If you thought renewing your driver's license was a pain, try being a dam owner. Every 30 to 50 years, privately owned dams must apply for a new operating license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), and the process is neither fast nor cheap. On average, the process drags on for about five years, but it can take up to two decades (HCN, 11/22/99: Figuring out FERC).
In an attempt to speed things up, Idaho Sen. Larry Craig reintroduced his Hydroelectric Licensing Process Improvement Act on Jan. 22. Craig claims that environmental regulatory agencies' sluggishness in preparing reviews hampers the current relicensing process. His bill would limit each dam's environmental review period to one year, and require FERC to balance the dams' economic viability with environmental considerations.
"(Environmentalists) get de facto stoppage if they can force the price up high enough on relicensing," says Craig spokesman Mike Tracy. With the energy crunch, "We can't afford to do that in the Pacific Northwest right now," he says.
But critics of Craig's bill say the lengthy process gives government agencies the time they need to conduct adequate environmental assesments. These can lead to measures such as fish ladders, regulated water flows, and habitat improvements, all of which help fish populations survive in dammed rivers. Critics also say the delays are often caused by dam operators who don't complete applications on time.
Matt Sicchio of the Hydropower Reform Coalition, an environmental group, says that the issue is especially critical because over 450 dams are due for relicensing in the next decade. "If we don't get it right from an environmental standpoint now, I'm going to have to wait till my grandchildren are around to try again."