Threat to Dams Overlooked by Regulators
Audio Report on Jan 11, 2013 by Molly Samuel from KQED Science
Topics: Climate, Environment, News, Radio
There are more than 130 hydropower projects in California. They take
advantage of steep terrain and gushing mountain rivers to churn out
about fourteen percent of California's electricity.
It's a delicate balance, dependent on heavy snow in the winter, and
heavy runoff in the spring as the snow melts. But climate change
threatens to throw that balance out of whack, a problem that federal
regulators have chosen to ignore.
A High-Stakes Game
New Bullards Bar Dam stretches across a steep rocky canyon in the
Sierra Nevada foothills, about fifty miles northeast of Sacramento.
It's the fifth-highest dam in North America, towering more than sixty
stories over the North Yuba River.
"I get to run around to all these glorious sites, and work on a
multitude of issues," says Geoff Rabone. He works for the Yuba County
Water Agency, which owns this and other smaller dams, plus a network
of reservoirs, water diversion tunnels and hydroelectric facilities.
Standing on top of the spillway, we can see vultures circling below us.
Rabone manages relicensing for the water agency. Every few decades,
hydropower projects have to get a new license from the Federal Energy
Regulatory Commission, or FERC. If you think going to the DMV is bad,
be glad you're not a dam. Applying for a new hydropower license takes
years and costs millions of dollars. It seems like everything gets
considered, from how the dams affect water supply, to endangered
species, to whitewater sports.
"We have 44 different studies going on right now," Rabone tells me.
In the end, the new license will dictate how much electricity the
project generates, and how much water it releases ï¿½ and when ï¿½ for the
next thirty-to-fifty years. That's why there are so many studies, and
why FERC relicensing is so important to water agencies, power
companies and environmental groups, among others.
But there's one looming issue that Rabone doesn't have to wrangle any
studies for: climate change. FERC doesn't require those.
Climate Change and the "New Normal"
"It's an approach akin to the cliche of putting their heads in the
sand," says Steve Rothert, the California director for the
environmental organization American Rivers. Rothert says he has asked
FERC to include climate change in the relicensing process, but they've
turned him down.
Climate change projections for the Sierra Nevada vary. The region may
get wetter; it may get drier. But scientists agree that it will get
warmer, dramatically affecting the snow where most of the regionï¿½s
water comes fromï¿½ and not just in the distant future. Thereï¿½s evidence
that weï¿½re already seeing effects of climate change in the Sierra.
"And yet the power companies and the Federal Energy Regulatory
Commission refuse to consider how climate change will affect these
dams and these rivers for the next 50 years," says Rothert.
Josh Viers, an ecologist at The University of California ï¿½ Davis, is
similarly perplexed. He argues that FERC's decision to depend only on
historic weather and water records doesn't make sense anymore,
especially for licenses that wonï¿½t expire for decades.
"Most of the projections for California in particular ï¿½ and these are
multiple scientists using different models and different assumptions ï¿½
all converge on the same idea," explains Viers. "The climate 35 years
from now is not likely to be what we see today."
One recent study suggests the emergence of a ï¿½new normalï¿½ within the
next few decades, one in which eight-in-ten winters in the western
U.S. will see snow accumulation below what we now consider normal.
Viers says the way California manages water will have to change. Right
now, the snowpack itself serves as a reservoir. If it melts earlier,
or if more precipitation falls as rain, our man-made reservoirs may
have to spill the extra runoff, which could mean more floods in the
winter, and more water shortages in the summer.
"We have a lot at stake," says Viers. "So it seems it would be in the
publicï¿½s best interest if in fact FERC were looking out for the public."
In fact, the strategic planner for one Sierra utility says, when his
agency included an entire section on climate effects in its
relicensing application, FERC didnï¿½t want it.
Why Not Consider Climate?
FERC officials acknowledge that climate change will have an impact on
hydropower, but say the climate models scientists have developed just
aren't specific enough to project local impacts.
"There are not really any models yet that are granular enough that we
would feel comfortable basing a decision on the impact of climate
change on an individual facility," FERC commissioner John Norris told
FERC has also said that the focus of relicensing studies is on how
hydropower operations affect resources, not how other things ï¿½ in this
case, climate change ï¿½ affect them. Rothert of American Rivers says
that's a red herring, though; the studies he's asked for would concern
how hydropower projects affect resources in a changed climate.
If federal regulators are "whistling in the dark," Rabone from the
Yuba County Water Agency says climate change is very much on his mind.
"It's going to be very interesting to see what happens, if climate
change turns out the way it's theorized to work out," he says.
If it does, the job of water managers ï¿½ balancing the needs of fish,
farmers and power plants ï¿½ will only get more complicated as the
climate changes, whether or not regulators are paying attention.
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