Hydropower doesn't need any more loopholes

 

A bill pending in the U.S. Senate would give the hydroelectric industry and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission the kind of unconditional authority more akin to what the Robber Barons enjoyed in the late 1800s, than to what reasonable people might expect today.

Consider the last time a plan like Senate Bill 1236 was hatched. It was 2005. If anyone wonders how, during the last decade, a million new gas wells got drilled while people's water supplies were fouled, streams depleted, sewage plants overloaded and air polluted, look no further than the "Halliburton loophole" — a Dick-Cheney-greased act of Congress. That Bush-era law exempted the gas industry from regulations that otherwise apply to the injection of undisclosed toxins into groundwater.

Now, with Congress leaning in its favor, the hydropower industry wants to ensure its share of fracking-style freedom. Proposed by Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the so-called Hydropower Improvement Act of 2015 would exempt the industry from long-standing laws that protect rivers and streams from pollution.

Under the guise of promoting renewable energy, the bill would eliminate the ability of fish and wildlife agencies to require compromises when those public resources are imperiled. It would restrict the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency and the states to uphold accepted standards for pollution, temperature, and flow under the Clean Water Act and other statutes, and make sure that they are not violated. The bill would limit citizen involvement and appeals when members of the public, including local governments and Indian tribes, are concerned about their rivers, jobs and communities. It would dispose of due process in investigation, review and negotiation, giving sole authority to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, whose mission, political culture and history is unabashedly to increase hydropower production.

Because this measure slashes virtually all ties of hydro-proposals to environmental regulations, it makes you wonder about its sponsors' boast that they are ensuring "clean" energy. If this bill is so great for the environment, why does it eliminate environmental reviews?

Clean energy sounds good, and some hydropower plans pose little conflict with other public values. But many other hydroelectric proposals come with sticky strings attached. Dams that are built for hydroelectric production flood canyons, valleys, forests, rivers and homes. The diversions to generators dry up rivers needed by fish, including our legendary salmon in California and the Northwest. Power production alters the schedule of flows, so that floods get released during one hour but are turned into trickles during the next, leaving fish either flushed out or high-and-dry. Hydropower development can also warm rivers at a time when temperature pollution is one of the most pressing problems for surviving fisheries and endangered species.

This unnecessary act of Congress would abandon a time-tested process of cooperation and negotiation that for decades has led to better hydroelectric production. For example, on the North Fork Feather River in California — otherwise an exquisite stream of the Sierra Nevada — hydroelectric plants for years dried up channels and flushed flows so erratically that they endangered the lives of anglers. After all sides recognized their responsibilities and the need to compromise, the flows were revised to produce power while sustaining other uses of the river. The Feather has since become a recreational hotspot that fuels the local economy.

On the Deschutes River of Oregon, salmon and steelhead that had been unable to reach their spawning grounds since 1958 (despite official state objection) are on their way again, thanks to an agreement between the power producer, Indian tribes and resource agencies. Everyone will benefit.

At the Yuba River in California, the Chelan in Washington, the Bear in Idaho, and dozens of others throughout the country, agreements have been peacefully and economically negotiated. These better outcomes include laws like the Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act that gave citizens and public agencies some say in the fate of our public waterways.

The Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, representing agencies in all 50 states, opposes this measure — deceptively called "hydropower regulatory modernization" -- as a giant step backward. Our laws governing hydropower are working well. Legitimate power producers are doing a good job. We don't need to pander to those who aspire to become Robber Barons in our own time.

