Every nonfederal hydroelectric project in the country operates under license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). As a project's license expires, the licensee begins a relicensing process that generally leads to a new license with updated terms. The new license lasts 30 to 50 years.
The relicensing of PG&E's Mokelumne River Project, (Project 137) which began back in 1972, is the longest such process in FERC history. Meanwhile, PG&E has been running its project, which stretches from Blue Lakes west to Electra Powerhouse, on annual licenses with few requirements for protecting the health of the river or providing river recreation.
About 18 months ago, some local government representatives urged FERC to issue a new license for PG&E's local hydro project. We argued for more time, believing that nonprofit organizations and public agencies were beginning to make progress that could lead to new license conditions that were much better for the river.
Then in June 1999, FERC gave all the involved parties until June 2000 to settle outstanding stream flow issues related to project operations. After a year of complex negotiations, an agreement was reached. On July 21, 2000, Foothill Conservancy was among the parties signing the historic settlement agreement with PG&E that will be used as the basis for a new 30-year operating license for the Mokelumne River Project. The 101-page settlement addresses the ecological and recreation effects of stream flows in all of the river reaches and creeks affected by the project. It balances the needs of the environment, recreation, and power generation. Other parties to the settlement are the California Department of Fish and Game, California Department of Boating and Waterways, US Fish and Wildlife Service, US Forest Service, Friends of the River, Bureau of Land Management, Natural Heritage Institute, and American Whitewater Affiliation.
Agreement provides for the environment and recreation
The settlement is an excellent first step toward ensuring a healthier Mokelumne River and tributary creeks. The agreement Establishes minimum streamflows for each month, in all project-affected stream reaches, to protect and enhance fish, wildlife, and riparian (streamside) habitat. These required streamflows mimic the pattern of natural seasonal changes and will be based on precipitation levels of the previous year. Provides for breaching existing diversion dams on East and West Panther creeks and Beaver Creek, and restoring the three creeks to natural, unimpaired flow. The creeks are especially valuable for their biological diversity. Requires annual pulse flows (high flows of several days' duration) in project-affected stream reaches to mimic natural spring runoff events, properly shape stream channels, and move gravels and other sediments.Establishes lake level and stream release requirements for the four upper project reservoirs (both Blue Lakes, Twin Lake, Meadow Lake) to enhance public recreation opportunity and protect aquatic resources.Sets specific requirements for water temperature and dissolved oxygen levels to protect fish and other aquatic resources. The requirements include real-time temperature monitoring on sensitive river reaches.Establishes maximum rates of change in hydroelectric-operation-generated streamflows to protect fish and other aquatic resources from rapid streamflow fluctuations.Limits short-term power generation water releases to the North Fork Mokelumne River during summer to protect aquatic resources including frogs and fish. Ends use of the North Fork Mokelumne River as a conduit for short-term surges of water during routine canal maintenance, a practice that may have adverse environmental effects.Establishes a streamflow measurement plan to monitor licensee compliance with streamflow requirements.
The settlement will also enhance whitewater recreation on the Mokelumne and allow that activity to become a stronger component of our local economy. Among its recreation provisions, the settlementProvides for weekend whitewater boating opportunities and streamflows for the four whitewater boating runs affected by the project (Devil's Nose, Tiger Creek, Ponderosa, Electra).Establishes a recreation management program in cooperation with the BLM.Provides toll-free telephone and Internet streamflow information to the public to maximize whitewater boating opportunity. This should help remedy an old problem: boaters often drive to the Mokelumne from far away only to find that flows are too low for kayaking. Provides for improving whitewater boating put-in and take-out facilities at all four whitewater boating runs.
Adaptive management will ensure ongoing monitoring
Rather than setting conditions that will remain static for 30 years, the settlement establishes an extensive ecosystem and whitewater boating monitoring program. The program provides for adjustment of minimum streamflows, pulse flows, recreation streamflows, and minimum reservoir levels over the term of the license-all based on the results of ongoing monitoring. It also establishes an Ecological Resources Committee comprising the licensee, resource agencies and nongovernmental organizations, including Foothill Conservancy, to make resource decisions over the term of the license. PG&E will set up a Protection, Mitigation and Enhancement Fund of up to $2 million to pay for resource measures beyond those specified in the Settlement Agreement and has designated amounts of water that can be used to boost flows if the monitoring results show that goals are not being met.
There are several more steps to go before FERC can issue a new license for the hydro project. The Forest Service must complete environmental analysis of the conditions it will place on the license, and FERC must complete its own environmental process under the National Environmental Protection Act. However, there is no doubt that the project is much closer to a 30-year license with much better terms for the river and recreation. We expect that the license may be issued within a year.
The new license conditions will stay with Project 137 regardless of ownership. If PG&E sells or transfers the project, the license conditions become the obligation of the new owner. The settlement itself is a legally enforceable contract that would transfer to any new owner. In this uncertain climate of electrical energy industry deregulation and divestiture (see next story), we felt it was especially important to work out good terms for the project license.
Thanks and recognition are due to Foothill Conservancy Vice-President Pete Bell, who, acting as a volunteer, attended more than 90 all-day negotiating meetings in the year-long process. Pete also spent countless hours studying project documents and learning about fish, frogs, and other key subjects over the course of the negotiations. Many parts of the agreement are the direct result of his dedication, tenacity, knowledge of the river, and skill in finding common- ground solutions.
For more information
If you'd like more information on the agreement, you can call Pete at 296-5734. A copy of the agreement should soon be in the Amador County Library, and is on the Internet at http://rimsweb1.ferc.fed.us/rims.q?rp2~rimsdocinfo~2076803.