CSPA and FERC
Hydroelectric Projects and Our Fisheries:
Every hydroelectric project in the United States is regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Each project whose capacity is greater than 5 Megawatts is licensed by FERC for a period of 30 to 50 years. Prior to the expiration of its license, every project operator must conduct a process called relicensing.
Thousands of miles of rivers and streams in California are affected by hydro projects: they are dammed, diverted, used for water conveyance, and used to absorb the outflow from power plants.
CSPA has long been active in hydro relicensing in order to improve fishing opportunities and fishery resources, many of which underwent serious declines over the past fifty or more years. In all too many previous licenses, conditions were created to protect power generation above all, and the fisheries and the rivers suffered terribly. Salmon and steelhead were cut off from upper watersheds, and were left to cook in low summer flows downstream of dams. Trout fisheries often survived more by luck than by plan, and many of these as well were badly degraded.
The simple answer is more water for fish.
We almost always ask that more of the water that was taken out of rivers and streams to operate generators be put back in the rivers and streams.
We also want high flows at times of year when they naturally occur. This moves gravel and keeps it in good condition for spawning fish.
We could sum up by saying that we want streamflows of sufficient duration, timing and magnitude so that fish can thrive, and so that we, and our kids, and our kids’ kids can enjoy fishing for them.
In some cases, we need to get fish past hydropower dams, so they can reach the habitat they need to reach to spawn, so that juvenile fish have good conditions in which to grow, and so that fish can get back downstream when they are big enough.
We also want streamflow information, so that we know what kind of water conditions we’ll find when we get to a river, and so that we can understand how flow in rivers is being managed.
Tall lower elevation “rim” dams, in the foothills just above the floor of California’s Central Valley, back up enough water that head is created by the height of the dams themselves. In such cases, a powerhouse is usually located at or near the base of a dam, or even inside a dam itself. One of the biggest problems with these rim dams is that they block salmon and steelhead from reaching the upper parts of watersheds, where historically they went to spawn.
In most cases, the presence of hydroelectric generation means that FERC has control over the flows in affected rivers. Flows in the Feather River below Oroville Reservoir, for instance, were just set in the FERC relicensing of the “Oroville Facilities,” even though the main purpose of the reservoir is water supply.
The following rivers and streams are among those in California that are directly affected by FERC licenses:
Klamath, Eel, Russian, McCloud, Pit, Hat Creek, Butte Creek, West Branch Feather, North Fork Feather, South Feather, Mainstem Feather, North Yuba, Middle Yuba, South Yuba, Mainstem Yuba, Middle Fork American, South Fork American, Mokelumne, North Fork Stanislaus, Middle Fork Stanislaus, South Fork Stanislaus, Mainstem Stanislaus, Merced, Tuolumne, Big Creek, Mono Creek, San Joaquin, Kings, Kaweah, Tule, Kern, Piru Creek, San Gorgonio Creek, San Luis Rey.
Relicensing is not only open to the public, it is remarkably accessible. Anyone with an interest in any aspect of a hydro project or its impacts can attend meetings, advocate for his or her interest, and propose alternatives that will improve overall public benefits. Resource agencies, such as the Forest Service, Fish &Game, NOAA Fisheries, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Fish & Wildlife Service have specific roles and, to varying degrees, specific authorities which they can assert to affect the outcome of a relicensing. The process is time-consuming: a series of meetings, study plan development and studies, and negotiations generally takes about five years.
Following the conclusion of a relicensing process, but before a new license is issued, the State Water Resources Control Board must issue a 401 Water Quality Certification under the Clean Water Act, assuring that license conditions meet broadly interpreted water quality standards. This gives the State Board a powerful opportunity to weigh in on license terms, and gives hydro advocates an added forum in which to be sure that their interests are met.
The agencies are also often underfunded and understaffed, and just can’t do the all work they are supposed to. It takes a lot of work to understand how a project’s hydrology and related ecosystems function. It takes time to get out on rivers and gain an on-the-ground understanding of how things look for fish and for fishing. Each relicensing has thousands of pages of studies and other documents that need to be read and understood.
Whenever possible, we try to work with the resource agencies as colleagues. Our job in working with the resource agencies on relicensing has many facets. We let them carry our interests forward when they will and can. We help them find answers when they are unsure, or when they don’t have the time to look for them. We support them when they show courage. We help them remember that they work for the public as well as for their superiors, when they falter. We encourage them when we can, and we shame them when we must.
As a last resort, we are prepared to take resource agencies that don’t do their jobs, or project operators, or FERC, to court.
