Proposed Hydropower Legislation Weakens States’, Tribes’ Power to Protect and Restore Local Rivers

May 13, 2016

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(Washington, DC) – American Rivers today urged the House Energy and Commerce Committee to reject proposed legislation that would weaken or eliminate current state and federal resource agency authority over hydropower dams while handing increased responsibility for dam management to an already overworked federal commission. This proposed legislation would limit states’ ability to write the needs of their river communities into the terms of hydropower licenses and undermine their authority to hold corporate dam owners accountable for any harm caused to their communities.

“If this legislation passes, the president, states and tribes will lose authority over corporations operating in their backyards and on public lands,” said Bob Irvin, president of American Rivers, “Dam license renewals happen every 30 to 50 years, and are once-in-a-lifetime chances for communities and agencies to update agreements with private dam operators so that they protect public safety, clean water, and fish and wildlife.” Currently state and expert federal agencies have the authority to augment hydropower dam licenses and compel corporate dam owners to accommodate the needs of local communities and wildlife that rely on the river. Dam owners are also responsible for paying the costs of complying with state water quality and wildlife management laws.

The proposed legislation would reverse those two policies. It would give the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) the authority to alter license conditions requested by expert federal and state agencies even if dam owners have already agreed to them. It would also shift to taxpayers and local communities the costs and burdens of complying with state and local laws and mitigating harm done to water quality by hydropower dams.

Other ways this bill will rob the President and states of their authority:

  • Allows any private entity to install hydropower up to 5 MW on an existing dam with no comprehensive review or oversight over the impacts to public safety, flood control, fish, wildlife, or public lands;
  • Federalizes the venue for energy companies to challenge states’ remaining authority over corporate-owned hydropower dams by moving cases out of state courts and into federal courts;
  • Exempts hydropower dam owners from the Clean Water Act by eliminating the 50 states’ and many tribes’ power to hold hydropower dam owners accountable to water quality laws, giving that authority instead to FERC;
  • Allows FERC to trap state and federal natural resource agencies in a choice between making regulatory decisions based on incomplete applications that lack sufficient supporting information (thus leaving them vulnerable to legal challenge), or risk being sent to federal court for failing to meet FERC’s deadlines.

“Healthy rivers are essential to the health and well-being of our communities. Hydropower dams have major impacts on river health, clean water, and wildlife. We can achieve a balance between healthy rivers and hydropower production, but in order to do that it’s essential local voices have a say in how dams are operated,” said Irvin.

American Rivers has worked with states, tribes, and local conservation partners for decades to secure significant improvements to hydropower dam operations, resulting in tens of thousands of miles of restored rivers, improved fish passage, revitalized wildlife habitat, and better, safer river recreation opportunities. American Rivers documented these successes in a video series featuring Oregon’s Deschutes, Michigan’s Muskegon, and South Carolina’s Saluda rivers.

For more information about the proposed legislation, please see our hydropower factsheet.

Learn more about how we’re improving hydropower dams and restoring rivers.


About American Rivers

American Rivers protects wild rivers, restores damaged rivers, and conserves clean water for people and nature. Since 1973, American Rivers has protected and restored more than 150,000 miles of rivers through advocacy efforts, on-the-ground projects, and an annual America’s Most Endangered Rivers® campaign. Headquartered in Washington, DC, American Rivers has offices across the country and more than 250,000 members, supporters, and volunteers.

Rivers connect us to each other, nature, and future generations. Find your connections at AmericanRivers.org, Facebook.com/AmericanRivers, and Twitter.com/AmericanRivers.