Jarrod Malenchak of Manitoba Hydro on Water Resources and Dam Safety
March 15, 2021
Manitoba Hydro is the sole energy provider for the Canadian province of Manitoba. The provincially owned corporation produces the majority of its energy with its 15 hydropower facilities and has a current total capacity of 5,600 megawatts (MW). In this interview, Jarrod Malenchak, a section head within Manitoba Hydro’s water resources engineering department, tells Hydro Leader about his work at the company and about his role as chair of the Canadian Dam Association's (CDA) dam safety committee (DSC).
Hydro Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position.
Jarrod Malenchak: I am a section head within the water resources engineering department at Manitoba Hydro. My section provides the river ice and environmental engineering expertise for the company and leads the water resources engineering support for the Keeyask Generation Project in northern Manitoba, which is in the final stages of construction. I grew up in rural Manitoba, in the Interlake Region, and studied civil engineering at the University of Manitoba. During my undergrad years, I got interested in water resources research. By the time I graduated in 2004, I had plans for graduate school, which eventually led to a doctorate in the specialized topic of river ice engineering. The project was directly sponsored by Manitoba Hydro’s research and development program. By the time I obtained my PhD in 2012, I had already been working part time for Manitoba Hydro for almost 5 years. Not long after that, I took on a role as a section head in water resources engineering and have been in that role ever since.
Hydro Leader: Tell us about Manitoba Hydro.
Jarrod Malenchak: The electric power industry has a history of over 100 years in Manitoba. Manitoba Hydro as we know it today was formed in 1961 through the merger of the Manitoba Power Commission and the Manitoba Hydroelectric Board. In 1999, Manitoba Hydro purchased Centric Gas, the main natural gas supplier in the province, from West Coast Energy, Inc. In 2002, Manitoba Hydro purchased Winnipeg Hydro, which was mainly focused on supplying electric power to the city of Winnipeg. After those two purchases, Manitoba Hydro became the sole energy provider in the province. We supply both electric power and natural gas to all customers in the province. Our infrastructure comprises 15 hydroelectric facilities spread over five different rivers—the Burntwood, Laurie,
Nelson, Saskatchewan, and Winnipeg Rivers. We also have two thermal plants, which are rarely used and serve primarily as backup, and 4 diesel generating stations, which are located in remote areas of the province. We have 5,600 MW of installed electricity generation capacity. This will be increased by 695 MW with the addition of the Keeyask Generation Project, which is coming online this year. Our corporation is governed by the Manitoba Hydro-Electric Board, which is appointed by our lone shareholder, the provincial government of Manitoba. That makes us a crown corporation. We currently employ about 5,400 people.
Hydro Leader: What is a crown corporation?
Jarrod Malenchak: In Canada, a crown corporation is a corporation that is wholly owned by the crown, represented by the federal or provincial government. The fact that our sole shareholder is the Province of Manitoba means we are a crown corporation. However, Manitoba Hydro is not a government organization, and it doesn’t function like a typical government department. The governance of the corporation is through the Manitoba Hydro-Electric Board, which is appointed by the provincial government. All our assets and liabilities are backed by the province.
Hydro Leader: How many dams does Manitoba Hydro own?
Jarrod Malenchak: Manitoba Hydro has over 100 dam structures within its 15 hydroelectric facilities. These facilities generate about 5,600 MW, which, for context, is about one-sixth of the hydroelectric generating capacity of Hydro-Québec.
Hydro Leader: Is that because Québec has a higher population?
Jarrod Malenchak: Yes, one of the factors that drives the capacity requirements in both provinces is the population base, and Québec does have roughly six times the population of Manitoba. Both provinces have abundant water supplies, and therefore the vast majority of their energy supply comes from hydroelectricity. Both provinces are also connected to U.S. markets through specific corridors based on their geographic location. Hydro-Québec, given its relationship to the northeastern part of the United States, is able to export excess capacity to that area.
Manitoba Hydro has about 590,000 electricity customers and 290,000 natural gas customers, and we are the only energy provider for all of Manitoba. Ninety-eight percent of the energy we supply is generated by hydropower, and we have interconnections to our Canadian neighbors and to the United States, which allow us to import energy during low-water-supply years and to generate additional revenue through export sales facilitated by dependable and opportunity contracts.
Hydro Leader: Does Manitoba Hydro have any concerns about water supply or drought?
