Seeing green

SMUD weighs the environment and the bottom line on hydropower project

The complex Upper American River Project stretches over 50 miles and consists of eight powerhouses and 11 reservoirs on the south fork of the American and its tributaries.

The complex Upper American River Project stretches over 50 miles and consists of eight powerhouses and 11 reservoirs on the south fork of the American and its tributaries.

Courtesy Of Sacramento Municipal Utility District

Calling it a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to restore natural habitat along the upper American River, government resource agencies and environmental groups are asking the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) to make changes to its hydroelectric dams on the American River.

At issue is the Upper American River Project, a series of 11 dams and eight powerhouses that first were built and licensed in the 1950s. SMUD is trying to renew its license to operate the dams and submitted its application to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in July.

The Upper American River Project (or UARP) generates enough electricity for SMUD to power 180,000 homes. That’s about 20 percent of SMUD’s customer demand every year.

Several state and federal agencies, along with local environmental groups, are trying to persuade SMUD to adopt a proposal that would take a bite out of that power supply but could restore creeks and streams to more natural flows—and create better habitat for native fish and other species.

“Every 30 years, we’re supposed to reassess whether these projects, which occupy public lands and make use of the public’s rivers, are being used in the public’s best interest,” said Ron Stork, executive director of Friends of the River.

Stork’s group is joined by a wide array of advocacy organizations and government agencies, including the California Departments of Fish and Game, and Parks and Recreation, as well as the State Water Resources Control Board. On the federal side are the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service, the federal Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service. Citizens groups the American River Recreation Association and California Outdoors also have signed on to the proposal.

In addition to putting more water back into the river, they are calling for improved recreational facilities along the river and a series of manmade reservoirs created by the dams.

The UARP stretches over 50 miles from high in the Sierras near Lake Tahoe to a stretch of river just north of Placerville. Along the way, several tributary creeks and parts of the south fork of the American River are dammed, and the water is shunted through giant pipes to nearby powerhouses.

There’s a growing movement to remove aging dams in the West and restore the natural hydrology. But Stork said that controlling releases from the dam into area streams can also mimic natural flows.

On an un-dammed river, the flows change—from month to month, day to day and hour to hour. Imagine a warm day in early spring. The sun comes up and heats the snow in the Sierras for a few hours, and downstream you get a pulse of snowmelt that lasts until the sun goes down again. The plants and animals in and around the river evolved with this complex symphony of variation in water flows.

On a dammed river, there is no such variation. On a graph, the flows coming out of the dam would appear as a flat line—dead.

But you don’t have to tear the dam out to reintroduce some of the natural flow regime, said Stork. You can imitate natural flows by allowing a little more water into the river at certain times of day and by varying the flows seasonally.

“It has to do with how we turn the valves, rather than removing the dams,” said Stork.

But fiddling with the valves isn’t ideal for power production—there’s going to be some loss of efficiency.

Stork said that during negotiations with the utility, SMUD was only willing to give up about 3 percent of the power generation of the UARP in order to support environmental restoration. SMUD representatives were not available for comment for this story.

The alternative proposal being pushed by the agencies and the environmental groups could cut into the production from the UARP by as much as 8 percent.

But the proponents argue that that only represents about $1 per month on the average customer’s power bill.

“If you’re trying to restore streams and rivers, you’ve got to put some of the water back,” said Stork.

Friends of the River conducted a political poll last summer that they say shows that most ratepayers would be willing to pay 1 percent to 3 percent more in their monthly bills if it would mean a more environmentally friendly project. And earlier this month, the group presented the SMUD Board of Directors with a 5-foot-high stack of boxes containing more than 18,000 letters from SMUD ratepayers in support of the plan.

The agencies and environmental groups had been negotiating with SMUD for the last two years but hadn’t come to an agreement before the federally mandated deadline to file the re-licensing application in July.

Negotiations are set to begin again in early December. If the parties can’t come to an agreement this time, then it would be up to the FERC to decide. That could mean a much more adversarial process.

“It’s possible that SMUD will say, ‘Hey, you’ve done a really great job here.’ It’s possible they’ll say, ‘We don’t want to lose any energy production,’” Stork said. “For a green utility like SMUD, I think it would be really ironic if we had to fight it out at FERC. It would be a mess.”