Chapter 1 - The Need for Shoreline Protection

What are shoreline lands and why is it important to protect them? For purposes of this guidance document, shoreline lands are those lands surrounding an impoundment upstream of a hydropower project as well as lands along the affected river downstream of a project. Shoreline lands typically begin at the high water mark and extend outward a certain distance to protect the natural and aesthetic qualities of the impoundment or river. The interface between river and reservoir waters and the abutting terrestrial (riparian) land is ecologically sensitive. Fauna such as beavers, mink, muskrats, waterfowl, bald eagles and loons are highly dependent on this unique habitat. Unfortunately, the operation of many hydropower projects includes drastic and frequent changes in reservoir and river water levels to generate power. This can impact recreation, shallow water aquatic communities, and wetlands. Human activity on shorelines can impact water quality, erosion, wetlands, fish and wildlife habitat, recreational opportunities, aesthetics, and the visual values of the shoreline. Residential and commercial development, dock and marina construction, and high impact recreational activities are well-documented stresses to river resources and reservoirs.

Some of the recognized benefits from shoreline protection include:

  • Water quality protection by vegetative buffers that filter sediment runoff and provide shade from the sun;
  • The absorption and retention by the vegetation and soils of pollutants and nutrients before they enter the river;
  • Provision for essential wildlife breeding, feeding and wintering habitat and migration corridors;
  • Quality opportunities for recreation activities such as fishing, wildlife observation, hiking, and canoe-camping;
  • Greater public access to our publicly-owned waters; and
  • Protection of aesthetic and visual values.

When you request shoreline protection during the licensing process, FERC will require justification for the overall location, length and width (distance from high water mark) of the land buffer requested from the hydropower dam owner. Frequently protection of more than one resource is the goal, in which case the widest buffer is the desired one. A review of the literature illustrates that the width of a protective shoreline buffer can vary depending upon the resources at risk. Examples of recommended shoreline buffer zone widths for a variety of resources are listed in Table 1.

  • FERC will require justification for the overall location of the shoreline buffer zone from the intervenor.

FERC applies a simplistic formula approach to shoreline protection. Its regulations define a "200-foot buffer zone" or less, unless a site-specific case for a greater width buffer exists. While FERC establishes an arbitrary 200-foot buffer limit without defining its basis, FERC rarely accepts outright the more scientifically determined ‘standard’ buffer widths as outlined in Table 1. Therefore, the buffer widths in Table 1 are useful tools but only if supported by compelling, site-specific reasons. The length of a required shoreline buffer is procedurally even less clear in the relicensing process and licenses issued have varied from the total reservoir shoreline to no shoreline being protected.

  • The strongest case one can make for the need of a protective shoreline buffer is to identify the location of specific water quality, ecological, aesthetic and/or recreational values. It is equally critical to quantify threats to these values.

Describe, by actual location, where shoreline protection is essential for the protection of these resources over the tenure of the new license to be issued. If the resource is of local or regional significance, then make the case for protection. For example: is the land the last undeveloped major shoreline that provides a unique recreational and aesthetic opportunity, or harbors a critical wildlife habitat like a deer wintering yard? If residential or second home development is the threat, obtain the relevant zoning ordinances and calculate the theoretical residential or commercial build-out that could occur to demonstrate the magnitude of the development threat if the shoreline is not protected.

The relicensing process provides specific opportunities to request studies from the hydro operator that might identify or justify the need for shoreline protection, mitigation or enhancement. But be prepared for the dam owner to present a biased record in its studies and application. Dam owners rarely want to create a record requiring them to provide shoreline protection, particularly since they know the real estate potential they possess. FERC has an aversion to having licensing jurisdiction over shorelines, even though the mandate is part of its responsibility. FERC rarely challenges a license applicant’s data unless prodded, so be prepared to supplement and challenge poorly prepared and biased records presented by the project owner in the relicensing process.