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Saving the Clearwater

Posted: 03/19/2008
by Richard Bowers

Short, steep, sketchy, and located in the upper headwaters of the Middle Fork Nooksack drainage, Clearwater Creek is a quintessential Northwest Creek run. Set right in the middle of no-where, and a haven only for wildlife, loggers, and sometimes anglers and tribal members, the Class V Clearwater was a great whitewater secret - the perfect run! Who would be interested in a low-volume stream that drops 360 feet in less than two miles, and that has enough water to paddle only six weeks per year?


Who indeed! Welcome to the world of micro-hydro. Micro-hydro means developing small energy dams (2 kilowatts to 100 kW) on low-head, low volume streams. In this world, a six megawatt dam on the Clearwater (enough to light approximately 2,500 homes during high water) was worth spending more than $7 million in construction costs and (if estimates proved true) risking an additional $900,000 each year in lost profits. Add in damaging endangered bull trout habitat, old growth forests, traditional hunting and fishing grounds for the Nooksack Indian Tribe, and future Chinook salmon spawning areas (if and when the City of Bellingham removes the downstream water-supply dam on the Middle Fork), and it all adds up to a pretty bad project. A dicey investment from a hydropower point of view, downright catastrophic from an economic and environmental outlook, and pure death from a whitewater perspective, as the planned bypass tunnel would kill this river by removing all flows from put-in to take-out.


In January of this year, local whitewater paddlers Randall Rinders, James Hall, Ryan Bradley, and others joined with American Whitewater to try and save this local jewel. Paddlers worked with the local press (article) and environmental groups, with state and federal agencies, the Nooksack tribe, and others who had been involved with fighting this dam since the original application was filed in 1994. With a long history of fighting dam projects across the country, volunteer paddlers and American Whitewater were able to raise public awareness, take advantage of deadlines missed by the applicant, Nooksack River Hydro, and poor financial backing for the proposed dam, and to aggressively lobby the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to dismiss this application. This effort not only defeated this dam on the Clearwater, but also jump-started the dismissal of similar micro-hydro dam applications on other Cascade headwater streams including Warm, Irene, Rocky and Martin Creeks.


So is there a lesson here? Well, whitewater paddlers are certainly making a difference on river protection. And of course American Whitewater is a fantastic organization (unabashed plug). But the real lesson is not to take your local river or stream for granted – even if you’re sure that only you and a few of your paddling buddies know the run exists! It’s probably not the secret you think it is, and there’s a good chance that your favorite creek has already been identified as a potential source of power. In Washington State alone, 539 as yet undeveloped small and micro-hydro dam sites have been identified on streams such as Glacier Creek (just up the North Fork Nooksack from the Clearwater), Fly Creek, the Carbon, Cispus, Upper Foss, Pilchuck, Upper North Fork Skykomish Rivers (Ashlu Creek in southwest British Columbia is threatened by a similar micro-hydro proposal), and many others (see the small hydro atlas).


Don’t wait till the river is dammed; be proactive in protecting your favorite runs today. If you’re the only group on the water, then you may be the only ones who care enough, and know enough, to keep it wild and undeveloped. Get to know the resident anglers, and the landowners and others who have a vested interest in this creek or watershed. Together you’ll make great allies. Join American Whitewater, or better yet, volunteer as an American Whitewater StreamKeeper. You never know, maybe you and your friends really are the only ones up there? If you’re not on top of the issues affecting the rivers, who will be?


Associated Projects

Nooksack Stewardship (WA)
Public access, hydropower development, and resource stewardship are all ongoing issues on this river system.