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Anglers, boaters fighting to keep Cheakamus flowing

B.C. Hydro application would see flows from Daisy Lake dam reduced by 80 per cent or more

An application by B.C. Hydro that would see flows from the Daisy Lake Dam reduced by up to 80 per cent through spring and summer months has outraged kayakers, rafting companies, anglers and ecologists.

The time to voice their opposition to B.C. Hydro’s application is also tight, with the deputy comptroller of water rights only accepting public feedback until Sept. 21.

"At this point I feel that it is being rammed down our throat," said Dave Brown of the Whistler Angling Club. "We only just received a letter informing us of this impending decision, they weren’t going to advertise it in Whistler at all, which has five rafting companies, six to eight angling guide companies, an active kayak community, and other concerned groups…. The timeline to respond is incredibly tight – I mean it takes time to mobilize people in the community to get them involved.

"It’s hard not to be a little discouraged."

Brown was one of a dozen stakeholders who participated in the Cheakamus Water Use Plan Discussion, which got underway three years ago. At the time the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans made an interim order for B.C. Hydro to put 45 per cent of the inflow into Daisy Lake back into the Cheakamus River.

It was discovered that B.C. Hydro was diverting too much water from the Cheakamus, through a tunnel, to its hydro generation facility in the Squamish Valley. In addition, the flows in the Cheakamus were inconsistent, which made it difficult for fish to spawn and recreational boaters to use the river.

In the last few years, since the interim order was put in place, Brown says there has been a noticeable improvement in the salmon runs, as well as an increase in the number of recreational users on the water as a result of higher water levels and more consistent flows.

The stakeholder group never reached a consensus, with the majority of stakeholders arguing to keep the interim agreement in place and only B.C. Hydro and a representative from the DFO in favour of the B.C. Hydro plan.

"The group never reached a consensus so Hydro put forward their proposal, what they wanted to see, which was actually less than they were required to put back in… than when they got their original water license 50 years ago," said Brown.

"It affects everybody. There will be less water in the river, which will affect the fish and the eagles and the bears, as well as all the kayakers and rafting companies," said Brown. "The way (B.C. Hydro and Lands and Water B.C.) have gone about this, the user groups are being left out of the decision-making process. We spent two years meeting on this issue, a lot of non-profit groups donating their time to try and reach a consensus, and at the end we were ignored."

Brown has been on the phone non-stop with stakeholders, and says everyone he has talked to opposes B.C. Hydro’s application. With less than two weeks to submit letters, he says it will take a huge public outcry to delay the decision, or convince Lands and Water B.C., which issues the water license, to reject or modify B.C. Hydro’s application.

If the application is approved B.C. Hydro would continue the practice of releasing water in a consistent way, but would reduce the size of that flow significantly.

According to Stuart Smith, the river projects co-ordinator for the Whitewater Kayaking Association of B.C., the average flow would be reduced from about 45 cubic metres a second (this year’s average) to a minimum of just 7 cu.m/s.

"The 45 per cent outflow has been good for us. We’ve seen the use of the river increase significantly in the last few years, with more dependable flows, higher water. Now the club is out there on a weekly basis," said Smith.

"In the past, with lower flows, that wasn’t the case, and it won’t be the case in the future, either, if B.C. Hydro’s application goes through."

There are two sections of the Cheakamus River that are used by kayakers. The first section is directly below the dam, and access to that area will likely be lost anyway as a result of improvements to the Sea to Sky Highway. The other section, the Paradise Valley run, is used by kayakers, rafting companies and other boaters. Cutting the flow by more than 80 per cent would ruin both of those areas, Smith said.

"It’s not going to be a river anymore," said Smith, who said he was caught by surprise when Brown called him to notify his group of B.C. Hydro’s application.

"I attended a lot of meetings on the Cheakamus River plan, and there has been very little follow-up to that whole thing. It’s a big concern for us and for all the rafting companies that were never included that much in the planning process to begin with," he added.

