Long before ecological considerations were fully understood or current environmental laws were on the books, rivers were dammed in the name of progress without much consideration of their impacts.
This approach is a classic example of human ingenuity getting ahead of scientific understanding. Yes, dams provide a host of benefits to people; but they also degrade water quality, harm fisheries and hurt rural economies that rely on recreational tourism for income.
Over time, research and experience have helped us understand the costs and benefits of damming rivers for various purposes. In response to these realizations, state and federal statutes drafted in the 1970s gave states, Native American tribes and federal agencies authority to ensure that all river values are adequately considered and weighed during the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission hydropower dam permitting process.
This permitting process is a crucial opportunity for measured consideration of current and future priorities for a river. The outcomes can have far-reaching consequences for people and wildlife, as they set the table for licenses that dictate dam operations for 30 to 50 years.
Unfortunately, hydropower provisions in the federal energy bill (S. 2012) currently before Congress threaten to undermine the essential provisions that work to bring our management of rivers back into balance.
Disguised as a simplification of the hydropower licensing process, these provisions will significantly limit or altogether eliminate agency and tribal authorities’ ability to protect imperiled fish under the Endangered Species Act, preserve water quality under the Clean Water Act, or seek mitigation measures where impacts cannot be avoided.
While some improvements could be made around the licensing process for hydropower dams, stripping away the rights of states, tribes and federal agencies will not lead to better outcomes for Americans or their rivers.
The current FERC process allows partners to find compromises for the benefit of the public in dam licensing procedures. Agencies and tribes have built significant expertise over decades by employing environmental checks and balances to guide dam operations. Scientifically based flow management regimes borne out of these hearings benefit whitewater enthusiasts, recreationalists and small-town economies reliant on tourism dollars.
For example, this process has allowed flow adjustments on the Pit and Feather rivers, bringing healthier base flows while protecting vital water supplies for California’s people and fish. Today, these rivers are also kept cooler and more robust to support Chinook salmon and coastal rainbow trout during critical migration and spawning windows.
Relicensing proceedings also allow for the exploration of fish passage alternatives at dams to help stem declines of our wild runs. This consideration is timely because several major dams in California that have prominent fish passage issues – such as Englebright Dam on the Yuba River – are currently undergoing relicensing.
In short, the extensive relicensing process gives everyone an opportunity to learn from prior mistakes, gather the best available science, and explore current and future uses of our rivers that benefit communities while also protecting the wildlife that calls them home.
Hydropower is a critical component of our domestic energy supply in California and will play a role in its future. However, Congress must resist attempts in the energy bill to weaken the rightful authorities of states, tribes and federal agencies to manage natural resources and protect public health and the environment during hydropower relicensing.
Without input from these key players, California’s mighty rivers and the communities that depend on them face an uncertain future.