The US Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has told Congress that the most effective way to reduce delays and the cost in obtaining a hydro power licence would be for Congress to restore the Commission as the sole arbiter for licensing conditions and processes.

During the early 1990s, FERC’s authority was undermined by federal court rulings which supported state rights to determine instream flow needs, as well as water quality requirements under the Clean Water Act. Under the FERC proposal, state agencies would have less power to enforce the Clean Water Act.

Over the next ten years, licences for about 400 dams on 136 rivers are expected to expire in the US. Some 30% of those dams are in California, which is facing energy shortages. If the inordinate time delays seen during the past are repeated, relicensing of these dams will not be completed at speed.

During the relicensing process, federal and state agencies can set minimum protection for water quality and flow, fish passage, land protection and other factors. They can also require the construction of fish ladders and other structures to protect ecological health and recreation.

FERC cited many instances in the past where it had disagreed with other federal agencies and states that have raised environmental or other concerns to delay or block licensing.

The result, FERC said, is that the median time for getting a licence renewed is 43 months. Once granted or renewed, licences are good for up to 50 years.

The National Hydropower Associa-tion says the change, if adopted by Congress, could free the industry from what it considers to be an unruly bureaucratic process that has become dysfunctional.