March 1, 2017
By John Siciliano
House Republicans on Wednesday will help draw attention to endangered species rules that are limiting the expansion of hydro-electric dams and could impede President Trump's infrastructure development goals.
The House Natural Resources Committee is holding a Wednesday hearing to examine environmental obstacles to boosting water power. Republicans note that in some parts of Washington state, hydropower can contribute up to 70 percent of the electricity consumed, but makes up just 7 percent of the nation's electricity supply.
The committee's memo on the hearing explained that hydropower is the only form of renewable energy that can provide low-cost electricity around the clock. Solar and wind are intermittent and not capable of providing electric power 24-hours a day.
"However, some believe hydropower projects can have negative impacts on migratory fish, wildlife and their habitats as well as water quality," the memo said. "For a number of reasons, some have described hydropower's growth as 'stagnant' when compared to other electricity sources."
A Republican aide said regulations meant to protect fish species can bog down development, and reform is needed or risk losing a number of hydropower dams in the West.
The issue was underscored last week when the National Marine and Fisheries Service sent a letter to the nation's grid watchdog, detailing concerns that the repair of the Oroville Dam in California, the site of a major disaster, could be problematic for salmon and sturgeon fish populations.
The Oroville Dam, the tallest dam in the nation, has been the focus of a major repair effort in the northern part of state after a spillway used to relieve pressure on the dam suffered major damage due to heavy rains.
The result has been a flood emergency that has lasted several weeks, and resulted in nearly 200,000 people evacuating from their homes. President Trump declared it a national emergency and made federal aid available for the relief effort.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is overseeing the repairs at the dam because of its jurisdictional authority over hydropower facilities. The fisheries agency said in the letter that a plan to stop water from flowing from the dam's spillway, which needs to occur in order to begin repairs, would lower river levels to dangerous levels for fish species in the Feather River. The agency is recommending that the repair plan be changed to accommodate the fish.
"These requirements really are unbelievable and emblematic of the sometimes draconian and inflexible reading the Endangered Species Act and backwards priorities of the federal bureaucracy that delay and frustrate all types of activities, including water infrastructure," said Parish Braden, communications director for the Natural Resources Committee.
The fisheries agency explained that it is worried that the rapid reduction in flows from the spillway in order to initiate clean up "will have adverse effects" on salmon and sturgeon species.
"Significant decreases in river water elevation reduce the amount of habitat available to fish, and rapid reduction in the river elevation can result in mortalities due to fish being stranded, and standing of fish in pools," the agency explained.
Braden said, "this is an emergency and material has to be removed sooner, not later." He explained that the "flooding threat at the Dam has subsided for now, but another major rain event could bring the situation back to the brink again. There are both safety and environmental concerns at play here."
The fisheries agency said it doesn't want to interfere with the repair operation, and wants the energy commission to consider its recommendations in the effort. One of the recommendations included putting men in boats to survey and free stranded fish that may be trapped further downstream. The agency also wants dredging at the dam to prioritize opening up a channel to ensure water levels are highest for juvenile salmon further down river.
The conflict between endangered species protections and infrastructure development comes into greater focus when at least 24 percent of the nation's hydropower resources will need to be re-licensed by the end of Trump's first term.
Under the law, FERC must take into consideration the concerns of the fisheries agency in granting permits, which the GOP-led committee said is causing heartburn for dam operators. Opening newer plants can take more than a decade because of these wildlife protections, according to the memo.
"Some have proposed reforms to the current relicensing process, including establishing a defined process at FERC to avoid overlapping or conflicting authorities, developing a system to quickly identify issues and significant flaws early in the process, and expediting judicial review, among other recommendations," the memo said.
The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is also holding a hearing on Wednesday focused on the recent Oroville Dam disaster and other river and dam issues blamed for recent flooding.
Aides on the committee were not specific to the issues that would likely arise at the Wednesday hearing, but the panel's chairman John Barrasso, R-Wyo., wrote a recent op-ed where he calls for major bipartisan reform of federal endangered species protections.
"We need to help more species recover while avoiding unnecessary economic harm to the people with whom they share the land," Barrasso said in the Feb. 25 op-ed published in his home state's Casper Star Tribune. "I believe that together, Republican and Democrat, West and East, we can make the Endangered Species Act work better."
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