D.C. Circuit upholds FERC handling of hydro project in California

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit has upheld how the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) handled a case involving small hydroelectric facilities in California owned by the Turlock Irrigation District and Modesto Irrigation District.

The ruling was issued May 15 by a three-judge panel for the D.C. Circuit.

FERC had determined that the La Grange Hydroelectric Project fell within mandatory licensing provisions of the Federal Power Act “for three independent reasons.”

Turlock and Modesto had contended that the project does not fall within FERC’s licensing jurisdiction. The Tuolumne River Trust and other conservation groups argued that FERC erred by not finding that it had licensing jurisdiction for four reasons instead of three.

The trust’s petition was dismissed because “it raises no justiciable case or controversy,” the appeals court said in the 24-page ruling. The court also denied the irrigation districts’ petition for review because FERC’s finding “were supported by substantial evidence and deny the District’s petition for review.”

 Between 1891 and 1893, the Districts constructed the regional La Grange facility, which consisted of a dam at River Mile 52.2 of the Tuolumne River, impounding the waters of the river and creating a reservoir for the purpose of irrigating river valley farmland.

In 1924, the Districts expanded the facility and its purpose by the construction of the La Grange Powerhouse for the production of hydroelectricity. The powerhouse was comprised of a smaller unit with two 500 kilowatt generators, and a larger unit with a 3750 kilowatt generator. In 1989, Turlock replaced the Powerhouse’s turbines and generating units.

In June 2011, FERC received an inquiry from the National Marine Fisheries Service concerning the status of the theretofore unlicensed La Grange Hydro Project. In response to the inquiry, Commission staff undertook a review of the Project to determine whether it is subject to the Commission’s mandatory licensing jurisdiction under the Federal Power Act.

The districts had argued that FERC was wrong in determining, among other things, that the Tuolumne River was navigable.

The districts also disputed FERC’s conclusion that the 1989 rehabilitation increased La Grange’s installed capacity, and thus, La Grange required licensure. “Lastly, we reject the Districts’ argument the FERC should have declined to exercise jurisdiction over La Grange because the increase in generating capacity was minimal,” the appeals court held.

The case, Turlock and Modesto Irrigation Districts versus FERC (No. 13-1250, consolidated with Case No. 13-1253), had been argued before the panel on Nov. 24, 2014.

About Wayne Barber 4201 Articles
Wayne Barber, Chief Analyst for the GenerationHub, has been covering power generation, energy and natural resources issues at national publications for more than 20 years. Prior to joining PennWell he was editor of Generation Markets Week at SNL Financial for nine years. He has also worked as a business journalist at both McGraw-Hill and Financial Times Energy. Wayne also worked as a newspaper reporter for several years. During his career has visited nuclear reactors and coal mines as well as coal and natural gas power plants. Wayne can be reached at wayneb@pennwell.com.