SREL was notified this month that it will be offered a long term contract from the Ontario Power Authority to purchase all power produced at its proposed 5 MW waterpower plant in Bala, ON. This is a major milestone in the development process of this project.
Swift River Energy Limited (SREL) plans to invest approx. $22.5 million in reestablishing a small hydro plant a Bala as part of an estimated $50MM to be spent over the next few years in the area on clean, green, sustainable Energy. Bracebridge Generation has announced plans to spend $18 MM in small hydro upgrades in local communities and the Wasdell Falls project, near Washago on the Severn River, is another nearby small hydro project currently under development.
Many issues have arisen from the environmental screening process, and unfortunately there is still a lot of miscommunication and misunderstanding about the project in the community. Smoke and mirrors are up to help one mayoral candidate earn photo-ops and media opportunities, despite the fact that a mayor must represent ALL stakeholders. This candidate does not live or own property in Muskoka. I would hope that this valuable project will move forward to benefits all Ontarians, and bring commerce to a town that virtually shuts down, in terms of business, in November.
I post answers to these questions from SREL.
This is a summary of some of the recurring issues raised through the press and extensive community engagement and outreach programs.
Where are we in the process for the project?
SREL issued the Notice of Completion on October 14, 2009 signaling the start of a public review period. The mandatory review period, as per the regulations, is 30 days. SREL voluntarily extended this review period by 50% (or two weeks) to 44 days. During that period the Ministry of Environment received a number of elevation requests from members of the public and others to “bump up” our screening to either an “Environmental Review” or an “Individual Environmental Assessment”. All requests have been forwarded to SREL and have now been reviewed by SREL. Given the public response to the environmental screening, SREL has offered all parties that submitted an elevation request a chance to meet with them personally, along with SREL’s consultant Hatch, to discuss the issues outlined in the submission.
All correspondence with the stakeholders was be copied to MOE, and in turn all correspondence with the MOE regarding the stakeholder will be copied to that stakeholder. It is now expected that MOE will complete its review of the screening and provide a ruling on the elevation requests. This is expected to occur this spring. The ruling can be anywhere along the spectrum of “the elevation request is granted” to “the elevation request is denied”. Possible middle ground options would be an approval with any number of conditions.
Can the project be moved to the south falls (left)?
The site release process undertaken by MNR was for the North Bala Dam location. SREL applied for the available site. The south channel has never been offered by the MNR for development. There are feasibility issues with attempting to construct a viable generating facility in the south channel, assuming it was available. This was made obvious following a preliminary high-level examination of the potential of the south channel for development.
For the Period During Construction:
The attached Figure 5.4 of the Environmental Screening Report clearly indicates what areas will be restricted to the public for safety reasons during the estimated 12-18 month construction period.
SREL understands the importance of maintaining a reasonable traffic flow along Muskoka Road 169 (MR-169) during the tourist season. Therefore, a plan has been devised to minimize impacts on traffic during the 12-18 month construction period.
It is proposed to start construction after the Cranberry Festival in October. Road work will be the first priority for construction to ensure it is done during the off-peak “winter” season.
MR-169 will be reduced to one-lane, controlled either by flagman or temporary traffic light, for a period of two weeks while the contractor installs a bridge foundation on the opposite side of the road. This process will then be repeated for the other side of the road for an additional two week period (total of 4 weeks of one-lane road reductions during the winter).
MR-169 will then be completely shut down for one night between the bridge over the north channel and Bala Falls Road, while the contractor installs a pre-fabricated, temporary, Bailey bridge atop of the new foundations.
The following morning traffic will return to two-lanes while the contractor completes the excavation and construction activities under the road.
By Victoria Day, traffic will be back on the natural road surface for the remainder of the project. The contractor will then continue the works located on either side of the road.
Safety and Security
The construction site / restricted area as outlined on Figure 5.4 of the Environmental Screening Report will be fenced to keep members of the public out during the construction period for safety reasons. Safety in the areas outside of the restricted areas should not be affected.
In Ontario, no approval is required for construction noise from the province. The noise during construction would, however, have to comply with municipal bylaws. It can be expected that blasting will be heard during the one summer in the construction period. This is, however, inevitable for a project of this nature in Muskoka.
