Green Utility Takes Surprising Direction - Upper American River Project (CA)
Recently, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) made an unexpected move to advocate for policies that would undermine environmental protections in the Clean Water Act and the Federal Power Act. American Whitewater worked with SMUD and other stakeholders in negotiating a settlement agreement for the Upper American River Hydroelectric Project (UARP) that was signed by all parties in 2007. The final license for the project was issued in 2014 and included whitewater recreation flows to mitigate the impacts of its project.
Although SMUD is known for its commitment to environmental responsibility, it recently provided Congressional testimony in support of undermining environmental protections at hydropower projects. The testimony, which was in relation to a hearing in March before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce on “Modernizing Energy Infrastructure: Challenges and Opportunities to Expanding Hydropower Generation,” painted a one-sided scenario that blamed federal agency mandatory conditioning authority for the delays and costs of the relicensing process. They used the UARP as their lead example, stating that the project was no longer effective because of the recreational releases on the South Fork American River.
As a signatory to the relicensing settlement agreement that lead to the current hydropower license for the UARP, American Whitewater is obviously concerned by the testimony that SMUD submitted into the administrative record. SMUD’s complaints about the conditioning authority and the studies that ensued during the relicense are contrary to comments filed with FERC in 2007, in which it stated:
"SMUD and the Settling Parties have agreed that the Settlement appropriately balances all interests and resources related to relicensing of the UARP. SMUD applauds the efforts of the Settling parties in studying impacts of the UARP, assessing and analyzing study requests, understanding and working through differences, and ultimately negotiating the Settlement."
The Federal Power Act provides federal agencies with the authority to condition hydropower licenses to ensure that non-power values of rivers are protected from the negative impacts associated with hydropower projects. This “conditioning authority” is an essential tool used to promote a balance of interests. For instance, conditions on the UARP for minimum instream flows ensure that the appropriate amount of water is returned to the river to protect fish & wildlife and water quality. Additionally, conditions for recreational releases on the South Fork American River support the largest commercial rafting industry on the West Coast and private boating recreation that brings in more than $30 million to the local economy.
In response to SMUD’s testimony American Whitewater joined with American River Recreation Association, California Outdoors, California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, Foothill Conservancy, Friends of the River and Hilde Schweitzer in submitting a letter to the SMUD Board of Directors. Overall, it asks SMUD to support the relicensing settlement agreement and to pursue practical solutions rather than bad policy. We also requested a meeting with key Board members and senior staff. Our goal is to start a productive dialogue on hydropower relicensing policy and remind SMUD of their core value of environmental leadership.
Photos by Dave Steindorf - South Silver below Ice House Reservoir - UARP
 SMUD's 2/1/2007 Explanatory Statement and Request for Technical Conference filed with the UARP Relicensing Settlement Agreement. FERC eLibrary Accession No. 20070201-4014.