Ts'elxweyeqw Tribe chief operating officer Matt Wealick is evaluating a potential run-of-river project on Tamihi Creek (pictured).

Study takes broad view of run-of-river power

The Ts'elxweyeqw Tribe has adopted the task of evaluating sometimes controversial run-of-river projects in the Chilliwack River Valley.

A local First Nations tribe has adopted the task of evaluating potential run-of-river hydro projects in the Chilliwack River Valley.

The Ts’elxweyeqw Tribe, whose traditional territory spans the entire valley from west of Cultus Lake to east of Chilliwack Lake, won a provincial grant of $30,000 to evaluate small-scale hydro projects by independent power producers (IPPs) in the valley.

These run-of-river projects have been controversial because they divert some of a river’s flow to electricity-generating turbines, before returning the water downstream.

The problem with the current government evaluation and approval process of run-of-river projects, says Ts’elxweyeqw Tribe chief operating officer Matt Wealick, is that projects are evaluated independently of each other.

“I’ve seen the process of how they determine and approve these things, and they don’t take into consideration how many other run-of-river projects are in that area,” said Wealick. “Do we want 15-20 of these run-of-river power projects scattered across the valley? Does it make sense? How will it impact all the other different resources out there?”

The tribe has four active run-of-river proposals on its table, all on creeks off of Chilliwack River: Tamihi Creek, Frost Creek, Nesakwatch Creek, and Centre Creek.

The Tamihi Creek project, proposed by WindRiver Power Corporation, has been heavily criticized. The Outdoor Recreation Council of BC (ORC) named Tamihi Creek one of the most endangered rivers in Canada in April. Drawing water away from the creek through a hydro project risks weakening the world-class whitewater stretches that attract paddlers and international kayaking competitions.

A local environmental advocacy organization, The WaterWealth Project, warns that “nearly every river and stream in the Fraser Valley is slated for a hydro diversion scheme with these private power projects,” commented campaign director Sheila Muxlow.

But a big map of run-of-river applications makes the situation look worse than it is, according to Alec Drysdale, director of resource authorizations with the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations. In fact, “significantly more” than half of run-of-river applications that are submitted “will never see the light of day.” Drysdale also maintains that the government does indeed take into account other IPP projects during an evaluation of a new proposal.

The Ts’elxweyeqw Tribe, however, is concerned that the government is not considering the big picture of how many run-of-river projects should be in the valley. Its primary concern is safeguarding historical cultural practices.

“We look at the Chilliwack River Valley as something that we’ll be stewards of for years to come, and we have been since time immemorial,” said Wealick. “We just want to make sure that the Chilliwack River Valley is managed, for all natural resources, in a stable manner. That we can continue using resources — for hopefully many years to come — with the same type of practices that are done today, and were done before.”

One example of a cultural practice is collecting certain foods, such as berries or mushrooms. The tribe wants to ensure that members retain access to these, and will look at whether run-of-river projects will impact the practice.

WaterWealth agrees that the current run-of-river proposal evaluation process is not good enough.

“Another problem with the review process is that it fails to consider the cumulative effects. Whether blocking fish spawning routes, displacing precious forest cover with new access roads, or undermining local tourism opportunities, the development of these diversion projects can have many negative impacts. Despite these consequences, the government is currently only reviewing the river diversions one-by-one rather than looking at the big picture of how together they can add up to a big drain on our local water wealth,” said Muxlow.

The Ts’elxweyeqw Tribe has not taken a position on the Tamihi Creek run-of-river project.

In the future, the tribe wants to extend this type of big-picture evaluation to other controversial developments, including gravel mining.

The Ts’elxweyeqw Tribe stewards the Chilliwack River Valley on behalf of seven member communities: Aitchelitz, Skowkale, Skway, Soowahlie, Squiala, Tzeachten, and Yakweakwioose.