Photo: Englebright Dam on the Yuba River. South Yuba River Citizens League/Yuba River Waterkeeper
California’s Legislature is returning on Monday, May 4th after an unprecedented decision to suspend its activities due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Early spring is traditionally one of the busiest times of the year for the Legislature, with hundreds of bills receiving final votes in either of the two houses by May 31st. Last month, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, the chairwoman of the Assembly Appropriations Committee, advised her colleagues to scrap many or most of their bills, and the Legislature is anticipated to focus on passing the state budget, items related to COVID-19, or other urgent issues – such as housing and homelessness – that can’t be postponed past this legislative session.
This is one of those urgent issues.
In California, dams have received public spotlight with the removal of the Klamath Dams – the world’s largest dam removal project – and efforts to restore Hetch Hetchy valley by removing the historic reservoir that supplies drinking water to the City of San Francisco.
Despite this progress for free-flowing rivers, California faces an urgent threat by federal agencies that manage dams for hydroelectric power. Federal licenses for hydroelectric dams are issued by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which also has exclusive authority to license most non-federal hydropower projects that connect to the interstate electric grid. These dams, however, greatly impact California’s rivers, and water quality certifications issued under section 401 of the Clean Water Act are the only time a state may intervene in the licensing or relicensing of a hydroelectric dam. Without water quality certifications, these dams would operate exclusively to generate power and electricity and without any regard for water quality measures like flow or temperature, which are critical to support the waters we drink, swim, and fish.
Federal agencies are now taking action to waive state’s rights to issue water quality protections for hydroelectric dams based on a troublesome DC Circuit Court decision that was decided last year (Hoopa Valley Tribe v. FERC).
In the last two weeks, FERC issued two orders waiving state water quality certifications – the very tool that sets the terms and conditions under which a dam must operate to protect water quality: one waiver in North Carolina and, critically, one waiver in California for the Yuba-Bear Project located on the Middle Yuba, South Yuba, and Bear Rivers. This is a dangerous and precedential move to usurp California’s authority in protecting our rivers and native fish, and will unravel decades of investment and work to restore California’s river ecosystems.
Over a year has passed since the Hoopa Valley decision, leaving numerous hydroelectric dams, and the rivers they impact, vulnerable to a waiver of the state’s authority to issue or impose water quality protections. California is currently facing a wave of hydroelectric dam relicensing – and without the ability to issue or deny a section 401 water quality certification – California will be entirely excluded from the relicensing process of massive infrastructure on its rivers.
California Coastkeeper Alliance and local California Waterkeepers have carefully evaluated our work and priorities in light of COVID-19. While we have scaled back our legislative priorities this year, this is one issue that cannot be ignored or postponed further. That is why we are urging Governor Newsom and the Legislature not to look past the urgency of this issue – an issue that if left unresolved, will leave California in the backseat for the next 40 to 50 years as dams are operated by federal agencies without adequate protections for water quality, fish, and other wildlife.