University of San Diego

San Diego Journal of Climate & Energy Law


Joseph A. Welsh

Library of Congress Authority File


From its early use as kinetic power to kick start the industrial revolution, a consensus emerged that hydroelectric power is clean, renewable, and reliable. In contemporary parlance it is universally classified as either “carbon free” or “low-carbon.” The history of hydropower in the United States supports this belief, and its use has rarely been scrutinized. However, an emerging consensus indicates scrutiny is necessary (for hydroelectric power and other energy sources avoiding acute assessment) given the challenges foisted upon us by anthropogenic climate change.

This Article will put the standard hydropower consensus to task and analyze whether it holds water as a resource that can be heavily relied upon in a clean energy transition. First, a review of the United States’ history with hydropower will summarize the construction of a ubiquitous pro-power narrative that pervaded hydroelectric conversations well into the 1970s. A narrative that has recently found favor again as the global community seeks a path to avoid the worst effects of climate change. Second, this Article will discuss the nascent scientific consensus around the impact of twentieth and twenty-first century proliferation of hydropower and river impoundments. Third, this Article will explore current federal legislative tools available to account for and mitigate future impacts, including suggestions to amend current legislation to require analysis of hydroelectric impact on climate change. Finally, this Article will analyze national policy regarding prospective development and reliance on hydropower.