White water park, hydropower project on river still uncertain

By in News

ASHLEIGH MATTERN
Editor-in-Chief

The proposal for a white water park and hydropower station on the weir is stirring controversy in Saskatoon.

By the end of the year, City Council will decide wether to spend $2 to $4 million on a feasibility study and environmental impact statement, but some residents argue that there needs to be more information available before the city moves ahead.

Saskatoon Light and Power and the White Water Park Committee envision a vibrant new development on the weir. At the park, people would kayak and surf, ride inner tubes and boogie boards, free of charge. A pedestrian bridge would link to the west bank, offering pedestrians a view of the hydropower station.

But some Saskatoon residents imagine something more sinister: a natural viewing site forever ruined by machinery and concrete, a bloated construction bill and a white water park empty most of the year.

But before any of this becomes a reality, questions need to be answered.

What if the water level changes? Will the development disrupt the pelicans? Will winter ice flows be a problem? Will the 71-year-old weir be sturdy enough to be the backbone of the project? How much will the final project actually cost?

A group of interested citizens first conceived the idea of creating white water rapids in 2004, and formed the White Water Park Committee. Saskatoon Light and Power approached them with the idea of adding a hydropower station. Alone, the white water park would cost more than $14 million, but paired with the $26 to $58 million hydropower station, the white water park would only cost about $2 to $5 million.

For the hydropower station, the weir at its current height could power 1,650 homes with renewable energy. A one-metre raise would power 3,200 homes and a two-metre raise would power 4,700. But the higher the raise, the higher the cost.

Due to construction costs, there will be no white water park without a hydropower station, though the city may move ahead with hydropower even if the park falls through.

According to the City of Saskatoon website, a pre-feasibility report completed this summer concluded that the hydropower station is “technically feasible and economically viable.”

But Betsy Rosenwald, a City Park resident who lives near the weir and one of the creators of the Facebook group “Saskatoon Says No to Whitewater,” isn’t comfortable with the price tag on the feasibility study and environmental impact assessment.

“I think that there’s a less expensive way to answer some of these questions before $2 to $4 million is spent,” she said. “Once it’s gone that far, once that $2 to $4 million is spent, they’re not going to say, ”˜Oh well, it’s not feasible.’ Once they take it that far, they’re going to find a way to make it feasible or say it’s feasible.”

Mike Jordan, manager of public and intergovernmental affairs with the City of Saskatoon, explained that the cost of the study is based on roughly five per cent of the estimated capital cost of the project, which is deemed to be an industry standard. The city has also asked the provincial government for $600,000 towards funding the feasibility study and environmental assessment.

The city is solely concerned with the hydropower station. The provincial government would fund the park.

If the hydro power plant and white water park pass the feasibility study and environmental assessment stages, Jordan says no construction could start until 2015 at the earliest.

“Everybody’s excited about this and there’s some division in the city about whether the city should be pursing this or not,” said Jordan. “There’s not enough information to say this is good or bad; we need to learn more about this and decide what its impact would be.”

One aspect both proponents and dissidents do agree on is keeping the river system safe from environmental harm.

Bryan McCrea of the White Water Park Committee started kayaking a few years ago and is ecstatic about the possibility of a park in Saskatoon, but protecting the environment is still a priority.

“If the environmental assessment comes back negative, I’m pulling my support,” he said. “None of us want to do something that’s going to harm the environment or the integrity of our river system.”

Using statistics from parks in the States, McCrea estimates that if the park were open seven to eight months a year, the city could gain $6 million per year in economic impact. Not only would the park draw tourists, it would also keep Saskatoon residents in the city who would otherwise drive elsewhere to kayak.

But Rosenwald isn’t only concerned about the economics of the project. She’s also unhappy with the consultation process thus far, saying it has not been transparent. An open house over the summer lacked a way for residents to voice their concern and she left with more questions than she went in with.

“What I would really have liked to see, and would still like to see, is more consultation where people have the opportunity to ask questions. I do feel that the process has been designed to mute public opinion.”

Another open house meeting is scheduled for Nov. 16 at 7 p.m. at the Radisson Hotel. City Council will make their decision on whether or not to move forward with the feasibility study and environmental impact assessment sometime after the open house.

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image: Katherine Benson