New Bullards Bar Dam in Yuba County is the fifth-highest dam in the United States. (Photo: Molly Samuel/KQED)

There are more than 130 hydropower projects in California. They take advantage of steep terrain and gushing mountain rivers to churn out about fourteen percent of California’s electricity.

It’s a delicate balance, dependent on heavy snow in the winter, and heavy runoff in the spring as the snow melts. But climate change threatens to throw that balance out of whack, a problem that federal regulators have chosen to ignore.

A High-Stakes Game

New Bullards Bar Dam stretches across a steep rocky canyon in the Sierra Nevada foothills, about fifty miles northeast of Sacramento. It’s the fifth-highest dam in North America, towering more than sixty stories over the North Yuba River.

“I get to run around to all these glorious sites, and work on a multitude of issues,” says Geoff Rabone. He works for the Yuba County Water Agency, which owns this and other smaller dams, plus a network of reservoirs, water diversion tunnels and hydroelectric facilities. Standing on top of the spillway, we can see vultures circling below us.

Rabone manages relicensing for the water agency. Every few decades, hydropower projects have to get a new license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC. If you think going to the DMV is bad, be glad you’re not a dam. Applying for a new hydropower license takes years and costs millions of dollars. It seems like everything gets considered, from how the dams affect water supply, to endangered species, to whitewater sports.

“We have 44 different studies going on right now,” Rabone tells me.

In the end, the new license will dictate how much electricity the project generates, and how much water it releases — and when — for the next thirty-to-fifty years. That’s why there are so many studies, and why FERC relicensing is so important to water agencies, power companies and environmental groups, among others.

But there’s one looming issue that Rabone doesn’t have to wrangle any studies for: climate change. FERC doesn’t require those.

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Climate Change and the “New Normal”

“It’s an approach akin to the cliche of putting their heads in the sand,” says Steve Rothert, the California director for the environmental organization American Rivers. Rothert says he has asked FERC to include climate change in the relicensing process, but they’ve turned him down.

Climate change projections for the Sierra Nevada vary. The region may get wetter; it may get drier. But scientists agree that it will get warmer, dramatically affecting the snow where most of the region’s water comes from– and not just in the distant future. There’s evidence that we’re already seeing effects of climate change in the Sierra.

“And yet the power companies and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission refuse to consider how climate change will affect these dams and these rivers for the next 50 years,” says Rothert.

PG&E’s Belden Powerhouse is part of the chain of hydro facilities on the Feather River, known as the “Stairway of Power.” (Photo: Craig Miller)

Josh Viers, an ecologist at The University of California – Davis, is similarly perplexed. He argues that FERC’s decision to depend only on historic weather and water records doesn’t make sense anymore, especially for licenses that won’t expire for decades.

“Most of the projections for California in particular — and these are multiple scientists using different models and different assumptions — all converge on the same idea,” explains Viers. “The climate 35 years from now is not likely to be what we see today.”

One recent study suggests the emergence of a “new normal” within the next few decades, one in which eight-in-ten winters in the western U.S. will see snow accumulation below what we now consider normal.

Viers says the way California manages water will have to change. Right now, the snowpack itself serves as a reservoir. If it melts earlier, or if more precipitation falls as rain, our man-made reservoirs may have to spill the extra runoff, which could mean more floods in the winter, and more water shortages in the summer.

“We have a lot at stake,” says Viers. “So it seems it would be in the public’s best interest if in fact FERC were looking out for the public.”

In fact, the strategic planner for one Sierra utility says, when his agency included an entire section on climate effects in its relicensing application, FERC didn’t want it.

Why Not Consider Climate?

FERC officials acknowledge that climate change will have an impact on hydropower, but say the climate models scientists have developed just aren’t specific enough to project local impacts.

“There are not really any models yet that are granular enough that we would feel comfortable basing a decision on the impact of climate change on an individual facility,” FERC commissioner John Norris told me.

FERC has also said that the focus of relicensing studies is on how hydropower operations affect resources, not how other things — in this case, climate change — affect them. Rothert of American Rivers says that’s a red herring, though; the studies he’s asked for would concern how hydropower projects affect resources in a changed climate.

If federal regulators are “whistling in the dark,” Rabone from the Yuba County Water Agency says climate change is very much on his mind.

“It’s going to be very interesting to see what happens, if climate change turns out the way it’s theorized to work out,” he says.

