Bipartison bill set to spur hydropower upgrades, restore free flowing rivers

12 December 2022

New Bipartisan legislation introduced by U.S. Senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), along with Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Dan Sullivan (R-AK) is set to establish a new 30% tax incentive for dam safety and environmental improvements and to remove obsolete river obstructions.

The Maintaining and Enhancing Hydroelectricity and River Restoration Act of 2022 creates new a federal tax incentive to encourage safety, security, fish migration, water quality, and public use upgrades at hydropower dams in the US. The bill also establishes a new federal cost-share to encourage the removal of obsolete river obstructions that harm the health of our river ecosystems and inhibit outdoor recreation opportunities.

“Clean and affordable hydropower is the backbone of Washington state’s economy and prosperity,” said Senator Cantwell. “This measure will help ensure we can meet our urgent emission reduction goals while restoring miles of fish habitat.”

“Small hydro projects across Alaska are already demonstrating innovative practices while powering neighborhoods and communities. I’m proud to help lead this legislation, which will facilitate investments in Alaskan projects, while protecting our critical fisheries and waterways,” added Senator Lisa Murkowski. “This bill incentivizes and taps into the immense renewable resources available in our state, and it will also help lower energy costs for Alaskans.”

The Maintaining and Enhancing Hydroelectricity and River Restoration Act of 2022 leverages the federal tax code by providing a 30% federal investment tax credit that would spur investments in dam safety and environmental improvements. Eligible investments include adding fish-friendly turbines or other fish passage infrastructure, managing river sediments to improve habitat, upgrading or replacing floodgates and spillways, and improving public use of and access to public waterways impacted by existing dams. The legislation includes a direct pay option that allows not-for-profit public power entities to also access these incentives.

The bipartisan bill would also support local efforts to remove non-power producing river barriers, including abandoned or obsolete dams, dikes, or embankments, allowing those rivers to run free and naturally once again. Private, state, local, and non-profit groups could use the 30 percent federal tax incentive, with a direct pay option, to support efforts to demolish and remove unnecessary barriers with the owner’s consent. Removing obsolete river obstructions that no longer meet their intended purpose or benefit society can provide a new outdoor recreation opportunities, add fish and wildlife habitat, spur local economic development, and increase the resilience of rivers to the effects of climate change.

A recent joint proposal from the hydropower and river conservation community estimated that increased support for existing dam removal efforts could double the removal rate over the next ten years. That would result in the removal of 2,000 obsolete river obstructions and restore ecosystem functions essential for salmon recovery by opening up 20,000 miles of free-flowing river habitat.

Malcolm Woolf, President and CEO of the National Hydropower Association (NHA), spoke in support of the bill: “Our nation’s efforts to transition to a clean energy grid has stopped just short of the finish line, as it failed to recognize the importance of hydropower’s existing fleet. Hydro powers 30 million American homes with zero-carbon electricity. With the right tools, our industry can make environmental enhancements, bolster dam safety and prevent the hydropower fleet from retiring – outcomes that will lead to healthier rivers and a more reliable grid. Simply put, today’s hydropower fleet complements other renewables by providing power when the sun isn’t shining and wind isn’t blowing. We applaud the bipartisan leadership of Sens. Cantwell, Murkowski, Stabenow and Sullivan for recognizing that we can’t ensure a reliable grid without the nation’s second largest renewable electricity resource.”

Tom Kiernan, President of American Rivers, said: “Senator Cantwell’s leadership is bringing to fruition a groundbreaking partnership between the hydro industry and conservation groups. This bill includes critical provisions that will make dams safer, remove obsolete river obstructions, and improves environmental performance of hydro facilities.”

Joy Ditto, President and CEO of the American Public Power Association (APPA) wrote to Congressional leaders on December 1, 2022 in support of the bill: “On behalf of APPA, I am writing to express our strong support: This bill provides a 30 percent investment tax credit for hydropower environmental and safety improvements – investments needed to maintain these facilities and continue providing reliable, renewable energy.”

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