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Glen Etive - Update

Fri 15 March 2019

In the spring of 2017 the SCA learned of plans to develop run of the river hydro schemes on eight tributaries in Glen Etive. The Access & Environment Policy Committee established contact with the developers, Dickens Hydro Resources Ltd to discuss their plans and to understand what effect these schemes would have upon paddle sports within Glen Etive. It was quickly established that the proposals did not affect the River Etive itself and that all water abstracted under the hydro schemes would be returned to the respective watercourses before confluence with the River Etive. Significant work was undertaken to emphasise to the developer the importance of the Glen Etive tributaries to paddlers, not only from Scotland, but from across the UK and beyond. The Committee also sought to make clear to the developer the effect that these hydro schemes would have upon the wider paddling community and that the loss of these tributaries would have an immeasurable and unacceptable impact. The developer took on board our concerns and offered to work with the SCA to understand what parts of the tributaries were of interest to paddlers and at what flows these tributaries were enjoyed. 

A period of detailed discussion and flow monitoring was undertaken to form a more substantial understanding with an outline agreement for a package of concessions regarding availability of water within the tributaries for paddlers to mitigate the effects of the hydro schemes. 

Previous experience with developers has proven that any mitigation measures offered by a developer has been hard to establish and even more difficult, if not impossible to actually have delivered on the ground once the schemes are built. It was decided that the SCA would only proceed with an agreement for mitigation measures if they could be secured through the Planning or SEPA Licensing processes to guarantee delivery of the mitigation. An outline agreement was reached, but the SCA were frustrated when in June 2018 applications for planning consent were submitted for run of the river hydro schemes on seven tributaries of the Etive, without any detail of the mitigation agreement. The seven tributaries affected by the proposals are;

  • Allt a’ Chaorainn
  • Allt Fhaolain
  • Allt Charnan
  • Allt Ceitlein
  • Allt na Gaoirean
  • Allt Mheuran
  • Allt a Bhiorain

Of these, four were established to be of significant interest to paddlers, namely the Allt a’ Chaorainn, Allt Fhaolain, Allt Ceitlein, and Allt Mheuran. Only Allt Fhaolain lies on the north side of the Glen, with the other three located to the south and with their headwaters extending into the Wild Land Area. All of the schemes lie within the Ben Nevis and Glen Coe National Scenic Area.

Further discussion and negotiation determined that the Planning process could not in fact deliver the types of guarantee regarding the mitigation that would satisfy the SCA. Discussions between the SCA, Planners and SEPA concluded that the best way to guarantee mitigation measures that would safeguard paddling opportunities on the tributaries was through the SEPA CAR Licensing process. SEPA staff were instrumental in helping the SCA to secure our goal of binding mitigation measures into the developers license to abstract water from the watercourses. In order for the developer to abstract any water from the watercourses to generate energy, the developer must first detail the mitigation measures to protect paddle sports on the four tributaries to the satisfaction of the SCA and SEPA. Only then will the developer be granted the license to abstract water and generate electricity. As far as we know, this is a first.

The current agreement will see an on-demand system installed whereby paddlers will be able to ‘shut-down the hydro scheme whenever they want to paddle the tributary (assuming there is sufficient water in the watercourse to paddle, as these schemes will not store any water). The provision of an ‘on-demand’ system would mean that the hydro schemes would not prevent use of the tributaries by paddlers, and may even increase the number of days per year that the tributaries could be paddled. The provision of online flow monitoring feeding into Where’s the Water would also help with water level assessment and trip planning. It would also result in the less well known tributaries being paddled more often removing the guesswork as to whether or not they are running.

Should there be any problems with the on-demand system; we have been told by many detracting voices that, ‘it’ll never work’; then a programme of weekly shut down periods will be implemented instead. This might be Saturday and Sundays, 10 until 4, with a midweek day also included. This is not ideal, as the water level patterns in the tributaries might not coincide with when the hydro has been shut-down. However, this would reliably provide the opportunity to paddle the tribs every weekend they are running, as well as a mid-week opportunity, backed up by the online gauging. 

The legal agreement that details all of the mitigation measures is an ongoing process. The documents have now been passed to Solicitors to draft the formal papers to be signed by the developer and the SCA. We will continue to provide updates on the progress of this document and the mitigation measures as we move forward. 

The mitigation measures being considered as the starting point for a legal agreement between the developer and the SCA covers many areas but can be summarised as follows;

  • An ‘on-demand’ system whereby paddlers will be able to manually ‘shut-down’ the hydro system to allow sufficient water to flow down the watercourse and therefore be able to paddle it.
  • Shut down periods to allow 2-3 hours paddling time.
  • System operated by a code available to SCA members likely to be via the online members portal. 
  • Pro-rata increase of levels to replicate high water days, with an upper limit set to increase the duration of any high flow period (potentially increasing the number of days the tributaries can be paddled at a high flow).
  • Real time flow monitoring of the tribs to feed into ‘Where’s the Water’.
  • Improved footpath access at Allt a Chaorainn, including use of the bridge over the River Etive, with improved access to the other sites up to the powerhouses where the on-demand control systems will be located.
  • Agreement binding for the duration of the schemes (currently estimated at 40 years).

This process has been approached in an objective manner to operate within our area of competence; the duty of the SCA is to the paddlesports community, and to the paddling resource that these tribs afford. We also have to bear in mind that not all members of the Association may be against the schemes, whilst many others may be indifferent. We, as a body, do not hold any weight in matters of environmental, visual or landscape impact. We do not have the expertise to argue a case on these grounds and as a result, little value would be placed upon any objections raised or fought in this regard.

Furthermore, we had in this instance, a developer who was willing to engage in developing mitigation proposals to minimise any potential effects. We have a duty to achieve the best possible outcome for paddlesports and to ignore discussions with the developer would likely erode any objection the SCA might have lodged to the proposals. 

The Local Authority Planners recommended for approval all seven hydro schemes, which was ratified at a Council Planning Committee on Wednesday February 20. It was thought that this would see construction of the Allt a Chaorainn scheme commence in April of this year, along with the schemes on two other tributaries. However, one of the local Councillors who objects to the construction of the schemes in the Glen, has gathered enough support from fellow Councillors to have the three schemes which lie within the Wild Land Area, reviewed by the full group of Local Authority Councillors. These three schemes (Allt a Chaorainn, Allt Ceitlein and Allt Mheuran) will now be reviewed by the 70+ Highland Councillors, with a special meeting by the Council on Wednesday March 20th scheduled. It is possible that the Councillors could overturn the original decision to grant consent on these tributaries. Should that happen it may appear that this would spell the end for any hydro schemes on these tributaries, but the developer would then have a right of appeal to the Scottish Government to contest the subsequent refusal of these schemes. 

In short, the fate of these tributaries hangs in the balance, and it may be well into the summer or beyond before we know the final outcome. The work carried out by the SCA however, will mitigate the potential impacts of these hydro schemes and safeguard the opportunities we have, and all enjoy, to paddle these tributaries for years to come.

Gavin Millar on behalf of the SCA Access & Environment Policy Committee