The nature of construction for this type of project will likely cause some dirt and dust in the area immediately adjacent to the site. All efforts will be made to contain the dirt and dust, and to clean up regularly where possible.
SREL is proposing to put together a team of business owners, residents, SREL and the Contractor to facilitate discussion of issues that periodically arise during the construction period as well as developing a plan for communications to the community.
Disruption to Businesses/Business Open
Employment / Business Opportunities
In addition, we foresee direct business opportunities for various service and retail industries in Bala and Muskoka with respect to lodging, restaurants, building supplies, fuel etc., while the contractor work force is in town for the 12-18 month period. It is estimated that an average of 15 workers will be required on site during this period. These direct opportunities generally result in “trickle down” or indirect opportunities for other business’ in town that may see more business because the neighbouring businesses are profiting.
In addition, this may be an opportunity for some of the seasonal businesses, in particular for lodgings, to make the investment to winterize their facilities if they have a known revenue stream for 12-18 months. Then after the construction is over, these facilities will be ready to accept snowmobiling or other winter customers in future years. It should be noted that SREL and the Township of Muskoka Lakes are in discussions about SREL assisting the Township to install a new year round snowmobile/pedestrian bridge from Diver’s point to the Public Docks that would further enhance the snowmobile industry for the area.
SREL are also in the process of investigating the options for including a “buy local where possible” policy in its agreements with the project contractors.
SREL is committed to working with the community to ensure that existing tourism events are minimally affected during the construction period. By completing all road work during the off-peak season, road interruptions should be minimized. Much of this could be attained by restricting or limiting construction activities during these events which generally occur on weekends. (Regatta – Civic holiday weekend, Cranberry Festival – Weekend after Thanksgiving, Craft and Gift Fair – 2 weekends: July and Oct, Antique and Nostalgia Show – 2 weekends July and October, Santa Clause Parade – weekend in November). Other events such as the summer market that occurs on Mondays will have to be investigated with the Contractor and market organizer.
For the Long Term Operations Period:
SREL is committed to forming a Public Advisory Group to gather local input on the landscaping, park design and proposed illustrative / interpretive plaques for the project.
The attached Figure 6.5 from the Environmental Screening Report clearly outlines the restricted areas for the long term operations period. A wheel chair accessible lookout will be located near the MR-169 and a walking trail will be provided down to another, lower, lookout at the water’s edge. For those wanting to get to the water, a new set of stairs is proposed from MR-169 to the base of south side of the north falls. The area to the south of the powerhouse will be accessible by walking down landscaping tiers.
It is recognized that there will be an increased risk posed by increased flows related to the project. Areas where velocities and flows will be consistently high during operation include upstream in the vicinity of the intake and downstream in the immediate vicinity of the tailrace. These high velocity areas will be restricted by booms and/or fencing.
Areas downstream of the facility outside of the zone restricted by the safety boom will not be significantly affected for navigation. In fact, Transport Canada has noted that the area south of the tailrace will in fact be safer following the construction of the facility. This is because the floe from the tailrace will eliminate the swirling (circular) flow which presently occurs in that area during high flows. The removal of this swirling water will allow easier handling of small vessels in that zone.
SREL is proposing to hire Bracebridge Generation, a branch of Lakeland Holdings out of Bracebridge, for the plant operations, maintenance and management. Bracebridge generation has indicated that they foresee hiring additional staff for this role.
SREL’s vision for the project is to incorporate a public park atop the buried powerhouse. This park will include lookouts over the Moon River as well as indigenous vegetation and interpretive signage. It is SREL’s intention that this area will become a tourist attraction once complete, where people can view the water and witness renewable generation.
As stated in the ESR, SREL is committed to the following:
- Ensuring access is maintained to both sides of the north and south falls
- Professionally landscaping the area to create a public park and river/sunset view lookout
- Providing an upper lookout area adjacent to the road, that is handicap accessible
- Incorporating interpretive signage into the site to describe the heritage of the area and its history with waterpower.
- Assisting the Township with the constructing/installation of a year round snowmobile/pedestrian bridge between the Bala wharf and Diver’s Point. The details of this are, however, still to be discussed.
