Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Kayakers v. big energy

California happens to be home to some of the best whitewater kayaking in the world, and some of the best white water kayakers originate from California’s rural mountain communities. These adrenaline junkies, drop off waterfalls 40 feet tall without blinking an eye and are some of the only people to see the higher reaches of the American, Feather, Rubicon and Sacramento rivers. Because they traipse across mountain ridges lugging kayaks filled with overnight food supplies and carefully packed cameras for documentation, they understand the full effect of big energy production on the river beds they frequent.

PG&E, SMUD, and county water agencies run a labyrinth of damns, diversions and other innovations throughout the Sierra’s, Cascades, and coastal mountains to create energy for California’s cities and towns. While these agencies provide services they also make billions of dollars at the expense of several interests groups and the environment.

Dams and diversions wreak havoc on river beds. While, most dam operator maintain enough water flow in rivers to allow continued aquatic life; in many instances operators divert rivers entirely, leaving barren beds of rock with no sign of the smallest freshwater snail. Kayakers live close to the water and develop deep interests in the health of aquatic habitats. They also keep careful tabs on water levels to know what times rivers run at their best for white water play. When dams shut down entire river beds they impose both on the environment and one of our state’s recreational activities.

Darin McQuoid is a local professional kayaker and photographer who works for Eddie Bower, Kokatat, and Jackson Kayaks. McQuoid travels the world in search of new river descents, but grew up in a little town in the Cascades called Scott Valley, which barely makes the map. In his pursuit of new runs and the exercise of his profession here in California, Darin regularly rubs up against hydroelectric companies and has participated in a number of their re-licensing activities.

Because hydroelectric uses a public resource (water) companies must go through federal licensing processes every thirty to fifty years. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is responsible for licensing hydroelectric faculties. In the next three years several of these licenses need renewing. Energy agencies dislike the licensing process, in part because they must contend with interest groups including the kayakers. Mr. McQuoid can site at least one instance where an energy company tried to evade the process altogether. Licensing involves extensive environmental impact reports and flow tests as well as public comment periods that allow for various groups to voice opinions. As part of their recreational mitigation, PG&E, SMUD and others actually fly kayakers into remote locations to test the “flows”.

Darin and his colleges participate in these flow assessments. After running a section of the river they provide advice on what water levels best suit recreational purposes. Unfortunately, as Mr. McQuoid reports, these agencies rarely follow through with flow levels. The most kayakers generally hope to get out of their interaction with hydroelectric giants is public access to information on flow releases. Now, when a company schedules a release, the California boaters jump on board and all show up in specified locations. But Mr. McQuoid wishes these companies would go further and actually maintain flows adequate both for aquatic life and white water paddling.

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