In 2005 in response to a Request For Proposal (RFP) from the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR), Swift River Energy Limited (SREL) submitted a proposal to construct and operate a small hydro-electric plant at the North Bala dam. Their proposal was accepted, and the anticipated date to be operational was in 2008.

In the intervening time, a lot has transpired, including (not necessarily in order) public meetings, expert reports, design of optional development location (Option 2) better supported by community, council decisions, environmental screening reports, decisions by ministry staff, appeals to the Minister, confirmation of appeals by the Minister, transfer of District lands to the Township, many delegations to Council (pro and con), refusal by Township to make lands available, return to original proposal (Option 1), more environmental reports, more decisions by ministry staff, another appeal of decision, another confirmation by Minister, offers of significant financial support to Council to stop the plant (not accepted by Council), proposal to designate a number of properties near the fall as heritage sites, 30 fold increase in heritage committee budget, attempted preservation of 2 trees in the area, and a lawsuit by the Township of Muskoka Lakes against the Ministry of Natural Resources (now settled – see below), and legal action taken by Swift River against the Mayor and the Township.

The Muskoka Ratepayers’ Association, like many others, has not taken a position for or against the proposed plant. We are generally in favour of environmentally friendly projects (including energy), and believe that decisions be made on fact and not emotion.  We have studied the project extensively, through reading, discussions with all parties, consultation with the ministries, and listening to our members. In the end, we feel that a decision on a project of this nature needs to be based on long term need, expert input, the opportunity for public question and input, and an unbiased or emotional decision by the appropriate decision body.

It has now been 12 years since SREL submitted their proposal. In fairness to all, we trust that a final decision is forthcoming that will be in the best interests of all Muskokans.

Read below to get the full details on this ongoing saga.

The Latest Chapter – Sept 2017 Update

Since our last report on the North Bala Small Hydro Project last winter, this release should bring members up to date to the end of August 2017.

The disruption that was experienced last winter for the rebuilding of the two main roadway bridges in Bala came to an end in early June. To assure there would be no confusion of two project sites at once, the delay to the hydro project was necessary for safety and logistics reasons.

Swift River Energy Limited (SREL) announced they were ready to proceed in early July once final access was granted from the District of Muskoka (DMM). There was a media release from the District on August 21st stating that all conditions had now been met by SREL and the DMM were issuing Roadway Entrance and Road Occupancy permits. The District is actually under obligation to grant the owner of a property abutting their roadway the right to access their property which these permits now provide.

According to Fred Jahn the DMM Commissioner of Engineering and Public Works, the District expanded beyond standard permit conditions to ensure enhanced measures were in place for the protection of public infrastructure. That was reassuring to learn.

SREL announced that they would now proceed with their project immediately and on August 25th began to move equipment and material onto the Shield Parking Lot that they have leased from the Township of Muskoka Lakes. The week of August 28th saw some positioning of sidewalk safety barriers and guardrail removal work being undertaken. As well, some construction fencing of their stored material in the Shield Parking Lot was expanded to fully surround all of their equipment.

The same week of August 28th, saw public demonstrations every day with an especially large turnout on Friday Sept 1st. No work by SREL was conducted on Sept 1st but is expected to proceed Sept 5th uninterrupted through until Cranberry Festival weekend, October 13th.    

The Story Since Early 2011

March 2011

The Muskoka Ratepayers’ Association has not taken a position on whether the proposed hydro power plant should be built or not, believing that it was largely in the hands of the provincial government. What we have sought is clarity of the process, and opportunity for all sides to be heard. There has been very considerable comment on the project, and much time has been devoted to delegations by the public at the Township and District Councils. We have all been waiting on the Ontario government (through the MOE) to make a decision on the Environmental Screen Report that Swift River (SREL – the developer) has prepared, and we have written to ministry officials to ensure the decision is made expeditiously so that the next steps can unfold.

The primary decisions to be made are:

  1. Should the project go ahead or not?
  2. If so, should it be developed on Crown Land only (Option 1)?; or
  3. Should it be developed using some land owned by the District and the Township (Option 2) with its associated benefits or deficiencies?

