“If its peaking, its not an ROR!” Interview with Dr. Thomas Hardy, IAHR and Texas State University

At the 10th International Symposium on Ecohydraulics in Trondheim, Norway in June 2014, SANDRP talked with Dr. Thomas Hardy, Past President of the Ecohydraulics Section of the International Association for Hydro-Environment Engineering and Research (IAHR), and The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment Endowed Professor in Environmental Flows at Texas State University.

Dr. Hardy holds advanced degrees (MS and PhD) in both aquatic ecology and civil engineer and has been at the forefront globally, for linking issues related to hydraulics and hydropower with ecosystems. Here he talks about issues like state-of-art mitigation measures being put to use across the world for mitigating impacts of hydropower, evolution of Ecohydraulics and the dangers of “Putting dams at the wrong place”

We see some significant mitigation measures, some of which include decommissioning, for addressing impacts of hydropower coming from over the world. How did this system evolve? What was the role of various actors and did this happen suo motto from the companies?

Since the last two decades, we have recognized the environmental consequences of hydropower. The cost benefits analyses of many projects is getting skewed, we have been witnessing the ecological costs of many of such projects are exceeding their economic benefits. For example, in the 5 dams in a cascade on the Klamath River, the economic value of the salmon fisheries being destroyed was more than the hydropower benefits from the dams. A lot of mitigation measures have come from countries like Norway and countries like US have also seen them, and we are always keeping our eyes open for better solutions.

Fish Ladder at John Day Dam (from : http://blog.oregonlive.com/)

Fish Ladder at John Day Dam (from : http://blog.oregonlive.com/)

While it’s accepted that there will be impacts of any intervention, we need to be honest about the scale of the impacts and who pays the price for these impacts.

About the suo motto role of companies, unfortunately, I have not seen very many companies adopting better environmental standards by themselves without consistent pressures and constant monitoring from people and the government. A lot of credit to increased performance of hydropower mitigation measures goes to NGOs, civil society groups, indigenous communities and the citizens themselves for raising these issues with the companies as well as governments to adopt better standards for their rivers. The advent of social media continues to help a lot to this end.

In the US, a lot of changes were also driven by aboriginal communities who protected their fishing rights or riverine ecosystems. For example in the Klamath River, the aboriginal tribes upheld their traditional fishing rights of salmon which were affected by the dams. This led to not only changes in dam operation, but a spurt of work on fish ladders, passes, eflows and decommissioning. Having said that, we have also committed some massive mistakes, the cost of which have been great. The mitigation measures we are trying to put in now are very costly. Making wise decisions about siting dams and including mitigation measures at the level of designing itself is not only effective, but its also comparatively cheaper. In that sense, it is encouraging to see China being more concerned about the impacts of its hydropower on the environment.

It is claimed that Run of the River projects are environmentally better than storage type HEPs. There are some such projects which undertake massive peaking. How can the impacts of massive scale of hydro-peaking be mitigated?

Firstly, if its peaking, its not an ROR. [1]An ROR by definition cannot store water and cannot change the hydrographs of a river on a timescale. If it’s doing that, it’s not an ROR and should not be labelled as such. Period. If anyone is doing that, I would question their motives in being less than truthful. It’s also a matter of wrong green labels to these projects. So we need to remember that RORs do not change the downstream hydrograph and hence cannot peak.

How about the contention that ramping up and down reduces peaking capabilities of the project?

Well, there is no free lunch. There is a cost to doing business, cost of doing good business, and only this will keep it running in the long term. No one would deny that all developmental activities entail environmental costs, but we to understand the range of environmental and social costs, put them on table and then take a wise decision, taking everyone on board.

As for ramping rates affecting peaking operations, power demands do not fluctuate hugely from established patterns on a daily, weekly, or seasonal basis and the companies have a pretty good forecast idea of the range of demand. Based on this, if the peaking is supposedly for 3 hours, up ramping can be started an hour earlier, so that we get the benefits of 3 hours peaking. Same goes for down ramping, you need to coordinate it that way. Of course this will mean some change of efficiency, but like I said, there is no free lunch and surely government and companies are concerned about safety of their people downstream these projects.

