A PROVISION IN AN ENERGY bill before Congress has stirred up debate on the future of ageing hydroelectric dams across US. A test case appears to be the battle over relicensing the 60MW Box Canyon project in eastern Washington.

Pend Oreille County Utility District, owner of the dam, says that under the proposed environmental standards in the bill, renewing the licence for the old dam could cost as much as US$500M.

The debate concerns the imposition of environmental rules for dam operators — and who may propose them — when Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) licences come up for renewal. When a licence expires, federal agencies such as the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Forest Service, as well as state agencies charged with implementing the federal Clean Water Act, can require FERC to impose conditions to bring hydroelectric facilities into compliance with environmental regulations.

For example, a dam operator can be required to install a fish ladder to facilitate the passage of endangered salmon. The energy legislation before Congress would allow any interested party — including tribes or environmental groups and the utilities themselves — to propose alternative solutions to those suggested by the state or federal agencies. If those alternatives prove cheaper and equally effective, the agency would be required to accept them.

In the next decade, more than 400 electricity-generating dams on 130 rivers will face FERC relicensing. Nineteen of them are in the state of Washington