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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Only 130 of Wisconsin's 3,800 dams are federally licensed to produce power. Relicensing every 30-50 years provides opportunity to negotiate operating conditions, water flow, recreation and environmental enhancements. © Stephen J. Lang
Only 130 of Wisconsin's 3,800 dams are federally licensed to produce power. Relicensing every 30-50 years provides opportunity to negotiate operating conditions, water flow, recreation and environmental enhancements.

© Stephen J. Lang

February 2006

A fluid situation

As Wisconsin's hydropower plants undergo reviews to renew their federal licenses, the state and the public aim to reclaim some recreational and environmental benefits lost when the dams were built.

Lisa Gaumnitz


Stoking Wisconsin's economic engine
Generating greener dam operations
Getting a seat at the table
Promise and peril around the bend

Wisconsin has a national reputation for removing old, obsolete dams and restoring free-flowing rivers. Quietly, the state is also moving to the forefront in assuring its largest working dams generate more public benefits and less environmental damage.

Capitalizing on a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision, the Department of Natural Resources, working with conservation groups, has negotiated greener operating conditions at dozens of dams in the process of applying for federal licenses to operate for the next 30 to 50 years.

The effort has built new boat ramps, campsites, canoe portages and other recreational facilities. Negotiations are also restoring more natural river flows that are better for fish, other aquatic creatures and paddlers; to install passageways that allow lake sturgeon and other fish to return to historic spawning grounds; and to protect fish from the blades of turbines and other power-generating equipment. This approach has helped local communities preserve jobs and maintain a cheap, renewable source of electricity.

"Wisconsin has been a leader in bringing stakeholders to the table, keeping the issue out of the courts, and balancing needs – economic, ecological and recreational," says Helen Sarakinos, dam program manager for the River Alliance of Wisconsin. "These agreements are not as sexy as dam removals – after all, how much can you celebrate an agreement?" she asks. "But cumulatively, these operating agreements can have an enormous impact – and their sexy moments will come."

Federally-licensed hydroelectric dams comprise less than four percent of Wisconsin's 3,800 dams, most of which are small, privately owned and built to create ponds or reservoirs for recreation and aesthetic purposes. The 130 hydro dams are located on the state's largest, most popular waters and most of them continue to generate electricity to serve local communities, to sell on the market, or to power the paper industry. A small number of the dams tame water levels for flood control. Between 1989 and 2010, some 73 hydro dams in Wisconsin will have their federal operating licenses reviewed and revised before they can be renewed, more than in any other state.

"There aren't that many situations where you can affect such a range of natural resources in a legally-binding agreement for 30 years," says Bob Martini, a 30-year DNR veteran recently appointed to coordinate such dam relicensing issues. "These are unique opportunities, so it's worth whatever effort we can give to it."

Stoking Wisconsin's economic engine

Starting before statehood, wave after wave of dam building altered Wisconsin's waters. "It transitioned from lumber to wheat to industry to electricity," says Meg Galloway, DNR's chief dam safety engineer.

Dams raised water levels so spring floods could float logs downstream to mills and markets. Falling water provided mechanical energy to run sawmills, turn grist mills or power manufacturing in just about every community.

In September 1882, Appleton's Vulcan Street Plant opened to run electric street cars. It became the world's first hydroelectric generating station and sparked an era of renewed dam construction and renovation in Wisconsin. By 1920, hydroelectric stations supplied 40 percent of the nation's electric power according to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

Thirty years later, however, hydropower's star was fading, and coal and natural gas met the nation's voracious demand for energy. Today, hydropower accounts for only 10 percent of electricity produced nationally, and for about three percent in Wisconsin.

Hydropower generation can vary considerably from year to year based on precipitation. Wisconsin has about 500 megawatts of hydroelectric generating capacity and produces an average of two million megawatt hours per year, enough to supply the average electrical needs for about 280,000 homes, according to the state Public Service Commission.

Wisconsin's hydro plants use different strategies to harness a river's energy:

  • Storage projects impound water behind a dam, forming a reservoir, and then release the water through turbine-generators to produce electricity.

  • Run-of-river projects typically use relatively low dams where the amount of water running through the powerhouse is determined by natural river flow.

  • Pumped-storage projects pump water from a lower reservoir to an upper reservoir at off-peak times when electrical costs are cheaper. During periods of high electrical demand, the water is released back to the lower reservoir to generate electricity.

Although hydropower has been eclipsed by other forms of energy generation, our awareness of how hydro projects alter natural waterways has been on the rise. The high water levels of dam impoundments and reservoirs can erode river banks upstream, making the water silty, cloudy and warmer, contributing to poorer conditions for fish and other aquatic organisms.

Downstream, water levels may drop significantly on a daily basis, stranding fish and mussels, leaving piers high and dry, and exposing rocks, logs and other boating hazards. Fluctuating water levels also affect wastewater dischargers who rely on river flow to dilute treated wastewater. Downstream businesses similarly use river water in manufacturing and for processing effluents.

