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What to watch in 2024: The Future of Hydropower in Willamette Valley and Beyond

Note: 2024 will see many developments in in federal permitting. Some will likely come from court decisions while others may come from federal regulatory decisions. During the next few weeks, Dawson & Associates’ experts in federal environmental permitting will share perspectives on how this process may change in 2024 and what this could mean for permit applicants.

In every biennial Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), Congress directs the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to prepare myriad of reports and studies. The Corps expects to submit one such report on Oregon’s Willamette Valley System in June 2024. The report will determine federal interest in continuing hydropower as a congressionally authorized purpose at one or more of the eight dams producing hydropower within the 13 dams that comprise the system.

A report of this importance and complexity could be a game changer not only for people in the Pacific Northwest, but at other hydropower facilities and Corps projects throughout the nation.

Historically, when Congress or other authorities authorized installation of dams across the country, hydropower was often a significant driver of the construction. Examples wholly or partly in the U.S. beyond the Willamette Valley are the Pacific Northwest’s Federal Columbia River Power System and the Northeast’s Saint Lawrence Seaway. Many such dams were constructed from the 1930s to the 1950s in an effort to increase economic productivity through power generation and commerce.

Here we are as a nation some 70 to 100 years later asking the Corps to reevaluate federal interest at the Willamette Valley legacy hydropower dams largely driven, it would seem, because of potential impacts to the environment. In the Pacific Northwest specifically, the enduring health of the salmon population is of particular interest.

This latest assessment is being conducted in the shadow of International Joint Commission’s (IJC) Plan 2014 that in 2016 amended the regulation of the Saint Lawrence River to include new measures to improve ecosystem health and diversity on Lake Ontario and the river. In that case, Plan 2014 sought to gain increased environmental benefits while improving navigation and hydropower production.

In addition, the Willamette Valley System report is taking shape against the backdrop of the Columbia River Treaty renegotiation with Canada, which has traditionally involved significant environmental and hydropower considerations regarding tradeoffs.

What makes this congressionally directed report a potential game changer? Unlike with Plan 2014 and the CRT, the Corps’ report is not evaluating efforts to improve environmental considerations while sustaining hydropower, but rather improving environmental aspects by eliminating hydropower.

Today, whether you’re an environmentalist, an industrial entrepreneur, or simply a concerned citizen, there are several open questions worth pondering:

  1. Should we expect going forward that Congress will direct studies to prioritize environmental considerations over hydropower at similar facilities across the country?

  2. If the Willamette Valley System report recommends removal of hydropower, then might it result in great traction for the removal of the ever-controversial Snake River Dams in Southeastern Washington? And, what about other dams across the country that serve multiple federal purposes?

  3. How might the findings in the Willamette Valley System report impact renegotiations of the Columbia River Treaty given the hydropower flows through the region’s Bonneville Power Administration?

  4. If hydropower is eliminated from one or more of the eight dams being studied, then how will the loss of that electricity be mitigated within the region? Further, if mitigation is through providing other methods of electricity production (wind, solar, natural gas, nuclear, etc…) will other consequences emerge such as increased energy rates for consumers or unforeseen environmental impacts on different local wildlife species?

Regardless of the Willamette Valley System report’s recommendation, the mere existence of the congressional action is telling. At a minimum, the trendline appears to be that environmental stewardship may soon be given equal, if not greater, weight than other considerations when planning large infrastructure projects. If the trend continues, hydropower may just be the first domino to fall victim to reprioritized federal interest about environmental considerations. Will reprioritized federal interest in navigation, recreation, and flood risk management be next?

What we’re seeing is that even infrastructure projects that went through extensive environmental assessments and have been operating safely and efficiently for decades are not immune from scrutiny, reevaluation, and possibly modification to reprioritize federal purposes. The release of the Willamette Valley System report in summer 2024 may well enlighten the environmental landscape ahead for millions of Americans.

Col. (Ret) John Eisenhauer, P.E.

Senior Advisor

A member of the Dawson team since 2014, John Eisenhauer was the 59th Commander and District Engineer of the Army Corps of Engineers Portland District.


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