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
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. …