The U.S. Department of Energy’s Water Power Technologies Office (WPTO) partnered with Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) to create an Environmental Decision Support (EDS) toolkit to facilitate stakeholder discussions about environmental impacts at the beginning of the hydropower licensing, or re-licensing, process.
The Environmental Decision Support tool helps hydropower stakeholders by:
- Summarizing the best available science
- Providing a transparent framework for identifying potential environmental impacts
- Pointing users toward project impacts which may require studies and/or mitigation measures
The centerpiece of the EDS toolkit is the River Function Indicator Questionnaire, which provides users with a system for considering these six areas of potential environmental impact for a hydropower project:
- Biota and biodiversity
- Connectivity and fragmentation
- Water quality
ADDRESSING THE CHALLENGES
Environmental regulations are essential for protecting the health of waterways and wildlife in the United States, but for hydropower facilities conducting environmental studies can be costly, time-consuming, and have the potential to delay operations.
For most privately owned non-federal hydropower facilities, the licensing process can take five to seven years to obtain an original operating license or renew an existing license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Hydropower stakeholders have identified the early part of this process to be extremely challenging. Environmental and energy stakeholders, tribes, and state and federal agencies must work together to determine if a proposed project has any environmental impacts and whether additional studies or mitigation efforts will be required. The diverse priorities and perspectives among these participants can often lead to significant communication breakdowns and delays.
To help address these challenges and simplify the FERC licensing process, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Water Power Technologies Office (WPTO), Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), and Kearns & West developed a voluntary and user-friendly science-based tool for hydropower stakeholders. The River Function Indicator Questionnaire can be used at the beginning of the negotiation process to identify and prioritize the potential environmental impacts of a proposed or an already operating hydropower project.
The River Function Indicator Questionnaire guides each stakeholder through a systematic and transparent set of questions to consider a wide range of environmental impacts. Follow-up on discussions then help stakeholders narrow down a small list of priority impacts which may need to can be examined in greater detail. This River Function Indicator Questionnaire tool helps determine where to best invest time and energy; for instance, if you’re building a new facility, the tool can highlight the impacts that may prevent the project from getting off the ground.
WHAT IT DOES
The River Function Indicator Questionnaire can help hydropower stakeholders in three ways:
1) Characterize and summarize the best-available science for use by diverse hydropower stakeholders, seeking to better understand potential hydropower project impacts on the riverine ecosystem.
2) Provide transparent language and methodology for identifying potential environmental impacts during hydropower licensing negotiations.
3) Point users toward key river function indicators of concern for the project under consideration to reduce the time and cost of hydropower licensing negotiations and promote greater certainty in the federal authorization process.
In summary, the new River Function Indicator Questionnaire tool offers a user friendly, simple approach to facilitate initial stakeholder discussions around licensing and relicensing of a hydropower project. Given that the number of hydropower facilities going through FERC relicensing will double by 2030, the River Function Indicator Questionnaire is expected to become a valuable voluntary tool for hydropower stakeholders.
Over six years, the River Function Indicator Questionnaire tool has been developed and refined by the project team with feedback from stakeholders serving on the project’s Mission and Science Advisory Board members and stakeholders willing to review and pilot test the tool using their intimate knowledge of past projects. Collectively, the River Function Indicator Questionnaire tool has incorporated input from representatives of FERC, United States Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service, National Association of State Energy Officials, the hydropower industry, universities, and several non-governmental organizations. The tool has recently been rolled out for wider use at rfiq.ornl.gov. Here is some feedback about user experiences thus far:
Kathy Urffer (Connecticut River Conservancy): “I think it would be a good tool to educate hydropower owners about potential considerations as they begin a relicensing process.”
Mark Zakutansky (Appalachian Mountain Club): “Stakeholders in the hydropower licensing process, which include AMC, NGO’s, FERC, and others, should consider using the EDS tool to identify resources and issues which need to be addressed in the permitting process. The Clean Water Act and FERC licensing process require a hydropower project to be assessed based on the scale and scope of impacts caused by its operation, and it’s common for hydropower owners, communities, and agencies to disagree on the geographic area and extent of those impacts, which can then cause delays. The EDS tool provides a universal framework for determining the scope and scale of project impacts to be studied further.”
Sarah Hill Nelson (Bowersock Mills): ““[The tool] Would be a good heads up for operators to help bubble up issues in advance.
HOW THE TOOL WORKS
The interactive, online River Function Indicator Questionnaire developed as the cornerstone of DOE’s Environmental Decision Support (EDS) toolkit provides stakeholders with a systematic and transparent method for identifying the potential environmental impacts of a hydropower project. The six areas covered by the tool consist of the following: biota and biodiversity, connectivity and fragmentation, geomorphology, hydrology, landscape, and water quality. The questions address a checklist of 42 river function indicators, which are derived from an extensive literature review of environmental metrics, the viewpoints of a diverse range of hydropower stakeholders, and members of the scientific research community. Each question is used to determine whether there might be project impacts on one or more of these important characteristics of the river’s ecosystem. A maximum of 87 questions may be presented to the user, but many of these questions will be skipped based on preceding answers. An interactive Mind Map of all 87 questions, the river function indicators associated with each, and the tool’s skip logic can be viewed here.
The River Function Indicator Questionnaire tool can be applied to multiple types of hydropower projects — from conventional run of the river to new hydro added at existing dams. The current version of the tool is not yet ready to address pumped storage or conduit projects. For existing dams, the tool focuses on environmental impacts created by the proposed hydropower addition rather than impacts created by the project prior to a hydropower addition The River Function Indicator Questionnaire is accompanied by a user guide to make the process easier.
The current River Function Indicator Questionnaire tool does not consider recreational, cultural, or other non-environmental impacts, nor does it recommend specific measures. However, the tool does point users to project-specific environmental effects and provides suggestions for additional resources to help identify appropriate studies and/or protection, mitigation, and enhancement measures.
The River Function Indicator Questionnaire tool output is intended for follow-on discussions with other stakeholders (see chart below). Ultimately, the River Function Indicator Questionnaire tool gives all hydropower stakeholders at the negotiating table a standardized set of metrics and common language to use for beginning discussions related to potential environmental impacts.
Continue Learning with the Following Resources:
Check out the videos here to learn more about the suggested process for using the questionnaire.