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Newsletter: Can hydropower help solve the climate crisis? This $63-billion plan is banking on it

Newsletter: Can hydropower help solve the climate crisis? This $63-billion plan is banking on it

This is the May 6, 2021, edition of Boiling Point, a weekly newsletter about climate change and the environment in California and the American West. Sign up here to get it in your inbox.

Conservationists in California and across the West are deeply skeptical of hydropower, and it’s not hard to see why. There’s a long history of government agencies damming spectacular canyons, choking off rivers, obliterating fish populations and cutting off access to Indigenous peoples. It’s a history detailed in books such as “Cadillac Desert,” and experienced by anyone who has spent time fishing, kayaking or swimming in the region’s reshaped waterways, or hiking alongside them.

But despite the environmental damage they’ve done, many dams also generate electricity that is free of planet-warming carbon emissions. Tearing down dams can revitalize ecosystems, but it can also contribute to a climate crisis that is making rivers around the world drier in some cases, more prone to flooding in others, and in many cases hotter and more polluted.

So it was a big deal when several major environmental groups announced last year that they were working with the hydropower industry to find common ground after decades of fierce conflict.

As the New York Times’ Brad Plumer reported in October, the environmental groups involved in those conversations — including American Rivers, the Nature Conservancy, the Union of Concerned Scientists and the World Wildlife Fund — saw an opportunity to upgrade some existing dams to generate more power, while also tearing down older dams and making others more fish-friendly. Hydropower companies, recognizing that the era of building big new dams is largely over, were open to that kind of deal, too.

Now conservationists and the industry have some specific recommendations for the Biden administration.
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