If it does, the job of water managers — balancing the needs of fish, farmers and power plants — will only get more complicated as the climate changes, whether or not regulators are paying attention.

Climate Threat to Dams Overlooked by Regulators 2 October,2015Molly Samuel

  • Robert Shibatani

    If this is truly what FERC stated as the reasons why they are not
    considering climatic perturbations in their licensing process, then it is quite
    unfortunate. What they are not realizing (and perhaps by design), is that “climate change” per se, is not what they’re being asked to assess. They, like other regulatory agencies, impart their regulatory oversight on a public trust resource, in this case water. When that
    medium changes its timing, magnitude, and annual flow characteristics then it is critical that “that” new environmental baseline be incorporated into the analysis. To say that one is focusing on hydropower operations as the reason one is ignoring the very medium (river flow) upon which those operations are derived is just plain silly. FERC cannot be that ignorant about hydrology. There must be another reason for their reticence in including climate forced hydrology. My guess is that Commissioner Norris is being heavily influenced politically.

    Robert Shibatani
    CEO & Principal Hydrologist

    • Robert,
      FERC has stated publicly several times “We have always relied on historic flows to guide our decisions, and we have no plans to change the approach.” This is despite the fact that PG&E and others have provided conclusive evidence that the snowpack and runoff have already changed in significant ways. They say the models are not precise enough yet, there is too much uncertainty. However, as many climate scientists/hydrologists have pointed out, there is greater uncertainty in relying on historic flows than on projected flows in a changed climate. We already know flows have and will continue to change. It is my view that their approach of ignoring climate science is not with environmental analysis requirements in the National Environmental Policy Act, or the California Environmental Quality Act. It is only a matter of time before a judge orders them to join the 21st century.

      Steve Rothert
      California Director, American Rivers

  • Michael J. Preszler

    While this article focuses primarily on FERC, it should be noted that other agencies with mandatory conditioning authority also tend not to require climate change studies in the relicensing process. As license conditioning essentially guarantees protection and enhancement of public trust resources, any “strain” on the water system limiting its performance, as a result of climate change in this case, will be negatively felt in hydropower generation. Because of this, it seems to me that the applicant would be most interested in choosing to include potential effects of climate change effects in its relicensing process. FERC doesn’t, at present, require the studies. Nothing precludes climate change studies from being carried out at the choice of the relicensing participants.

    Michael J. Preszler

    ECORP Consulting, Inc.

  • David C. Curtis, Ph.D.

    Excellent points, Mike. I think it is in the applicant’s best interest to consider climate change. If not, the applicant may be saddled with flow requirements that might be impossible to meet under some climate change scenarios.

    David C. Curtis, Ph.D.
    WEST Consultants

  • Gregory Laurence

    The most important fact I took from this article: If climate change does occur as these scientists are predicting, we will need to find a way to store water at much larger volumes than we have today. Regardless of whether our climate warms or not, we should be vigorously pursuing projects that will raise existing dam levels, build new dams and power generation facilities, construct underground water storage facilities, utilize existing aquifers for rain water storage, and encourage water recycling programs.
    Only problem is there are two major concerns with all of these proposals: The funding is not there and the far left extremists will fight the construction of any new dam project to the bitter end…

    • Nick S.

      I agree that we should be vigorously pursuing adaptive measures at the same time as we try to scale back climate change by reducing emissions, but there are good reasons that dams aren’t the first thing being considered for increasing storage capacity and overall water-based capabilities. The first of these is that the best (most cost effective, most volume efficient) storage sites are used up. Assessments I’ve seen of future potential come up with mediocre to bad options for future storage. This is before we even begin to consider the massive detrimental environmental impacts that new dams come with and efficiency measures like water recycling or changing how we operate existing dams don’t have, or the comparative cost of each of these items.


Molly Samuel

Molly Samuel joined KQED as an intern in 2007, and since then has worked here as a reporter, producer, director and blogger. Before becoming KQED Science’s Multimedia Producer, she was a producer for Climate Watch. Molly has also reported for NPR, KALW and High Country News, and has produced audio stories for The Encyclopedia of Life and the Oakland Museum of California. She was a fellow with the Middlebury Fellowships in Environmental Journalism and a journalist-in-residence at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center. Molly has a degree in Ancient Greek from Oberlin College and is a co-founder of the record label True Panther Sounds.

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