This post is part of the Blog Action Day 2010: Water project.
The problems of mega dams have received increasing global attention over the last decade or more. Small hydro projects, though, are not as well-discussed. In British Columbia, more than 8,000 potential sites for run-of-river hydro projects have been identified and are potentially available to the private sector for development.
Private sector, run-of-river hydro projects are now being widely installed across British Columbia. Though such small hydro projects do not run year ‘round, as small watercourses freeze during the winter months, they are still extremely profitable for the private sector license holders that own them. These projects are potentially greener than mega dam projects, but BC Hydro admits that it “has not assessed them against green criteria.” In British Columbia, we have a history of publicly-owned power generation, which allows for greater public oversight of projects. This is not the case for small hydro projects. With a myriad of private owners selling power to the province, oversight becomes much more complicated. There are reportedly over 800 such projects in place to date.
Small hydro projects do have the potential for less environmental impact, as there is no long-term water retention involved. Indeed, license holders in BC are supposed to ensure minimal impact on water levels and fish habitat, even though this is not mandated under the Water Act. However, all hydroelectric power generation involves either damming or diversion (through pipes called penstocks). These small dams and penstocks, often in remote areas, are subject to malfunction, causing downstream water levels to decrease.
There are other risks to water security involved, including:
• The infrastructure that is put in place for access roads and power lines can cause deforestation and put in place the potential for greater development in watershed areas;
• The de-silting processes that are employed by the hydro projects may have down-stream consequences, as they disrupt the natural transfer of materials that all rivers perform;
• Water licenses trump the rights of local governments and First Nations to manage these resources, making regional considerations secondary.
What happens to the health of our water systems when truly wild rivers and creeks no longer exist? Will energy agreements eventually impact the non-mandatory environmental requirements that are currently attached to these projects? Will fish habitat and drinking watersheds be sacrificed? There are many unanswered questions here, but what is clear is that water health begins with the health of our small creeks, streams and rivers.
I’ve just given you a very small taste of the discussion around this issue. Here are some links, if you’re interested in looking further: