Despite the low snowpack and the prospect of another dry summer, there are no plans to cancel or shorten the 2015 Puntledge River Paddle Festival, planned for the final weekend of May.
“The event is taking place this year,” confirmed BC Hydro communications officer Stephen Watson. “Last year, BC Hydro worked with the Vancouver Island Whitewater Paddling Society to reduce the water volume releases over the weekend, yet still provide a good event. We’ll be doing the same this year given the potential for a dry summer. We are being conscientious.”
Watson said that while the snowpack is not what it has been in years past, that does not mean it’s been a dry winter.
“BC Hydro’s water supply year runs from September to October, and … to date, this water supply year is the second wettest in about 50 years of record,” he said. “Conversely, we are very near setting a record for low snowpack for this time of year. The snowpack could be fully depleted by the end of May and the summer may or may not be very dry. BC Hydro plans for all the various weather scenarios and maps out the best way to operate based on that forecasted water abundance.”
He said that the company has direction to provide the increased flows for events such as the Puntledge River Paddle Festival only if there is enough water to do so. There is now, and it’s anticipated that there will be an abundance of water at the time of the festival.
“Water is not really an issue for BC Hydro until June onward and we can reduce power generation, even shutting it down, to conserve,” said Watson.
He added that spilling water is all part of the water level management, and the kayak festival is an instance of BC Hydro and the paddlers working together to make better use of a timed spill.
“We are normally spilling water (at that time),” he said. “I think this is about the 10th year, and although we don’t know yet, I think this is about the third year where we wouldn’t be spilling water anyway. So historically, it’s been like free water. We’d be spilling it anyway, so it’s a matter that the kayakers can take advantage of it.”
Additionally, the extra water released is offset by a decrease in power generation.
“It may translate into a 20-centimetre drop in the reservoir, so it’s not like we are dropping the reservoir by a big amount, and we are going to compensate that through less power generation, so basically it should be full,” said Watson.
The water restrictions experienced in 2014 would have been in place with, or without, the planned spill at the end of May.
“All we ever need is one storm of some consequence and we’re OK,” he said. “That didn’t happen at all last summer. Could that happen again this year? Well, potentially, but unlikely.
“On an average year, (the May spill) would have no consequence. On a dry year, it may have some, but it’s very limited.”
Watson pointed out that the festival is not the only reason for the water release at the end of May. It’s also done as a service to the fish habitat.
“Fisheries and Oceans Canada release their chinook smolts at this time of year and with the higher flows, they have a better success rate of getting by the seals in the lower river,” he said.
Dave Leitch, the senior manager of water and wastewater services for the Comox Valley Regional District said the RD is on board with BC Hydro for the planned spill.
“Hydro is the ones who have the water licence and they control the flow of water from the lake into the Puntledge, so they really are the ones who dictate,” he said. “We’re not really in a position to (dispute). We can give our opinion that we would like to have as much water held back as we can, but they explained to us that they are going to keep the lake full from now on through the summer.
“They need to release ‘x’ amount of water to maintain the salmon run, so doing it in conjunction with that, the (additional) water being released for the kayak festival is less than what people would think. I think the impact will be fairly negligible.”
The Puntledge River Paddle Festival, scheduled for May 29-31, is also a considerable revenue generator for the Comox Valley.
“Our Facebook event page already has more than 100 people saying they are coming,” said Dave Prothero, the local contact for the event. “We usually get 120 to 160 people, sometimes a bit more. This year it could be an even higher reach, due to the fact that there is not going to be a lot of water around other areas of British Columbia.
“Most of the people will camp out at Maple Pool, but there are some who stay at hotels. Then there’s the food they buy, the restaurants they visit and all that. We bring a lot of people to town, and then a lot of them come back at other times of the year as well. The Puntledge is a pretty unique river.”
Leitch said residents concerned with the spill should call BC Hydro directly, but the RD’s phone lines are always open.
“Stephen is the guy, however, we work in conjunction with Hydro and we are on board with things they are going to do operationally. If folks want, they can by all means call here and we can explain it to them,” he said.