01/30/2014 05:00 EST | Updated 03/31/2014 05:59 EDT

Risk to B.C. salmon 'minimal' from Run-of-River projects

An independent review of B.C.'s Run-of-River projects has tentatively concluded that most of the hydro plants have had no impact on salmon species in the rivers used to generate electricity.

The review was conducted by the Pacific Salmon Foundation, a salmon and watershed conservation group, on behalf of Clean Energy BC representing independent power producers in the province.

"From what we see at this point in time there have been incidents of harm that people see in pictures," said Pacific Salmon Foundation CEO Dr. Brian Riddell, referring to publicity around fish kills from mistakes and failures at the plants.

The foundation found that while it is likely individual fish are killed at a number of facilities after getting caught or stranded by diverted water flows, there is little evidence that there has been harm to the fish populations as a whole.

"Of the places we can monitor, 21 of 26 of the sites we compare for this question are not showing any change in abundance or change in species composition," said Riddell.

18 plants without records

But the foundation's report highlights a series of caveats that go along with the findings.

The study's authors were only able to judge impacts based on industry-supplied monitoring data from 26 sites. For the remaining 18 generating plants, monitoring records simply do not exist.

Riddell said he was not aware of this when the foundation began the study.

"I don't know [if I was] surprised. It definitely was not something we had anticipated."

Riddell suggested the missing data relates to older facilities built before the year 2000. He said environmental monitoring may not have been part of their licenses.

The foundation also found fault with the data it did get to see. The companies that collected it never subjected it to any impartial scrutiny.

"The lack of independent review and analysis is a serious deficiency in environmental oversight," reads the foundation's report. "Without this step, the public cannot be assured of responsible development."

Despite the admonishment, and the potential that tapping B.C.'s rivers and streams poses a risk to salmon that's not clearly understood, Riddell isn't concerned.

"At this point in time, the information we have would say the harm is minimal," he said.

Study sought to hold industry to 'highest standard possible'

The study marks the first time impacts on salmon species have been independently examined since privately run turbines began popping up on B.C.’s streams and rivers nearly 30 years ago.

Paul Kariya, the executive director of Clean Energy BC, said discovering the industry's shortcomings was part of the reason why his group commissioned the $350,000 study.

"The ethic and approach getting into this was to make sure our industry is held to the highest standard possible," said Kariya.

As for why so many of the facilities failed to produce monitoring data, Kariya says they were built in less enlightened times.

"The standards we have today for all developments across the board are certainly infinitely better than they were 10, 15, 20, 25 years ago." Kariya said.

"That's no different for our sector."

The member companies of  Clean Energy BC agreed to open their records to the Pacific Salmon Foundation for the study, on condition that the foundation keeps site-specific details secret.

"There are jobs, there are peoples' careers on the line here. Many of these companies are publicly traded. I mean, the worst thing that can happen for some of them is — fairly or unfairly — they inadvertently end up being on the pointy end of the stick," said Kariya, explaining the need for the confidentiality agreement. 

Kariya said the foundation gave him reports for each of the sites, and he has commitments from the companies involved to fix any problems — provided they are not cost-prohibitive.

As for the foundation’s recommendations, which include calls for more rigorous data collection and oversight, Kariya says the association embraces them, but he cannot say whether individual producers will.