Today, CSPA is active in eleven hydroelectric projects. Some are undergoing relicensing. Others have completed the relicensing process, but have not had new licenses issued. Others have been relicensed, but CSPA remains engaged in license implementation, to assure that license conditions that protect rivers and fish are carried out, and to address issues stemming from unforeseen or changing circumstances that arise in the course of a 30 to 50 year license period.
The Projects that CSPA is currently engaged in are:
Upper American River and Chili Bar, Projects 2101 and 2155, South Fork American and tributaries (Settlement signed; awaiting 401 Certification by State Board)
Yuba-Bear and Drum-Spaulding, Projects 2266 and 2310, Middle and South Yuba Rivers and tributaries, Bear River and tributaries, West Placer Creeks (Relicensing)
DeSabla-Centerville, Project 803, Butte Creek and West Branch Feather (Relicensing)
Poe, Project 2017, North Fork Feather (Relicensing almost completed; no settlement)
Upper North Fork Feather, Project 2105, North Fork Feather (Partial settlement signed; awaiting 401 certification dealing especially with excessive summer water temperatures)
Rock Creek – Cresta, Project 1962, North Fork Feather (License implementation)
Oroville Facilities, Project 2100, main stem Feather River (Settlement contested by CSPA and some other NGO’s; awaiting 401 Certification)
New Don Pedro, Project 2299, Mainstem Tuolumne River, (Emergency action to save steelhead and salmon)
El Dorado, Project 184, South Fork American River, Silver Fork American, Caples Creek (Settlement signed by CSPA’s hydro advocate prior to joining CSPA; Implementation)
Before the Rock Creek – Cresta Settlement, the North Fork of the Feather River in the Feather River Canyon was a sorry thing to behold. There was almost no water left in the river during most of the year, and summer water temperatures were too warm to support a good trout fishery. Since the new license for this project was issued in 2001, two segments of river, about 13 miles, have been reborn. The river once again has trout. Big trout. And we’re working on getting more.
Before the El Dorado Settlement changed the operation of Caples Creek and the Silver Fork American River, how much water an angler would find in either stream on any given summer day was all a big mystery. It could go from a trickle to a torrent and back to a trickle, all depending on power and water supply needs downstream. Since the new license for this project was issued in 2006, there is at least one good stream to fish in the project area all summer long. Plus, any angler can check the Internet and see what the flows are right now, and also what the planned flows are for the next two weeks.
On the Upper North Fork Feather and Poe Projects, the answer is simple: more water, and colder water in the summer.
On the Upper American River Project, we get two good trout streams, where before, these streams were almost completely dewatered.
The DeSabla – Centerville Project on Butte Creek and West Branch Feather directly affects about 70% of the remaining Spring-run salmon in the Central Valley. It also has steelhead. We want the project operated to optimize habitat for both the Spring-run and the steelhead. We want to screen the fish out of project canals (many of the trout that end up in the canals could have become sea-run, i.e. steelhead). And we want a say in the decision making process after the new license is issued.
The Yuba-Bear and Drum-Spaulding Projects, whose operations are integrated and which are being relicensed in one proceeding, almost completely de-water the Middle and South Yuba Rivers from June into the fall. We want enough water in them to support robust trout fisheries, and to provide habitat for the Spring-run and the steelhead that we would like to see re-introduced there. Re-introduction opportunities also exist on the Bear. We already have salmon and steelhead in the West Placer Creeks, which are also affected to some degree by these projects; we want to make sure these runs continue and grow.
The New Don Pedro Project on the Tuolumne is a special case. In April of 2008, FERC issued an order that keeps flows in the Tuolumne status quo until at least 2016. Salmon returns on the Tuolumne have been crashing for four years; less than 200 spawners made it back in 2007. Because flows are too low, summer water temperatures are too warm to support juvenile steelhead and all life stages of resident trout. CSPA joined the fisheries agencies and other fishing and conservation groups in formally requesting rehearing from FERC, in order to save the fish. Stay tuned on the Tuolumne.
Finally, CSPA sees the operation of Oroville Reservoir as inextricably tied up with the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project. We don’t believe there will be enough water in Oroville every year to protect the salmon and steelhead that spawn downstream of the dam. The agencies and the few NGO’s that cut a deal on Oroville let the Department of Water Resources buy their way out of getting fish upstream of the dam for a mere $15 million. That’s about enough to build one small fish ladder and screen somewhere. Stay tuned also on Oroville.
CSPA is a member of the steering committee of the California Hydropower Reform Coalition. We work with fellow CHRC members representing angling, conservation and whitewater interests to combine resources, assure mutually desired outcomes, and resolve differences among parties with differing interests but with common overall values. Visit the CHRC website at www.calhrc.org.
For additional information, read CHRC's Rivers of Power.