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Chile’s Whitewater Kayakers Collaborate with Endesa

The article as it appeared in The Santiago Times, January 10, 2012:

Chile’s Whitewater Kayakers Collaborate with Endesa

New water law mandates dialogue between whitewater enthusiasts and hydroelectric developers.

By Susan Munroe

“Collaborate with whom? With Endesa?”

Chris Spelius almost hung up the phone. As a whitewater kayaker and business owner, he’d had run-ins with the multi-national energy company Endesa in the past, and none of them good.

But he stayed on the line. And thus opened a new chapter in the ongoing tale of tug-of-war between Chile’s recreational river users and hydroelectric developers like Endesa.

The call Spelius received was from Ingendesa, the engineering branch of the electric development transnational corporation Endesa. Ingendesa was complying with a change in Chile’s water law that requires developers to assess other uses for a river they propose to disrupt. In this case, Chile’s Fuy River. Endesa wanted Spelius to help assess the river’s recreational value.

“Normally you think of advance notice from Endesa as them driving a bulldozer up to the front of your house,” said William Horvath, a PhD chemist and kayaker who works with Spelius.

Spelius’ last experience with Endesa was on the Bio Bio River in the 1990s, when the developer flooded his riverside camp “without consultation or compensation.” So to Spelius and Horvath, Endesa’s phone call was revolutionary.  Hopeful for results beneficial to his business, Spelius agreed to participate.

Spelius owns Expediciones Chile, an adventure travel company based in Futaleufu, and runs several trips each summer season on the remote Fuy River. Located two hours south of Pucon, the Fuy is one of Chile’s top whitewater rivers for kayakers like Spelius and has an enchantment all its own. “When you’re paddling, the sunlight penetrates the water and refracts into thousands of bubbles below, making the river look like it’s lit from below, like underwater pool lights,” says Spelius. ” It’s outrageous.” Other outfitters located in the Panguipulli area also depend on the river’s wildness to draw clientele.

Endesa’s Neltume project, a 400 megawatt run-of-river hydroelectric plant, would divert the majority of the Fuy River’s water into a series of tubes and turbines to generate electricity, leaving a fraction of the normal volume flowing in the riverbed.

Run-of-river generation is a non-conventional renewable energy resource in Chile and is becoming more prevalent as Chile works to diversify its energy matrix. Opponents of large hydroelectric projects, such as HidroAysen, present run-of-river hydro as an alternative that has less impact on river ecosystems. But “less impact” is a long way from “no impact”, and although Spelius said he was wary of “sleeping with the devil,” he was eager to have a say in the future of the Fuy.

Ingendesa wanted to study a flow of 10 cubic meters of water per second (353 cubic feet per second) in the Fuy riverbed. Horvath said, “They approached us with a very simple question: could we continue to sell trips to international clients on this river at this level? And our answer was a very simple no.”

Ingendesa organized and funded the expedition, including transport by helicopter for the kayakers and their team. In addition to covering basic expenses, Ingendesa paid the 4-person team between USD $7,000-$8,000 for their work. “This was way less than we’d normally pull in if these same four people were guiding private clients over five days,” Spelius explained. The crew also brought their own cameras to take photos and film segments of the expedition, as well as GPS devices to document specific data.

The trip was timed to correspond with the natural water cycle on the Fuy River that approximated the flow level proposed by Ingendesa. Spelius and company spent five days scraping, portaging, and sometimes paddling in the stony trickle. There was “a constant worry of physical injury,” Horvath related. “We were able to run it, yes, but there’s no way we’d try to sell trips at that level.”

Hoping to set a baseline for future collaborations between hydroelectric developers and whitewater boaters in Chile, Horvath wrote up the results of the study in a scientific format, standardizing the process to make it repeatable. The tone of the report is honest, but carefully neutral. Horvath said, “There’s no political pressure from us for Endesa to do one thing or another,” but there’s also no doubt about where the report’s authors stand: “The loss of the Fuy River to Chile’s whitewater kayaking community would further diminish Chile’s reputation as an international whitewater kayak destination and diminish its associated tourism economy,” Horvath wrote. It took Horvath over a month to complete the report. “I think Endesa was surprised at how professional the report was. So even if they don’t like what it says, they can’t just toss it out,” Spelius said.

Spelius’ associates in the rafting community have criticized him for working with Ingendsa. He shrugged, obviously frustrated. “They’re only hurting themselves.” Horvath also defended his efforts to keep the report scientifically “dispassionate”. The kayakers were setting a precedent for future collaborations. If they had been hostile to Ingendesa’s proposal, they felt they would lose a valuable opportunity to make the voice of the whitewater boating community heard.

Hydroelectric projects are being proposed all over Chile; many rivers have already been significantly altered. Horvath believes it is necessary to take a realistic look at the situation and accept that working with the developers to share the rivers might be the second best option. Most important, however, is to participate in the discussion. “Dialogue is the future,” Horvath said.

“From the environmental side, dams are never good.” Spelius said, adding that he immediately knows when he’s kayaking on a regulated river. “But,” he paused, and smiled wryly. “From the recreation side, sometimes dams can be good.” The Futaleufu River, for example, where Spelius has been boating for over 20 years, has been controlled by a dam upstream in Argentina since 1976.

“It’s a weird twist,” Horvath said. “Rafting on the Fu is so great mostly because of a dam.” Without Hidroelectrica Futaleufu regulating the river’s flow, the “Fu”, as locals call it, would be too high or too low for commercial boating for most of the year. Ideal flows would come and go too quickly to support the tourism industry that has been built around the river.

The environmental impact study process is a long one, and Ingendesa has numerous projects to manage and research. “We haven’t heard anything from them in a while,” Spelius said. “I don’t think they liked the answer we gave them.”

It is uncertain if Horvath’s report will make a difference in Endesa’s plans. But what encourages the kayakers is that Endesa has opened the dialogue. And Spelius and Horvath, at least, are willing to join the conversation.