Ecological Services
Northeast Region
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2015 Hydropower Training

Hydropower Energy and Wildlife Connect with Us

Hydroelectric projects have traditionally generated power using water, particularly in the Northeast. There is also interest in generating electricity using the kinetic energy of flowing water—without use of a dam. When these projects are owned privately or by a municipality, they are regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) under the Federal Power Act (FPA), and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is involved.

Hydroelectric projects serve society by generating electricity, but they can also do the following:

  • fragment rivers into discreet segments;
  • block access to seasonally important aquatic habitats;
  • degrade the functions and values of those habitats for fish and wildlife that depend on them; and
  • disconnect coastal rivers from the sea thereby blocking fish migrations.

What risks do hydroelectric projects pose to wildlife?

    The major fish and wildlife concerns often addressed by the Service are:

    • protecting species under the federal Endangered Species Act;
    • providing safe and effective passage of fish, upstream and downstream, through the project;
    • protecting fish from being entrained into the turbines;
    • preventing dewatering of stream reaches and subsequent loss of aquatic habitat;
    • protecting the functions and values of aquatic habitat by providing conservation flows from the project;
    • reducing water-level fluctuations in impoundments;
    • avoiding impacts to wetlands and take of nesting birds; and
    • providing public access to the waterway and shoreline protection.

The Service often resolves its concerns through negotiated settlements that can involve interested stakeholders. Through this process, a package of conditions is negotiated that include power and non-power values. These include energy production, fish and wildlife resources (including habitat), other environmental protection and enhancement, economic benefits, and recreational amenities. The settlement agreement is provided to FERC to aid it in deciding whether or not, and under what conditions, to license the project.

What's the Service's authority?

The authorities for Service involvement are varied. The Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act requires that the Service be given opportunity to review projects, assess potential impacts, and recommend means and measures to avoid and minimize project impacts to fish and wildlife resources, including habitat, and to provide resource protection and enhancement.

Section 10(j) of the FPA provides that FERC must accept these means and measures and include them in any license it may issue unless it determines that those recommendations are inconsistent with the FPA or other applicable law. Certain projects may be exempted from licensing under Section 30(c) of the FPA. The Service has authority to provide fish-and-wildlife terms and conditions, including fish passage, that FERC must include in any exemption if may issue. Section 18 of the FPA gives the Service authority to prescribe fishways, at the owner's expense, for upstream or downstream passage of fish. Section 4(e) of the FPA gives the Service authority to prescribe terms and conditions for projects on Service lands, in whole or in part, so that the congressionally authorized purpose(s) for that land is protected.


The above graph demonstrates the Service's workload to relicense hydropower projects through 2012. All numbers are based on the expiration year of licenses and make two assumptions: 1) Relicensing will begin six calendar years prior to expiration and 2) Workload will continue for four years beyond the license expiration date to allow for follow-up consultation. For example, 2012 includes licenses expiring between 2008 and 2018. For years prior to 2012, we have counted both expired licenses operating on annual licenses as well as new licenses issued in those years.

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Last updated: July 20, 2015