Obviously if there is to be no power plant, the situation for many can go back to normal, victory can be declared, and the cleanup can be left to the lawyers for all parties.

This past week, the MOE did announce its decision regarding the Environmental Screen Report (ESR), and that after extensive review, they find that “an individual EA (Environmental Assessment) is NOT required”.

The response provides for a 15 day appeal period, and it is likely that one or more groups will appeal.

The MOE decision states that the decision on Option 1 or Option 2 is up to the Township and District, and that the option chosen does not affect the decision to deny the elevation request. Note that SREL has stated that they are prepared to proceed with Option 1 if the District land is not available to them.

We will be closely monitoring the situation, and will keep you informed with any appeals or decisions.

April 12, 2011 Update

Muskoka Lakes Council has decided to appeal the decision of the Ministry of the Environment regarding Bala Falls, and request an “Individual Environmental Assessment”.

May 2011 Update

  • The District has now taken steps to initiate the transfer the land required for “Option 2” from District ownership to Township ownership.
  • Swift River has challenged that land transfer, as well as Mayor Murphy’s impartiality in the matter of Bala Falls.
  • The Save the Bala Falls citizens’ group presented Township Council with a cheque for $10,000 on May 16th, but Council did not accept the money.
  • Delegations for and against the Bala Falls project continue at both Township and District Councils.

June 2011 Updates

Township Council is now looking at designating a number of properties in Bala as “Heritage Sites”. This could present the developer with additional challenges.

Council also backed a plan to meet with the Ontario Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing about “the effect that the Green Energy Act has on local municipal planning authority”, and the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act.

At Council this week (June 27), Swift River made a formal request to the Township to lease a small piece of land (recently transferred from the District) to facilitate the so-called “Options 2” development of the Bala Falls proposal. Council indicated that the request was “premature” and would require further study.

Summer 2011 Updates

Events surrounding Bala Falls continued during the summer months. Some of the more notable include:

  • Swift River confirmed that it would not make use of the Margaret Burgess Park lands in the construction of Option 2
  • The Ministry of Natural Resources denied the Township‘s request to transfer 2 parcels of Crown (Ontario) land to the Township
  • The Township stated that it would not consider Swift River‘s request to lease land until the project‘s potential impact on the local community and environment is resolved to the Township‘s liking
  • Swift River responded to 156 questions that had been posed by various community groups and individuals
  • The Ontario Government made it more difficult for any future government to cancel green energy contracts (ref The Globe and Mail – August 2, 2011)
  • The Township issued a press release indicating their disappointment with Swift River‘s “unwilling(ness) to work with the Township, and also asked for public input on the Swift River responses to the 156 questions (by August 31); see the Township web site at the top right for more information
  • For information on the opposition to the proposed hydro-electric station at Bala Falls, please see the web site at the top right.
  • In the August 17th edition of the Bracebridge Examiner, the Township announced its intention to designate 6 sites (including 2 pieces of crown / provincial land) around Bala Falls as “Heritage Sites”, thereby impeding the ability to develop the plant;
  • Council approached the Ministry of Natural Resources to transfer the two parcels of crown land to the Township, but the MNR refused

Fall 2011 Updates

Since the summer update (above) a number of other events have unfolded, including:

  • On August 29th, Township Council heard from 9 delegations regarding the Bala Falls Hydro proposal (by our count, this brings the number of delegations related to this matter to 37 so far this year); 4 of the delegates urged Council to prevent any development at the falls, and 5 delegates urged Council to seek the best option for Bala and the Township should the province decide to move forward with the plant. The so-called “Option 2” plan is generally viewed as the better plan, but requires leasing a small piece of Township land; The “Option 1” plan can be developed on Crown (provincial) land only, but is viewed by most people as less desirable. The 5 delegates urged Council to develop a plan that would be best for Muskoka should the plant go ahead.
  • One of the delegates asked to know how much the Township had spent so far on the Bala Falls situation. In a report to the Committee of the Whole on November 1, 2011, the Township Treasurer stated that approximately $71,000 had been spent on legal and consulting services (that of course does not include any costs for Council or staff, nor the time spent in Council or similar meetings).
  • October 6 – Provincial election; Liberals elected to minority government; Minister of the Environment defeated and replaced in new Cabinet
  • On October 17, Swift River wrote an Open Letter to the Bala Community stating that they were abandoning their plans to develop the “Option 2” plan and moving ahead with the “Option 1” plan that did not require any Township land; SREL needs to file an “amendment” with the appropriate authorities.
  • Since that time, little has been heard.

