Daines Pushes Passage of Bipartisan Bill to Boost Dam Licensing Efficiency

The largest hydropower permitting reform legislation in decades has garnered broad support, including from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, American Rivers and leaders of the Pacific Northwest Economic Region

By Tristan Scott
The Se̓liš Ksanka Qĺispe̓ (SKQ) Dam near Polson. Beacon file photo

A bill to bolster hydropower production by streamlining the permitting process and increasing tribal engagement has gained broad support among a diverse coalition of Montana stakeholders, including the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT), conservation groups and local business leaders with the Pacific Northwest Economic Region (PNWER).

Introduced in May by U.S. Sens. Steve Daines, R-Mont., and Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., the Community and Hydropower Improvement Act represents the largest bipartisan licensing reform bill proposed in decades. According to the lawmakers, the measure was crafted through years of negotiations with a wide range of interests in mind, including members of the hydropower industry, environmental organizations, and tribes. The lawmakers said the reform is needed not only to bring new hydropower projects online, but also to relicense existing hydropower facilities.

For Daines, whose home state derives 40% of its power from dams, the legislation renews the state’s commitment to hydropower while furnishing tribal stakeholders with a greater degree of engagement in the process. It also limits the scope of environmental review and mitigation “to real, on-the-ground and ongoing efforts,” Daines said, while promoting healthy habitats through fish passage and downstream improvements. It also would instruct the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to establish a two-year process to grant licensing for adding hydropower to qualifying non-powered dams — those constructed for non-energy benefits such as flood control, water supply, navigation, or recreation — and allows collaboration between relevant agencies on Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) and Environmental Assessments (EAs) without losing the ability to participate in the licensing proceedings.

At a July 18 meeting of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources subcommittee, Daines called on his Senate colleagues to support the measure that he characterized as the product of collaboration among often competing interests.

“Let’s be clear: this bill is a compromise, with very diverse stakeholder engagement throughout the process,” Daines said. “I encourage my colleagues and stakeholders to look at the bill as a whole. In order to make meaningful change, all sides had to come together, must come together, negotiate a deal and move forward as one.” 

According to CSKT Chairman Tom McDonald, the measure would give Tribes a long-overdue say in licensing requirements on tribal lands.

“This measure would finally give Tribes a place at the table in the licensing and relicensing of hydroelectric projects that are on our lands and impact our Treaty protected resources,” McDonald said in a prepared statement. “This is truly historic.”

Sen. Mike Cuffe, a longtime state lawmaker from Eureka who has served two terms as president of PNWER, an international association of legislators who help set the agenda for Canada-U.S. business and economic relations, brought forward a letter of support for the legislation during the group’s annual summit this week in Boise, Idaho. The PNWER delegates, including about 500 legislators and business leaders in attendance, gave unanimous support to the measure.

“This is a very important step to ensure clean, reliable, resilient and affordable energy generation across the region,” Cuffe said. “It will promote U.S. energy security and sustainability.”

Tom Kiernan, president of the conservation organization American Rivers, also endorsed the legislation as “a package of smart, strategic updates to make the process work better for everyone.”

“Healthy rivers are essential to all life,” Kiernan said. “By improving the process for licensing, relicensing and decommissioning dams, and by restoring autonomy and self-determination to Tribal Nations, we will improve outcomes for rivers, the electric grid, and communities nationwide.”

View the full text of the bill here.

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