Environmentalists and the hydropower industry will work together to address the impacts of climate change by promoting the renewable energy and storage benefits of hydropower and the environmental and economic benefits of healthy rivers, according to a deal brokered by Stanford University.

The nascent effort is national in scope, and at the moment has no regional focus. However, the participants have issued a call for other key stakeholders—including tribal governments and state officials—to join the collaboration to help "address implementation priorities and decision making."

The joint statement released Oct. 13 by the 16 participants is the result of the two-and-a-half-year collaborative effort through the "Uncommon Dialogue" process of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

Dan Reicher, a U.S. assistant secretary of energy during the Obama administration, and board member of the conservation group American Rivers, launched and helped lead the meetings, which began in March 2018. The meetings were convened by the Stanford Woods Institute (where Reicher is a senior research scholar), Stanford's Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance, and the Energy Futures Initiative.

The 12 environmental and hydropower parties to the process were given a "shared task . . . to chart hydropower's role in a clean energy future in a way that also supports healthy rivers," the joint statement said.

The parties noted that of the more than 90,000 existing dams throughout the country, 2,500 have hydropower facilities for electricity generation, and that "close to 30 percent of U.S. hydropower projects will come up for relicensing" in the next decade.

Reicher said the joint statement brings the "three R's" to bear on this landscape—rehabilitate, retrofit, and removal.

Rehabilitating dams would address safety problems, increase climate resilience and mitigate environmental impacts.

Retrofitting can add generation at nonpowered dams to increase renewable energy production, including the use of more pumped storage capacity at existing dams and enhancing dam and reservoir operations for water supply, fish passage, flood mitigation, and grid integration of solar and wind.

Removal would involve taking down dams that no longer provide benefits to society, have safety issues that can't be cost-effectively resolved, or have harmful impacts on the environment that can't be adequately addressed.

Closed-loop pumped storage systems were a particular focus of the discussions, because while they don't involve construction of a new dam on a river, there may be other impacts to be avoided, minimized or mitigated, including to surface and groundwater.

To address the twin challenges of climate change and river conservation, the parties identified seven areas for joint collaboration:

  • Accelerate development of hydropower technologies and practices to improve generation efficiency, environmental performance, and solar and wind integration
  • Advocate for improved U.S. dam safety
  • Increase basin-scale decision-making and access to river-related data
  • Improve the measurement, valuation of and compensation for hydropower flexibility and reliability services and support for enhanced environmental performance
  • Advance effective river restoration through improved off-site mitigation strategies
  • Improve federal hydropower licensing, relicensing, and license surrender processes
  • Advocate for increased funding for U.S. dam rehabilitation, retrofits and removals

While the joint statement has a national scope, a natural next step would be to localize its message.

Kurt Miller, Northwest RiverPartners executive director, told Clearing Up he thought the process could help the Northwest, which has the most hydro in the nation.

What seemed to draw the participants together for the joint statement is that climate change is a threat to both dams and rivers, he said.

"Our fights can be bigger," he acknowledged, adding, that the collaborative process "sets this example for us so that all sides see there are opportunities for all."

He said he thinks the outcome of the process is "a big deal." The groups that participated—including American Rivers, World Wildlife Fund, and the National Hydropower Association—have "national and international reach," he said.

Nancy Hirsh, NW Energy Coalition executive director, told Clearing Up her group "hopes to be a part of that process."

"Dialogue and multi-stakeholder collaboration are always important and vital to finding common ground and advancing toward shared goals," she said. "I applaud this effort."

She noted that the Northwest is already engaged in dialogue and that the four Northwest governors have announced a framework for multistakeholder efforts to find science based solutions to restore Columbia Basin fisheries (CU No. 1974 [17]).

But some of the Northwest's issues are tougher nuts than others to crack.

Bob Irvin, president and CEO of American Rivers, told Clearing Up that his group "remains a strong advocate for removing obsolete and unsafe dams and restoring free-flowing rivers," which includes its advocacy of breaching the four dams on the lower Snake River, where he says there are alternatives for power generation and transportation.

He noted that his group's participation in the collaborative process continues its "longstanding approach as pragmatic problem-solvers," and that it hopes this "will lead to positive results across the nation that will help address climate change and restore healthy rivers."

American Rivers, he said, "took inspiration from the Penobscot River experience in Maine," where industry, conservation, tribes and the government came together to develop a river restoration plan that removed two large hydro dams, installed fish passage facilities on another, and reconfigured dam operations elsewhere in the watershed, resulting in opening more than 1,000 miles of habitat to shad, river herring, and Atlantic salmon with no net loss of electricity generated.

He also pointed to the group's participation in a "stakeholder-driven process in the Yakima River basin in Washington to restore that watershed for salmon and steelhead while meeting the water needs of farmers, ranchers, and communities."

Their efforts also include work to "ensure PacifiCorp lives up to its agreement to remove the four dams on the Klamath River," he said.

Tom France, a regional executive director at National Wildlife Federation, which was not a participant, echoed Irvin's comments.

"It's great the parties to the process were able to sit down and find points they could agree on. If one discounts fish and wildlife impacts, hydropower is renewable," he told Clearing Up.

"But not all dams are created equal," he noted. "The track record on the lower Snake River has proven there isn't an easy solution available," and despite large sums of money spent, fish populations continue to decline.

The environmental and hydropower industry groups that participated in the process were

News Editor - Clearing Up

Rick Adair has been with NewsData since 2003, and is news editor for Clearing Up and editor for Water Power West. Previously, he covered environmental and energy issues in the Lake Tahoe area. He has a doctorate in earth sciences.