Science key to extending hydro licenses

By SCOTT R. BURNELL, UPI Science Correspondent  |  April 22, 2002 at 4:59 PM
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WASHINGTON, April 22 (UPI) -- Renewing operating licenses for U.S. hydroelectric facilities requires the best possible scientific data both from both owners and regulators to determine what environmental mediation efforts are needed, industry researchers and an environmentalist said Monday.

Speaking at the National Hydropower Association's annual conference, engineers and biologists working with utilities said generally positive things about the licensing processes supervised by both the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and state agencies.

"FERC's process is science-based, but it could be better," said Michael Thompson, a wildlife biologist and vice president of Woodlot Alternatives, an ecological research firm in Topsham, Maine. "Sometimes we look a little too harshly at hydropower; we have to remember it's 'green' energy, renewable energy, and that should be given a little more credit."

When licensing agreements call for mediation, regulators need to pay more attention to cause and effect relationships between the hydropower facility and the environment and set more realistic goals, Thompson said. Mediation cannot completely restore a river to its pre-dam condition, however.

"It's important to keep a mental benchmark of what the river was like 200 or 300 years ago, and see what's left over from that to save and manage," Thompson said.

A science-based approach to mediation can also spot inconsistencies in possible solutions, said Scott Fletcher, a biologist with Duke Engineering and Services in Charlotte, N.C.

When the Duke consultants worked on a hydro project in northern Maine, a study of regulators' suggested mediation efforts revealed that fixes involving new construction would help one problem but cause others, he said. The agencies' competing goals were better met by changes at an existing dam within the project, he said.

"The bottom line is that a lot of the time, the scientists and engineers like to do things in grand fashion," Fletcher said. "What you find out in a lot of cases is that the simplest way to do the mitigation turns out to be the best way."

Having such alternative solutions available does not happen frequently, Fletcher told United Press International, but such a scenario is a perfect example of why hydropower operators need to work with regulators.

Mediation usually involves environmental problems in two broad categories: wildlife migration and water quality, said Andrew Fahlund, a spokesman for the environmental group American Rivers, based in Washington. The challenge of issuing new licenses for old facilities, he told UPI via telephone, lies in the lack of historical environmental data on those projects.

At the NHA meeting, Thompson said scientists must stick by their data, even if it runs contrary to a publicly accepted mediation method. That's a fair attitude, Fahlund said, but it must also be applied in favor of mediation.

"We're talking about decisions that are supposed to last 30 to 50 years, that's the term of the licenses," Fahlund told UPI. "When you're looking at a dataset about the project that's only three or five years old, chances are you'll end up with some skewed data, it could seem counterintuitive ... that situation may require some kind of adaptive management going into the future."

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