Making Progress in Regulatory Reforms for Low-Head Hydro Development

February 2013

By Charles Sensiba

About a year ago, I was given the unique opportunity to become involved in an initiative to seek federal regulatory reforms related to low-head hydropower development along irrigation and water supply facilities. This opportunity was a good fit with the experience I’ve gained since arriving in Washington D.C. nearly 15 years ago, as my law practice has focused on representing water districts, public utility districts, investor-owned utilities, and other power generators on hydropower licensing and regulation matters before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). But far more importantly, this new initiative of the Low-Head Hydro Working Group offered a chance to return to my roots—to work on an issue that, if successful, would bring real reform back home.

For much of my childhood, I was raised in the Rio Grande Valley in southern New Mexico, on the last footprint of desert lands that originally were homesteaded by my great-great grandfather following the Civil War. Agriculture, ranching, and dairy farming dominated the local economy and culture. Because my family relied heavily on groundwater resources to sustain operations on our small ranch—in an area that typically sees less than 9 inches of precipitation each year—conversations around
the family dinner table often focused on the importance of water conservation and of ongoing water controversies between New Mexico and Texas. My walking route to school was along irrigation canals, and I’ll even admit that my brothers and I became pretty good at avoiding the ditch runners while we fished for crawdads and tried to
beat the summer’s heat while swimming in the canals.

So, when I had a chance to return home and see firsthand Elephant Butte Irrigation District’s work to develop low-head hydropower resources at several drops within its system, I jumped at the opportunity to become involved. It’s really an exciting time in this industry. Technical advancements are allowing developers to generate renewable energy feasibly at low-head locations, and the generated energy can be used onsite to support local power needs or sold to the local utility or cooperative to improve the financial position of the district.

Unfortunately, however, the outdated federal regulatory regime required for approving the development and operation of these emerging technologies is a significant impediment for promoting greater advancement of this renewable energy resource...

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This is an excerpt of an article that originally appeared in Irrigation Leader magazine. Access the full article here.