News and analysis about energy in California with an eye toward renewables.

GOP Pushes for Less Regulation of Hydropower

Big Bear Dam circa 1945 | Photo: Water Archives/Flickr/Creative Commons License

When a Congressional committee hearing has a title like "Mandatory Conditioning Requirements on Hydropower: How Federal Resource Agencies are Driving Up Electricity Costs and Decreasing the Original Green Energy," you can assume that the committee sponsoring the hearing has a strong point of view. This particular hearing, held June 27 by the House Natural Resources Committee, was held to protest restrictions by federal agencies on large dam relicensing.

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In the view of Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-WA),

"The relicensing of a hydropower dam is an opportunity to responsibly renew a clean, non-carbon-emitting, renewable energy source. But there have been abuses. The relicensing process should not be a hostage-taking opportunity for federal agencies to demand a ransom to be paid to fund their wish lists, or for federal agencies to push a covert dam removal agenda by imposing conditions so onerous that hydropower licenses are surrendered instead of renewed. Regrettably, this is not hyperbole. It is happening. It is reality. And it is unacceptable."

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, along with federal agencies responsible for environmental and land management oversight, will often require mitigation projects as a condition for relicensing hydropower dams. These measures may include habitat restoration, recreational facilities, or agreeing to maintain minimum flows downstream to enhance habitat. Traditional GOP opposition to such measures, as well as big hydro's long history in the western US, contribute to the incongruous support of this form of renewable energy from what would seem unlikely sources. Hastings, for instance, who speaks above of carbon-neutral energy in glowing terms, has opposed Federal spending on climate change research and mitigation.

In testimony at the June 27 hearing, Placer County Water Agency's Director of Strategic Affairs Einar Maisch said that his agency's Middle Fork American River Project (MFP) is threatened by relicensing conditions. The MFP, a 224-megawatt hydroelectric generator in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada near Auburn, is operating under a license that expires in March 2013. Maisch said at the hearing that his agency has spent $37 million to date in pursuit of Federal relicensing, and that he expects a 5% loss in power production as a result of relicensing conditions including enhanced downstream flows.

"The problem lies in the structure of the current process, where individual state and federal resource agencies with narrow charters mandate costly conditions which cannot be balanced against other national environmental priorities," Maisch said July 5 at a Placer County Water Agency board meeting. "They are simply carrying out their narrowly focused mission to protect resources under their separate jurisdictions. The problem is that no one is empowered to balance competing interests."

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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