Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Dam it!

I was in Jasper NP last weekend. As usual (for summer) I camped at Wabasso on the 93A. In the morning, I was driving north towards the town, when I crossed the Astoria River, as I've done so many times before. This time, though, I decided I'd see if I could have a look at the dam I knew was upstream of the bridge. The penstock from the dam is visible under the bridge, and I'd always known the dam was there, but I'd never gone to see it.

Incidentally, the Astoria River doesn't have a sign on the bridge--I'm sure the name must be on a map somewhere (I just checked, and it *is* named on the GemTrek map), but I learned the name as a whitewater kayaker. The Astoria is a difficult--class V--run that I've never personally done, but I've watched some friends run the section under the bridge. It is located right beside the turn-off to Cavell Meadows on the 93A. The Astoria River drains the entire Tonquin Valley, including the Amethyst Lakes, as well as the smaller (but oft-photographed) Cavell Lake. Click here for a Google Map (aerial view).

So I started on what a kayaker would call "river right", which is actually on the left when you look upstream. (Kayakers are thinking more about how they see things heading downstream, and even when looking upstream at features, for example when scouting a rapid, will say "River Right" and "River Left" so that everyone knows which right and left they mean.) There's a path there, following a power line going up to the dam. (Since there's no powerhouse at the dam--it's at the bottom end of the penstock--these lines actually send power to the dam to operate whatever equipment and lights the small building there might have.) Anyway, I soon found that path didn't lead much further than a spot for kayakers to access the river. So back to the road, over the bridge, and up the access road on river left. I felt pretty sure that a gated access road would lead to the dam itself--the reason I had tried the other side first was that I thought there might be a better view from there. Sure enough, after a short walk, I was at the dam, and able to find a decent view. Here's what it looked like (click on the image for a larger view):

(Canon 5DMkII, 17-40L, polarizer, HDR)

The dam is built right on top of a waterfall. I might complain about this, but you can't really see it from the road. This is what's called a Run-of-the-River hydroelectric facility. The key thing about this type of facility is that there's no reservoir. Some of them don't even have penstocks that go beyond the dam--the whole facility (dam and turbines) is in one spot. This one does have a penstock, though, which goes a kilometre or two down to the powerhouse located on the banks of the Athabasca River.

Our society has an insatiable need for energy, and unfortunately, there's really no perfect source. Coal and gas have the carbon emissions (and sulphur if the coal isn't really good quality), plus there's the environmental issues of obtaining it. Nuclear seems nice, until you consider the waste. When I read Alan Weisman's The World Without Us, it was the chapter on nuclear waste that really made me take pause, more than anything else in the book (which was fascinating, BTW).

Traditional hydroelectric is often considered "green", but there's the fact that huge tracts of land must be flooded for the reservoirs. This displaces people who live there, unless it's in really remote locations--in which case there are issues with transporting the power. There are problems with mercury accumulations in fish living in such reservoirs, as well. Sediment can build up in the reservoir, causing various problems, too. Also, the large reservoirs end up losing vast quantities of water to evaporation--especially when they are located in arid regions (like Lake Mead, for example). Wind is another "greener" power source, but many people do not like having the towers near their houses, considering them an eyesore. There are also reports of birds and bats being killed by the rotors. Solar is nice, but also needs huge areas of land, which is essentially useless for other purposes then (unlike wind--the land under the towers can still be farmed). It works best in desert regions.

The run-of-the-river hydroelectric facilities are one of the greenest power sources we've got, I think. With one caveat--the operators must ensure there is enough water still flowing in the stream bed (for those with penstocks, that is) to ensure that the ecosystem in the stream is not overly damaged. Generally, these are located in places--like waterfalls--where there wouldn't be fish swimming upstream, so we're only really worried about invertebrate life and the birds and animals which feed on it.

There are still NIMBY-types who don't want to see these facilities, though. (And another acronym I learned recently: BANANA. Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone.) I know some kayakers in the Vancouver area are concerned that some planned facilities will destroy some of their favourite rivers. I can sympathize with their concerns--where rivers are used for recreational purposes, the operators should ensure that there remains sufficient water in the stream bed for those--at least during daylight hours. But as long as we continue to use vast amounts of energy, green sources of power like this should be encouraged. Especially where they are tucked out of the view of the general public, so that our mountain views aren't unnecessarily spoiled.

It's certainly not perfect, and I would encourage energy conservation as much as possible, but so long as we need the energy, we might as well get as much of it as we can from the greenest possible sources.


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