Power Crisis May Spark Clean Water Act
A major policy battle is brewing over the extent of Clean Water Act controls on hydroelectric dams as federal regulators push to re-license more than 500 dams, many of which are located in energy-strapped western states. The Bush administration and Senate Republicans may try to expand the generating capacity of aging hydroelectric facilities, which environmentalists and some state officials say should come under greater scrutiny.
Senate Republicans last week introduced an energy policy bill that appears to vest primary authority over all hydroelectric issues, including environmental reviews, under the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, observers say. But Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber (D) told a House subcommittee Feb. 28 that he wants to see Congress strengthen provisions in the Clean Water Act that give states, rather than FERC, authority to regulate the water quality impact of hydroelectric dams.
Testifying before the House water resources and environment subcommittee, Kitzhaber warned federal lawmakers, "It is critical that Congress bolster the states' [existing] authorities and resist anything that would make the authority more difficult to implement . . .Oregon would oppose any effort to remove or weaken the mandatory conditioning authority that federal and state environmental agencies must be able to exercise . . . to protect water quality and endangered species."
At the same time, environmentalists are ramping up efforts to limit energy production from existing hydroelectric dams as well as safeguarding Clean Water Act protections from legislative assault. Led by American Rivers, environmentalists have formed a coalition of national and local groups seeking to protect natural resources from hydroelectric expansion. "We want to ensure no net loss of water quality," because there is a general fear that "existing dams seeking to add new turbines may not need to meet water quality standards," one environmentalist says. Additional turbines, the source says, could divert water out of the river and alter flows in a manner detrimental to river ecosystems.
The issue may be further complicated by a recent federal court ruling that environmental requirements should not be circumvented to avoid power shortages. Specifically, the United States District Court for the District of Oregon Feb. 16 decided in Nez Perce Tribe of Idaho v. United States Army Corps of Engineers that the Corps is responsible for ensuring that the federal hydropower system in the Snake River complies with Clean Water Act requirements. Environmentalists say the ruling will help them protect the environment as the relicensing process moves forward.
The issue is being pushed to the forefront as FERC begins its process of reviewing requests for renewing the operating license for hundreds of hydroelectric dams, many of which are seeking to increase electricity production as California and other western states are struggling to ensure adequate power supplies, industry and environmental sources say.
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