British Columbia's Ashlu Before
British Columbia’s Ashlu before and after (below)

Years ago, Edward Abbey fathered a radical environmental movement with the fictional account of George Washington Hayduke, a man who sought to blow up the Colorado River’s massive Glen Canyon Dam. Abbey’s 1975 novel The Monkey Wrench Gang grew out of his experience paddling amid the sandstone arches and pulsing waters that have been buried beneath Lake Powell’s stagnant surface since 1963. Abbey, alongside pioneering eco-crusader David Brower and river guide Martin Litton, sparked a generation of river conservationists and paddlers, the likes of which have fought to preserve whitewater from the American West to northern Quebec.

British Columbia's Ashlu After
British Columbia’s Ashlu after

Today, a battle is raging over the fate of wild rivers in British Columbia, where an aggressive government policy aimed at exporting vast quantities of hydroelectric power to the United States has created a claim-staking rush for developers. “Paddlers have been on the front line because they know these rivers,” says kayaking filmmaker Bryan Smith. “It scares me to think that most people have no idea where these projects are, and that basically the largest freshwater sources in North America are being systematically turned over to private corporations.”

In December, a so-called green energy project north of Vancouver dewatered the Ashlu River, one of the province’s best whitewater rivers and a productive ecosystem for salmon and grizzly bears. This spring, as melting snow brought nearby rivers to life, the Ashlu’s ration was shunted through a series of concrete pipes and turbines, leaving three miles of riverbed a wasteland of dry boulders and polished stone. This was despite promises that the “run of the river” project would not alter water levels above or below the dam.

Kayaker Warning System
Kayaker Warning System

Rafe Mair, a Vancouver-based political commentator and radio host, circulated a series of shocking photographs of the once-powerful Ashlu. “The trickle you see is what’s left when the rest of the river was diverted into the tunnel, leaving the watershed almost dry,” he explained. The lack of spring freshet came as no surprise to Smith, whose 2007 documentary 49 Megawatts exposed the process by which the B.C. government awards rights to private waterpower developers. It’s no coincidence that Innergex Renewable Power’s Ashlu facility has a generating capacity of 49.9 megawatts: Dams of 50 megawatts or more are subject to comprehensive environmental assessment.

Even the staunchest river advocate will admit that hydropower imposes fewer climate change-inducing impacts than burning coal or natural gas. But “no one is talking about the carbon footprint to put these projects in, [the] long-term impacts on fish, the micro-climates that produce bugs or even the value of the water itself 20 years from now,” says Smith. Projects like the Ashlu may not create sprawling, Lake Powell-like storage reservoirs, but in British Columbia they still represent the industrialization of untouched wilderness. The carbon-intensive dam-building process involves helicopters, bulldozers, dynamite, hundreds of miles of new roads and transmission corridors, and thousands of tons of steel and cement. And then there are the ecological impacts of altered flow rates, clear-cuts and access roads.

Dams like the one on the Ashlu won’t end whitewater access completely. Dammed rivers from the Colorado to the Ottawa and countless smaller gems like West Virginia’s Gauley and North Carolina’s Green are paddled year-round or on scheduled water releases. Even Innergex has posted a “flow release schedule” for Ashlu River kayakers on its website. But that doesn’t allay the fact that another watershed has been compromised, and the powerful experience of paddling an unharnessed river lost.

It’s ironic that as British Columbia rushes to build dams, there’s a growing movement in other parts of North America to remove them. According to the Washington, D.C.-based conservation organization American Rivers, 306 obsolete or environmentally destructive dams were removed between 1999 and 2008 in the United States. Some even make a compelling argument in favor of Hayduke’s cause: demolishing the Glen Canyon Dam. But in British Columbia, the tide still runs the other direction. The Ashlu’s Class V canyons are dry, and more than 600 other B.C. rivers face the same archaic fate. It’s up to the Abbeys and Browers of our generation to save them.
– Conor Mihell

Photos by Steve Rogers