Hydro-electric disaster

The fact that the hydro-electric scheme at Ruswarp is to go ahead is disastrous news for the already fragile eco-system that is the River Esk and its catchment.

This project is the 2012 equivalent of the “Emperors Suit of Clothes”; except when those responsible wake up, they will find that they are not only naked but to have caused huge environmental damage as well.

What is even more incredible is that the National Park who have supported this project both in principle and with a significant loan are to be Host Pilot Catchment for the Esk responsible for implementing the Water Framework Directive. Part of that directive is to remove, legally enforced where necessary, obstructions to the passage of migratory species of fish.

Archimedes Screws are not fish friendly for a number of reasons. For example, the greater attraction flow at the turbine outlet, the vibration and noise transmitted at great distance underwater, small fish have been found damaged after descending a Screw and lampreys will attempt to ascend the turbine, using their suckers, and will perish.

The Environment Agency appear to have taken the view, to date, that there is no scientific evidence to the effect that these projects are environmentally harmful! As guardians of our waterways should their position not have been that it be scientifically proven they do not cause harm? Sadly evidence is emerging from the Settle Hydro that my worst fears are being realised. In the two years of operation salmon numbers recorded above Settle Hydro have crashed! One fishery has gone from an average of 17 fish to two and tourists have had, as good as, no salmon to watch leaping Stainforth Foss.

In the case of the Esk things are potentially more serious. A number of organisations and individuals have spent considerable time and vast sums of money improving the whole Esk catchment to enable it to support a broad biodiversity of wildlife and plants. We have an improving run of salmon, good runs of sea trout, increasing numbers of otters, improved river banks, not to mention Fresh Water Pearl Mussels! All this will be at risk if there is a rapid decline in migratory fish, in particular the Pearl Mussel as it is dependant on them as part of its life cycle.

On an economic front I understand few, if any, of these projects achieve their output targets. All are dependant on feed-in tariffs (taxpayers money) that will go on for 25 years! The Settle Hydro, in its two years of operation, has breached its abstraction licence 238 times. On the even drier east coast just how many days a year will the river be high enough to run the screw legitimately? The pressure to repay loans will be enormous! Share holders are, in my opinion, unlikley to see a dividend never mind repayment.

There are numerous other issues as well. Lack of fish monitoring to provide control data for post installation monitoring, the structural integrity of the weir itself. Who is to be responsible for the maintenance of the weir and fish pass? Who will monitor adherence to the licence conditions? No provision for anti-poaching patrols if fish are held up in the tideway and most of all no data on the effect of such a project so close to the mouth of a river system.

In all a possibly well intentioned project but a desperately ill considered one. We should follow the example of the Swedish government and withdraw support for low-head hydro projects in favour of more efficient, less harmful forms of vitally important green energy!

Stewart Bates by email