Last year, Cambodian and Vietnamese authorities pledged to resolve dam-related environmental problems along the Se San River, a large Mekong tributary flowing from Vietnam’s central highlands through northeast Cambodia. Likewise donor agencies declared their commitment to seeing the harmful effects of Se San dams mitigated. What is missing, however, is a structured approach for transforming that political will into practical results.
Fortunately, one of North America’s largest power utilities, BC Hydro, has pioneered such an approach for balancing power production with public demands for improved river health and more local control over decisions affecting rivers. BC Hydro, like its Mekong counterparts, is state owned. Its main business is generating hydropower for sale to its 1.6 million customers. Unlike Mekong utilities, BC Hydro recognizes that rivers are more than megawatts, they are a shared resource demanding a negotiated approach to management – one that recognizes other river users and the many ecological functions rivers serve.
BC Hydro’s new attitude is not an exception. Dam operating utilities across North America are working to change how they operate dams to include environmental objectives. Globally, there are more than 230 rivers undergoing some form of flood restoration, according to Sandra Postel and Brian Richter, authors of “Rivers for Life: Managing Water for People and Nature.” The basic concept is that by releasing water from dams at the right time and in the right quantity to mimic certain aspects of the river’s natural flow regime, habitat can be recreated and other ecological functions restored.
And the good news coming from scientists is that dammed rivers can be restored when given a chance. “Reconnect a river with its floodplain, and fish and riparian plant communities will rebound,” say the US researchers. “Remove a dam, and species long gone will return upriver. Release a flood pulse from a reservoir, and key habitat improvements will materialize.”
BC Hydro’s experience is particularly relevant to the Mekong region because of its emphasis on public participation. For each of its 30 hydro facilities, it has developed a water use plan via a committee made up of local residents, business operators, representatives from all levels of government, fisheries associations, and environmental groups.
Here’s how it works. First, the committee decides upon the objectives of the water use plan and then which operating alternatives should be modeled first. Once the modeling and studies are done and results examined, the committee decides what other alternatives should be modeled. Because committee members have a wide range of expertise and knowledge-some are functionally illiterate while others are highly educated technical experts-they rely on BC Hydro’s experts and an independent facilitator for clarifying information. Based on the committee’s recommendations, BC Hydro then prepares a detailed set of operating criteria for power station managers and operations planners, which is submitted to government regulators for final approval. The plans also include extensive monitoring of river conditions to understand the effects of changes to the operating regime, as well as funds for mitigating negative results, should they occur. Finally, an administrative committee is established to oversee monitoring and mitigation works, and to make management decisions in the event of any unusual conditions. In almost all cases, operating changes are agreed upon by consensus and are expected to generate a broad range of benefits-improved fish habitat, water quality, flood control, and cultural resources.
As BC Hydro officials describe it, the program has transformed “a litigious, highly volatile situation into productive (if still tense) working relationships.”
Though still too early to assess the program’s ecological benefits, the program is a milestone in operations planning and gaining public consent to operate. It is the first time that BC Hydro has committed to an open process on water management at its facilities. According to BC Hydro’s manager of sustainability, Daryl Fields, the process is based on four key principles: inclusiveness, a structured process, information and data, and flexibility over time. He explains that inclusiveness forces all parties to justify their interests in the context of other valid social needs and perhaps to compromise. For each watershed, the entire process has taken one to two years on average. In some cases, BC Hydro was instructed to eliminate peak power operation during fish spawning seasons, which has meant lost power generation revenue during those times. In other cases, the utility was able to increase its power generation revenue while balancing other downstream priorities. BC Hydro officials are quick to point out that the program doesn’t avoid or eliminate conflict over water use.
As Charlotte Bernister explains, “it provides a tool for finding an acceptable balance between supplying reliable and competitively priced power to British Columbians and incorporating critical water resource priorities into hydro plant operating decisions and maintenance activities.” Mobilizing this kind of practical approach to managing dammed rivers should be a top priority for the Mekong River Commission’s new chief in 2004.
Gráinne Ryder is Policy Director of Probe International, a Canadian citizens group investigating the impact of foreign aid.