AW Defends State Agency's Ability to Protect CA Rivers

posted May 13, 2013
by Megan Hooker

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In late 2012, PG&E directly challenged the authority of California’s water quality agency to protect the beneficial uses of rivers impacted by hydropower projects. PG&E, which owns and operates a significant percentage of the hydropower dams in California, claimed that the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) lacks the authority to implement the Clean Water Act in relationship to required federal hydropower licenses. On Tuesday, May 7, American Whitewater and our partners testified at a hearing before the SWRCB, standing up for the agency’s authority to protect the public interest and respond to changing conditions in the future, including climate change.

PG&E is required to obtain a license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (“FERC”) to operate their dams, and these licenses are subject to terms and conditions outlined by the SWRCB to ensure that the project complies with the Clean Water Act and protects the beneficial uses of California’s rivers. FERC licenses typically last 30-50 years, and one of the biggest challenges in developing these licenses is being able to predict all of the potential changes that could happen during the license term.

“Fear of the unknown and uncertainty is one of the most difficult things to grapple with when creating these license conditions,” stated Dave Steindorf, American Whitewater’s California Stewardship Director. “We are all concerned about what effects climate change may bring. The Board has a significant challenge in attempting to protect all beneficial uses in this uncertain future.” Steindorf also went on to say, “American Whitewater also understands PG&E's concern with their ability to provide power at a reasonable cost to their consumers in the future.”

Unfortunately, PG&E's solution for dealing with future uncertainty is to reduce the SWRCB's ability to adapt to change. The utility proposes to limit the SWRCB’s capacity to revisit the very terms and conditions in the license that the agency set. PG&E contends that any changes to their license could be dealt with by FERC, and the SWRCB would not need to be involved with making decisions that relate to water quality.

PG&E described the FERC amendment process as being open and collaborative, however American Whitewater has not found this to be the case. On Northern California’s Pit River, PG&E has recommended that the FERC license on the Pit 1 Hydroelectric Project be amended to eliminate flushing flows, which provide a very important recreational opportunity for whitewater boaters. American Whitewater has repeatedly requested meetings with FERC and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to discuss this potential license amendment. Even under the threat of a lawsuit, both of these federal agencies have refused to meet with us. The idea that the public should allow all potential license amendments to be handled by these agencies is completely unacceptable. Additionally, PG&E actively sought the amendment on Pit 1 from the SWRCB, and nowhere during the process has PG&E raised an issue as to whether the agency had the authority to do so.

American Whitewater and our partners have been and continue to be heavily involved in the negotiations that surround developing FERC licenses on rivers such as the North Fork Feather, American, Rubicon, Yuba, Pit and McCloud. The Clean Water Act protects important river values such as water quality, recreation, instream flows for habitat protection, and drinking water supplies. It often ensures that the public interest is balanced with hydropower pursuits. American Whitewater and our partners in the California Hydropower Reform Coalition stood up for the SWRCB’s authority on May 7th, 2013, and we will continue to do so even if PG&E chooses to litigate this issue in the future.