As society grapples with climate change and the challenge of decarbonizing the national energy grid, proponents increasingly hold up hydropower as an indispensable part of the solution, touting it as “clean, green energy.” They decry what they see as the unfair federal and state tax and regulatory advantages of wind and solar. In a recent editorial arguing for “a fresh look,” the National Hydropower Association declared that hydropower “isn’t being discussed as a clean energy solution by the environmental community” despite that it is dependable, renewable and “protects and preserves our natural ecosystems.” In fact, American Rivers and many others in the environmental community acknowledge hydropower’s potential role in a decarbonized energy future, but a fresh look at that potential requires a clear view of hydropower’s past and present.
The record of the hydropower industry on America’s rivers and streams is not one of protecting and preserving natural ecosystems. It is, in fact, exactly the opposite. In order for a river and all the natural and human communities that depend on it to thrive, it needs water to flow in the right amounts at the right time and temperature; it needs to be free of organic and man-made pollutants; it needs connectivity from headwaters to estuary; and it needs healthy habitats under its waters and along its banks. Dams, including hydroelectric dams, disrupt all of these with devastating results.
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