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Elk Falls grows with rare spills through Campbell River system

Image of water being spilled at Ladore Dam
A BC Hydro employee took this photo of water thundering through the closed canyon below Ladore Dam after a rare spill at the Vancouver Island facility. There's no public access to Ladore Dam, but many people in the area were able to take in the big water at Elk Falls, located further down the Campbell River system.

Public can't access Ladore Dam, but Elk Falls visit was a treat

We love water at BC Hydro and do everything we can to store it behind our dams for future generation of electricity. But sometimes, you just gotta let it go.

And on those rare times when we spill water from reservoirs, it can make for a spectacular sight.

After the Upper Campbell River Reservoir/Buttle Lake rose four metres within a couple weeks last month, spilling at the downstream Strathcona, Ladore and John Hart dams made for a spectacular show, both in the canyon just below the Ladore dam and at popular Elk Falls, downstream from the John Hart dam.

It was the first time in more than two years that BC Hydro has had to spill water at Ladore Dam, a relatively low-profile BC Hydro dam that has no public access. But it was a necessity as water levels approached the upper limits of the reservoir.

"It was certainly a rare opportunity for people to see us releasing this amount of water over Elk Falls," said BC Hydro stakeholder engagement advisor Stephen Watson. "Public interest in Elk Falls really peaked from October 22 to November 10 when the higher spill level was in place."

While a spill creates quite a show, it's not something we do that often. It's about controlling the reservoir level to maintain dam safety and manage flood risk.

"We can control the amount of water released downstream, but as the reservoirs continue to store surplus inflow, our operational flexibility diminishes," said Joel Evans, operations planning engineer for Campbell River. "We spilled water to control and lower the reservoir in consideration of future storm systems."

November usually produces the highest inflows to the Campbell River watershed, but after a dry first week of October, inflows in the watershed for the month were 211 per cent of average. It was a dramatic change for the area, which had experienced near drought conditions for the previous 12 months, when inflows were only 64 per cent of average.

Image of water flowing at Elk Falls
A glimpse through the trees catches Elk Falls in full force, the result of a spill that sent flows of up to 85 cubic metres per second through the Campbell River system.

'It's nice to see the public enjoys something we try to avoid'

As an engineer with BC Hydro, Evans can't help but bristle at a situation in which we have to send water downstream without the economic benefit of generating electricity. But there's also a part of him that, like the public, is wowed by a surge in the flow of the river, particularly over Elk Falls.

"I went down and took some pictures," said Evans, a California native who studied at UBC and then joined BC Hydro in large part because of his love of the region's big hydroelectric projects. "It's massive. Normally it's like a quick-moving creek, but when it's spilling at 85 [cubic metres per second], it gets to the point where there's so much mist, you start to lose sight of the falls. There's just so much water."

Evans adds that while BC Hydro's priority is the generation of electricity, "It's nice to see the public enjoys something we try to avoid," referring to the bigger flows caused by spills. He says the public also appreciates that, even in the middle of the summer when some creeks may dry up, BC Hydro maintains reservoir levels and river flows in the Campbell River watershed.

BC Hydro always considers fish habitat downstream when releasing water. The preference is to spill a smaller amount of water over a longer period of time, rather than higher water volumes that can hurt salmon habitat. The spills in October and November were below the flow levels that can impact fish.

Meanwhile, Evans recently discovered why there are so many cabins on the Lower Campbell River/Buttle Lake above Ladore Dam.

"I was up there over Thanksgiving and camped at one of the rec sites," he recalls. "It's very peaceful and beautiful. So I've seen both the fury, and the peace."