Groups Challenge New Federal Hydropower Rules

Deference to dam operators threatens rivers


Jan Hasselman, Earthjustice 206-343-7340 ext. 25
Robbin Marks, American Rivers, (202) 347-7550 ext. 3051

Under a new federal regulation issued last month, a number of companies that operate hydroelectric dams on rivers across the country hope to evade requirements meant to protect the health of rivers. If successful, numerous utilities would be able to avoid installing fish ladders, making sure rivers have enough water, and protecting fish and wildlife that are affected by their dams.

Years of negotiations between the utilities, states, local governments, tribes, and federal agencies have modernized existing dam operations and brought them into compliance with today’s environmental laws. But now, utilities are using these new rules to back out of agreed-upon protection measures designed to safeguard rivers from the damaging effects of dams. Under the rules, energy companies hope to remove or weaken protective requirements — even after they’ve been finalized as part of the licensing process.

“The new dam rules give utilities an unfair advantage,” said Robbin Marks, director of hydropower reform at American Rivers. “Now companies, whose dams have caused so much environmental damage over decades, expect to do even less to safeguard our rivers.”

A coalition — including American Rivers, Trout Unlimited, American Whitewater, Idaho Rivers United, Friends of the River, and Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper — has filed suit, charging that the new rules illegally allow challenges to already finalized measures that protect rivers from dams. The complaint also accuses federal agencies — Departments of Interior, Commerce, and Agriculture– of illegally publishing the new rules as “final” without ever having provided the opportunity for public comment on the draft rules.

“Conservation groups, tribes, and local communities across the country have worked for years in good faith to build consensus around the management of these dams and the rivers they impact,” said Jan Hasselman, an attorney at Earthjustice in Seattle, who is representing the coalition in the lawsuit. “Unfortunately, the Bush administration changed the rules to give dam owners unfair control over our nation’s greatest public resource — our rivers — without letting citizens and communities have a say.”

The move to scuttle on-going negotiations and weaken river protections is the direct result of the energy bill signed into law by President Bush in August. Because of that law, hydroelectric dam operators have new leverage to challenge requirements to build fish passage to allow fish to move around dams; protect lands on and around rivers; or help keep water clean and at natural flow levels. Under the law, industry and others also can propose their own preferred protection measures, which federal agencies must accept under many circumstances.

While many dams provide benefits, they also cause considerable harm to rivers, as well as local communities. Dams have depleted fisheries, degraded river ecosystems, and diminished recreational and economic opportunities on rivers across the nation. According to American Rivers, most existing dams could be operated in new and improved ways that reduce their current impacts on rivers.

“The public deserves to have a voice in how our rivers are managed,” said Steve Moyer, Vice-President of Government Affairs for Trout Unlimited, a party to the lawsuit. “The new rules stack the deck in favor of dams, at the expense of fish that need healthy rivers to thrive. They also deny concerned citizens the opportunity to offer smarter alternatives.”

Added Kevin Colburn, National Stewardship Director for American Whitewater: “It’s outrageous that these rules will hobble some of our most exciting current efforts to bring public recreation back to rivers.”

Some of the rivers at risk — for which American Rivers can provide local contacts — include: Feather River, California; Upper Chattahoochee River, Georgia; Snake River, Idaho and Washington; and Mid-Columbia River, Washington.



Additional Resources

About Earthjustice

Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people's health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.