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Federal bill would smooth way for small dams, hydropower

Courtesy Snohomish County PUD

Big dams that block rivers and salmon runs are out of vogue. But new legislation could clear the way for more small ones.

The removal of Washington’s Elwha dam — the largest dam removal in U.S. history — marked the end of an era in which big dams were embraced.

But hydropower is still viewed as an important source of renewable energy. Legislation moving through the U.S. Congress would boost the development of small hydro projects by removing some of the regulatory burdens.

Small hydropower projects can produce electricity without emitting greenhouse gases. And if they’re placed carefully, they can have minimal impact on the environment. So many communities see them as a crucial part of their renewable energy portfolio.

Steve Klein, the general manager of Snohomish County’s PUD, says his utility is looking at about a half dozen small hydro projects all located in the upper reaches of streams and creeks, above natural barriers to endangered salmon runs.

“And so the fish do not – they don’t see any difference in the river, whether the little dam was there or not,” Klein says.

The Hydropower Improvement Act of 2013 would exempt small hydro projects like these from licensing currently required by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission if they generate less than 10 megawatts of power.

Klein thinks that’s a good idea, because it would cut costs and eliminate bureaucracy that was designed for big, multi-state projects. And he says small hydro developments would still be subject to environmental review by local entities.

“We feel we’re in a better position with our fellow neighbors and agencies that we know and work with, to coordinate it here locally, rather than have it coordinated in Washington DC,” Klein says.

The legislation would also make it easier for developers to add hydropower projects to existing dams and canals by easing time-sensitive and costly federal licensing.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers , R-Wash., introduced it in the House. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., has just joined a bi-partisan group introducing it in the Senate.

Hydropower is the largest source of clean energy in the United States, and Washington produces nearly a third of it — more than any other state.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment beat for KNKX, where she has worked since 1999. From 2000-2012, she covered the business and labor beat. Bellamy has a deep interest in Indigenous affairs and the Salish Sea. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University.
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