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Ledcor tries to build consensus for hydro project

Residents of Upper Squamish want Ashlu River altered

The final decision on the Ashlu Creek independent power project is fast approaching but opposition to the project is not backing down.

"It’s almost a philosophical difference on what’s happening there," said Stuart Smith, the river projects co-ordinator with the Whitewater Kayaking Association of British Columbia.

"It’s not the right place for this project."

Ashlu Creek, the second largest tributary after the Elaho to the Squamish River, is renowned for its paddling. It’s located roughly 35 kilometres northwest of Squamish.

The proposed run-of-river project on the Ashlu will take a portion of water out of the creek, funnel it into a 5 km tunnel and send it into a powerhouse. It then gets dumped back into the creek.

While the project is labelled "green" and low impact, it will have a significant impact on paddling.

Try as they might to please the local paddling community, Vancouver-based Ledcor has not made any inroads towards consensus at this stage.

The latest offering was to provide flow releases for kayakers on weekends throughout August and September, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

"It means that there will be water released down the effected part of the stream by the project so that people can go and kayak," said Project Manager Kelly Boychuk.

"The amount of flow releases will be variable depending on the kayakers’ uses, so one day it might be more flow release for certain runs and then one day it might be less flow release for other runs."

In addition, Boychuk said Ledcor would take about 50 per cent of the water throughout late May to early August, which could work in the paddlers’ favour.

"It actually brings it (the creek) down to something that’s more in a usable range for the average guy or gal," he said.

Smith said the flow releases have only been presented as a concept to him to date.

"A lot of the things that Ledcor’s put forward they figure they’ve got it all sorted out but they haven’t really talked to us about it," he said.

"As far as we know there’s nothing going on there other than a concept."

Besides, flow releases aren’t what the paddling community is looking for, he said. They don’t want to make any concessions. They simply want the project to go away.

"We don’t want the project," he said.

"Nobody wants to talk about mitigation. They don’t want a play park. They don’t want millions of dollars. They don’t want anything. They just want the river to be left alone."

Boychuk said the Canadian Coast Guard, the federal agency that handles all of the navigation issues on streams in Canada, is in favour of the flow releases.

But Smith argues that the Canadian Coast Guard generally works towards mitigation efforts without having to say "no" to a project.

"So the fact that they have this approval is a foregone conclusion really, so we’re forced into talking about mitigation all the time and this is how we ended up with the Rutherford facility – it was take something or get nothing," said Smith.

A few years ago paddlers were in the same position as another independent power project threatened another top paddling river – the Rutherford Creek.

Through negotiations the paddlers settled on a man-made play park that would run parallel to the river.

"As much as that’s a really neat thing, it’s kind of like climbing a wall – it’s cool but it doesn’t replace the mountain peaks," said Smith.

The paddling community isn’t alone in their opposition and concerns about the Ashlu Creek project.

Residents in the Upper Squamish Valley are also worried about the impacts of the project.

Tom Rankin, who lives in the area, is adamant about protecting the river. He estimates that roughly 80 per cent of the residents are opposed to the project. (There are about 60 phone lines in that area.)

Rankin’s ranch is directly opposite the site of the powerhouse and though it will be tucked away from his view, he said it simply shouldn’t be there.

"The Ashlu drainage should be left as a natural river system," he said.

"It performs a lot of functions and its highest value is its tourist value, but then you might also want to say that its highest value is its environmental value."

The residents, he said, are also concerned that their quiet Shangri-La will soon be transformed into a construction zone, with trucks moving up and down the forest service road.

"The neighbours have lots of concerns about rock hauling," he said.

"Part of the plan with Ledcor and its partner is to haul all the rock that they’re supposed to drill out of the mountainside down to Squamish, so that means on a very quiet little country road here (there will be) a tremendous volume of huge rock trucks."

Boychuk admits that there will be added traffic on the road as the company moves rock to an old gravel quarry further down the valley.

"What we’ve tried to do is schedule it so that the tunnelling would start in the winter and end the following winter, so it’s over two winters when people are normally inside their houses and not outside with the kids playing and stuff like that," he explained.

"So they’ll endure one summer of having more trucks."

Currently Ledcor is in a series of meetings with the residents providing information and looking for ideas on benefits that the company could provide to the community.

Among the benefits that have been suggested are:

• a playground or basketball court near the North Vancouver Outdoor School;

• a swimming pond at the upper end of the Ashlu delta; and

• a fire suppression system and organization of a volunteer fire department for the Upper Squamish area.

"When you ask people what amenities they would like, that changes their thinking and they think ‘well gee, wouldn’t it be nice if we all had paved driveways or if the river were dyked or we had a firehall,’" said Rankin.

"Then all of a sudden you lose your focus when the focus needs to be that the community is standing up and saying ‘just don’t do this project.’ So if they were good corporate citizens they’d listen to the community and they’d buzz off and drop their application. But they’re not at all. They’re actually attacking us left, right and centre."

The $80 million project has already received a series of approvals from various agencies.

A contract with B.C. Hydro is in place to purchase the electricity for 20 years.

The Squamish-Lillooet Regional District must give an approval in order for the project to move ahead. Earlier this year the project went to a public hearing through the SLRD but after new information came to light, a second public hearing was scheduled for the fall.

"The SLRD is still one that hasn’t made their decision and Land and Water B.C. has not issued the conditional water license or the land tenure yet," said Boychuk.

"It’s not fully approved yet by any means but it’s much closer than it ever has been before."