydro policy; they've become more concerned with economics." The task force failed to reach a resolution.
In 1991, B.C. Hydro's Environmental Resources Department initiated a program to determine new water flow regimes in Daisy Lake. Studies were commissioned to research fish, with the intent of establishing concrete, year-round flow requirements. According to B.C. Hydro research biologist Paul Higgins, that study, completed in 1993, "is in some ways inconclusive — it is not comprehensive enough. It didn't answer the question of how much water to release."
That type of study has been abandoned, and Hydro now has an empirical monitoring program. Higgins estimates it will take from 10 to 15 years to collect adequate data to determine optimal water release on the Cheakamus. Although specifics haven't been determined, "It's very clear that more water is better for fish. More water means more fish habitat," Higgins said.
The latest plan is to let groups and individuals in the area help design a water management plan. This will involve numerous public meetings. In the last few weeks, Hydro has also decided to help fund a Whistler Municipal study of the Squamish watershed, which, according to Higgins, is "a lot broader than the studies done by Hydro so far."
The release of the Ward Report in June of this year pointed the finger at B.C. Hydro for diverting more water from the Cheakamus than specified in the utility’s license. The Ward Report was commissioned by the DFO and Ministry of the Environment, Land and Parks to examine if changes to B.C. Hydro reservoirs could be made to increase social and environmental benefits. The largest violation came in 1995 when Hydro diverted 51-62 per cent more water than allotted.
However, compliance with the licence won't solve the problem for fish in the Cheakamus, said Chilibeck. Releasing all the extra water into the Cheakamus could be just as damaging as releasing too little.
"The trouble with the current licence," said Jon O'Riordian, assistant deputy minister of the Ministry of Environment, Lands and Parks, "is that it's for 700,000 acre feet over the year — that could be released over 12 months or all in two months."
Hydro is currently looking at developing a rolling plan, a combination for low flow and high flow over the year to try and develop a per month discharge pattern.
Which brings up another question, said O'Riordian. Even if there are strict regulations, how will they be enforced? Once an optimal flow is set, it could be difficult to control during spring runoff or heavy rain. Daisy Lake is so small that it can't absorb high flows. The choice is either to send more water to the turbines on the Squamish River, which would violate Hydro's water licence, or to send it coursing down the Cheakamus.
"High flows of water strip algae off," said Brian Barnett, Whistler municipal environmental engineer. The fish feed on these bacteria and bugs. High flow also affects the water temperature and displaces fish.
O'Riordian said he hopes that an interim arrangement with Hydro can be negotiated within a year, but said it will be up to two years before a flow agreement with Hydro will be reached.
"We now have some theoretical models but we need to test them," said O'Riordian. "But because of the high spring run-off this year, we can't really test them."
"We will easily have a flow release initiated two years from now," said Higgins, "but it will take a while to have a conclusive report. You use judgement to make a change and then follow up and make sure its the right change. It will probably take the form of an annual report and then adjustments."
"It has to be a solvable problem," said Chilibeck. "The question is how much resources both governments are willing to allocate to solving them. It depends on how much the public wants to get involved and start championing some of these things."