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Why is hydropower generating controversy in Congress?

Democrats are bristling at a GOP-backed bill that would fund hydropower dams while cutting support to environmental groups that have taken hydropower facilities to court in the past.

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Last year, on a closely divided vote, McClintock won House approval for an amendment blocking the removal of what he called “four perfectly good hydroelectric dams” in the Klamath River Basin of Oregon and Northern California. Congress later dropped the amendment; but, as with the new Hasting bill, a point had been made about an important part of the nation’s energy mix.

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In a more collaborative vein, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., won unanimous House support in July for a bipartisan bill that streamlines licensing for small hydropower projects. The legislation would exempt from federal licensing requirements the nation’s 1,100-plus hydro projects that aren’t operated by the federal government and that generate less than 10 megawatts of electricity; the current exemption is limited to projects that generate less than 5 megawatts.

“Notwithstanding all of (the) benefits, the regulatory approval process for hydropower development, especially for smaller projects, can be unnecessarily slow, costly and cumbersome,” Rodgers said during House debate.

Her bill awaits Senate action.

Hydropower accounts for about 8 percent of all electrical production nationwide. California has more hydropower facilities than any other state, while Washington state leads in overall power production. Lawsuits periodically have challenged these dam operations, directly or indirectly, and supporters of Hastings’ bill say the litigation slows energy development and increases consumer costs.

Groups that file lawsuits that “if successful would result in” a reduction in hydropower generation would be covered by the federal grant cutoff, under the new bill. Attorneys for such groups likewise would be cut off. Spencer Pederson, a spokesman for the House Natural Resources Committee, said the panel didn’t have a list of which organizations might be affected.

“It is a policy statement about the importance of hydropower and how taxpayer dollars shouldn’t be used to destroy that resource,” Pederson said of the bill.

Court and federal grant records show that American Rivers would be affected because the group has litigated and it’s received federal funding, including a $1 million National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration grant last year. The 110,000-member Trout Unlimited likewise has sued and has received federal grants, including a $350,000 habitat conservation grant last year, federal records show, while the significantly larger National Wildlife Federation has sued and received a variety of habitat conservation grants last year.

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