Tim Palmer is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the column service of High Country News. He is the author of Rivers of America, Rivers of California and other books, and lives in Oregon.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds
  • STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    New Mexico Land Conservancy (Santa Fe, NM), Stewardship Coordinator - Seeking highly motivated individual with excellent interpersonal skills to coordinate stewardship activities and support conservation...
  • 40-ACRE LAMBORN MOUNTAIN RETREAT, PAONIA, CO
    One-of-a-kind gem borders public lands/West Elk Wilderness. Privacy, creek, spring, irrigation, access. $270,000. Info at https://hcne.ws/LambornMT or call 970-683-0588 or 970-261-5928.
  • RECRUITMENT & HIRING MANAGER WITH WRA
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is seeking a dynamic, organized, and creative person with great people skills to be our Recruitment & Hiring Manager to recruit...
  • CLEAN ENERGY ATTORNEY (NM) AND POLICY ASSOCIATE/ANALYST (AZ & NV)
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is looking for a variety of positions around the West with our Clean Energy Program. Currently we are hiring a Staff...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, HAWKWATCH INTERNATIONAL
    We are seeking an experienced dynamic leader for a growing conservation organization; $65,000-75,000 salary plus benefits; job description and apply at hawkwatch.org/executivedirector
  • FRIENDS OF THE INYO IS HIRING FOR THE SUMMER OF 2019
    Friends of the Inyo is excited to post our seasonal job offerings for the summer of 2019! We are hiring Trail Ambassadors, Stewardship Crew Members,...
  • DONOR RELATIONS MANAGER
    This position is responsible for the identification and qualification of major and planned gift prospects and assists in cultivating and soliciting donors through meetings, trips,...
  • STREAMFLOW RESTORATION IMPLEMENTATION LEAD (ENVIRONMENTAL PLANNER 4)
    Keeping Washington Clean and Evergreen Protecting Washington State's environment for current and future generations is what we do every day at Ecology. We are a...
  • SENIOR STORMWATER ENGINEER (ENVIRONMENTAL ENGINEER 5)
    Keeping Washington Clean and Evergreen Our Water Quality Program is looking to hire a Senior Stormwater Engineer at our Headquarters building in Lacey, WA This...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, family farms, challenging politics, and big conservation opportunities? Do you have leadership abilities, experience with rural land protection,...
  • MAJOR GIFT OFFICER
    University of Wyoming Foundation Haub School of ENR, Biodiversity Institute, Environmental/Natural Resource Programs https://uwyo.taleo.net/careersection/00_ex/jobdetail.ftl?job=19001001&tz=GMT-06:00
  • MONTANA LAND STEWARD
    The Montana Land Steward develops, manages, and advances conservation programs, plans, and methods related to TNC's property interest portfolio in Montana. For more information and...
  • RAISER'S EDGE DATABASE ADMINISTRATOR
    POSITION DESCRIPTION: RAISER'S EDGE DATABASE ADMINISTRATOR The Raiser's Edge Database Administrator ensures the integrity and effectiveness of the member/donor database by developing systems and processes...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    We are hiring a Director of Development Full time, competitive pay and benefits. Location: Bozeman,MT Visit www.greateryellowstone.org/careers for details GYC is an equal opportunity employer
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, KANIKSU LAND TRUST
    Kaniksu Land Trust, a community-supported non-profit land trust serving north Idaho and northwest Montana, is in search of a new executive director. The ideal candidate...
  • MARKETING AND COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Arizona Wildlife Federation seeks an energetic Marketing and Communications Director. Please see the full job description at https://azwildlife.org/jobs
  • 3 POSITIONS: ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR, DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR, AND FOREST PROGRAMS ASSOCIATE
    Mountain Studies Inst (MSI) in Durango and Silverton, CO is hiring 3 staff: Please visit mountainstudies.org/careers for Assoc Director, Dev and Engagement Director, and Forest...
  • CENTER FOR COLLABORATIVE CONSERVATION DIRECTOR, COLORADO STATE UNIVERSITY
    The Center for Collaborative Conservation is hiring a full-time, permanent Director. Applications are due on March 31. Description can be found at http://jobs.colostate.edu/postings/65118 No phone...
  • PROGRAM AND OUTREACH COORDINATOR
    Program and Outreach Coordinator - Dolores River Boating Advocates, a conservation and recreation minded non-profit based in Dolores, CO, is hiring a 20 hour/week Program...
  • CHIEF OPERATING OFFICER/DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Friends of Cedar Mesa seeks a skilled non-profit leader to play a crucial role in protecting the greater Bears Ears landscape. Experience working with government...