Future of Aging Dams in US Comes under Federal Scrutiny

Article excerpt

WHEN Sen. Bob Packwood visited southern Oregon recently it wasn't health care or crime or the Republican lawmaker's alleged sexual misconduct that his constituents wanted to talk about. It was a pair of dams along the Rogue River.

Should the 73-year-old Savage Rapids Dam be replaced with pumps and pipes? Should the Elk Creek Dam, only partially built and a major impediment to dwindling stocks of salmon and steelhead, be demolished?

Mr. Packwood promised to do what he could in Washington, but he wasn't very hopeful about Uncle Sam's coming up with extra funds for either project.

There's a growing debate over the relicensing or decommissioning of hundreds of dams. Environmentalists say hydropower is not entirely "clean" - i.e., dams harm wildlife habitat. The power industry is defending its economic interests. Some towns worry about losing sources of electricity, irrigation, flood control, and recreation that attract tourists.

Now the controversy centers around what to do about dams that may have outlived their usefulness, and who calls the shots.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), overseer of some 1,800 dams, has issued a "notice of inquiry" that has all interested parties scrambling.

The five commissioners, appointed by President Clinton, haven't said they will clamp down on dams of dubious worth. But they have posed for public response questions that make it clear they may do that. Questions are technical and legalistic, but they amount to this:Does the FERC have authority to order decommissioning of dams and, if so, can it require dam owners to pay for it?

Commission chairwoman Elizabeth Moler, a former staff member of the Senate Energy Committee who is seen as more activist than her predecessors, also has indicated that this somewhat arcane policy issue is to be opened to greater public scrutiny. She has ordered administrative reforms, including the preparation of more environmental-impact statements involving a "substantial increase" in public participation. "She's trying her darnedest to move the commission in the right direction," says Matthew Huntington of the conservation group American Rivers. Federal Power Act

The "notice of inquiry" on dam decommissioning has brought considerable response.

The Hydropower Reform Coalition of conservation groups cites legislative history and court precedent to assert that FERC has authority and responsibility to formulate a decommissioning policy under the 1920 Federal Power Act (FPA).

And the cost of decommissioning - which can range from tearing down dams to "replumbing" them to restore more natural water flows - shouldn't be borne by taxpayers, coalition spokesmen say. …