The Puntledge River can have high community and tourist usage.
This ranges from swimming and tubing in the summer, the chum salmon fishery in the fall, to kayak events in the winter and spring. BC Hydro studies have found about 500 people along the 15-kilometre river at a given time. Up to 2,000 tubers may enter the river over a hot summer day.
The river is often tranquil but it can change. Whether it is flows for fish or kayakers, or for flood risk management operations, BC Hydro follows ramping procedures that sets the protocol on increasing river flow over a period of time. This is for fish habitat and for public safety.
“BC Hydro’s top priority is public safety and we take the potential safety risks on the Puntledge River system very seriously,” says BC Hydro spokesperson Stephen Watson. “With that in mind, BC Hydro will be undertaking two projects to mitigate and reduce those water flow change risks over the next three or so years. Instrumentation will also be improved.”
BC Hydro regulates discharges from the Comox Lake Reservoir through the Comox Dam, where water then travels almost four kilometres to the Puntledge River diversion dam. From there, water either enters the penstock and travels five kilometres down to the generating station and re-enters the river, or passes over the dam and down a stretch of river for fish habitat. Flow changes can happen from the dam, diversion dam or generating station.
Near miss this summer
A recent unplanned flow event and public safety near miss took place in July 2014.
“River flows went up and down in a few places over a few hours due to a malfunction in the generating station,” says Watson. “During this event the warning sirens sounded as they were designed to. There are signs and measures in place such as the sirens, to advise people that this is a hydroelectric facility and that at times they need to exit the river.”
BC Hydro has a 10-year capital plan and two projects are in place to further mitigate the potential downstream risks on the Puntledge River. Watson says the capital plan is to improve the safety of BC Hydro’s hydroelectric facilities.
The first project will improve public safety and provide more reliable real-time water flow information in the watershed. The first element is upgrading the siren warning system, to provide better public safety notification – mainly sirens will be easier to hear along the river. The sirens are located at seven areas of the Puntledge River from the Comox dam to Puntledge Park.
“The existing sirens will be replaced with modern sirens and control systems that will direct the sound towards where it is needed on the river while reducing the sound volume to areas outside the river,” says Watson.
The second element of this project is the various water survey gauges on the Puntledge, Browns and Tsolum rivers. They will be upgraded to be more accurate, reliable and closer to real-time water flows to allow BC Hydro to more efficiently manage flows from Comox Dam for fish, to activate the public warning system and in flood risk management situations.
“During a potential flood event this will help to fully understand the contributions of the Puntledge, Browns and Tsolum rivers that ultimately meet and flow into the Courtenay River,” says Watson. “It will also help measure surging ocean tides. This improved information can help BC Hydro in our operations.”
The total estimated project cost for the Puntledge Water Level Gauges and Public Warning System is about $10 million. BC Hydro says the system improvements may begin in summer 2015 and will update the community then.