There are thousands of dams on America's rivers, and the United States removes more of them each year than any other country. In recent years it's become clear that dams, while providing power or regulating water levels, cause all sorts of problems for endangered species of fish. Still, when a dam is removed, it's rarely for environmental reasons. Money is usually the reason dams are taken out.
One to two dozen dams are removed each year in the United States. That may not seem like a lot considering the thousands that exist. But compared to the past, when the nation was focused on building dams, it's quite a turn-around.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, oversees most of the dams in the country. It issues long-term licenses, usually for 30 to 50 years, to operators of hydropower dams, like Portland General Electric in Oregon. The company's head of hydropower licensing, Julie Keil, says renewing a license is a complicated process. "You know, I say, 'I'm gonna get a new license,' and people think, 'Well, it's like going down to the driver's bureau and getting a new driving license.' And it's not like that at all. It's like building a new project from scratch," she says.
Ms. Keil says the process starts about five years before the license expires. During that time, PGE officials sit down with everyone who has an interest in the dam, including the government agencies that regulate it, environmental groups, and members of the community. "And here at Portland General Electric, we take that as absolutely a fresh look and try and decide whether or not this is still the right place to make energy," she says. "Whether it makes sense from an economic perspective and an environmental perspective."
Every one of PGE's hydropower projects is subject to the U.S. Endangered Species Act. That's because threatened and endangered fish swim in the rivers blocked by those projects. A large part of the re-licensing process involves determining what sort of fish-friendly upgrades the company will pay for.
In recent years, PGE has been examining the Bull Run Hydroelectric Project east of Portland. It consists of two older dams with licenses set to expire next year. The dams are pretty small, they only produce enough power to keep about 16,000 homes running. So PGE decided it wasn't worth it, economically, to keep operating them.
According to Roy Hemmingway, chairman of the state's Public Utility Commission, several other dam owners in the region have reached the same conclusion. "Making the dam more environmentally-friendly is sometimes a good deal more expensive than taking it out and getting the power from somewhere else," he says.
With profitability as the driving force, Oregon's top utility regulator says most of the dams that are taken out are small ones that don't make a lot of money for their owners. However, Mr. Hemmingway, who served as Salmon and Energy Policy Advisor for former Governor John Kitzhaber, says getting rid of some of the state's big dams is nearly impossible. "Some of the larger dams have quite profound environmental impacts and they don't produce a lot of electricity, but they do end up having a constituency that favors them, such as the Snake River Dams that are favored by the irrigation and barge transportation interests. So, that makes it difficult to develop a political solution that will favor their removal," he says.
Former Governor Kitzhaber made news three years ago when he endorsed breaching four dams on the Lower Snake River. No other elected official in the region supported that position. But Chris Dearth, the governor's Chief Environmental Officer, says the state never initiated the process of removing a dam and there was no effort to identify dams that were hurting fish. "No, that wasn't our role. Our role was to negotiate in good faith on the re-licensing and then, if decommissioning came up as part of that discussion, then we would pursue that," he says.
"Low-hanging fruit" is what Steve Rothert calls dams that owners don't want to operate anymore. The spokesman for the environmental group American Rivers says it's easy to get those dams removed. "I would say that we have probably identified all of the low-hanging fruit and if we haven't already started to work on those projects, people are trying to gear up to do that," he says.
Mr. Rothert says next on his group's agenda is the "harder to reach fruit", those dams that the owners don't want to remove. He doesn't expect to get much help from federal regulators. He says even though the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission says it has the right to force removal of a dam against the owner's will, it's only done that once, with a project in the state of Maine. "And historically they were tasked with promoting hydropower development. So, it's been quite a cultural change within FERC to even get them to assert that they have the authority to order decommissioning," he says.
Mr. Rothert thinks FERC should require dam owners to consider removal as an option during the re-licensing process. "We're talking about private companies profiting from public resources," he says. "To get a full consideration of what the public interests are in this situation, it should have to consider all options for the management of that resource including dam decommissioning if that makes sense."
Mr. Rothert admits he doesn't expect FERC to do this anytime soon. The subject appears to be a sensitive one for the Commission. Although it did not respond to repeated requests for an interview on the topic, a spokeswoman did say all re-licensing projects undergo a thorough environmental review.