Finally, the dams themselves can block fish migrations, interfere with spawning, and disrupt the life cycle of native mussels that rely on fish as hosts. Fish and other aquatic species can be harmed as they go through a dam or get trapped in turbines and other equipment.

Generating greener dam operations

Hydroelectric dams were originally licensed by the federal War Department based on guidelines laid out in 1920, well before the full range of environmental consequences were known or of much concern.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) took over licensing in 1977 and started requiring analysis of how dam owners and operators would minimize environmental consequences. In 1986, federal law required FERC to give equal consideration to environmental concerns and power generation, says Michael Scott, a DNR attorney who has worked on dam relicensing issues since 1994.

Wisconsin was actively involved in the relicensing process during the 1980s. Hydroelectric project owners had to consult with the Department of Natural Resources and conduct environmental studies as directed, and the department made recommendations to mitigate some of the dams' impacts. But FERC was required only to give equal consideration to environmental concerns in its decisionmaking, not equal weight. "The FERC would take our recommendations and not put them into the operating conditions," Scott says.

A landmark 1994 U.S. Supreme Court decision changed that. The ruling upheld the state of Washington's right to insist on a minimum water flow to protect salmon and steelhead in a river in the Olympic National Forest near Tacoma. "In many cases," wrote Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, "water quantity is closely related to water quality..." States had broad authority under the Clean Water Act to protect not only water quality but water quantity that flows in rivers and streams.

"After Tacoma," Scott says, "they [FERC] had to put our recommendations in verbatim and follow them."

The recognition of state authority spurred the agency, dam owners and the public to work together earlier on and more directly, selecting the issues particular to each dam site and negotiating specific remedies.

The parties don't always get everything they want, but two recent examples illustrate the kind of win-win situations negotiation can produce.

Dairyland Power Cooperative's Flambeau Hydroelectric Station near Ladysmith operated as a peaking facility since it opened in 1953, storing water in a 1,900-acre reservoir at night and releasing flow at a higher rate in the morning and evening when the demand for electricity to run dairy equipment was high.

"The storage and release cycle reduced the amount and the quality of aquatic habitat in the impounded and free-flowing downstream river reaches," says Jeff Scheirer, part of DNR's re-licensing team that sought to change the dam to a run-of-river operation. Run-of-river plants generally do not hold back water behind storage dams and tend to have less harmful effects on upstream water levels and downstream flow.

"The issue for us wasn't so much economic loss," says Mary Beth Peranteau, a Madison lawyer who represented Dairyland in the negotiations. "The plant is not one of the bigger sources of power in Dairyland's portfolio, but it was important because it was one of the few the utility could use for 'blackstart' operations."

Blackstart operations allow the generators to start running without an initial boost from fossil fuels. It was also important for Dairyland's generating capacity rating. "If we couldn't run the plant in a particular way, it could lose that rating for regulatory purposes," Peranteau says.

Under the settlement, Dairyland Power agreed to stop peaking twice per day starting in 2005, and operate instead in run-of-river mode. The change at Dairyland Power's Flambeau Hydro Station automatically triggered changes at three smaller stations to lessen effects on fish and wildlife.

"Anglers, canoeists, boaters and other recreation users should notice that water levels and flows fluctuate less throughout the day," Scheirer says. "Stable flows mean more suitable habitat, more fish production and better fishing."

Dairyland won't be generating less power and it retains the right to peak in emergencies and to prevent blackouts when other options are not available. The utility also wasn't required to put fish passageways on the dam, given that so many other dams on the river block fish migration.

In western Wisconsin, along the banks of the Red Cedar River, negotiations among Xcel Energy, DNR, the City of Menomonie, federal agencies and local conservation groups produced three highlights, according to fish biologist Heath Benike, a member of the DNR team.

First, it improved stable river flows in the Red Cedar River downstream of Menomonie, benefiting recreational users and aquatic life, particularly endangered and threatened fish and wildlife species in the Lower Chippewa River State Natural Area.

Second, the company replaced "flashboards," wooden boards attached to the crest of the concrete spillway at the Cedar Falls Dam that allow a few feet of additional water height to increase energy production. The old boards washed out during floods, drawing Tainter Lake down four to five feet. A new permanent inflatable rubber dam was installed in December 2005. This will prevent fish, aquatic habitat, boat landings, and boaters from being left high and dry due to sudden drawdowns.

"Third, dam owners made these improvements while preserving the capacity ratings of the hydroplants, which is good for the environment and good news for local energy users," Benike says.

Getting a seat at the table

The public's role in the relicensing process has changed significantly since Frank J. Luedtke first got involved in 1974 at the wrong end of a knife.

