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Relicensing: Hydro projects face hurdles from agencies

Issue Date: March 21, 2018
By Christine Souza
The Turlock and Modesto irrigation districts, joint owners of the Don Pedro Hydroelectric Project on the Tuolumne River, are seeking to renew the hydroelectric facility’s 50-year-old license to operate.
Photo/Modesto Irrigation District and Turlock Irrigation District

The multipurpose aspect of many reservoir projects adds an extra layer of regulation to those projects--and gives government agencies and advocacy organizations additional opportunities to seek more water and other concessions from reservoir operators. That scenario is playing out in attempts to relicense California hydroelectric projects that also provide water supplies to farms, ranches and cities.

For hydroelectric generation facilities to operate, owner-operators such as water districts and utility companies must periodically renew project licenses—a years-long process through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

FERC, an independent agency within the U.S. Department of Energy, has 116 active licenses for facilities and waterways in California. There are more than 20 pending project relicensings, including reservoirs on the Tuolumne, Merced, Feather, Yuba, Klamath, Eel and Russian rivers.

The 50-year-old license for the Don Pedro Hydroelectric Project, located on the Tuolumne River and jointly owned by the Turlock Irrigation District and Modesto Irrigation District, expired in 2016. The project generates electricity for more than 200,000 customers and provides irrigation water for both districts.

The districts have been working since 2011 to renew the license. In the interim, the facility operates on a year-to-year renewal basis.

After the districts submitted a final license application last October, government agencies and others have weighed in with their own recommendations—including requests for increased flows in the Tuolumne River.

Those requests come in addition to a plan released in 2016 by the State Water Resources Control Board, which recommends increased flows of between 30 percent and 50 percent be dedicated to fish in the Tuolumne and other tributaries of the San Joaquin River during periods it considers key for at-risk native species.

The final board proposal for the tributaries, described in a Substitute Environmental Document included in the board's Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan Update, is expected to be released any time. In addition, the state water board is one of a series of agencies that must review and approve the districts' FERC relicensing application.

MID spokeswoman Samantha Wookey said the board and advocacy organizations, through the FERC process, "are able to give their own plan and state what they would like to see in the new license, and it is the same goals they are trying to accomplish through the Substitute Environmental Document; this is another avenue they can use to get those done."

California Farm Bureau Federation Senior Counsel Chris Scheuring said the FERC process provides agencies and organizations with a means of requiring license holders to adopt added water requirements and to make investments in environmental, recreational and other improvements as a condition of updating a facility's license.

"Segments of the environmental community who don't like dams in the first place would like to restore unimpeded river flows for the sake of listed species, and the FERC relicensing provides them a hook to do that," Scheuring said.

Restoring flow in the river can be in "direct opposition" to the purpose for which the reservoirs were built in the first place, he said, "which is storing water for human use during the growing season and during times of need when it is not raining."

"Stored water offers the possibility of flexible management to meet all project purposes, especially in dry years," Scheuring said, "and we think any FERC process that focuses on unimpeded flows misses the central point of storing water in a reservoir."

Wookey said federal and state agencies and others have responded with added recommendations and conditions that, if implemented by FERC, would have "significant and lasting impacts to our customers, communities and local water supplies."

The districts had until last week to respond to non-flow aspects of the requests, and have until May 15 to respond to requests regarding river flow.

"The increased flow recommendations are a direct hit on the water supply, so in years of drought we wouldn't be able to provide as much water," Wookey said.

Fishery agencies' proposed flow requirements under the FERC relicensing would be similar to the impact of the state water board proposal, she said. Under either scenario, district agricultural water customers would have received no water during droughts similar to the 2014-15 year, she said.

In responding to the districts' final FERC application, the National Marine Fisheries Service recommended a 218 percent increase in the average annual river flow released by the districts, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed an average annual flow that would represent a 243 percent increase to previous averages.

Either scenario, Wookey said, would result in significant shortages for the districts.

NMFS also recommended the districts conduct fish passage feasibility studies and pilot programs. The districts estimated construction of a fish-passage facility for the La Grange Dam downstream would cost approximately $100 million.

As part of the FERC relicensing, applicants must propose measures for mitigating the project's effects on erosion, instream flow needs, downstream impacts, water quality, fisheries and more. Wookey said the districts have developed a management plan for the river that "offers a flow solution as well as several nonflow solutions."

The FERC process allows other agencies to assert "mandatory conditioning authority" on a relicensing application.

A condition requested by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management would require the districts to construct a new whitewater rafting takeout facility at an estimated cost of more than $40 million, paid for by electric and irrigation customers. The districts have requested a hearing to challenge this recommendation and filed two alternatives with a more reasonable cost, Wookey said.

Scheuring called the FERC process "just another example of a statutory overlay on the California water system."

"We simply cannot restore completely natural function to the river system without displacing the human economy," he said.

Updates on the Don Pedro relicensing process may be found at Other active FERC licenses can be viewed at

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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