Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Snowdonia: assault on the wild places-then and now

Construction work taking place in Llanberis Pass on the hydro scheme.
Driving down Llanberis Pass last week, one couldn’t fail to take in the construction work taking place on the west side of the Pass where a pipeline course has been gouged down the mountainside to arrive at a turbine house just 100 metres or so from the road. Hydro schemes within the National Park are currently very much in vogue with even the National Trust getting in on the act on the south side of the Yr Wyddfa massif where they have constructed a hydro pipeline and turbine house above Nant Gwynant. However it is the £100m Glan Rhonwy scheme above Llanberis which has been granted planning permission by Gwynedd CC which is causing outdoor activists the most disquiet. Using a recently created business Snowdonia Pumped Hydro, the London based Quarry Battery Company under the watchful eye of its executive director, Peter Taylor who is listed as being based on the Isle of Man (Not a tax exile surely!) the company seeks to exploit abandoned quarries and convert them as storage facilities for its hydro power schemes.

It currently boasts twenty planning applications in the pipeline –no pun intended!.

Compared to the environmental impact of industrial scale wind farms and their negative impact on fragile ecosystems and their aesthetic blighting of our uplands, coasts and seascapes, hydro power schemes are by contrast pretty low key in their impact on their surroundings. Particularly the small scale schemes in the Pass and Nant Gwynant. Glan Rhonwy on the other hand will definitely have a detrimental impact. Ecologically in its utilisation of a site which harbours all manner of wildlife, aesthetically in its degrading of a site which is returning to nature and of course, the impact it will have on outdoor activists who use the site for recreation. At the end of the day, The company behind Glan Rhonwy, like their friends in the wind industry, are in it for easy profits and are certainly not driven by evangelistic ‘green’ motives.

However, when dealing with our low calibre, bovine local politicians, throwing the word ‘renewable’ around is like holding the magic key to the planning permission door. I’m convinced that a developer could submit plans to build a power plant burning old tyres and it would get planning permission if the developer added the word ‘renewable’ to his application and business name!

Interestingly, the threat to the ‘natural environment’ in Snowdonia (and I’m well aware that in an area of intensive farming, quarrying and tourism there is nothing particularly ‘natural’ about the land) has a history of activism undertaken by those engaged in outdoor activities. In the 70’s the BMC journal ‘Mountain Life’ ran a regular feature ‘Assault on the wild places’ alongside its general mountaineering and climbing news. Below are two examples of well known climbers- Barbara James and Gwen Moffat- taking up the environmental gauntlet and lambasting what was then the Central Electricity Generating Board on their insensitive developments in Ogwen Valley and Dinorwic.

Has time been kind to the Electric Mountain or the tarmac road up into the Carneddau from the A5? Personally I find the feeder lake up at Marchlyn Mawr a rather sterile and depressing place and despite regularly toiling up the CEGB road above Ogwen, I rather hate it! It’s dead straight, seems to go on forever and blights what should be a rocky, grassy pathway up the hillside. Mountain bikers appear to like pelting down it though!
CEGB invades the Carneddau

Mountaineers will know well the track which leads north from the A5 near Helm to Craig Ysfa and Carncdd Llywelyn, for it ascends, steeply in places, into the largest roadless area in Snowdonia. It crosses the famous leat which was built during the war by Italian prisoners of war. This leat collects water draining from lakes Lloer and Llugwy on the south side of the Carneddau and channels it into Llyn Cowlyd and thence to Dolgarrog Power Station in the Conway Valley. The trackway ends near the dark waters of Ffynnon Llugwy cradled beneath the west slopes of Pen yr Helgi Du, but a path continues to climb steeply to a col. At the top a strong wind hits you — but there is a dramatic view and the unfolding of the Eigiau valley below towards the distant Conway Estuary gives a superb excuse to pant and regain your breath.

Most people either turn left up the narrow ridge to Carnedd Llewellyn or descend to the foot of Amphitheatre Buttress and the other Craig yr Ysfa climbs. The walk up from the main road to the lake takes little more than half an hour but it leads to a haven of peace and solitude deep in the hills where the water drains as softly as a cat prowls with dinner on its mind. How many mountaineers associate the work being done on the Hydro-electric scheme in Llanberis with the chaotic state of the Ogwen Valley during the latter months of 1974? Early negotiations certainly gave no warnings of such disruption, which has been caused by the need to draw water from Ffynnon Lloer and Ffynnon Llugwy to supply the villages around Bethesda to the west with drinking water. Apparently the CEGB never realised that the water in Marchlyn- the round lake high on Elider Fawr that is being raped for the Hydro-scheme, would he too disturbed to be drunk by the inhabitants of the villages.

