Wine, hops and tourism add some kick to Bridge River economy

Survey crew for BC Electric, the predecessor to BC Hydro, gathers for a photo while working in the Bridge River area, circa 1912. Hydroelectric development in the area began in 1927 and was completed in 1960.

Bridge River's Powerhouse No. 1, built during a boom, was largest in B.C.

Megan Hofmeyr

In the region surrounding BC Hydro's historic Bridge River Power Project, traditional industries of mining, forestry and farming continue to grow. But there are some new economic forces at work.

Investments in this area – billed as "guaranteed rugged" by local tourism authorities – include Fort Berens Estate Winery, Bitterbine Hop Company and cultural tours run by the Upper St'at'imc Language, Culture and Education Society.

Powering local economies old and new is a reliable supply of clean electricity, which has been available for more than 50 years.

"With the construction and ongoing maintenance in the area, BC Hydro has created employment opportunities and has also assisted First Nations communities, having a ripple effect on the economics of Lillooet," said Jerry Sucharyna, the District of Lillooet's award-winning Economic Development Officer.

The gold rush and beyond

Lillooet is the community nearest to Bridge River, which is a tributary of the Fraser River, and has an eclectic past of gold discoveries, wagon trails, booms and busts.

Locals still boast that at its peak in the mid-19th century, Lillooet was the second largest settlement north of San Francisco and West of Chicago. The glory days, however, were over when a wagon road was built through the Fraser Canyon that bypassed Lillooet. After that, farming, ranching, the railroad and logging became the primary industries.

In 1946, with the war and depression over, business all over B.C. was booming and the province's electricity demands were on the rise. Building upon revived energy and hope felt by British Columbians, BC Electric (BC Hydro's predecessor) rushed to complete Powerhouse No. 1 at Bridge River in just two years.

In those days, the 180-megawatt Powerhouse No. 1 was the largest source of electricity in the province – and it was just the start of the Bridge River hydroelectric system. By 1960, the system had grown to include three dams and four generating stations, sparking the region's economy in the process.

Today, the Bridge River Power Project continues to provide about seven per cent of the province's electricity.

Lajoie storage dam, 1949. Today, waters from Downton Reservoir initially pass through the Lajoie Dam and powerhouse and are then diverted through tunnels and penstocks from Carpenter Reservoir to the two powerhouses on Seton Lake Reservoir.

BC Hydro's continued economic impact

Bridge River Engineer Tim Le Couteur notes that while BC Hydro will likely not be responsible for much further development in the Lillooet area, positive economic spinoffs from BC Hydro operations continue.

"BC Hydro uses local services, including trucking, road-building/maintenance, minor construction, machine shop, environmental monitoring, and vegetation maintenance," he says. "There are a small number of full-time Hydro employees that live in Lillooet and the surrounding area, and there are also employees that work on a seasonal or part-time basis, or for contractors. Local motels, restaurants, grocery stores, and gas stations all benefit from their activities."

Meanwhile, BC Hydro's recreational areas around the reservoirs, which accommodate camping, picnicking, boating, hiking and fishing, support Lillooet's marketing campaigns to attract visitors, business and investors to an "undiscovered paradise."

Working together

With a modest population of over 2,000 in the town, the area outside of Lillooet is home to another approximately 5,000 people, many in First Nations communities.

In early 2011, BC Hydro and the St'at'imc First Nations signed an agreement to address grievances related to the construction and operation of existing BC Hydro facilities in the region. The agreement promises to bring about a better future with plans for long-term environmental restoration, heritage and culture preservation, education and training, and, relationship building.

BC Hydro Transmission Field Manager Matthew Barnes says that although there has not been much new construction in the area since his arrival six years ago, BC Hydro has supported development in the area by getting First Nations involved in maintenance activities.

Barnes and his crew do everything they can to involve the First Nations, and have contracted a range of jobs, from first aid and traffic control to site security and heritage monitors, who ensure that areas of cultural significance are not disturbed during maintenance operations.

Surcharya notes that local First Nation communities are integral to Lillooet.

"Not only do we share certain services, but we jointly market each other realizing that if one benefits so does the other. A dollar spent in the community will circulate many times before it leaves, so it is extremely important that we work together and continue to build on business and sustainability for all," he says.

An exciting future

In 2010, four St'at'imc communities were connected to the grid, allowing them to abandon their greenhouse gas emitting diesel generators.

Not only did this result in a more sustainable energy future for these communities, it also created a more viable economic future for the entire area.

In his role as Economic Development Officer, Surcharya notes the huge potential this presents for foreign and domestic investment and business development on multiple scales for the entire area outside of Lillooet.

"Reduced start-up cost with very modest property prices and an existing labour pool can create endless possibilities in a variety of sectors and perpetuate growth," he says.

Doug Little, BC Hydro's Vice-President of Economic and Business Development, says the Lillooet example highlights how BC Hydro, directly and indirectly, stimulates economic development across B.C.

"Lillooet is a fantastic example of how BC Hydro's activities are foundational to the economic development of communities and First Nations and, in turn, the economic health of the entire province," said Little.

"As BC Hydro continues to grow and build again for the next 50 years, we will continue to work with our regional partners to power B.C.'s economy, create jobs in every region, and keep the lights on for all British Columbians."