Rest in Peace Good River
Boaters and Environmentalists remember the Ashlu

Boaters and environmentalists in British Columbia are mourning the loss of one of the province's best whitewater rivers and a productive ecosystem of salmon and grizzly bears. In December, Innergex Renewable Power's 49.9-megawatt Ashlu River hydroelectric facility, located about 50 miles northwest of Vancouver, came on-line. Melting snow and ice in this spring revealed the full impacts of the development: a three-mile long stretch of exposed boulders and virtually no water—despite Innergex and the provincial government's promises that such "run of the river" projects would not effect water levels.

"The trickle you see is what's left when the rest of the river was diverted into the tunnel, leaving the watershed almost dry," explained Rafe Mair, a Vancouver-based political commentator and radio host. "The [Gordon] Campbell [provincial] government told us this would not take any water from the regular flow, that the river would just pass through a little generator leaving the river ecology undisturbed. This was a deliberate falsehood, one of the many the Campbell government and industry have told us."

British Columbia's private energy framework enables independent power producers to stake claim to waterways on publicly owned land, and streamlined environmental regulations have facilitated the development of hydroelectric developments on ecologically significant waterways like the Ashlu. Once completed, producers sell electricity back to the provincial grid at attractive, guaranteed rates—generating healthy profits for company shareholders.

While there's no doubt that the process of capturing the energy of renewable sources like falling water imposes fewer climate change-inducing impacts than burning coal or natural gas, "no one is talking about the carbon footprint to put these projects in, [the] long-term impacts on fish, micro climates that produce bugs and life on the river essential for fish or even the value of the water itself 20 years from now," explains Bryan Smith, a filmmaker, writer and local whitewater paddler.

Smith's documentary 49 Megawatts blends spectacular whitewater footage on the Ashlu with shocking exposure of the flawed process in which the British Columbia government awards rights to waterpower. There's no coincidence that the Ashlu development, which was first proposed in 2003, has a generating capacity of 49.9 megawatts: The provincial threshold for comprehensive environmental assessment for hydro proposals is 50 megawatts.

The Ashlu's notorious Class V canyons now run dry and the same fate may come to pass for many other whitewater favorites. "Paddlers have been on the front line because they know these rivers," says Smith, who filmed the final summer of the wild, free-flowing Ashlu in 2009 for National Geographic television. "It scares me to think that most people in BC have no idea where these projects are and basically the largest freshwater water source in North America is being systematically turned over to private corporations."

Adds Mair: "It's alarming as hell, for the Ashlu situation will be repeated all around the province." – Conor Mihell

Buy 49 Megawats here.

Ashlu kayaking photos: Todd Gillman