February 2012 Update

Still no word from the Ministry of the Environment. The Ratepayers sent a letter to the ministry to urge them to make a decision – one way or the other. This is an issue that is consuming a great deal of Council’s time and energy, and dividing friends and neighbours. We have not take a position for or against the project, but we strongly feel that it is time for a decision to be made.

July 5th 2012 Update

As reported on our home page, a lot has happened in the past month or so.

  • On May 25, 2012, more than a year after with the Director of the Ministry of the Environment approved the Environmental Screening Report (ESR) for the development of a small hydro plant at Bala Falls, and despite numerous actions by private citizens, organized groups (such as Save the Bala Falls), and the Township, the Minister of the Environment (Jim Bradley) approved the Director’s report, and declared the decision to be ‘final’.
  • It should be noted that the ESR approved was for the so-called ‘Option 2’ lands, located farther from the falls than the ‘Option 1’ site which is located on Crown land. The approved Option 2 site would require some land now owned by the Township, and they have refused to make it available (to date). Swift River (the proponent) had previously stated (October 2011) that they were abandoning the option 2 site and were now focusing on the Option 1 site that did not require Township lands.
  • Once the MOE decision was announced, Swift River immediately filed what is known as an “addendum” to the plan to cover the changes required to the approved ESR. These were to account for the change in venue (Option 2 to Option 1), and the change in the “operating regime” (a requirement from OPG for either site). An appeal period for “elevation” was established to end on June 29, 2012, and to date, no extensions have been given by either the proponent or the ministry.
  • Recognizing that the likelihood of a hydro plant appeared inevitable, the Muskoka Ratepayers’ Association wrote a formal letter to the Mayor and all the Councillors, as well as to the newspapers. The gist of it was that council should have serious discussions with the proponent to ensure that if the project was built, it be done in a way that was best for all Muskokans, and to us, that meant a project on the Option 2 lands.
  • At the Council meeting of June 18th, the Ratepayers formally delegated Council to expand on their position. We made it clear that the MRA was not (nor had ever) taking a position on whether there should be a hydro plant, but that if one was to be built, it should be done in a manner to be of most benefit to the town of Bala and all the people of Muskoka. We also tried to point out that for this Council to have an effective voice in how the falls would be developed, they would have to put something on the table (i.e. the township lands); if the project proceeded on the Option 1 site, council would have virtually no “skin in the game” and could be largely side-lined.
  • A second delegation was made by Mike Webb, a permanent resident of Bala. It also was in favour of using the Option 2 site should the project move forward. It should be noted that Mike is a director of the Ratepayers, but his presentation was made as a private resident of Bala. Two other delegations were presented that day – one from the Moon River Property Owners’ Association, and the other by Save the Bala Falls. These two delegations opposed any development at the falls, and their web sites are listed in the column to the right.
  • Finally, the MOOSE reported today (July 5) that the Township of Muskoka Lakes has contacted the MOE to question if enough public input has occurred regarding the Option 1 site. At this time, there is no further information available, but it should be noted that the Option 2 site came about after consultations with the residents of Bala and the previous township council.

September 2012 Update

On September 24, 2012, Agatha Garcia-Wright, the Director of the Environment and Approvals Branch (MOE) issued her decision that any additional Environmental Review was not required. The decision was final – subject to a 15 day appeal period to the Minister of the Environment – Jim Bradley.

Subsequent to the Director’s decision, a total of 69 requests to review the decision were forwarded to the Minister.

And so, the ball is back in the government’s court.

