Dam Licensing in the Northwest


Private and publicly owned hydroelectric projects (not including federal projects operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation) are regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). For existing projects seeking a license renewal (called relicensing), receiving a new license generally takes years, can be very complex and is sometimes contentious. When complete, a license is granted for thirty to fifty years.

The length of the process is driven by a number of dynamics. First, when the Federal Power Act (FPA) was amended in 1986, FERC was directed to give equal consideration to power generation benefits and non-generating benefits of the natural resource (e.g.—environmental, cultural and recreational resources). Balancing this equation draws in very diverse stakeholder groups, e.g.– environmentalists, tribes, chambers of commerce, recreators, etc. Trying to find common ground can be very difficult, with both FERC and hydroelectric project operators using different strategies over the years to foster improved collaboration and transparency.

Second, a number of federal and state agencies have what is called “conditioning authorities,” which gives them the right to review and assure a proposed license meets requirements under their regulatory authority. Examples include agencies administering the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act.

Third, outcomes of a license include a series of protection, mitigation and enhancement (PM&E) measures to offset the impacts of operating these projects. Implementing PMEs can total millions of dollars over the period of the license. The success of implementing PMEs can directly affect the quality of life and the environment of communities for future generations.

Lastly, hydroelectric project operators use this process to determine investment strategies for generating power as efficiently as possible while also meeting non-power needs. For instance, a hydropower operator may propose installing new turbines or rewinding a generator that will result in increased power production and thus revenue.  That same operator may also agree to reduce revenue and/or increase expenditures by installing a fish bypass system and/or release water from a reservoir at certain times during the year. These trade-offs reflect trying to balance power and non-power benefits, and can be multimillion dollar decisions requiring years of planning and thought. One reason a license is provided for thirty to fifty years is to allow operators to both fully implement PMEs and recoup their investment.

Protection, Mitigation and Enhancement Strategies (PMEs)

In very broad terms, the relicensing process results in PME measures in the following areas:

Fish: Needs for sustaining a healthy native fisheries, e.g.—salmon and bulltrout, and sport fisheries. Examples of issues include habitat, water flows, up and downstream fish passage, and predation. This may also include controlling non-native species like walleye that are a threat to native fish.

Water Quality and Quantity: Both water quality and water quantity (availability) must be assured. Examples of water quality issues are temperature, dissolved oxygen, total dissolved gas, and turbidity. Examples of water quantity are meeting seasonal in-stream flows, water rights, and seasonally adjusting lake levels. This may also include controlling aquatic weeds and invasive species like zebra mussels that can foul areas and ruin habitat.

Terrestrial/Land:  Restoration and/or protection of wildlife, riparian areas and habitats. This may also include control and/or removal of noxious weeds and other variables that can threaten the health of the eco-system.

Cultural/Historical: This includes needs associated with preserving cultural, historical and archaeological resources. Examples are Native American cultural sites and resources, and buildings, sites and structures that meet historic preservation criteria.

Recreation: This includes issues such as providing lake and river access, recreation facilities, trails, and aesthetic views.

Relicensing and License Implementation in the Northwest

A 2011 review of the FERC data base shows 138 hydroelectric licenses in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana. The actual number of licensed projects is a little higher because a license occasionally includes more than one project. For instance, Avista’s Spokane River Project license includes four projects.

Since 1995, 55 licenses were renewed (completed relicensing). Collectively, this represents over 7,200 megawatts of electricity, or enough power to meet the needs of over four and a half million homes. As importantly, PMEs associated with these licenses contribute millions of dollars to improve the environment, protect cultural resources and offer recreational opportunities.

Licenses Issued Since 1995

StateLicenses Issued 1995-2011Authorized Capacity (MW)

Further, there are nine licenses that are being administratively extended as they complete the relicense process. When these are complete, an additional 1500 megawatts of electricity will be secured over the next thirty to fifty years. By contrast, from 2012 – 2017 there are only two licenses set to expire. For the Northwest, the burst of energy required to secure the Northwest’s hydroelectric benefits for the next generation is largely complete.  Our attention is now shifting to license implementation.

Federal Hydroelectric Projects

In addition to FERC licensed projects, there are forty Army Corps and eleven Bureau of Reclamation projects. These projects do not go through FERC licensing because they are congressionally authorized and use a different processes to meet protection, mitigation and enhancement needs.

For instance, the Bonneville Power Administration in concert with the Northwest Power and Conservation Council provided over three hundred million dollars in 2011 to fish and wildlife projects that address the impacts of federal hydropower development throughout the Columbia River Basin. Since 2000, over two billion dollars in fish and wildlife projects have been funded. This level of investment is expected to continue for the foreseeable future.

Visit FWEE Member Hydroelectric Project Licensing Web Pages
Chelan County PUD
Douglas County PUD
Eugene Water & Electric Board (EWEB)
Grant County PUD
Pend Oreille PUD
Tacoma Power

Visit FWEE Members who are leaders in licensing, relicensing, and compliance
Longview Associates

Visit FWEE Members with Federal Hydroelectric Projects
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
U.S. Bureau of Reclamation