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California Rejects BC Hydro

Posted: 01/21/2014
by Megan Hooker

On January 15th, 2014, the California Energy Commission adopted a final report that reaffirms the integrity of the state's Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) regarding imported hydropower. After 5 years of hard work, American Whitewater and our partners in the California Hydropower Reform Coalition (CHRC) and river advocates in British Columbia are celebrating this important victory, which will have a reaching impact on rivers across the border.

What do rivers in B.C. have to do with California's RPS? In 2011, the state legislature passed the California Renewable Energy Resources Act (Senate Bill X1 2), increasing the state's RPS goal from 20% to 33% by 2020. In a rush to capitalize on this new standard in the years leading up to the bill's passage, hydropower developers in B.C. and utilities in California pushed the idea of allowing new hydropower development in B.C. to be considered as renewable.

The types of hydro projects under consideration were labeled as "run-of-river," a misleading term that hydropower developers use to make their projects sound environmentally friendly. "Run of river" simply means that a hydropower project does not store water. These projects still involve dams and diversions, dewater river reaches, and impact the amount and timing of flows.

Focusing on the demand and market for power from B.C. in California is part of our overall strategy to keep great rivers across the border, like Callaghan Creek, free-flowing. With the province currently awash in excess power, the hopes of many developers rest on the idea of exporting their power to the U.S.

The CHRC worked hard to keep these projects out of California's RPS bill, but despite our efforts, the B.C. hydro provision made it into the final bill in 2011. As a result, the California Energy Commission was required to study whether B.C. hydro projects are, or should be, considered eligible. Under California's RPS law, power imported from facilities outside of the state must be constructed and operated to be as protective of the environment as a similar facility located in California. Additionally, they are only eligible if they do not "cause an adverse impact on in stream beneficial uses or cause a change in the value or timing of streamflow." (See the Lead Commissioner's report.)

B.C.'s environmental laws around hydropower are much more lax than those of California, and the hydropower projects in B.C. have significant impacts on rivers and streams, including changing the amount and timing of streamflow. Knowing this, members of the CHRC, including American Whitewater California Stewardship Director and CHRC Chair Dave Steindorf, met with representatives, testified at hearings, mobilized opposition to B.C. hydro as part of RPS, and educated the Commission about what "run of river" hydropower really looks like. Keith Nakatani of the California Hydropower Reform Coalition, Gwen Barlee of the Wilderness Committee, and Arthur Caldicott and Aaron Hill of Watershed Watch were particularly instrumental in the process.

Our efforts paid off last week, when the Lead Commissioner issued the final report, finding that any new or repowered project in B.C. would not comply with California's standard for imported RPS power, and that there was no reason to recommend that the existing RPS eligibility requirements be modified.

While this victory does not guarantee that developers will not move forward with hydro projects in B.C., it does insure that the economic incentive to build these projects will not come from California. It is also important to note that California utilities have found that they can meet the new 33% RPS standard without the destructive impacts of new hydropower. Even in the face of powerful economic forces, boaters, anglers and other conservation groups can reach across borders to protect rivers.