The trickle-down effect

How local creeks are feeding into the global economy

"Whistler is a kind of microcosm of the world at large. The forces and trends that play themselves out across the country and around the globe tend to play themselves out right here in our own backyard." — local author Stephen Vogler musing on the effects of globalization in an essay from his book, Whistler Features

The same elements that attract millions of skiers to the Whistler area – abundant amounts of precipitation, big mountains and gravity – also play a large role in what could be the valley’s next big industry.

Hydroelectric power, created when water is teased through turbines by the pull of gravity, is creating the latest buzz, although it is nothing new.

The region’s hydroelectric industry started in 1957 when a dam was built on the Cheakamus River between Whistler and Squamish.

Electricity is a good thing. It powers things like chairlifts, stereos lights and heating systems. In fact, electricity from the Cheakamus Dam is probably powering my computer right now as I write this story.

But along with the good comes the bad. There is no black or white here, just grey – kind of like Whistler’s omnipresent clouds.

The B.C. Hydro dam prevents salmon – an important symbol of the West Coast identity – from making their way upriver towards gravel-covered spawning grounds, while the Daisy Lake Reservoir has flooded prime wildlife habitat and trees on the valley bottom.

This scene was repeated many times across B.C. in the 1950s and ’60s as B.C. Hydro built dams to meet the electricity demands of a growing province.

However, we’ll never know the real costs, not just to fish, wildlife and their habitat, but to ourselves and our sense of place.

B.C. Hydro, a provincially owned Crown corporation, is now getting out of the dam-building business. According to its Integrated Electricity Plan, the utility currently generates enough power to meet expected growth until at least 2007.

As part of the plan, B.C. Hydro forecasts an 18 per cent increase in demand over the next 10 years and is looking at various ways to meet its long-term needs.

According to the IEP, B.C. Hydro is committed to meeting 10 per cent of its load growth through "green" energy options, such as small-scale hydroelectric projects and wood waste co-generation.

That’s where run-of-river hydroelectric projects like the ones proposed for Miller and Rutherford creeks near Pemberton and the Mamquam River and Ashlu Creek near Squamish come into the story.

According to the Ministry of Environment’s water management branch, there’s a definite interest in developing this area’s hydroelectric potential.


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