South African-based Dam Owner Goes After the Clean Water Act

The hydropower industry is about to get its day in court in a Clean Water Act case before the U.S. Supreme Court this February. If the industry wins, rivers everywhere will lose.

The hydropower industry is about to get its day in court in a Clean Water Act case before the U.S. Supreme Court this February. If the industry wins, rivers everywhere will lose.

On February 21, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in S.D. Warren v. Maine Board of Environmental Protection. In this case, brought by a South African-owned paper company that owns several dams on Maine's Presumpscot river, the hydropower industry is attempting to overturn a 35-year old provision in the Clean Water Act that gives states the right to protect their rivers from water quality problems caused by hydropower dams.

"The industry just got Congress and the Administration to weaken similar protections at the federal level. Now they are trying to get the Supreme Court to legislate from the bench and give them another way to avoid taking responsibility for the damage they do to rivers," said John Seebach, National Coordinator, Hydropower Reform Coalition. Kevin Colburn, American Whitewater's National Stewardship Director adds, "American Whitewater is very concerned about the impacts of the S.D. Warren case on the public's ability to restore both recreational and ecological values to their back yard rivers. The Clean Water Act is one of the primary tools we use to restore dammed rivers, and without it our efforts would be seriously impacted."

Last week, a broad coalition of more than 50 environmental and recreation groups filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting Maine's right to protect its rivers from hydropower-related harm. Other parties filing briefs in support of Maine include the Bush Administration, the Attorneys General of 35 states and territories, several American Indian Tribes, sportfishing groups, leading rivers scientists and engineers, Senator Jim Jeffords (I-VT), and others.

"The hydropower industry's position in this case is totally self-serving," said Seebach. "When you look at the diversity of the groups that filed in opposition - everyone from environmentalists to the Bush administration - you can really see how they've isolated themselves from the mainstream."

While hydropower dams can provide electricity, flood control, and other benefits, they can also devastate fisheries and river ecosystems, limit recreational and economic opportunities, and even dry up entire stretches of river. States have been using the Clean Water Act for more than 30 years to require dam owners to implement modest changes that offset most of these problems. If the hydropower industry's court challenge is successful, rivers across the nation will lose this vital protection, and will return to being used primarily to generate profits for a few energy companies at the expense of lost benefits to local communities.

This case can also be seen as part of a larger attempt to gradually dismantle America's environmental laws in ways that the public might not notice. "The energy lobby and their friends in Congress can't get away with a frontal assault on laws like the Clean Water Act: Americans want clean rivers and would never stand for it. Instead, the strategy is to chip away at our environmental protections piece by piece until there's nothing left to protect our communities' rivers, lakes, and streams." said Hydropower Reform Coalition chair Robbin Marks.

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