Jarrod Malenchak: As with any hydroelectric utility, the lifeblood of our system is the water supply. In our case, the northern part of Manitoba is at the downstream end of a 1.1‑million-square-kilometer (424,712-square-mile) basin that feeds the Nelson River outlet to Hudson Bay. It collects water from a region near the Great Lakes in the southeast; from the headwaters of the Red River, close to the headwaters of the Mississippi River, to the south; and from regions ranging all the way to the Rocky Mountains in the west. When you add in the Churchill River diversion, the drainage area increases to 1.4 million square kilometers (540,543 square miles). Because the drainage area is so large, the likelihood of the entire area being in drought or flood at one time is quite low. As luck would have it, we have enjoyed healthy water supplies in recent years and have generally been in a wet cycle for the last 15–16 years. Of course, it is uncertain how long this cycle will continue. A growing number of climate models are predicting an overall increase in water supply inputs to areas like Manitoba and Québec, where snowmelt is an important component of the overall water supply, but how it all balances out with the other factors influencing the ultimate amount of water available is still fairly uncertain.
Hydro Leader: Is there an overlap between your natural gas and electric customers?
Jarrod Malenchak: Yes, and I myself am an example. Where natural gas is available, it is by far the more economical way to heat your home. That is an important part of our system, especially in urban areas and the larger rural areas that have natural gas service. The reality is that if all of Manitoba wanted to switch to purely electrical energy, we would not have the capacity to satisfy the demand. In Manitoba, the heating load in winter is quite high, so we need natural gas supply to meet overall energy requirements.
Hydro Leader: Is Manitoba Hydro focused exclusively on the province, or does it look beyond its provincial and national borders?
Jarrod Malenchak: Manitoba Hydro’s goal is to provide safe, reliable energy to Manitobans in the most cost-effective way possible. One of those ways is to sell or export excess capacity when we have it. Generally speaking, if it makes business sense to export excess energy to subsidize Manitoba rate payers, then we pursue the opportunity. But the primary goal is always in the best interests of Manitobans.
Hydro Leader: Tell us about your role as chair of the CDA’s DSC.
Jarrod Malenchak: The DSC is the technical committee that is primarily responsible for the stewardship of theCDA’s dam safety guidelines and the technical bulletins that go along with them. The committee’s responsibilities include reviewing and revising the guidelines, assuring the quality of technical material, creating new guidelines when needed, and engaging in general communication about the guidelines. Our committee reports to the CDA board of directors, which governs and oversees the association. We assist the board in developing technical position statements and communications related to dam safety and recommend policies and actions for it to consider.
We accomplish a lot of our work through a working group model. When the DSC identifies a need or a technical product that we’d like to produce, we usually form a working group that engages the broader CDA membership and generally functions on its own under the oversight of the DSC. The DSC currently has seven active working groups. One is a dams 101 working group; the other six focus on dam safety reviews, emergency management, public safety, design and construction issues, dam safety program management, and functions and failure modes.
Hydro Leader: Do you have a working group that focuses on security?
Jarrod Malenchak: There is no working group that focuses specifically on this topic at the present time. It is a topic that has come up in other infrastructure-related organizations around the world, though not as much at the CDA. The CDA does provide some guidance on how to respond to hazards or events.
Hydro Leader: Does the DSC also focus on public safety around dams?
Jarrod Malenchak: Yes. Public safety is an area of focus for the CDA and for all dam owners in Canada. We must protect the public from the operation and the existence of our structures. There has been an active working group focusing on public safety issues for over 10 years. The guidelines and technical bulletins that have been developed specifically for public safety topics have been presented in workshops and shared and adopted in a number of jurisdictions worldwide.
Hydro Leader: Are your contributions to the work of the CDA considered a core part of your job at Manitoba Hydro?
Jarrod Malenchak: There are a number of employees at Manitoba Hydro who contribute to and support the CDA on an in-kind or volunteer basis nearly every day. My position’s functional role in the company is not necessarily defined that way, however. My involvement with the CDA is based on my background, technical experience, and professional interests. The CDA does rely on the many in-kind contributions of its members and their employers, and volunteers are critical to the overall success of the organization. My level of personal interest in the DSC and in the CDA helps to facilitate those contributions.
Hydro Leader: How many employees does CDA have?
Jarrod Malenchak: The organization has grown to be big enough to have some core management functions, though until recently those paid functions were rather small. Previously, there were approximately two nearly full-time employees, a number of part-time coordinators, and other contributors who helped the committees get their work done and helped run the association. A new association management company has come online as of January 1, 2021, and will provide more resources to support the work that the CDA has in its strategic plan. This additional support reflects how the CDA has grown and the larger initiatives that are now in front of it.
