The Source Civil Engineering Magazine Policy Briefing: House, Senate bills would promote dam safety, hydropower, and river restoration

Policy Briefing: House, Senate bills would promote dam safety, hydropower, and river restoration

By Jay Landers

Dams, dam safety, and hydropower are receiving renewed attention in Congress. Legislation recently introduced in the House and Senate would boost efforts to rehabilitate, retrofit, or remove certain U.S. dams while seeking to promote safety, improve hydropower capacity, shore up resilience of the nation’s energy grid, and restore rivers. The bills, which have garnered bipartisan congressional support, also enjoy the approval of a diverse coalition of organizations, including ASCE.

ASCE supports the House and Senate bills for their “comprehensive suite of investment tools to improve the nation’s dams,” says Caroline Sevier, the Society’s director of government relations.

Developed with input from ASCE, the legislation “has been constructed in a manner that all of the pieces, we believe, should be taken together,” Sevier says. “It will provide a comprehensive approach to addressing the overall safety of the nation’s dams.”

Boosting dam safety

On July 9, Rep. Annie Kuster, D–N.H., introduced the Twenty-First Century Dams Act (H.R. 4375). All told, the bill would authorize $25.8 billion in federal spending over five years to improve dam safety and rehabilitation efforts, enhance hydropower production and grid resilience, and restore river ecosystems.

“We have the opportunity to build stronger, more resilient water infrastructure and hydropower systems in the United States, and the Twenty-First Century Dams Act advances an innovative plan to rehabilitate, retrofit, or remove U.S. dams — the 3Rs — to bolster clean energy production while taking steps to conserve our waterways for generations to come,” Kuster said in a July 9 news release.

Title 1 of H.R. 4375 concerns increased federal assistance for efforts to improve the safety of the approximately 90,000 dams across the country. For example, the legislation would amend the National Dam Safety Program Act to boost funding significantly for the existing grant program within the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency to rehabilitate so-called high hazard potential dams, the failure of which would result in the loss of human life and significant property destruction.

Under current law, this program is authorized to receive $60 million annually. H.R. 4375 would increase this annual authorization to $200 million through fiscal year 2026. At the same time, the legislation would increase FEMA’s authorized annual funding for the National Dam Safety Program tenfold, from $9.2 million to $92 million.

Title 1 also would direct the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to inspect “all non-Federal dams in the United States that are not under the regulatory inspection authority of a State or Federal entity” unless the Corps determines that such a dam does not “pose any threat to human life or property,” according to the text of H.R. 4375.

Such inspections would “include an assessment of downstream hazard and development of a dam failure inundation map and a non-failure residual risk inundation map that can be incorporated in an emergency action plan for the dam,” the legislation states.

Approximately 4,000 U.S. dams currently are exempt from regulation, says Mark Ogden, P.E., M.ASCE, a technical specialist for the Association of State Dam Safety Officials, which supports the legislation. “That can be for several reasons that vary from state to state,” Ogden says. “Some examples are Alabama, which doesn’t have a state regulatory program; Missouri, which does not regulate dams under 35 ft; or states that have exemptions for farming and agricultural reasons.”

Incentivizing improvements

Title II of H.R. 4375 contains tax provisions intended to incentivize additional spending associated with the maintenance and upkeep of qualifying hydroelectric dams. For example, the legislation would create a 30% tax credit for investments associated with dam safety, environmental improvements, and grid resilience. Qualifying dam safety measures would include spillway maintenance or upgrades, erosion repair and other methods of ensuring dam stability, and upgrades or replacements of floodgates or natural infrastructure restoration or protection to improve flood-risk reduction, according to the legislation.

Environmental improvements would encompass adding or improving fish passage, maintaining or improving the quality of water released by dams, promoting downstream sediment transport processes and habitat maintenance, and providing for or improving recreational access to areas near dams. Improvements associated with grid resilience would include efforts to enable hydroelectric dams to adapt more quickly to changing grid conditions, provide ancillary services, integrate other variable sources of electricity generation, or manage accumulated reservoir sediments, according to H.R. 4375.

The legislation also would implement a tax credit to promote the removal of what H.R. 4375 terms an “obsolete river obstruction.” The bill would create a 30% tax credit for certain expenses associated with the removal of such dams. Expenditures eligible for the tax credit would include the cost of demolishing or removing qualifying dams, in whole or in part, as well as all associated remediation and ecosystem restoration costs, according to the legislation.

Funding dam removal, other activities

Title III of H.R. 4375 focuses on river restoration and would create a new dam removal program to be overseen by the Corps. Authorized to receive $7.5 billion over five years, the new program would fund dam removal projects aimed at protecting human health and safety, restoring aquatic habitat and riverine processes, increasing river connectivity and species access to aquatic habitat, improving water quality, enhancing commercial and recreational fishing, enhancing river-based recreation, restoring nature-based infrastructure, and improving climate resilience, according to the bill.

A dam removal council comprising the heads of multiple federal agencies would make recommendations to the Corps regarding which dam removal projects to fund. The council also would develop a strategy “to ensure a comprehensive approach to remove dams,” according to the legislation. The strategy would have the ambitious goal of reconnecting “at least 10,000 miles of river by 2031,” according to H.R. 4375.

Finally, Title IV would authorize significant investments in dam infrastructure among a host of federal agencies. Of the $11 billion allocated in this title, the most by far would go toward the Corps, which would receive $8 billion over five years for various dam-related activities.

Such activities could include safety improvements; environmental improvements; hydropower unit maintenance and upgrades; transmission, distribution, and substation upgrades; control room upgrades; efficiency, flexibility, and capacity improvements; deployment of innovative technologies; and backlogged maintenance and operation activities. The legislation would authorize over five years a total of $2 billion for the Bureau of Reclamation, $350 million for the U.S. Forest Service, and $650 million for the Bureau of Indian Affairs to perform similar dam-related activities.

On July 15, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D–Calif., introduced companion legislation (S. 2356) in the Senate. Because of jurisdictional issues among Senate committees, Feinstein’s bill did not include the tax provisions that comprise Title II of H.R. 4375. However, separate legislation authored by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D–Wash., is essentially identical to the tax provisions of Kuster’s bill. Introduced on June 24, Cantwell’s bill (S. 2306) is titled the Maintaining and Enhancing Hydroelectric and River Restoration Act.

The tax incentives included in H.R. 4375 and S. 2306 are designed to upgrade hydropower facilities, improve the environment, and boost employment. “These two new incentives, combined with other new complementary programs, will help preserve emissions-free power sources while opening up miles of free-flowing river and creating thousands of well-paying rural construction jobs,” Cantwell said in a June 28 news release.

Society support

In terms of dam safety, the bills include certain “longstanding priorities of ASCE,” notes Sevier, the director of the Society’s government relations. Such priorities include increased funding for the program to rehabilitate high hazard potential dams and for the National Dam Safety Program in general.

“Making these investments to protect property, protect human life, and make sure that our nation’s dams are safe and secure for the future is obviously very important to ASCE, and it’s why we have come out in support of this legislation,” Sevier says.

Other organizations that have voiced support for the legislation include the Nature Conservancy, the Low Impact Hydropower Institute, American Rivers, the Hydropower Reform Coalition, the National Hydropower Association, the World Wildlife Fund, the Hydropower Foundation, and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

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