January 2013 Update

On January 23, 2013, Jim Bradley, the Minister of the Environment confirmed the decision of the Director (Garcia-Wright) that no further environmental assessment was required for the project to proceed (on the Crown Land only option).

The Minister stressed in his decision that Swift River must comply with the Act and its commitments through the lengthy review process.

Of course, this will not be the end of oversight on this project. More permits and approvals will be required as the project moves into its next phases.

In its press release, Swift River has committed itself to working with the community to make it a “successful project for all”.

As has been repeatedly noted, the Muskoka Ratepayers’ Association has not taken a side on whether the project should proceed or not, and that the ultimate decision was in the hands of the Province. There has been enormous amounts of pubic and expert input on this project, many meetings, many appeals, and a huge amount of Muskoka Township Council and staff time spent, and of great concern to the Ratepayers, what appears to be a very significant amount of (taxpayer) monies spent in opposing previous decisions of our elected representatives.

Considering the time, energy and monies expended on this project to date, the Ratepayers would like to see:

  • That Council and the community work together with the developer to make the best of what many believe is the least desirable location for the project.
  • That all commitments made by the developer be followed, and that they will be open to thoughtful suggestions
  • That a full accounting of the (taxpayer) monies spent over the past 2 years on this file will be forthcoming from this Council.

Spring 2013 Update

In May, it was reported that the Township of Muskoka Lakes has taken the Ministry of Natural Resources to court over the location of a portage that is in the area of the falls, and the legal right of individuals to use that portage. The Township further states that the lands to be leased to SREL by the MNR should never have been made available. Initially, the Township asked for an expedited hearing (which was set for June 28), but in late June, the Township asked for a delay on that hearing date.

Summer 2013

On June 20, Swift River (believing that they had all appropriate approvals and permits) started some “investigative work” on the Option 1 site.  That day, the Mayor and a Township Councillor came onto the work site, and made a number of complaints and observations that led to Swift River ceasing their work.  On June 25, 2013, Swift River filed a Statement of Claim and a Notice Of Motion with the Ontario Superior Court of Justice seeking restrictions on access to the site, an apology, and damages in the amount of $3,000,000 (amongst several other items). Since that time, very little is being said by any of the involved parties. We await further developments.

August 2013 Update

In the spring of this year (see below), the Township of Muskoka Lakes (TML) took the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) to court over the location of a portage claiming that the lands should never have been released. The Judicial Review started on August 19 in Toronto, and ended that same day.  After hearing from only the Township Lawyer, the three judges decided that the Township had not presented sufficient evidence, and the case was dismissed.  On August 20, the Township agreed to pay $17,000 in legal fees for the Ministry of Natural Resources. Swift River has evidently waived their claim to any costs.

In another development, the Township Treasurer (Steve Rettie) filed a financial status report at the Committee of the Whole last week, in which he reported that the Township spent just under $90,000 on legal costs in the 6 months ending June 30 of this year on the Bala Falls file. From the same report, he indicated that $175,000 has been spent by this council in legal fees re Bala Falls. That’s your tax dollars, and what do they have to show for it other than forcing the development of the power plant back onto the much narrower provincial site, a site that no one really wanted?

And of course, there is still the matter of the $3,000,000 lawsuit against the Mayor and Township to consider. – Stay tuned.

September 2013 Update

In mid August, the case brought by the Township of Muskoka Lakes against the Ministry of Natural Resources was dismissed by an Ontario Judicial Panel after hearing only the Township’s case.  The 3 judges ruled unanimously that the Township had not presented sufficient evidence for the case to be heard, and awarded costs to the MNR (note that Swift River declined payment of their costs).  The Township then added $17,000 to its legal costs on this matter, costs which to the end of June 2013 were in the neighbourhood of $175,000 according to the Township.

At this point, most people who were concerned with the rising costs of this fight thought (hoped) that this would be the end of the matter.

Evidently this Council had different thoughts!