Hydro Leader: How long has the CDA existed?
Jarrod Malenchak: There used to be two dam-related associations in Canada, the Canadian Dam Safety Association and the Canadian National Committee on Large Dams. They merged into the CDA in 1997 to better represent the entire dam community in Canada and to serve the industry more effectively.
Hydro Leader: How would you compare Canadian companies’ commitment to dam safety to that of companies abroad?
Jarrod Malenchak: I have a lot of confidence in Canada’s commitment to and concern with dam safety. If we were to compare ourselves with our neighbors in the United States, one of the biggest differences is the regulatory environment as it relates to dam safety. The regulatory responsibilities in Canada are allocated to the provinces, so choices in how dam safety is regulated or not regulated across the country are made by the provinces. As expected, those regulations vary from province to province. Nevertheless, the CDA provides a means for the Canadian dam industry to come together, collaborate, share information, and demonstrate its commitment to dam safety practices.
Hydro Leader: What is the public opinion on hydropower in Manitoba?
Jarrod Malenchak: Generally speaking, a lot of Canadians view hydropower as a clean, renewable, homegrown energy source that’s reliable and cost effective. It’s also fast becoming a way for many jurisdictions to meet the greenhouse gas reduction targets that are being implemented around the world.
One challenge associated with hydropower development is that while it benefits society as a whole because it is a clean, renewable energy supply, it typically does have some adverse effects that are borne primarily by a subset of the population. Through modern planning and design practices, we are getting better at identifying those effects, talking about them, and mitigating them to the extent that we are able.
One part of my job for the last number of years is that I am the water resources subject-matter lead for the design and construction of the Keeyask Generation Project. I have worked on the project through the planning and regulatory phases, during which much of the discussion related to environmental impacts and mitigation strategies. This carried through to the final design and construction phases of the project, which are nearly complete now.
Hydro Leader: Do these discussions around environmental issues include fish passage?
Jarrod Malenchak: Fish passage at dams in general is an important topic in Canada, especially when it comes to migratory species like salmon, which need to migrate to a certain area in order to complete their life cycles. We don’t have those types of species in Manitoba, but we do have other important species, including the lake sturgeon. Reversing the recent decline of the lake sturgeon population is of great interest to Manitoba Hydro, its stakeholders, the public, and regulators. The lake sturgeon does not have a strong migratory function, so much of the conversation has been about finding ways to facilitate its life function outside the immediate dam area, rather than providing passage around existing dam facilities.
Hydro Leader: Has Manitoba Hydro decommissioned any dams?
Jarrod Malenchak: To date, we have not decommissioned any dams in Manitoba, nor are any decommissions on the radar. Some of our facilities are more than 100 years old, and they’ve undergone some significant rehabilitation and maintenance, but no facility has required full replacement or decommissioning to date.
Hydro Leader: What is your outlook on the future?
Jarrod Malenchak: One thing that may be of interest is that the CDA is currently embarking on a fairly thorough review of its dam safety guidelines, something that has not been done in a major way since 2007. While the guidelines as they currently stand still represent industry good practice in Canada, there are emerging topics like operational safety and systems-based dam safety approaches that need greater emphasis. A lot of our engineering design criteria are based on extreme criteria for floods and earthquakes. Of course, you want long-lasting, critical structures like dams to be engineered to withstand those extreme events, but such events only rarely contribute to dam failures or large dam incidents because, by definition, they happen so infrequently— sometimes with an exceedance probability of once every 10,000 years, for instance. It is becoming clear that series of more frequent events, aligning in an unusual way, more often contribute to the dam incidents that we see. These types of safety management issues do not represent a new way of thinking, but they are emerging topics in the dam safety world and can influence the choice of where to invest safety dollars.
Our future guidelines should also include a framework to help answer an important question that often comes up when we start talking about risk management and dam safety: How safe is safe enough? This gets to the idea of determining acceptable risk criteria, recognizing that, for a whole host of reasons, there won’t be a one-size-fits-all criterion for all jurisdictions and regulatory environments across Canada or the world. It has also become quite clear that the answer to this complex question won’t be found solely in engineering-based criteria, which are what are often used throughout the present standards-based guidelines. The DSC is presently leading the effort to develop this framework.
Jarrod Malenchak is a section head in the water resources engineering department at Manitoba Hydro. He can be contacted at email@example.com.