A weekend resident of Lake Petenwell, the now-retired American Family Insurance executive had been walking along land owned by the Wisconsin River Power Company, which created the lake by building a dam across the Wisconsin River near Necedah in 1951. He was approached by the land caretaker, who ordered him off the property. When Luedtke refused, the caretaker left and returned with his son, who brandished a bolo knife. "That's when I went ballistic," Luedtke recalls. "Not only had he threatened me, but I had been fishing and trapping on many federal hydroelectric projects before and not had a problem."

When the company president later told him he condoned the caretaker's actions, Luedtke got madder still and started researching the utility's federal dam license. He learned the utility had never implemented its access and recreational improvement plan. Portions of the lakeshore were blocked off to residents and there were no concrete boat ramps or other recreational facilities on two of Wisconsin's largest lakes.

With financial backing from American Family Insurance, he built up an association of property owners, and the group became the first party to intervene and raise issues over a federal dam license in Wisconsin.

The association's efforts over the years brought a wave of new boat ramps and hiking trails on both lakes, Luedtke says. The county and townships each got parks, and a 100-foot strip of land next to the water on property owned by the utility has been preserved for public walking trails and for scenic values. Luedtke now advises other citizen groups facing relicensing issues.

Today, some dam owners invite the community in. Having just been through a bruising, costly battle to relicense four dams in Michigan and Wisconsin, We Energies, a Milwaukee-based utility, agreed to a negotiated process for relicensing eight dams in northeastern Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

The discussions brought the utility together with Wisconsin's and Michigan's natural resource agencies, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as the River Alliance of Wisconsin and the Michigan Hydro Relicensing Coalition.

Discussions over two years addressed land management, fisheries protection, water quality, recreation and hydroplant operations. The utility agreed to operate dams with a more natural flow of water, protect 25,000 acres of land and water surrounding the hydroelectric facilities in the Upper Menominee River basin, and add recreational facilities. In addition, three dams will be removed, and the utility is committed to working with resource agencies to research technology for allowing lake sturgeon to pass two of their dams.

"From my perspective, what's exciting is through relicensing that balances all river uses, lake sturgeons will eventually move from the mouth of the Menominee to Sturgeon Falls and back again while we're still generating power," Sarakinos says. "That's a huge accomplishment."

Bill Rauscher, We Energies manager of hydroelectric operations and one of three company people who participated in the negotiations, is satisfied with the settlement approach, but considers it the lesser of two evils. He believes states now have too much authority in federal dam licensing process through the water quality certification process. The new hydro relicensing rules have eliminated FERC's ability to balance competing interests like the need for electrical power, the cost of that power, consequences for the local economy, and changes to local recreation and river access, Rauscher said.

The settlement process gave We Energies more flexibility to operate some of the dams as peaking dams than would have been possible through normal relicensing. Rauscher says the process allowed the utility to spend money on habitat enhancement and research that otherwise would have been spent on the relicensing process and studies.

"In the long run, it didn't save us money," he says. "We saved 50 percent on the cost of getting a license, but we put it right back into the habitat fund and fish protection. At least we were able to spend the money on something for the future instead of on the paper process," he says.

Promise and peril around the bend

Greener operating conditions negotiated during dam relicensing hold the promise of reclaiming some of the recreational and environmental benefits lost for generations on Wisconsin's working rivers. Martini's appointment as DNR river coordinator is expected to provide statewide leadership as the department devolves teams that specialized in FERC issues into smaller work groups of local fish managers and others who are intimately familiar with the river and fishery, but less so with dam relicensing and deadlines.

New technology may eventually allow more electricity to be generated without nearly as many environmental consequences. Helical turbines, which resemble big egg beaters, generate electricity from the kinetic energy created by moving water – even slow-moving currents – without the need for dams. That technology may someday allow more hydropower in a state where most of the best dam sites are taken and the cost of retrofitting plants would be prohibitive.

The peril lies in some worrisome trends and in a pending U.S. Supreme Court case threatening the state authority DNR has used so well, Sarakinos says.

Bottom-line pressures from stockholders may spur publicly-traded utilities to back off on agreements, she says. Recent funding and staff cuts, the retirement of staff knowledgeable of FERC issues, along with political pressure, could impair DNR's ability to ensure utilities abide by their settlement conditions.

People involved with FERC issues are concerned over a case the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear challenging states' authority to impose operating conditions affecting the quantity of water in their rivers. As of press time, the case hadn't been heard.

Sarakinos worries that a ruling against states' authority would again create a real imbalance favoring power generation over environmental considerations, and largely remove the public from the process.

"These are dams on our rivers – yours and mine," she says. "It's important for us as the public to remember these are public rivers being used for private gain. We should have that once-in-a-lifetime chance to set the conditions by which this facility is going to meet all the interests – economic, environmental and recreational."

Lisa Gaumnitz is public affairs manager for DNR's water programs in Madison.