On September 3, 2013, the Council met in closed session, and decided to APPEAL the decision of the Judicial Panel. The vote was 5 to 4 in favour of the appeal. The wording of the motion read as follows:

“Be it resolved that: Harold Elston, Solicitor for the Township of Muskoka Lakes, be directed to proceed with the filing of a notice of motion for leave to appeal the dismissal of the Judicial Review Application regarding Township of Muskoka Lakes v Ministry of Natural resources, Divisional Court File No. 202/13”

“Moved by Phil Harding, Seconded by Allen Edwards, Motion carried (5 yeas, 4 nays, 1 regret).

A recorded vote was requested, and the voting went as follows:

  • In Favour (of the appeal)
    • Alice Murphy – Mayor
    • Brad Burgess – Ward A (south – Bala area)
    • Allen Edwards – Ward B (north and east – Milford Bay, Windermere)
    • Phil Harding – Ward C (north and west – Glen Orchard)
    • Donelda Kruckel – Ward A
  • Opposed (to an appeal)
    • Jean-Anne Baranik – Ward C
    • Ron Brent – Ward C
    • Donald Furniss – Ward B
    • Gault McTaggart – Ward B
  • Absent
    • Ruth-Ellen Nishikawa – Ward A

January 2014 Update

In January 2014, Swift River announced that it had launched Stage 1 of its Two-Stage Design Consultation Process to gather community input into the final design of our North Bala Small Hydro Project through what they call their Design Concept Survey.

Summer 2014 Update

Site Access and Staging Area – While efforts to halt the development of the Bala Falls power plant continued, the developer (Swift River) proceeded with their plans for the development. During the project, a “staging area” is required  to provide access to the site, and storage facilities. Since the use of Township lands had previously been denied by Council, that left the Crown lands and Burgess Park (next to the United Church) available for this purpose.  Swift River approached the Township with an offer of $100,000 to lease some lands owned be the Township, specifically the Shield parking lot, as a staging area, thus avoiding the use of Burgess Park.  An agreement with the Township proved unsuccessful, and the staging area reverted to Burgess Park.

Swift River filed an application for “entrance permits” to allow permanent access to the site of the power plant and temporary access to the staging area at Burgess Park. These 2 permits were ultimately granted by the District. Swift River also asked to be allowed to widen the shoulder of Highway 169 to facilitate off-loading of equipment, and reduce the impact on other traffic.  Our Councillors opposed this at District, and this request was denied.  This will of necessity lead to lane closures at some periods, causing unnecessary disruption to normal traffic flow.  The Ratepayers are puzzled by this decision, and hope that a solution can still be worked out.

Bala Conservation Heritage District – Another occurrence during this period revolved around a proposed Bala Conservation Heritage District. A consulting firm has been retained by the Township to develop a report, and to conduct several public meetings. The area in question just happens to be the area surrounding the proposed small hydro plant development, and seems to leave out what might be structures of heritage interest such as the Kee to Bala (previously Dunn’s Pavilion) and the Balacade.  Another interesting feature of the proposed district is that much of the land it encompasses would not be bound by the heritage designation (crown lands, railway lands).

Township Appeal of Court Decision – Finally, as reported in the 2013 updates, the Township of Muskoka Lakes had taken the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) to court over a portage that happened to be at the site of the power plant, stating that the lands should have never been released for development.   The case was heard and dismissed in 2013, but later appealed by the Township.  That appeal was heard on July 14, and a decision was  rendered by the Ontario Court of Appeal on July 21, upholding the original decision (against the Township).

Since then, the Township has issued a press release acknowledging the judgment, and committing to look for an alternate portage route.

For the arguments by the Township and the MNR, as well as the final judgment, see the list of supporting articles near the bottom of this report.

Spring 2015 Update

A lot has transpired since our last update on Bala Falls and the proposed small hydro plant.  A new Council and Mayor have been elected, Swift River has continued work on gaining the required permits, and local organized opposition to the project has continued.

It is fair to say that the newly elected Council has been more open to discuss the Bala Falls Small Hydro project with the developer, and has established a “Bala Falls Working Committee” including 3 members of Council, 2 from Swift River, the Interim CAO, and an independent chair.  This committee has met 6 times to date, and focuses on issues that the Township has some control over.