Safety concerns of peaking opeartions, apart from the ecological concerns, are very important to consider. In case of  the Milner Dam on the Snake River in the US, I actually had a group of students and fishermen stand and then wade in a river and we then worked on the releases from the dam which gave sufficient time for these people to get out of the river. There is no option to safety measures. They are of paramount importance.

When we develop rivers in a cascade, would it help if we maintain free flowing stretches between projects?

Well it’s a relative question, which is all about siting your projects. In the first place, don’t put a dam in the wrong place! That’s most important. After that, placing of other dams will be specific to the ecological uniqueness of that river. But we need guidelines which say at least some percentage of the upper watershed should be conserved and not exposed to impacts like peaking. It may be better to entirely protect the tributaries of a heavily dammed basin, rather than adopting a cut and stitch approach. FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) is now routinely including impacts of hydropeaking on fish and other organisms like benthic macroinvertebrates while relicensing and also licensing.[2]

Decommissioning of the Glines canyon Dam on the Elwha River From USGS.gov

Decommissioning of the Glines canyon Dam on the Elwha River From USGS.gov

How is the monitoring mechanism around mitigation measures developed in the US? Do communities have a role to play here?

Monitoring is well developed and an important part of the licensing process. The company can do annual monitoring themselves, or they can outsource this to an external entity.  Monitoring advisory Committees are mandatory for projects and this committee includes representatives from the company, wildlife groups, aboriginal groups, regulators, etc. The membership to this committee is pretty flexible. If a group has significant reasons and wants to be a part of the monitoring committee, it can do so. This committee monitors environmental management plans and also guides the company in this process.The issue is about making the companies and government accountable to the society.

There has been a flood of eflows methodologies, Which one would you describe as the state of art methodology at this moment?

ELOHA is robust and well developed for this moment, but there is no one size fits all method, the assessment method depends on the data, time and resources available. The main point is that even eflows entail consensus generation and equitable sharing of resources and here too, the community should be playing a main role.

When the dam building pressures are too high, there is little point in hurrying through studies. In extreme cases, it is wise to put a moratorium on on-going development, try and fathom what we have lost and will be losing, look at the environmental and social consequences of this loss and then decide on the way forward. These things cannot be hurried into.

At places like Columbia River systems, we realize that we have changed the entire river basin, but the mitigation measures have been developed, put in place and are working. So, that’s good. But in other places, we realize that the social, ecological and even economic costs we are paying for developing dams are just not worth the costs. In those cases, we need to bring them down. This has happened too.

Interviewed by Parineeta Dandekar, SANDRP

(The trip was possible due to generous support from Both ENDS)


[1] Text book definition of ROR: ““Run-of-river” refers to a mode of operation in which the hydro plant uses only the water that is available in the natural flow of the river, “Run-of-river” implies that there is no water storage and that power fluctuates with the stream flow.”

NOTE: Contrast this with the Indian Bureau of Standards definition of ROR, which allows pondage for even weekly fluctuations of demands and then claiming that this “does not alter the river course materially”. This is a blunder as that sort of pondage and resultant peaking hydrograph changes the downstream character of the river completely. even weekly storage and then peaking as ROR!

[2] http://www.northfieldrelicensing.com/NorthfieldRelicensing/Lists/Documents/Attachments/47/20130228-5329(28100604).pdf: The Turners Falls Project is currently operated with a minimum flow release that was not based on biological criteria or field study. Further, the project generates power in a peaking mode resulting in significant with-in day flow fluctuations between the minimum and project capacity on hourly or daily basis. The large and rapid changes in flow releases from hydropower dams are known to cause adverse effects on habitat and biota downstream of the project. Effects on spawning behavior could include suspension of spawning activity, poor fertilization, flushing of eggs into unsuitable habitat due to higher peaking discharges, eggs dropping out into unsuitable substrate and being covered by sediment deposition and/or eggs becoming stranded on de-watered shoal areas as peak flows subside.

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