In early August, President Obama into law a pair of bills endorsed by the Family Farm Alliance aimed at promoting small hydropower development by streamlining the federal regulatory process for certain types of projects.
It is encouraging to see that legislation developed and pushed by Western producers can garner bipartisan support. It shows that civility and reason can reign in this era of partisan politics.
The House of Representatives completed action on the bills—H.R. 267, "The Hydropower Regulatory Efficiency Act", and H.R. 678, "The Bureau of Reclamation Small Conduit Hydropower Development and Rural Jobs Act"—earlier this year. Both passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. Once out of the House, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee moved quickly, approving both of the bills in May, with the Senate unanimously passing them a week before the President’s signature.
The two bills authorize and streamline permitting for small conduit hydroelectric projects on Bureau of Reclamation-owned canals, and authorize and streamline Federal Energy Regulatory Commission regulatory actions on small non-federal conduit hydroelectric projects.
Under current regulations, anyone who wants to develop hydropower less than 5 megawatts—which would apply to virtually every single potential location within irrigation canals—can get exemptions from certain federal licensing requirements. However, the costs and time associated with the environmental compliance needed to secure these exemptions can make once-affordable projects suddenly become infeasible.
Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), and Rep. Doc Hastings (R-WA) should be commended for their leadership and stewardship of these bills through Congress. Democrats and Republicans, constructive conservation and agricultural organizations, and dedicated Hill and agency staff all worked hard to develop and move these bipartisan, common-sense bills.
By signing these bills into law, the President has taken an important step that will help Western irrigated agriculture. Many Western irrigators operate existing irrigation canals and ditch systems that may provide opportunities to develop in-canal, low-head hydroelectric projects. Such projects have tremendous potential for producing significant amounts of renewable energy with virtually no negative environmental impacts.
Streamlining the permitting process will make it easier for Western agricultural water users to pursue practical, small-scale hydropower generation projects. Historic irrigation structures can be retained while the system is updated with modern clean-energy producing technologies. Increased revenues from the sale of this renewable energy can result in a new source of funding for operating, maintaining and rehabilitating our aging water delivery infrastructure at lower costs to farmers. And, importantly, irrigation water delivery services can continue while utilizing flows for clean energy production.
I am encouraged about the strong and clear message regarding hydropower's critical role in the West's diverse energy mix. The Family Farm Alliance provided input as these bills were being crafted, and several Alliance witnesses were invited to testify before congressional committees as this topic was vetted and the bills were marked up.
These new laws are supported by both the industry and the environmental community. They are good public policy, good energy policy and good for irrigated agriculture.