• picture
  • picture
  • picture
  • picture
Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Dam Relicensing

Air Date: Week of

Tom Verde reports on the fight over the relicensing of many of the country's hydroelectric dams. Two hundred and thirty dams are up for Federal relicensing this year. Environmentalists have seized on recent legislation in asking Federal regulators to look more closely at the ecological impact of dams.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

It's long been regarded as one of the safest, cleanest and most renewable source of energy. But today, hydroelectric power is under the gun. Critics claim it can cause considerable environmental damage, from blocked fish migrations to habitat erosion. More than 200 hydroelectric plants are in line for renewal of their Federal licenses this year, and environmentalists are challenging some of those applications. Few actually want the dams removed. What they do want is more compensation for ecological costs. Reporter Tom Verde traveled to Maine for our story.

(Sound of mountain stream, rushing water)

VERDE: Maine's mighty river systems typically start out like this, as tiny streams gurgling through mountain forests. But as this water gains momentum on its way to the sea, it becomes a valuable commodity.

FLAGG: All this water that's spilling over this dam right now represents energy that could be kilowatts. That water represents, right there, a lot of money.

VERDE: Louis Flagg works for the Maine Department of Marine Resources. While he recognizes that hydroelectric dams provide necessary energy, he says they've had a disastrous effect on several of Maine's migratory fish populations.

FLAGG: They prohibit them from being able to ascend above the dam to their historical spawning areas. Dams also alter the river environment, for some of the more valuable migratory species, such as salmon, shad and rainbow smelt, as well as striped bass.

(Sound of lapping water)

VERDE: And they also create fluctuating water levels downstream which destroy wildlife habitat, cause water quality problems and inhibit recreational activities such as boating and fishing.

( Sound of dam )

VERDE: A lot has changed since the last time these dams were relicensed some 30 to 50 years ago. Companies must now balance their power needs with a host of new environmental laws. Most important is a 1986 act which requires the government to give quote "equal consideration" to power development and the preservation of ecological and recreational river uses.

SOSLAND: The significant legal point here is that these rivers are public resources. They're not owned by these private companies.

VERDE: Dan Sosland is an attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation, one of several interest groups intervening in the relicensing of hydroelectric dams.

SOSLAND: The dams generate, in New England alone, billions of dollars worth of electricity. But if you look at the enormous resource that's at stake, you realize there's an incredible opportunity here for long-term environmental protection, and a responsibility by the dam owners to provide compensation to the public that's somewhat commensurate with the value they're extracting from the water.

(Sound of dam)

VERDE: It's not an unprecedented idea. Private companies pay the Federal Government timber and grazing fees. Environmental groups aren't asking dam owners to pay per se, they just want companies to invest more in improving rivers. Some dam owners, like Central Maine Power, with eleven dams up for relicensing, have been willing to alter their facilities as long as it's cost-effective. But when Federal regulators asked for a wetlands study and other work at one dam, company spokesperson Tim Vrable said CMP had to make a decision.

VRABLE: And when we looked at the cost of completing those requests, we said, well, the cost that we're being asked to pick up is more than what the dam is worth, in fact it's about a million dollars more.

VERDE: Environmental interest groups make it clear that putting hydro dams out of commission isn't one of their objectives. Protecting land around dams, however, is. This is an issue at Maine's Ripogenus Dam. Ripogenus is one of several dams owned and operated by Bowater, parent company of Great Northern Paper, which has been using the West Branch of the Penobscot River to power its mills and paper processing plants for decades. Environmentalists have asked Bowater to promise that huge tracts of its shorefront holdings in northern Maine will never be sold for development. Bowater has rejected the request, saying such an agreement would compromise their rights as land owners. Bowater argues it's already compensated the public by building roads and providing access to this part of Maine. Company spokesperson Gordon Manual adds that dams have actually enhanced recreation by releasing water when the river might otherwise be dry.

MANUAL: You couldn't serve the flows for the rafters. You couldn't serve the flows for the fisheries that the state wants. You would impact the water levels for recreational people around those lakes. So, yeah, there probably is some environmental impact that is different than if you kept the levels at a constant level at the upper part of the hydro system, but it isn't possible to run the lower part of the hydro system unless you do that.

SOSLAND: That seems to be the traditional position of a lot of these dam owners: be happy we're here.

VERDE: Again, the Conservation Law Foundation's Dan Sosland.

SOSLAND: We wouldn't argue that dams provide some benefits. What we're saying is that these dam owners have an obligation and the Federal Government has an obligation on those dam owners to insure that these resources are optimized and protected.

VERDE: This responsibility belongs to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC. Some environmentalists have accused the commission of being overly sympathetic to dam owners, but FERC's director of hydropower licensing, Fred Springer, says his agency has always made it clear to dam operators that licenses must be balanced.

SPRINGER: They've always been told by the commission that the water is a public resource, and in preparing their relicense application it was made very clear to them that they are going to have to consider power generation along with being a good neighbor for the environment.

VERDE: According to Springer, the 1986 legislation requiring equal consideration has made dam relicensing more challenging for FERC, because there are so many more vested parties entering the discussion. The commission welcomes the challenge, and recently invited dam operators, environmentalists and state agencies to exchange ideas and opinions at a relicensing roundtable. Springer says those attempting to preserve rivers cannot expect to have all their demands met. But the four new Clinton appointees on the five-member commission, plus a new chairperson with a strong track record on environmental issues, sources at FERC indicate that hydro-electric dam operators will have to make more concessions to the environment than they have in the past. For Living on Earth, I'm Tom Verde.



Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

Living on Earth
62 Calef Highway, Suite 212
Lee, NH 03861
Telephone: 617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Newsletter [Click here]

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.

Creating positive outcomes for future generations.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.

Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth