River tragedies in the making – a tale of two towns

by Neil Carleton

This tale is about two Ontario towns, two waterfalls, and two private proposals for hydro generation with no benefit to the communities. Involved are Councilors and residents of two communities with legitimate concerns about losses to their local heritage, natural environment, and tourism industry. Both Councils are on record as being opposed to the hydro projects in their communities. The two Councils have considered options of heritage designation. Two grassroots petitions have documented significant opposition to the proposed hydro projects. The two communities have been mobilized with protests that generated wide media attention. The two development proposals are viewed by many in the communities as woefully lacking because of deficient / flawed studies, misleading / incomplete / inconsistent / incorrect drawings and related information.

Bala Map

Bala is a small community in the Township of Muskoka Lakes, on the rugged landscape of the Canadian Shield between Lake Muskoka and the Moon River. It’s 270 km west of Almonte as the crow flies. Bala is about an hour drive south-east of Parry Sound, which is on Georgian Bay, or two and a half hours north of downtown Toronto. The year-round population of several hundred increases by thousands of seasonal residents and day visitors during the summer months. Bala is known as the cranberry capital of Ontario. It was the smallest incorporated town in Canada until its 1971 amalgamation as part of the Township of Muskoka Lakes.

Bala Falls 1
Bala is famous for the Bala Falls, where the water from Lake Muskoka flows into the Moon River. Visitors and residents alike are drawn to Bala Falls by its natural beauty, the accessible shorelines, and the appeal of its iconic Muskoka landscape. A unique drone’s-eye view of the site is available at http://vimeo.com/109449864. photo: ©Mitchell Shnier

When Crown land at Bala was released for hydro development, six developers responded to the province’s call for expressions of interest in early 2004. Swift River Energy Limited was revealed as the proposed project developer in September 2005.

The company is proposing to build a hydroelectric generating station at Bala Falls . This is the community’s biggest tourism attraction and one of the prime pieces of public waterfront in the area. The residents and the Township of Muskoka Lakes are fighting the province to stop the project. Information about the ‘Save The Bala Falls’ campaign is posted at http://savethebalafalls.com/

Bala Falls 2
Bala residents have been actively protesting the hydro proposal at Bala Falls since it was announced. Like in Almonte , hundreds of red shirts have made bold statements at public gatherings.Photo: © Mitchell Shnier
Bala Falls 3
The protests continue at Bala Falls with banners and signs. Recent media coverage can be found at http://savethebalafalls.com/?p=5660. photo © Mitchell Shnier

The opponents of the proposals at Bala and Almonte have pointed out that these hydro projects are simply not needed. Everyone will be paying dearly with highly subsidized rates to the private companies, calculated by Bala residents at more than $100 million over 40 years to Swift River Energy.

The Bala Falls community has gathered considerable support for its opposition to the proposed hydro plant, including:

  • Heritage Canada Foundation recognition that saving the Bala Falls is one of the top 10 heritage issues in all of Canada;
  • Margaret and Nicholas Hill Cultural Heritage Landscape Award of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario for the community’s work to protect the Bala Falls;
  • 93% of people polled agreed that the Township of Muskoka Lakes is right in its fight to save the Bala Falls.

The residents and the Township are also battling to maintain the historical Bala Falls Portage, but the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources circumvented the obligation to protect portages by claiming the land is now too dangerous for public access.

The October 30, 2014, interview on the Green Tapestry program of Hunter’s Bay Radio, CKAR, about the community’s efforts to stop the hydro project and reopen the portage, is archived at http://clyp.it/0m24r055. Host Peggy Peterson, who was then 60 days into her occupation of the site to protect it, interviewed Bala resident and protest supporter Allan Turnbull. This feature is a good overview of the Bala Falls controversy.

In both communities the conspiracy of provincial support for the two hydro proposals is recognized for what it is – a political agenda that’s not based on the reality of science, the actual economics of energy generation, the importance of a healthy ecosystem, the significance of the river to the tourism industry in each community, common sense, or public opinion to date. Although a rallying call for hydro protesters of the province to unite has not yet been heard, the residents of both communities are fully aware that the provincial government has shown it can change its collective political mind when faced with concerted opposition.