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Department of Energy - Still Aiming to Dam Every River?

Posted: 04/13/2015
By: Megan Hooker
Last month Politico reported that top Department of Energy officials continue to push their ambitious goal to double hydropower production in the U.S. by 2030. Hydropower companies have taken note since the DOE first announced its goal last year, and they continue to gear up to help. With less than 2% of our rivers in the lower 48 left relatively undeveloped, the Department of Energy’s vision to dam every possible river to double hydropower production is not one that we can afford to see. 
The idea comes out of the Department of Energy's 2014 New Stream-reach Development Resource Assessment, which shows the potential for 65.5 GWs of new hydropower across the country. The report acknowledges that developing all of the rivers on the list would not “be practical or feasible to develop for various reasons.” The Energy Secretary’s goal and continued statements from Department of Energy staff ignore this basic premise and embolden the hydropower industry to attempt to roll back bedrock environmental protections that keep our remaining wild rivers free flowing.
If the industry is successful, with encouragement from Department of Energy, it would spell the end of every river, including many whitewater rivers that we cherish across the country. The Department of Energy list of potential rivers to dam in order to reach the 65.5 GW goal includes some of the following whitewater classics:
  • Middlebury, Mongaup and Deerfield Rivers and Forks of the Penobscot in New England;
  • Tuckasegee, Watauga and Daddy's Creek in the Southeast;
  • Gooney Run and Maury Rivers in Virginia;
  • Madison, Smith and Yellowstone Rivers in the Northern Rockies;
  • Arkansas River in Colorado;
  • Wenatchee and Clackamas Rivers in the Pacific Northwest;
  • Smith, Feather and Forks of the American in California. 
These whitewater gems, and so many more targeted in the report, are the backbone of local and regional recreation economies across the country. Our nation's headwater river and stream reaches are precious, and also provide drinking water and sustain healthy fish and wildlife populations.  
American Whitewater is deeply concerned to see that this goal continues to be promoted as a viable possibility, despite the fact that the DOE's own report says that it's not feasible. In order to double hydropower by 2030, key environmental protections will have to be rolled back. We'll continue to keep our eye on what this could mean for the future of environmental protections and our nation's rivers. Stay tuned for updates.
Want more detailed information about why going for this goal just doesn't make sense? Read on...
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1) Reaching the Energy Secretary’s goal has some heavy implications for environmental and water laws and policies. In order to dam every possible river and meet the 65.5 GW goal, important state and federal laws will need to be bypassed. These include the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, fish passage requirements in the Federal Power Act., and regional protections on tens of thousands of miles of sensitive rivers on the Pacific Northwest. It also means that the federal government would bypass long-standing state laws to seize privately held water rights from cities, industries and irrigation districts for hydropower. 
2) Hydropower is neither "clean" nor "sustainable." The Department of Energy and hydropower industry often describe hydropower as “clean and sustainable,” despite the fact that the devastating impact that hydropower has on rivers has been thoroughly documented. Hydropower typically dewaters rivers, although operations can also create unnatural flood-like conditions. Sometimes they switch between the two in a matter of weeks, days, or even hours. Hydropower operations impair water quality, restrict the public’s access, and eliminate certain kinds of recreation. See American Whitewater's dam impact page for more information about how hydropower impacts rivers. Additionally, dams with large reservoirs release methane and contribute to climate change
3) The benefits of hydropower would not be realized. One of the benefits of hydropower is that it helps to provide on-demand energy when other sources (such as solar and wind) are lagging. The DOE New Stream-reach Resource Development was designed to primarily edentify "run-of-river" projects (i.e. those with limited storage), which would not provide this service. Additionally, the greatest potential for new hydropower was found in the Pacific Northwest, where hydropower operations peak during winter and spring storms, when there is minimal need for additional power. 
4) The future of hydropower is uncertain in drought-prone regions. As extreme drought grips California, we're seeing significant impacts to hydropower production in the state. As we face changing precipitation patterns and melting glaciers, similar reductions are likely in other regions that are prone to drought.
5) Hydropower is an uneconomical way to meet our energy needs. The Energy Information Administration's 2014 Annual Energy Outlook says that only 2 GW of additional hydropower are possible because of economics and policy restrictions. This has proven to be true in the Pacific Northwest, where over a dozen of proposed hydropower projects have fallen through in recent years. 
6) While we face challenging energy issues, we do not need to destroy another single mile of river to meet our future energy needs. If new hydropower is going to be part of the picture as part of the Obama Administration’s “all of the above” energy strategy, there are opportunities to improve efficiencies at existing hydropower dams and to add hydropower capabilities to existing non-power dams. In fact, in April 2012, the Energy Department found that there is potential to add 12 GW of power to hydropower production by adding power capacity to non-powered dams. See the Non-powered Dam Resource Assessment for more information.
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