Sam Passmore: The impacts of Mott’s dam relicensing grantmaking

With much of the world possibly facing severe water shortages over the coming years, the societal and environmental importance of freshwater resources is becoming more keenly felt than ever before.

For more than 30 years, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation has made grants for organizations and initiatives in the U.S., particularly in its home state of Michigan, that support the health and vitality of those resources and the communities that depend on them.

Starting in 1992, that grantmaking included funding for activities related to the relicensing of electricity-producing dams in the Great Lakes and, later, the country’s southeast regions. The overarching goal: allow for the continued production of electricity while ensuring that the new licenses lead to the prevention and repair of harm — such as degraded water quality, destruction of aquatic habitat and restricted fish passage — that hydropower dams can cause to freshwater ecosystems.

As the Foundation, having made a total of $6.16 million in related grants, formally ended that funding strategy in 2011, all major relicensing projects in the Great Lakes had been completed. Today, the relicensing of hydropower dams in the southeast also is coming to a successful close and, in both regions, non-governmental organizations, many of them Mott grantees, are monitoring the implementation of the new licenses.

Sam Passmore, director of Mott’s Environment Program since April 2008, recently sat down with Mott Communications Officer Duane M. Elling to reflect on the impacts of 20 years of grantmaking in the area of hydropower dam relicensing and the Foundation’s interests in the area of freshwater conservation.

Mott: Two decades is quite a long time to stick with a particular grantmaking strategy. What led Mott to stay with the dam relicensing work for so long?

Sam Passmore headshot.
Sam Passmore.

Sam Passmore: The relicensing process for a single hydropower dam can take up to five years or longer, after which another three to five years is spent making sure that the relicense is being implemented properly, that the trajectory is positive. And the licenses are good for anywhere from 30 to 50 years, so they come up for renewal on different time frames. As a result, the very nature of the work required a long-term commitment.

The scope of the grantmaking also evolved over time. For example, we were deep into dam relicensing in the Great Lakes when we decided to expand our focus to the country’s southeast region. We went into that new work with our eyes wide open, knowing that it was another multi-year commitment, but given our experience in the Great Lakes, that it was also an impactful line of work that we wanted to support.

Mott: What are some impacts that emerged from that grantmaking?

Passmore: One critical impact is the evolution of the relicensing process itself. Twenty years ago, the relationships between the environmental communities, governmental agencies and the hydropower industry tended to be combative on the issue of dam relicensing. In many cases, the resulting struggle complicated both the relicensing process and the efforts to protect the rivers.

It was in large part through the pioneering work of American Rivers and other Mott grantees on relicensing activities in the Great Lakes that we started to see a shift toward a more collaborative approach. These organizations recognized the significant value of developing joint visions and agreements around dam relicensing, and they cultivated relationships at the local, state and federal levels that were based on communication, respect and a collective desire to move things forward.

The environmental impacts that resulted from that approach by Mott grantees are both impressive and important: improved water quality of more than 2,000 miles of rivers in the Great Lakes and southeast regions; restoration of thousands of acres of adjacent natural habitats; removal of more than a dozen obsolete and unnecessary dams; and a leveraging of hundreds of millions of dollars in capital improvements for environmental protection in those two regions.

Those results speak volumes about what can be accomplished when people come together and even when the conversations are difficult, find common ground on an issue. Equally inspiring is that the collaborative approach pioneered by Mott grantees and others now extends through much of the field, with relicensing processes around the country increasingly reflecting the shared goals of balancing the economic and energy benefits of hydropower dams with the environmental and recreational benefits that rivers provide.

Mott: What were some “ah-ha” moments for you during this work?

Passmore: One was the realization of how valuable it is for the nonprofit community to lead the development of the technical models that inform the relicensing process. These tools simulate, illustrate and explain a dam’s impacts on such issues as aquatic habitat and water quality. By developing and providing these models, environmental groups can be at the forefront of the dam relicensing conversations.

Related to this sharing of data and information was the realization of how important state and local agencies are to the relicensing process. Because the federal government issues the licenses for hydropower dams, people tend to think of relicensing as largely a federal matter. But natural resource agencies and others at the state level and local environmental groups have critical insights on such key details as the effects that individual dams have on local water quality and wildlife, the economic and energy needs of surrounding areas, and so on. Engaging these state and local groups and helping them to understand and assert their roles in the relicensing process is critical.

Mott: How has this work helped to inform and shape Mott’s grantmaking interests in the area of freshwater conservation?

Passmore: One of the greatest environmental dilemmas of this century is what you might call the “freshwater challenge.” In the North American context, this is about meeting the freshwater needs of society — people, agriculture, industry, and so on — while supporting a healthy and sustainable ecosystem of rivers, streams, lakes and wetlands that we not only depend on, but also recognize as having its own stand-alone value. The relicensing grantmaking directly addresses those issues.

We can also point to the decades-long work by Mott grantees and others that led to the adoption and implementation of Great Lakes Compact, which was signed into federal law in October 2008. The Compact set a high bar for regional watershed protection and, five years later, Mott grantees in the U.S. and Canada are working to ensure that the Compact and a parallel international agreement continue to protect the Great Lakes.

These are just two examples of how Mott’s grantmaking has helped respond to the freshwater challenge. We continue to help people and organizations develop the tools, resources, relationships and public policies needed to support and protect essential freshwater ecosystems. We also believe that the impacts, models and lessons that continue to emerge from that grantmaking will inform others working to address the challenges of freshwater resources across North America and around the world.