In 1920, the first measures of the Federal Power Act were enacted in an effort by the United States government to manage hydropower projects, creating what would eventually become the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Through a licensing process that takes place every 30 to 50 years, the FERC determines which hydropower projects are allowed to operate and what the requirements of an operation include. The FERC begins considering the relicensing terms five to six years before the license expires to determine what measures the hydropower operators must perform to protect, mitigate, and enhance non-power values. Nearly every hydropower license in New York State’s Black River Basin will expire in 2026, which means the time to act is NOW.
The Black River Basin is a truly special region that includes nearly 2,000 square miles of land in the western Adirondacks and eastern Tug Hill. According to New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation, there are nearly 4,000 miles of freshwater rivers and streams. Nearly all of these are impacted by hydropower, and nearly all of them have spectacular whitewater opportunities. Northeast classics like the Bottom Moose, the Eagle Section, Taylorville Section, the Moshier Section of the Beaver, and the Black River itself are all at stake. When the licenses were issued in the early 1990s, the whitewater releases were only included as a settlement agreement, and the paddling advocates at the time had very little user data to leverage when negotiating for releases on specific sections of river. As paddling has increased in popularity throughout the northeast, it is clear there is more value in whitewater recreation than is being offset by the hydropower companies’ protection, mitigation, and enhancement measures. Because the licenses only expire every 30 to 50 years, advocating for appropriate consideration of how hydropower impacts water quality and recreation now will define a lifetime of paddling opportunities.
Beginning in 2019, hydropower operations will submit Notices of Intent and Pre-Application Documents to the FERC. Essentially, this informs the FERC whether the hydropower operation would like to relicense, and begins the process. The FERC generates a scoping document, in their own words, “aiming to define and refine” the impact of a hydropower operation. It then opens a scoping meeting to the public, where stakeholders like landowners and recreational users are able to voice their concerns and suggest alternative actions. Scoping meetings are the first point in the licensing process where paddlers are able to actively advocate for recreation as a non-power value. Over the next two years, the FERC and its partners implement a series of evaluations including studies on erosion, water quality, and expected impacts on aquatic life. Flow studies, if conducted, are the next opportunity for paddlers to make their voices heard. These studies are used to determine the minimum, maximum, and ideal flows for recreational river users. After the studies are completed, the hydropower operation files the license application. The FERC conducts an environmental assessment, the state issues a water quality certification, and the FERC issues the final license. With so many steps and studies, it’s no wonder the licensing process takes a minimum of five and a half years, but that doesn’t mean river advocates have nothing to do until the scoping meeting.
The best way to support whitewater recreation in the Black River Basin is to demonstrate the value of these resources now. Go out and paddle! While you’re at it, pick up some of the trash you see on shore or at the put-ins and take-outs. Buy that delicious burrito in town. Take photos. Always sign in and out at the release register. Show the community and the hydropower operation that you appreciate the river and that more releases mean more people supporting their local economy. Spread the word. In the next two years, documenting the impact of hydropower on the Black River Basin will provide the foundation for discussion of recreation as a non-power value in the region. It may seem like a long way off, but by 2026, the next 30 to 50 years of New York whitewater recreation will be defined.
For more information about river advocacy, visit American Whitewater.
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