Hydropower Legislation Would Roll Back Decades of Progress
In 1963, a group of concerned citizens in Cornwall, New York challenged plans to build a hydroelectric project on the Hudson River, citing concerns about water quality and supply, local fisheries, and the potential scenic blight of a pump storage facility on nearby Storm King Mountain. When their concerns were brushed aside by the Federal Power Commission (the forerunner of today’s Federal Energy Regulatory Commission), they brought suit in federal court and won. The court ruled that the Commission could not make its decisions on the basis of power production alone, but must take into account other factors, including protection of fish, water quality and other natural resources.
Not only did the Storm King case launch modern environmental law, it set the stage for today’s hydroelectric licensing process in which the interests of power producers are balanced with those of states, tribes and local communities. Today, more than 50 years later, the hydropower industry and its backers in Congress seem bent on reversing those gains.
In a recent New York Times opinion piece, Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Jay Faison of the ClearPath Foundation call for a much bigger role for hydropower in addressing climate change, arguing that only burdensome regulations and a “broken federal permitting system” stand in the way of a revolution of cheap, renewable carbon-busting energy. What actually stands between this vision of a hydro-powered future and reality is not federal regulation, but the significant and lasting damage that hydropower dams do to water quality, fish and wildlife and local communities.
Hydropower dams may not belch greenhouse gases like coal-fired power plants, but dams are hardly green. Dams disrupt the flow of rivers and streams, wreaking havoc on water quality by altering the natural balance of sediment, nutrients and oxygen, and dramatically changing water temperatures behind and below dams. This can lead to toxic algal blooms, fouled water and fish kills. Dams can dry up rivers, decimating fish populations and rendering rivers unfit for recreation. Dams thrown across the paths of migratory fish have driven species from Pacific salmon to Atlantic river herring to the brink of extinction, with devastating impacts on tribal, commercial and recreational fishing.
Most of the hydropower dams operating in the U.S. today were built and began operation long before federal and state laws to protect water quality, fish and wildlife, and the economic interests of local communities were in place. The current permitting process, including the requirements of the Clean Water Act, Federal Power Act and Endangered Species Act, helps bring the operations of hydropower facilities into the 21st century by giving federal and state natural resources agencies, tribes and local communities the authority to protect rivers and wildlife.
The licensing process is not perfect and, in fact, licensing has been made more efficient when the hydropower industry and other interests have worked together to advocate the changes. However, the House bill praised by Senator Murkowski and Mr. Faison (H.R. 8) is not such an effort.
States from California to Maryland, Native American tribes, and more than 200 conservation and recreation groups oppose H.R. 8 because it would undermine key protections for rivers and wildlife, curtail meaningful participation by state and federal natural resources agencies, tribes and local communities, and stack the deck for powerful energy companies at the expense of all other interests. It’s no wonder that the White House promised a veto if the bill reaches President Obama’s desk.
One of our nation’s greatest conservation success stories, the restoration of Maine’s Penobscot River, was made possible by the hydropower relicensing process, which resulted in removing two outdated dams, restoring access to 1,000 miles of habitat for migratory fish, and maintaining the same level of hydroelectric production by changing the operation of some remaining dams. If the changes to federal law now sought by the hydropower industry are adopted, this type of river restoration success would no longer be possible.
Thousands of miles of rivers nationwide have been restored thanks to the hydropower relicensing process, with communities and businesses reaping the benefits of more abundant fisheries, better water quality and improved recreation opportunities. Why would anyone want to turn back the clock on such progress?