Grantmaking pumped new life into rivers, paved the way for restoration efforts nationwide

Every autumn, when cold air settles over the Great Lakes region, anglers from as far away as Europe and Asia make their way to a river in west Michigan to test their skill against powerful fish known affectionately as “silver bullets.”

The prized catch is steelhead and the Muskegon River is one of the best places in America to find them, according to biologists and experienced anglers. It’s a remarkable designation for a river that carried millions of logs to sawmills in the 19th century, only to become strangled by hydroelectric dams in the first decade of the 20th century.

Dams changed the Muskegon’s natural blueprint by creating new flow patterns, altering the movement of sediment and nutrients, raising the temperature of its water, reducing the amount of oxygen available to fish, creating artificial divisions in wildlife habitat and preventing fish in Lake Michigan from reaching 79% of the river that is upstream of the towering structures. The result: a vital ecosystem that was profoundly changed and put at risk of significant damage.

Today a 47-mile stretch of the Muskegon below Croton Dam — one of three hydropower dams in operation on the river — is a poster child for river restoration, an achievement aided by a hydropower — reform campaign — that demanded more environmentally responsible operations at several dams in the country’s Great Lakes region and southeast states.

Spearheaded by the conservation group American Rivers, the campaign began in 1992 and continued for two decades with the support of $6.16 million in grants from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. The work ushered in an era of river restoration and unprecedented collaboration among stakeholder groups that traditionally used litigation to settle disputes over dams’ effects on rivers.

A map of the state of Michigan shows the Muskegon River running through the state.
The restoration of aquatic habitat on Michigan’s Muskegon River is among the success stories of Mott’s funding for hydropower dam relicensing. Map courtesy of Karl Musser

Hydroelectric dams offer unique benefits — the structures generate electricity without emitting greenhouse gases, sometimes provide flood control and create manmade lakes that are popular with flat-water boaters — but those often come at the expense of rivers and river recreation. As with the Muskegon, the dams bisect river ecosystems, alter natural flow regimes, block fish passage, increase water temperatures and reduce oxygen levels downstream — all of which makes life difficult for fish and other aquatic life.

“Dams can be incredibly harmful to rivers and, in an ideal world, a lot of them would have never been built or would be removed. But our society has decided to use dams for reservoirs, hydropower and flood control,” said John Seebach, senior director of federal river management at American Rivers. “Since most dams aren’t serious candidates for removal, the best thing we can do is operate them in a way that protects and restores as much of a river’s health as possible.”

The United States is home to 75,000 dams over 6-feet-tall, and 2,540 of those are hydroelectric dams, according to government data.

Historically, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission licensed such dams for 30 to 50 years with little attention to the environmental impacts taking place downstream of the structures; the agency’s primary concern was the capacity of a dammed river to generate electricity.

That changed in 1986 when amendments to the Federal Power Act required FERC to give equal consideration to such issues as the protection of fish and wildlife, water quality, recreational opportunities, flood control and public safety.

Seven years later, dozens of hydropower dams known as “the class of 1993” came up for FERC license renewals. Maureen Smyth, a former vice president of programs at Mott who supervised the early relicensing-related grantmaking, said the Foundation saw the developments as a golden opportunity to minimize dams’ effects on several rivers in the Great Lakes and southeast regions, and influence dam regulations and operations on a national scale.

“Hydropower relicensing isn’t a popular topic like climate change or protecting ocean fisheries, and the Mott Foundation deserves a lot of credit for addressing this topic early and consistently,” said Richard Roos-Collins, a lawyer who represented American Rivers in FERC relicensing cases during this period.

Roos-Collins said Mott support over the two decades that followed helped American Rivers achieve hydropower reform on several fronts, including:

  • The development of scientifically based river-restoration objectives and documented efforts to meet those standards.
  • Stronger coordination between FERC and other government agencies involved in river management issues.
  • Greater public access to FERC documents during the relicensing process.

American Rivers also helped develop a collaborative procedure that enabled utilities, FERC, state agencies and conservation groups to collaborate on dam licenses to ensure that power generation and environmental concerns were given equal consideration. Roos-Collins said the procedure, known as the “Integrated Licensing Process,” is now the standard for dam relicensing in the U.S.

“The rulemaking that led to the Integrated Licensing Process may be the most important policy change we affected,” said Roos-Collins, who is now a principal at the California-based Water and Power Law Group. “The work we did helped groups in other states because we were among the first groups to fight these FERC relicensing battles.”

Smyth agreed on the importance of those impacts to the environmental field.

“I think hydropower reform was among the most successful programs Mott has been involved in,” she said. “It became a model for how environmental NGOs (non-governmental organizations) could work with industry and regulatory agencies in a collaborative way.”

Most of the relicensed dams that Mott-funded groups worked on now operate with flows which more closely mimic a river’s natural flow, and many have undergone physical improvements that benefit habitat connectivity, water quality and temperature downstream. Seebach noted that these new licenses provided better habitat for fish and wildlife, made rivers safer for the public and created more recreational opportunities. Consider:

  • In South Carolina, fish no longer suffocate in a stretch of the Saluda River below the Lake Murray Dam. The river now supports a vibrant sport fishery and has become a magnet for paddlers of all ages.
  • Native eels in the St. Lawrence River, in upstate New York, can now bypass the massive Moses-Saunders Dam through a fish ladder.
  • In Michigan, more natural flow regimes at hydroelectric dams in three of the state’s premier rivers — the Muskegon, Manistee and Au Sable — contributed to the rise of magnificent tail-water fisheries downstream of the structures, according to state officials.
  • In Wisconsin, there are plans to create a fish passage that would allow massive sturgeon in Lake Michigan to bypass dams on the Menominee River and access miles of additional spawning habitat.

Roos-Collins said funding by the Mott Foundation allowed conservation groups to reach licensing settlements that enhanced water quality in more than 2,000 miles of rivers and leveraged hundreds of millions of dollars in capital improvements for environmental protection in the Great Lakes and Southeast region over the past 20 years.

As part of the FERC relicensing process, some utilities provided funds that restored fish and wildlife habitat, established parks, increased public access to rivers and created new opportunities for ecotourism. Such improvements have made rivers like the Muskegon and Saluda community showpieces that offer numerous recreational activities and bolster local economies.

Complying with FERC’s new environmental regulations did reduce generating capacity and increase the operating costs of Consumers Energy’s hydroelectric dams on the Muskegon, Manistee and Au Sable rivers, company spokesman Roger Morgenstern said. But he noted that Michigan’s largest electric utility embraced the changes that emerged from the hydropower-reform campaign.

“We may not be getting as many megawatts out of the dams as we have in the past, but we know [the changes are] better for the health of the river,” Morgenstern said. “We’re working to resolve issues collaboratively; we know it’s the best way to go about it.”