Swift River, for its part, has been concentrating on getting the required permits, and ordering the turbine and related equipment.  They have also presented various design concepts for the station, and solicited public input.

Opposition to the project continues including the following organizations – the Moon River Property Owners’ Association, the SaveTheBalaFalls group, the Muskoka Lakes Association, and a group called Friends of Muskoka.

As we have stated many times, the MRA has not taken a position for or against this project, but it is interesting to note the minutes from the August 2010 Council that included the following:

The CAO reviewed the report including the Township’s legal opinion, wherein the Township does not have the authority to stop or control the North Bala Small Hydro Project Environmental Screening Report or Project. This authority lies solely with the Province of Ontario. The recommended approach is to participate actively in the consultative process and to focus on mitigative factors and alternatives that will attain the best solution with respect to the proposal.

It is perhaps long past time to publicly reiterate this legal opinion received 5 years ago from Township Counsel. Had this opinion been heeded, the Township could have saved significant taxpayer money used in fighting the power plant, could have realized a better solution for the power plant location, and could have prevented much of the angst and adversarial behaviour that now divides the community of Bala.

January 2017 Update

Due to the extended time that has passed since our last entry on the Bala Falls Small Hydro Project in the spring of 2015, we apologize for this delay in reporting. We will now attempt to summarize a general timeline of what has transpired since then, but more specifically over the last year…2016.

In 2015 there were ongoing presentations to Muskoka Lakes Council by several individuals or groups opposed to the overall project. In the background, there were ongoing deliberations by the Committee of Council “Bala Falls Working Committee” mentioned in our earlier update. Mayor Don Furniss did a very factual update September 25th, 2015 to bring readers through to that time.

In late 2015 The proponent Swift River Energy Limited moved onto the future site of the project next to the north Bala Falls to do some preliminary work and to secure the perimeter of the subject land. Despite some displays of protest, including a suit filed against the Township the site was mostly cleared of trees to enable an eight-foot perimeter fence to be erected. The suit against the Township was dismissed with costs to be paid to the Township. The suit and its subsequent outcome of a lease agreement being signed in January 2016 is covered very accurately we feel in another of Don’s Dialogue issued at the end of January.

On June 27th,2016 a Building permit was issued from the Township of Muskoka Lakes. As with all buildings to be erected in the Township, a permit to do so must be issued.

September 26th,2016 the Bala Falls Working Committee reviewed a formal written request from Swift River Energy Ltd. (SREL) to alter lands immediately adjacent to the site (Portage Landing) to facilitate access for construction equipment and save any use of Margaret Burgess Park on the north side of the falls. As Portage Landing is designated under the Ontario Heritage Act an “Easement” was needed and the plans to rehabilitate the lands after construction needed to be reviewed by the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario (ACO) and the working committee. The Township working committee resolved that the Option One proposal be recommended to Council and that a public open house take place in Bala as soon as possible. The open house did take place on December 8th, 2016 with many from the community of Bala attending to view the plans for the parkland design after construction.

This project has once again been delayed in starting since October 2016, this time due to the rebuilding of the bridges on Muskoka Road #169 this winter. SREL and the District of Muskoka agreed that having two concurrent construction projects side by side would be next to impossible to manage. Latest estimate to begin construction is immediately after the spring runoff is complete…approximately June 1st.

Some abbreviations and terms used above:

  • SREL – Swift River Energy Limited – the developer
  • MOE – Ontario Ministry of the Environment
  • MNR – Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources
  • TML – Township of Muskoka Lakes
  • MRA – Muskoka Ratepayers’ Association
  • ESR – Environmental Screening Report
  • IEA – Individual Environmental Assessment
  • OPG – Ontario Power Generation (part of Ontario Hydro)
  • MOOSE – local radio station
  • Option 1 – Hydro Plant sited on Crown (provincial) land
  • Option 2 – Hydro Plant sited on District / Township land
  • MOE Decision – a decision of the Director of the Environmental Assessment and Approvals Branch of the MOE
  • Ministerial Decision – a decision by the (elected) Minister of the Environment