Water agencies back bill to streamline small hydro on conduits

WASHINGTON 9/21/11 (PennWell) -- The House Water and Power Subcommittee heard testimony from irrigation and water district operators urging passage of a bill to reduce red tape and administrative costs of developing small hydropower projects on Bureau of Reclamation water conduits and canals.

Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., introduced the Bureau of Reclamation Small Conduit Hydropower Development and Rural Jobs Act of 2011, H.R. 2842.

"This simple and commonsense solution means vast quantities of hydroelectricity -- without a single new dam and at a cost to the government of precisely nothing," Subcommittee Chairman Tom McClintock, R-Calif., told the panel Sept. 14. "That means more jobs, cheaper and cleaner electricity, reduced reliance on fossil fuels, and less reliance on foreign sources of energy."

The subcommittee hearing follows the endorsement by the full House Natural Resources Committee of the Small-Scale Hydropower Enhancement Act, H.R. 795, which would exempt hydropower projects generating less than 1.5 MW from Federal Energy Regulatory Commission licensing rules.

If approved by Congress the small conduit bill would provide blanket authorization for installation of small hydropower on all Reclamation-owned canals and conduits. It also would require Reclamation to offer preference to water user organizations for the development of such projects under a Reclamation Lease of Power Privilege.

The bill also would exempt small canal and conduit projects of less than 1.5 MW from the environmental assessment requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act. It would designate Reclamation's Power Resources Office as the lead point of contact for requests to develop canal and conduit hydropower.

Irrigators: "Hydropower gold mine"

Robert Lynch testified on behalf of the Irrigation and Electrical Districts Association of Arizona and the National Water Resources Association, saying the untapped hydro potential is typified by a Department of Energy report that found 1,400 MW of unused capacity in canals and ditches in Colorado where units of less than 5 MW could be installed. He noted the total of the small units is comparable to 1,312-MW Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River.

"We are literally sitting on a hydropower gold mine waiting for the needed clarifications and streamlining that will cut costs and make this program more attractive," Lynch said.

Grant Ward testified for the Maricopa-Stanfield Irrigation and Drainage District and the Family Farm Alliance, saying the irrigation district has the potential to develop 14 to 17 small hydro units totaling about 2.2 MW. He said such development currently is held back by many questions that result in uncertainty that hinders water districts from taking development risks.

"This bill before you today answers those questions, enough so that we, on the ditch bank, can have information to rely on so that we can go forward with planning of projects, including costs, and time to construct such units, as well as some idea as to the time and costs required to meet Bureau requirements," Ward said.

Chris Treese of the Colorado River Conservation District and Family Farm Alliance echoed the concern about development uncertainties, noting, among other things, that small districts need to be able to make timely investment decisions without the prospect of environmental reviews of undetermined length and expense.

"Environmental reviews under NEPA are universally time-consuming and expensive," Treese said. "Even 'just an Environmental Assessment' will require considerable time and expense. The river district's current experience with an EA on a non-construction action has taken over a year and nearly $1 million in outside expenses, not including substantial 'unbillable' district time and expense."

Reclamation opposes exemption from NEPA requirements

A Bureau of Reclamation spokesman, Deputy Commissioner of Operations David Murillo, told the committee the agency supported much of the bill, but said Reclamation opposed exempting projects of less than 1.5 MW from National Environmental Policy Act requirements.

"The department understands the intent of H.R. 2842 to be that conduits and canals are existing man-made structures where environmental impacts associated with construction have already occurred and/or been mitigated," Murillo said. "However, the department's view is that low-impact hydropower, particularly in conduits and canals, can be efficiently developed by utilizing existing environmental review provisions that will not unduly delay project development and ensure environmental health and safety."

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