Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Patagonia uprising

Documentary film challenges thinking about harnessing water's power

Express Staff Writer

The river systems of the Patagonia region of Chile are renowned for their beauty, challenging whitewater and world-class fly-fishing. A plan to dam two of the largest rivers in the region is studied in a new documentary film by Hailey resident Scott Douglas. Photos courtesy of Todd Kaplan Photographics

A simple serendipitous situation can cause ripples of advocacy. Often all it takes is noticing.

Scott Douglas was just enjoying time with an old friend, guiding tourists through the otherworldly forests of southern Chile three years ago when he became aware of a dam project that was being planned that would disrupt, if not entirely destroy, one of the last untainted gems of nature on the planet.

"I had spent time in Patagonia and fell in love with the place," the Hailey writer said last week. "Then this issue of proposed dams came up and I became fascinated by the situation. It struck me as having all the elements of a great and potentially tragic story. Great characters, beautiful setting and these global issues of water and energy and catastrophic climate change."

The noticing turned into inquiry, the inquiry into networking and ultimately, through connections old and new, Douglas was able to document the situation on film in the form of "Patagonia Rising: A Frontier Story of Water and Power." The film will be shown at a screening tonight, Sept. 28, at the Liberty Theatre in Hailey.

Though the term "Patagonia" has traditionally referred to southern Argentina, from the crest of the Andes east to the Atlantic Ocean, in recent years its use in the United States has expanded to include southern Chile.

An ambitious and widely opposed Chilean government plan would build a complex of giant hydroelectric dams in the southern portion of the country in preparation for a growing economy and its rising energy needs. The HidroAysen project is priced at $2.9 billion or more and is being run by an influential Spanish-Chilean consortium known as Endesa-Colburn.

Five dams are slated for the valleys of the turquoise-colored, glacier-fed Pascua and Baker rivers the latter of which is the largest-volume river in Chile. They nurture a pristine wilderness that is filled with unique flora and fauna and is home to more than 25,000 indigenous people.

Opponents argue that the development will devastate an environmentally rich region of Chile and compromise the lucrative tourism industry there. According to La Tercera, a daily newspaper in the area, an overwhelming majority of Chileans now reject the hydroelectric project after having acquired more knowledge of its impacts.

Adding insult to injury, say protesters, the hydroelectric generators will be linked with the national grid by more than 1,200 miles of transmission lines passing through unspoiled areas and that more than 5,000 specialized workers will be imported, draining local towns' resources.

They foresee a monopoly over Chile's power grid, an outdated concept in light of advances in solar and wind power by smaller companies.

Coincidentally, Douglas screened his award-winning film in Chile to a standing ovation on a day in May that the dams were approved. The approval caused widespread protests and violent demonstrations.

In June, an appeals court in the southern town of Puerto Montt ordered the project suspended.

"They have the third largest reserve of fresh water on the planet and these powerful rivers in the south, so hydropower is a no-brainer," Douglas said. "But a Spanish corporation owns 70 percent of Chile's fresh water, so that raises a lot of questions."

To devotees like Todd Kaplan, a Hailey photographer and fly-fishing guide for Silver Creek Outfitters who spent three months in the region, this effort resembles that now regretted effort committed along the Columbia River in the northwest U.S.

"We ruined the best salmon fishery on the planet and we paid a hard price," he said, referring to the loss of historic salmon runs that ended at Redfish Lake, named after the once-plentiful sockeye salmon that returned to the area to spawn. "The lesson learned here is that the economic value is greater leaving it as an ecosystem. In Patagonia, the amount of ecotourism is worth its weight in gold. I hope they figure it out."

Douglas said his research supports Kaplan's view.

"We have 15,000 large dams in the U.S., 50,000 worldwide. Clearly, we've dammed most of our rivers and we've seen all sorts of unintended consequences."

Dam building in America was slowed by environmental concerns that arose in the 1970s.

Douglas said looking at what is happening in southern Chile can help people understand the mistakes of the U.S.'s past, perhaps influence Chile's future and affect the global outlook by seeing how similar the situation is to that of the U.S., despite the distance in miles and perception.

He's seen the effect of heightened awareness on his 6-year-old son Zander, who like his dad is drawn to water, having run a few rivers in Idaho, and now shares his fascination for Chile.

Douglas wants the movie to likewise capture people's interest. He will take questions from the audience following the screening.

Though his film challenges the situation in Chile, it is solution-oriented as well, looking at the sources of wind and solar that already exist closer to the point of demand.

And there is time.

"The dams have not been built, some ancillary work has been done and there is a land grab in the region," he said. "Some of the people are willing to sell and some are not. It's really divided the locals and really tweaked the whole frontier perspective."

Douglas hopes to take that dissatisfaction worldwide. He just needs a few more people to notice.


'Patagonia Rising:
A frontier story of water and power'

When: Tonight, Sept. 28. Doors open at 6:30, film at 7 p.m.

Where: Liberty Theater, 110 N. Main St., Hailey.

Cost: $10

Jennifer Liebrum:

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