Small hydro

A positive step
toward cleaner power

The passage of U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton’s bill to streamline the regulatory process for small hydropower projects on existing Bureau of Reclamation canals is one of the notable successes of an otherwise-stalled legislative season.

The bill, which received bipartisan support and was signed last week by the president, allows companies to develop small generating facilities without supplementing environmental analyses completed when the original projects were built.

That assumes that the original environmental assessments were accurate and complete, and that the hydro plants can be constructed without exceeding their scope. Neither assumption should be made blindly, but this is a common-sense measure depending on a reasonable amount of regulation. That, too, is somewhat notable among recent political projects. In addition, the built-in preference for canal owners is a good safeguard.

The number of potential sites isn’t huge — 28 in Colorado, including some on the Dolores Project, and 273 nationwide — but such projects take advantage of an existing resource in a way that makes sense.

At the same time, the amount of electricity that could be produced through such projects is not large compared to current and growing demand for electrical power. Electronic gadgets are proliferating. Homes are growing larger, and their heating and cooling needs are changing with the climate. The population itself is growing.

On the Colorado Plateau, that demand is not going to be met by small hydropower projects. That doesn’t mean they’re worthless; it means they must be part of a complex strategy that includes diverse other sources.

It also means that coal-fired power plants will be a crucial component of power generation for many years to come, and the pollution they create must be addressed. Natural gas is gaining ground. Windmills are cropping up in many places. Sunshine powers public buildings and private homes around the Southwest. But coal is plentiful and affordable in the region, and the plants are already in place.

As the 97th anniversary of the National Park Service approaches, the haze that hangs over such parks as Grand Canyon and Mesa Verde, as well as the landscape around them, can be attributed partly to those plants. Some of it comes from cities south and west of here (and that’s not going away either), and the summer’s wildfires haven’t helped. Right now, monsoonal humidity is contributing too. But coal is a major factor.

Electricity used locally comes from coal-fired plants in northwest Colorado; the plants that contribute to local pollution serve cities elsewhere. That means the costs and the benefits cannot be closely linked. People can complain about the brown cloud in their own sky while conveniently forgetting that pollution generated on their own behalf is hanging over someone else.

No easy answers have been proposed, and the only possible solutions are unpalatable because they add to the cost of power and may reduce employment regionally — or they may not. That’s always the threat, and its immediacy (along with powerful mining and power-company lobbies) lends it strength. The health costs of power-plant pollution are neither so immediate nor so easily quantified.

So thanks to Rep. Tipton for contributing to the solution. We hope he soon will be emboldened to tackle the larger part of the problem.