Water diversions will hurt environment

By Chris Genovali, Paul Paquet and Misty MacDuffee
Victoria Times Colonist
May 3, 2009

The media have recently published many opinion pieces and news articles promoting independent power projects (IPPs) as crucial to solving climate change. While we acknowledge the urgency of addressing climate disruption, we do not support large scale run-of-river power projects as a solution. IPP advocates don’t appear to understand the broader ecological problems well enough to foster the dramatic changes needed to transform entrenched cultural imperatives that are the fundamental issues driving this crisis.

Specifically, the unsustainable consumption of resources by a culture that believes in limitless economic and population growth will never be curtailed by continually meeting growing demand.

If we are serious about controlling carbon emissions, we should first diminish energy consumption through measures that recognize conservation as an energy resource.

For example, the public subsidies flowing to companies like Plutonic Power,as well as revenue from the carbon tax, should be redirected into initiatives such as expanding public transit and green retrofits of homes and commercial buildings. Transportation and buildings are identified as two large sources of greenhouse gas emissions by the B.C. government’s Climate Action Team.

We also need to replace carbon-emitting energy production with renewable energy that is environmentally sustainable, shrink or eliminate industrial forestry to preserve carbon sinks and limit the release of greenhouse gases,as well as institute a carbon pricing system that will significantly reduce fossil fuel consumption.

To be effective, renewable energy needs to replace non-renewable sources,not augment them. In other words, the non-renewables must be taken offline when green energy comes online.

The B.C. government, however, is moving in the opposite direction as it pursues all manner of fossil fuel development, from offshore oil and gas to coalbed methane. The province is also supporting the construction of the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline that would carry some of the world’s dirtiest oil from Alberta’s tarsands to the B.C. coast for export to hydrocarbon-hungry markets abroad.

Within this context, the government is attempting to convince the public that the province is doing something substantive to address climate change by opening up our coast to widespread IPP development.

Conservation science is clear that most forms of energy production have environmental consequences, even “micro-hydro” projects that are considered low carbon emitters. Scale often makes the difference between sustainable regional solutions and large energy projects designed for profit and export.

Consider Plutonic Power’s proposed IPP for Bute Inlet. The draft terms of reference fail to establish a clear framework for a thorough environmental assessment that would identify potential impacts. And while the energy that this IPP produces might be “clean” in terms of carbon emissions, the power project does not come near to being green, sustainable or low impact. The threats to terrestrial, aquatic and avian species and their habitats illustrate how these run-of-river mega-projects require a sober second look.

Five species of Pacific salmon, as well as winter and summer-run steelhead,spawn and rear in reaches or tributaries of the 17 rivers proposed for water extraction and diversion.

Plutonic is proposing to divert between 77 per cent and 95 per cent of the mean annual flow from the 17 rivers and tributaries, potentially influencing the temperature range and flow of water, two criteria that strongly influence the survival of eggs and fry.

The negative effects of water diversions can result in the misdirection and decreased survival of out-migrating juveniles, as well as the timing of returning adult spawners. If the minimal base flows that remain become more variable or decrease as predicted, conflicts between the water needs of aquatic life and those of power generation are foreseeable.

Now is the time for intelligent planning, before poorly conceived energy developments cause large-scale environmental damage.

We are calling for a moratorium on independent power projects, along with the establishment of an expert panel of scientists, who grasp the broader ecological crisis. We envision such a panel would be mandated to distinguish between benign and harmful IPPs and to identify areas that should be off-limits to energy development as part of a rational and transparent planning process.

Chris Genovali is executive director of Raincoast Conservation, Paul Paquet is its senior scientist, and Misty MacDuffee is a biologist with Raincoast’s wild salmon program.

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