Final Decision – Certification of the South Berwick Project, LIHI #195, NH/MEApril 18, 2023
Final Decision – Recertification of the Raystown Project, LIHI #23, PAApril 19, 2023
The hydropower industry sits at the crossroads of the competing yet interconnected crises of water, biodiversity, and climate.
LIHI’s Executive Director argues that this puts the hydropower industry in a unique position to explore creative problem solving and emerge as environmental leaders.
I recently had the opportunity to take part in The Nature Conservancy’s Nature Hub at the United Nations (UN) World Water Conference in NYC, and shortly thereafter, attended the CERES Global conference. Both conferences centered climate change as the single greatest risk to our planet. Both conferences highlighted that we are also facing a biodiversity crisis as well as a water crisis.
Global demand for fresh water is expected to exceed supply by 40% by 2030. The latest IPCC report, also released in March, alarmingly demonstrated we are not making the necessary changes required to avert, or even adapt, to climate change. World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Index shows that biodiversity has declined 69% since 1970, with freshwater species down 83%. These facts are especially troubling given that half of global GDP relies on nature and the services it provides!
So, we’re facing water shortage, biodiversity collapse, and a hotter, more unpredictable climate. You might think that I left these conferences depressed and pessimistic, but in fact, I left energized and optimistic.
I saw numerous examples of how nature-based solutions, designed with local communities from the inception, are the best approach to adaptation and preserving and replenishing our biodiversity and water supply. Examples abound from around the world, such as the clearing of invasive species in South Africa which is expected to put two months’ worth of Cape Town’s drinking water supply back into groundwater in a few short years.
There are success stories around partnership and collaboration making large scale projects possible, such as the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative whose 100 communities are coordinating around funding, policies, and initiatives to protect the Mississippi River.
True leadership is emerging among select large corporations who are taking real action to reduce their carbon footprints and reducing water consumption in their manufacturing and operations. They acknowledge that net zero goals are great but are meaningless unless actual action is taken to meet them – now.
Some investor groups are even forming to focus solely on climate solutions.
Unsurprisingly, I’m left to consider how what I learned impacts hydropower in the US. I’m struck by the obvious fact that hydropower sits at the crossroads of these competing, amplifying crises of water, biodiversity, and climate. Hydropower has contributed to biodiversity decline, water quality issues, and in some cases has displaced indigenous communities and interrupted their food supplies. In certain circumstances, some reservoirs can contribute to GHG emissions. On the other hand, hydropower is positioned to be leaders in restoration efforts and a key part of the transition to zero emissions electricity supply. Hydro is non-consumptive in its water use, can improve water quality at existing nonpowered dams, and bring renewable generation to remote communities.
So what is hydropower’s responsibility now?
In my opinion, it is to recognize that hydropower owners can’t sit back and believe that producing renewable electricity, no matter how valuable to the grid, is enough. Hydropower needs to step forward to become a true partner with local communities to implement solutions for adaptation and biodiversity preservation and restoration. For the 87,500+ dams in the US with no hydropower on them, the hydro industry must step up to help remove those that are no longer useful and are located within priority ecosystems. They also need to implement effective, innovative, and nature-based solutions to help preserve and improve river-system biodiversity. And governing bodies need to allow owners to implement these approaches in the short term if they show promise. Our ecosystems no longer have time to wait years for reviews of promising proposals. We all have to be brave and courageous in developing solutions in the hope of succeeding since the status quo is not only insufficient, but also contributing to the planet’s decline.
We live in a scary time. But we also live in a time full of huge possibility, a time of creativity and exploration. It’s an exciting time. I just hope that the hydropower industry can seize the moment and transform itself into a biodiversity + water + climate leader, truly embracing the value of the ecosystem services it relies on.