FOR many communities and industries around the United States, the key to economic progress has been cheap, clean hydropower. Now, hundreds of those power projects - many dating back to the early part of the century - are due for relicensing.
The political process, involving electric utilities, conservation groups, local officials, and competing federal agencies, highlights shifting public values, and it promises to be complicated.
According to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), more than 320 hydropower licenses for privately owned dams will expire before the end of the decade - more than half of those (166 projects involving 237 dams) just within the next 24 months.
Since this is the first time for renewal, and since licenses typically are granted for 30-to-50 year periods, environmentalists see this as a crucial time to affect hydropower policy.
"These hydropower projects have profoundly altered the natural functions and ecological health of river systems across the nation," says Matthew Huntington of the group American Rivers. "The projects have destroyed numerous fisheries, upset the balance of nature within riparian ecosystems, and impaired the recreational value of rivers. Hydropower relicensing is a once-in-50-year opportunity to bring these rivers back to life."
Fred Springer, director of the FERC's office of hydropower relicensing, acknowledges that environmental issues present a "significant challenge," but adds that providing energy is an equally valid national concern.
"Today there's heavy emphasis on protecting environmental values. Twenty years from now the picture may be different," he said in an agency newsletter. "If we're hit with a shortage of peaking power, or world oil prices shoot up, a new generation may have different priorities than today's." Concrete and steel
The Pacific Northwest is known for its massive federal hydropower projects, but smaller private dams are found throughout the US. Of those FERC hydropower dams due for relicensing this year and next, 43 are in New York State, 34 in Wisconsin, 29 in Maine, and 28 in Michigan. According to American Rivers, some 60,000 dams exist nationwide, impounding approximately 600,000 miles of river. Most were built for flood control and irrigation, the rest for energy production. Hydropower makes up about 10 percent of total US electrical generating capacity.
Among those rivers adversely impacted by dams, environmentalists cite: the Kennebec River in Maine, the Deschutes River in Oregon, the Beaver and Raquette rivers in New York, the Pine River in Wisconsin, and the Au Sable and Manistee Rivers in Michigan.
Following a 60-day period in which the public may comment on relicensing applications, the FERC will begin considering those proposals. The agency may require changes to dam operations - such as the construction of fish ladders and turbine screens or more water flow around dams - which will help protect fish and other aspects of river ecology. In some cases, the FERC may deny a license and order a dam to be removed.
Dam opponents point out that the dams up for renewal generate just 2/10ths of 1 percent of the country's electric supply. But individual dams may be very important to local communities.
Two dams on the Elwha River, which flows through the Olympic National Park in Washington State, provide nearly half the electricity for a pulp mill employing 350 people in Port Angeles. But the dams were built without fish ladders, thus inhibiting salmon runs and contributing to the sharp decline in salmon stocks.
The dams are up for relicensing, but environmentalists and Indian tribes want the dams removed. So do several federal agencies - the National Park Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Interior Department.
"It's an opportunity to take what once was a world-class watershed and restore it," Olympic National Park Superintendent Maureen Finnerty told the Associated Press last October. "Years of research convinced us we could get that restoration, but only if the dams come out."
On the other side of the Elwha River debate, Orville Campbell, manager of hydropower for the James River Corporation (which owns the dams) said, "We can have restoration of fisheries with those dams in place." 1986 amendments
The FERC is an independent agency with a staff of 1,500 run by five presidentially appointed commissioners. In addition to the hydropower industries, it regulates oil and natural gas pipelines and electric utilities.
Until recent years, the FERC's main interest was promoting hydropower. Under 1986 amendments to the 1920 Federal Water Power Act, however, the agency must now give greater consideration to environmental, recreational, and Native American interests in approving and regulating dams.
Those amendments also give other state and federal agencies more say in such matters, and that has led to bureaucratic power struggles. In some cases, federal natural resource agencies have sued the FERC for failure to properly consider environmental issues when granting licenses.