And so it seems maintenance vehicles have to have easy access to the dam at Ffynnon Llugwy. The result is the transformation of the grass trackway to large stone rubble, a scar cutting through the surrounding green hillsides. Complaints by the very active Council for the Preservation of Rural Wales (they have monitored plans throughout) were answered with assurances that the stones would be coverered. But they didn't say with what..... it was to be tarmacadam ! Work was started early in December, and the tarmac was laid first above the leet where it was out of sight from the road. By the end of 1974. the tarmac had oozed from the lake to within 20 yards of the A5.

It is done. What can we lesser mortals do against such faceless. All powerful giants as the CEGB? As I write. the CFRW await an answer from the head of the Generating Board project to their query about the trackway. It seems that reversal is impossible. Decisions now must be made by looking forward not backward. Who will use the road? Three alternatives seem possible. One, that it will be used infrequently by maintenance vehicles; Two, that it will become like the road to Stwlan Dam where mini-busloads of tourists are allowed but mountaineers can are prohibited. Three; that a limited size car park be made near the dam giving easy access to the hills for the first 50 cars to arrive.

Will mountain rescue vehicles and/or other vehicles he given special dispensation? Accepting the fact that the road, with some tidying up, is here to stay. which alternative is preferable? Are there any other alternatives? As I came down from Pen yr Helgi Du on New Year's Eve shafts of sunlight highlighted the unsightly debris that banked the new road and panicking clouds were gathering over Carnedd Llewelyn. Perhaps they too wished to hasten the end of the day and the year.
Barbara James Mountain Life-Feb 1974

The strangely sterile and soulless dammed lake of Marchllyn Mawr

A Third White Elephant 

It is possible that the Dinorwic pumped storage scheme proposed for Llanberis will prove itself as much a white elephant as Concorde and Maplin. The cost increased by one third before the project left the drawing board and it is now well over £100 millions. In view of revised demand forecast the CEGB's entire investment programme is under review so, with the Treasury doing a new set of sums with the taxpayer's money, Dinorwic isn't home and dry yet — but nor are we. Ancillary projects and services necessitated by primary schemes are far-reaching, and often more of a pollution than the principal scheme. Because Dinorwic is to use Marchlyn Mawr for its upper lake — draining and filling it  in combination with Llyn Peris twice daily — an alternative water supply has to be found.

Llyn Ogwen will supply this, its level augmented by Cowlyd. In order to incorporate the existing leat on the south side of the Carneddau in this scheme, an access road has been built from the A5 and it didn't need planning permission. Water will be taken down the Nant Francon in pipes. We are told that these will be placed underground. In their report for 1973, the Gwynedd River Authority examines in some detail the possibility of flooding the Nant Francon by means of a dam at Tyn y Maes. The plan envisages a dam 1,640 feet long, nearly 200 feet high, and an artificial lake extending back to the Ogwen Falls. Cwm Llafar (below the Black Ladders) is also mentioned; a 100-foot dam there would impound a lake with a storage capacity of 3,000 million litres and could be used as a direct supply or to regulate the flow of the Afon Ogwen.

Cwellyn, west of Snowdon, is already the focal point of a two year plan to make it a reservoir. There is a deficiency of water in Gwynedd already, and the River Authority cites new mines and smelters, new hydro-electric schemes and pulp mills, all to be in the area, as the industries which may in the future place an exorbitant demand on water supplies. Present industries, using pure water when they could very well do with the raw product, are the nuclear power station on Anglesey, the aluminium smelter at Holyhead. Wastage in Snowdonia is high. In an area where the rainfall exceeds 100 inches, the storage facilities rely on constant replenishing rather than on dam structure, the efficiency of pipes, and conservation. Wastage between source and consumer varies between 10% and 15%. On the consumer's premises it is 25% (dripping taps, faulty cisterns, washing hands without putting the plug in the basin etc). If you include industrial demand, each of us uses between 70 and 95 gallons daily. With more intelligent utilisation of all water we would need only a small proportion of proposed reservoirs, and these less large.

If we were less extravagant with electricity we would need fewer and smaller power stations. And if the Government decide that we must have more electricity even if we have to spend over £100 millions on one scheme — albeit the biggest in Europe — and that only to augment the supply at peak periods, then why not generate electricity by gas turbines. They don't leak precious power from the transmission lines on the way to the conurbations which the power is designed to serve. You can site gas turbines anywhere: in existing stations, above ground, below ground, near the load centres (not in national parks). They're cheap — and they'll burn almost anything.

Gwen Moffatt.Mountain Life June 1974

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