Kayakers have been facing challenges on several fronts recently, with several run-of-the-river hydro projects reducing flows in popular creeks and more projects planned in the region.

Randall Lewis, an environmental co-ordinator and watershed planner for the Squamish Nation, said he wasn’t satisfied that B.C. Hydro, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and Lands and Water B.C. did their due diligence in preparing and reviewing the application. He also rejected the terms of reference for the proposal because it overlooked key species, traditional water uses and First Nation land claims.

"What I found concerning is that they… were going through the process with the model they developed, and at the same time trying to convince me that less water is better for the fish," said Lewis.

"I said ‘well you go to the elders in our community, and tell them that less water is better for the fish, and better for water quality, and better for the aquatic and terrestrial species in that watershed.’"

Lewis also questioned the decision to use Chum salmon as an indicator species when determining the impact of lower water flows, when the Chum are unique and have different needs than Chinook, Coho and Pink.

"They suggested that the Pinks were extinct and that there was no need to address Pinks, and we replied that we would never consider Pinks extinct in this system, so what they needed to do was step away… and enhance and support the Pink salmon fishery. What we and they found very surprising was that they said Pinks were extinct and the following year (under the 45 per cent output) we had a record return of Pinks."

Back in 1954, when the Daisy Lake Dam was brought to the table, the studies showed that it would require an outflow of at least 500 cubic feet per second (15 cubic metres) to have any hope of maintaining large fish populations. Lewis says that this would have hurt the viability of the project, and as a result those studies were ignored when the project was brought to cabinet.

"Today it’s kind of bewildering to us, we need more certainty and more due dilgence is required to show why the DFO maintains its support for the (B.C. Hydro) water use plan," said Lewis.

"We need to use the best science and water quality monitoring, which this does not have, but also look at the traditional oral knowledge of our people about what that river used to be like before they threw the switch in 1957. We know there was a good fishery after that, but that the species crashed after five or six years – why? Gee, because there wasn’t a dam there before.

"Looking at B.C. Hydro’s water use plan, their own terms of reference, I was like ‘wow, this isn’t a very open process in terms of its ability to even address the concerns of people at the table.’"

In talks with the water comptroller and the DFO, Lewis has learned that the stakeholders at the Cheakamus Water Use Plan table are being considered as part of the application.

"Of all the people that sat around the table, the only ones that approved… were B.C. Hydro and the DFO. The rest of the table said no, so if there was a consensus to come out of that it was the consensus not to proceed."

Lewis says the Squamish Nation would like to take a watershed approach to the proposal, with more consultation with stakeholders and more studies to determine what effect lower water levels would have on a wide variety of user groups, fish species, and animals like eagles and bears.

The river has First Nations’ traditional uses as well.

"For us the river is like our church," Lewis explained. "We hold ceremonies there, we bathe in there as part of our traditional ceremonies."

Lewis also says the plan doesn’t take into account the future, and the effects that global warming could have on water flows in terms of lower snowpacks and melting glaciers – even if B.C. Hydro’s proposed plan is acceptable now, it might cause trouble years from now if feeder creeks downstream of the dam dry up.

"All we are looking for is due diligence. I don’t even want to bring this to council, there’s nothing in there I want to explain," said Lewis.

"Is it adequate, personally I would say no. Is more work required, yes there is."

Although the window for feedback closes on Sept. 21, he says the Squamish First Nation will continue to work with B.C. Hydro after that point – the issue won’t be closed until they say it is. For them it’s a decision related to land claim issues, says Lewis, and recent court decisions are in their favour if they decide to fight B.C. Hydro’s application.

You can address your letters for or against B.C. Hydro’s application to the Deputy Comptroller of Water Rights, Pieter J. Bekker, at Land and Water B.C. – Water Use Planning and Utilities Branch; P.O. Box 9340 Stn. Prov. Gov’t, Victoria B.C., V8W9M1. The Fax number is 250-953-5124.