BC Hydro has a plan to drain Alouette Lake to a low level this year, and it would impact summertime lake-goers in busy Golden Ears Provincial Park.
Hydro has said it needs to lower the water level by approximately six metres below typical levels as part of dam upgrade work, for four to six weeks beginning in mid August. A final decision has yet to be made.
Maple Ridge conservation groups are incensed the power company still has no intention of also adding infrastructure they say could bring back salmon runs to the water system.
Cheryl Ashlie, of the Alouette River Management Society, said her group has been working hard to save sockeye runs into Alouette Lake, by trucking the fish past the dam. Last year, only 14 sockeye returned to spawn. Ashlie said the latest science shows the fish will eventually lose their instinct to return to the lake, and the run will be permanently lost.
Hydro could build a fish ladder to bring back the sockeye and other salmon species, but so far has refused.
“This is an opportunity to now do a fish passage,” she said. “We know we have to put these species back in our waterways.”
Ashlie said Hydro is supposed to be compelled to protect salmon and other species, but is not willing to include an approximately $5-million fish ladder in a $30-million dam upgrade.
“We struggle to accept that,” said Ashlie.
Ashlie noted kokanee smolts were left high and dry in spring of 2019 when Hydro did not meet its obligations to have the water level high enough for the fish to escape over their dam and into the ocean.
She called it mismanagement, but Hydro blamed the low water level on high electricity demands in winter and a drier-than-normal spring.
During that period of low water last spring, Hydro discovered its dam needs a seismic upgrade.
According to Hydro, the dam work includes upgrades to the tunnel infrastructure between Alouette Lake and Stave Lake Reservoirs, to improve its reliability following a large (one in 10,000 year) earthquake.
“While we recognize the impact this will have on recreational users to Alouette Lake Reservoir, unfortunately, for safety reasons the work must take place during the summer months when inflows to the reservoir are lowest, and most predictable,” said spokesperson Tanya Fish.
“We’re also reviewing the project to understand the potential environmental and archaeological impacts, and we will develop a mitigation plan to help protect these important values.”
First Nations, ARMS, local government staff and BC Parks have all been consulted, she added.
“In regards to the option of a fish ladder, we continue to evaluate salmon restoration options through the Fish Passage Decision Framework,” said Fish.
That framework is a Hydro process to evaluate restoring fish production, where it has been blocked by Hydro dams.
“We do have an approved funding plan for the next eight to 10 years to demonstrate our commitment to this process. This plan ensures guaranteed funding for the required studies and eliminates the need for ARMS and others to apply for funding every year.”
Pitt Meadows-Maple Ridge MLA Lisa Beare said she would be concerned about the obvious impacts to local tourism, but ensuring the dam is not breached in an earthquake trumps other issues.
“My main concern is community safety,” she said.
She said ARMS and Hydro have been working on the fish ladder issue, and said Hydro has a funding agreement to ensure a decision is made.
“I’m very well aware that this is a top priority for a lot of people in our community.”
Because Hydro is dragging its feet on the fish ladder issue, Maple Ridge city councillor Gordy Robson is saying the city should oppose renewal of the power company’s water rights. They expired two years ago, and Hydro is asking to have the rights renewed in perpetuity.
Robson said this summer’s low water level will be a big loss for recreational lake users at Golden Ears Park, which is one of the busiest campgrounds in the province, and with a day use area that quickly fills up on summer weekends.
“It (draining the lake) is a horrible thing, but maybe it’s an opportunity,” said Robson. “We should do whatever we have to do, to get that fish ladder.”
“This is really important to the soul of Maple Ridge.”