SREL and its operator are committed to public and school tours of the facility on designated dates.
Lighting of the park area will be designed with input from a local Public Advisory Group for the project during the detailed design stage. It has already been suggested by the Township and others that all lighting should be “dark sky” lighting.
Water Levels / Flooding
The MNR is responsible for ensuring that water levels and flows are managed appropriately. There is an existing Muskoka River Water Management Plan (*MRWMP). This water management plan will be adhered to during operation of the facility. MNR has conducted extensive review of the proposed facility management and made contributions toward its final version. The proposed facility will be operated to maintain Muskoka Lake levels and flows and levels through the Moon River (Bala Reach) in accordance with the MRWMP. There will be no increase in the water levels as a result of the plant operation. MNR will be responsible for ensuring compliance of the operator, as they presently do for the other operators within the watershed.
Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Canada (DFO) is the federal agency responsible for fish habitat, while the MNR is the provincial agency responsible for fish community and fisheries. A Fisheries Act Authorization is issued by DFO when the impacts to fish habitat are adequately mitigated. A mitigation plan has been proposed. A Fisheries Act Authorization application will be filed with the DFO. This typically follows the submission of the environmental screening report. The DFO and MNR have reviewed the environmental screening report. They have provided comments and these are being addressed by Swift River. Application for Fisheries Act authorization will be filed thereafter.
There will be reduced average flows over both the North and South Bala Falls following the construction of the project. Year-round flows over the North Falls will be comparable to those typically seen during the dryer portions of summer. Flows over the south falls will be lower than typically seen during the year. Flows of 1m3/s have been proposed over the North and South Falls throughout the year with an increase to 2m3/s proposed at the South channel during the summer tourist (viewing) period. The existing Muskoka River Water Management Plan stipulates a summer minimum of 1m3/s at each of the two dams. This stipulated minimum summer flow is the basis for SREL’s proposed flows at the two dams. SREL is proposing that a group be established to discuss/propose aesthetic flows for the summer tourist season. The final decision on flows will be made by the Province and, if different from the existing minimum flow requirements in the water management plan, will need to be included in an amendment to the plan. The proposed flows as described above are noted in the environmental screening report.
The Ministry of Environment (MOE) is the government agency responsible for ensuring that noise levels are in compliance with provincial standards. A Certificate of Approval is issued by the MOE when the proposed noise levels are satisfactory to the MOE. As part of this approval process, a noise study (acoustic assessment) has to be prepared. The MOE has reviewed the noise study completed for the facility and has found it to be satisfactory. This covers noise which will come from the operating facility. The MOE as part of its mandate will conduct noise audits on the facility to ensure compliance. As is noted repeatedly in the acoustic report, SREL is committed to undertaking any noise mitigation needed to ensure compliance with the noise thresholds at the receptors.
It is doubtful that this project will have any effect on tax rates for the community. SREL will be required to pay the province a Gross Revenue Charge for use of the water resource in lieu of municipal taxes.
SREL is not applying for any subsidies for this project. All power from this project will be sold to the Ontario Power Authority under a feed-in tariff contract as part of the Green Energy Act. While the ESR refers to an application made to Natural Resources Canada for an EcoEnergy Incentive, this project has currently been removed from the federal budget and therefore, no longer available at this time.
Benefits to the Town/District
As stated above, SREL is currently considering completing an Economic Impact Study to investigate the impacts to the Town/District during the construction and operation stages of the project. The results of this study will be made available when completed.
Benefits to the town during the operations stage include:
- Possible assistance with construction of year round pedestrian/snowmobile bridge (pending further discussions).
- New professionally landscaped park with lookouts and interpretive signage.
- Tours of facility.
- Employment / business opportunity for local business (Bracebridge Generation).
It is our understanding that the Provincial Government does not generally require such a thing for these types of projects. However, SREL are required to provide security to the Ontario Power Authority (OPA) under our Feed-In-Tariff (FIT) application and eventual FIT contract to ensure that we do proceed to Commercial Operation. In addition, both the original MNR site release program and the recent OPA FIT application required verification of SREL’s financial capability to complete the project.
For more information contact Swift River Energy Project (SREL).