Smolts, Volts Charge Dam Renewals

Article excerpt

FOR many communities and industries around the United States, the key to economic progress has been cheap, clean hydropower. Now, hundreds of those power projects - many dating back to the early part of the century - are due for relicensing.

The political process, involving electric utilities, conservation groups, local officials, and competing federal agencies, highlights shifting public values, and it promises to be complicated.

According to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), more than 320 hydropower licenses for privately owned dams will expire before the end of the decade - more than half of those (166 projects involving 237 dams) just within the next 24 months.

Since this is the first time for renewal, and since licenses typically are granted for 30-to-50 year periods, environmentalists see this as a crucial time to affect hydropower policy.

"These hydropower projects have profoundly altered the natural functions and ecological health of river systems across the nation," says Matthew Huntington of the group American Rivers. "The projects have destroyed numerous fisheries, upset the balance of nature within riparian ecosystems, and impaired the recreational value of rivers. Hydropower relicensing is a once-in-50-year opportunity to bring these rivers back to life."

Fred Springer, director of the FERC's office of hydropower relicensing, acknowledges that environmental issues present a "significant challenge," but adds that providing energy is an equally valid national concern.

"Today there's heavy emphasis on protecting environmental values. Twenty years from now the picture may be different," he said in an agency newsletter. "If we're hit with a shortage of peaking power, or world oil prices shoot up, a new generation may have different priorities than today's." Concrete and steel

The Pacific Northwest is known for its massive federal hydropower projects, but smaller private dams are found throughout the US. Of those FERC hydropower dams due for relicensing this year and next, 43 are in New York State, 34 in Wisconsin, 29 in Maine, and 28 in Michigan. According to American Rivers, some 60,000 dams exist nationwide, impounding approximately 600,000 miles of river. Most were built for flood control and irrigation, the rest for energy production. Hydropower makes up about 10 percent of total US electrical generating capacity.

Among those rivers adversely impacted by dams, environmentalists cite:the Kennebec River in Maine, the Deschutes River in Oregon, the Beaver and Raquette rivers in New York, the Pine River in Wisconsin, and the Au Sable and Manistee Rivers in Michigan. …