California Department of Fish and Wildlife

Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) Hydroelectric Projects

What are FERC Hydroelectric Projects?

McCloud Rservior Butterfly Valve

Photo by Annie Manji, CDFW

Under the authority of the Federal Power Act, a key duty of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is to license hydroelectric plants. The resulting 30 to 50 year license regulates what facilities licensees can build and use to harness the power of water and what types of mitigation measures they must implement to protect environmental resources. There are over 130 non-federal hydroelectric projects in California regulated by FERC. The majority of the larger California hydroelectric projects are in the Sierra Nevada, where two important hydropower elements are found: flowing water and a change in elevation.

When issuing a new license, FERC seeks to balance the many beneficial uses of water including: power generation, irrigation, flood control, water supply, fish and wildlife resources, spawning grounds and habitat, visual resources, recreational opportunities and cultural resources. The power generation benefit of hydroelectric projects is very important since 1) hydro projects have fast ramp-up rates, which makes them very useful in peak load and emergency situations, 2) hydro relies on a renewable resource, 3) compared to other technologies, hydro is low cost. However, the environmental costs of hydroelectric projects can also be high, with changes to instream flows, impairment of water temperature and blockage of fish passage being three examples of potentially significant impacts.

CDFW's Role in the FERC Licensing Process

The licensing process requires FERC staff to consult with any state agency with responsibility for fish, wildlife, and botanical resources, water quality, and water resources. As trustee for Californiaís fish and wildlife resources, CDFW has jurisdiction over the conservation, protection, and management of fish, wildlife, native plants, and habitat necessary for biologically sustainable populations of those species. This means FERC must consult with CDFW, along with many other state and federal resource agencies such as the State Water Resources Control Board (State Water Board), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S, Forest Service. The key product of the consultation process for CDFW is a defensible set of recommendations for future license conditions to equitably protect, mitigate damage to, and enhance fish and wildlife (and their habitats).

Developing a new FERC license (or a relicense for existing projects) takes at least five to six years and involves multiple interested parties. Besides state and federal resource agencies, land managers, tribes, and non-governmental organizations like the California Hydropower Reform Coalition are often very active in negotiating new FERC licenses. The first two and a half to three years are spent describing the current project and its impacts on resources. Studies are often done during this phase to better understand the project and its relationship to natural resources. At the end of this first phase the licensee submits a license application Ė their vision of how they want to operate the project. The second phase involves a National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) analysis of the application. FERC solicits interested parties for recommendations to protect, mitigate, and enhance natural resources. Depending on the specifics of the project, some agencies have mandatory conditioning authorities, while others (such as CDFW) serve in advisory roles. Near the end of the NEPA process, the licensee also must apply to the State Water Board for a § 401 Water Quality Certification (WQC). In California, this triggers a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review and another chance to provide comments and recommendations. The 401 WQC is an example of a mandatory FERC license condition.

Program Structure & Key Activities

As part of the Water Branchís Statewide Water Planning Program, the FERC coordinator works closely with CDFW Regional staff on FERC projects with statewide implications and issues of interest to CDFW. Each Regionís approach to staffing FERC projects is unique and based on the number of hydroelectric projects in the subject Region, the schedule of relicensing activities and the nexus with key natural resources. Regions with several major relicensings have full time staff dedicated to FERC coordination, while Regions with fewer projects, and/or fewer active licensing proceedings assign staff on a part time basis. Given the breadth of resource issues impacted by FERC projects, all Regions must periodically utilize a team approach to tap into terrestrial, aquatic and habitat conservation expertise.

Key FERC relicensing activities include:

  • Review of FERCís administrative record for each major California project seeking a new license. This review is coupled with submission of any missing relevant documents, including comprehensive plans, into the record.
  • Preparing Study Plans utilizing acceptable scientific methodologies and complying with FERC study plan criteria to address information gaps regarding baseline and proposed project impacts on natural resources.
  • Preparing defensible recommendations for Protection, Mitigation and Enhancement (PM&E) measures, including instream flow regimes, fish passage facilities, and vegetation and terrestrial wildlife management plans.
  • Post-license monitoring of project compliance with particular emphasis on license conditions involving adaptive management of project impacts on natural resources.

Key statewide coordination activities include:

  • Provide regular updates to CDFW staff on recent regulatory developments, facilitate inter- and intra- agency coordination, improve consistency, and identify issues and training needs.
  • Organize training for CDFW staff based on needs assessment.
  • Network with other resource agencies with statewide authorities to build partnerships, identify common objectives and minimize areas of conflict. Coordinate on FERC issues with the State Water Board, CDFW Regional, Headquarter, and Office of the General Council staff; federal, State, and local agencies; and the regulated and environmental communities.

Related Links

State Water Boardís 401 Water Quality Certification Process

FERC Licensing Process

For more information, contact Joshua Grover at or (916) 445-1231.