River conservation groups in the United States are concerned that a federal agency may change the way in which government regulates hydroelectric dams on public rivers.
ATLANTA, Georgia – The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) held a series of public meetings this month to determine ways to “reduce the cost and time” of obtaining a licence for a hydropower dam. Hearings were held in Atlanta to examine the Coosa (AL), Chattahoochee (GA, AL), Nantahala (NC) and Catawba-Wateree (NC, SC) rivers. Three conservation groups, Alabama Rivers Alliance, American Rivers and Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, voiced concern that the hearings are “the latest in a long line of efforts by powerful utilities and their lobbyists to escape the obligations that come with the use of public rivers.” The groups are about the intent of the hearings, which appear to be “an extension of industry efforts to roll back long-term environmental protections under the cover of a short-term energy problem.” “Poorly run dams degrade water quality, hurt wildlife and limit recreation and economic growth,” says David Sligh of American Rivers. “Licensing of hydropower dams is an opportunity to bring a 19th century technology up to 21st century standards. These projects have operated for 30 to 100 years with no concern for environmental damage.” “With only miniscule cuts in their profit making ability, utility corporations could modernize the way they operate their dams,” he adds. “Instead, they are spending millions on lobbying and scare tactics to tell the public and Congress that they can’t make reasonable improvements.” The Federal Power Act grants authority to FERC and several other federal and state agencies to regulate the operation of private hydro dams on public waterways. Every 30 to 50 years, a dam owner must apply for a new operating license, and the process requires consideration of ecological health, water quality and recreation so operation of the dam continues to be in the public interest. Over the next ten years, licenses for more than 500 dams affecting 130 different rivers will expire, and the groups argue that licensing presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to modernize these dams to protect the environment. “In these hearings, some in the hydropower industry are going after the agencies that protect fish and public lands,” explains Beth Wentzel of Alabama Rivers Alliance. “Generating electricity need not preclude thriving fish and wildlife that boost local economies and quality of life, but it will if the agencies charged with protecting public values are shut out.” “Hydropower licenses allow utilities to monopolize a river for a half a century with little oversight and no motivation to make further environmental improvements; we must get it right the first time,” adds Matt Sicchio of the Hydropower Reform Coalition, which represents 70 conservation groups. “No matter what FERC proposes to Congress by way of changes, it must not mortgage the health of our rivers in the process.” Other public hearings in Albany, New York, attracted representatives from New York Rivers United, American Whitewater, Appalachian Mountain Club and Riverkeeper. Environmental advocates across New York state and New England have joined forces with 70 grassroots groups to oppose the hearings.