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New Hydro Projects in the Pacific Northwest

Posted: 01/08/2003
by Thomas O'Keefe

A flurry of recent activity from Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and private hydro developers has marked the return of micro-hydro projects. Over the past few months FERC has released Final EIS documents recommending construction for projects that were first proposed nearly a decade ago. One of these projects is proposed for Clearwater Creek which has emerged as a popular class V creek run in recent years, and a second project is proposed for Martin Creek which was featured in Twitch 2000.

Both of these projects are on public land and are being promoted by the Administration as a key component of our national energy policy. In fact, the private interests behind these projects submitted written testimony to the Administration's Energy Task Force expressing their concern for "stalled projects". Shortly after this testimony was provided, FERC recommended projects for licensing which had been in review for many years. It should be noted that the reason these projects have been in review for so long is that every agency scientist who has reviewed them has found that serious environmental impacts will occur if they are constructed. In the case of Clearwater Creek, the DNR cited numerous conflicts with their Habitat Conservation Plan for the watershed, the Department of Interior has found that FERC has not fully recognized project impacts, and the EPA states that information in the Final EIS demonstrates that "there is no compelling public interest need for the presently proposed project". The agencies further note that impacts to ESA-listed species, old-growth forest, "extraordinary" water characteristics, and cultural resources of local tribes are inadequately considered. For an account of this project as it appeared in the local press see the Bellingham Herald article.

Project promoters identify micro hydro as low impact, run-of-the-river, hydroelectric power production systems that are environmentally friendly. The implication is that by being small, the facilities will have minimal impact, but the fact is they produce very little power (often only enough for 1000-3000 homes) such that the environmental impacts relative to the energy output are highly significant. Plans to produce hydropower in this manner extend north of the border to Canada where BC Hydro has identified 600 potential projects, and aims to obtain close to 10% of its power through micro-hydro projects by 2010. The consequences on both sides of the border are obvious--it will take hundreds of these projects to provide a meaningful source of electric power with the result that the region's world-class creek runs are at risk.

What are American Whitewater Staff and Volunteers Doing?

American Whitewater, as a founding member of the Hydropower Reform Coalition, has been working with coalition members to make sure our interests are represented in any procedural or legislative reforms to the hydro power licensing process. Staff are working in Washington DC and volunteers are working around the country to protect opportunities for public participation in the hydropower licensing process (additional information).

On the ground, local volunteers have been working with American Whitewater to formally participate in the hydro relicensing process and establish intervenor status (see the Hydro power Toolkit housed on the American Rivers site). Over the past few months, volunteers assembled information from paddlers who call Clearwater Creek their home run, and worked with Conservation Director John Gangemi to file a formal motion of intervention with FERC (view document). In addition, we worked closely with other non-profits including American Rivers to coordinate our efforts. While this occurred, American Whitewater's Executive Director Risa Shimoda represented our interest in Clearwater Creek at FERC by testifying during a formal hearing to discuss "stalled hydroprojects". The fact that paddlers never even imagined a hydro project was being planned for this stream, and only discovered this after the Final EIS was issued has made our task particularly challenging. Considerable effort went towards making a strong case for our involvement at this late stage in the process. These preliminary efforts culminated in a ruling from FERC granting our intervenor status. This provides us with new level of standing within the licensing process for Clearwater Creek and we will now aggressively pursue options that protect recreational interests. We have recently requested dismissal of the license for this project (view document)

How do I find out what's going on and stay informed?

Conservation Director John Gangemi coordinates American Whitewater's hydropower activities on a national level. Tom O'Keefe and Rich Bowers have volunteered to lead efforts on the Clearwater Creek and the other projects in Washington State. Feel free to contact Tom, Rich, or John if you have questions or comments. If you are interested in getting on FERC's public mailing list for these projects, any member of the public can send a letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Office of the Secretary, 888 First St., N.E., Washington, DC 20426. Within FERC, projects are identified by a docket number and you'll need to reference this when making your request. The Martin Creek project is docket number 10942-001. The Clearwater Creek project docket number is 11495-000. To review public documents submitted for either of these projects, you can use FERC's document retrieval system called FERRIS (document search interface). To see if your favorite local creek run has been assessed for it's hydro potential check the small-hydro atlas. Additional updates will be posted on our website as information becomes available. In Canada, check Stuart Smith's diversion news for the latest news on projects north of the border.

What else can I do?

First, if you haven't paid your American Whitewater dues please take the time to do so. Increased membership numbers and funding provide us with the resources required to make sure paddler and natural resource interests are effectively represented. If you're already a member, encourage others to join or consider giving them a gift membership. Keep your eyes and ears open for projects that may impact whitewater resources. Resource agency staff that are often first alerted to hydro project plans are not aware of the recreation potential of many small streams. If you have friends or colleagues working in natural resource agencies make them aware of your interest in recreational opportunities on small high-gradient streams. You can also help by documenting recreational use. We have learned that FERC and other agency staff have been checking our web site when conducting research associated with hydro licensing. If you have a favorite creek run that's been neglected on our site, consider joining the growing group of StreamKeepe r volunteers. If you have valuable local knowledge, American Whitewater has a dedicated group of web volunteers who can help you get started.