Federal Power Commission Disallows Kings River Dams Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Federal Power Commission rejected the San Joaquin Light and Power Company’s application for a permit to build hydroelectric plants in Kings Canyon in the Sierra Nevada. The decision demonstrated that the fledgling commission had the will and the power to stand up to the energy industry, and it helped safeguard Kings Canyon from development until 1940, when it became a national park.

Summary of Event

Kings Canyon National Park Kings Canyon National Park is located in California’s Sierra Nevada. Established in 1940, the park is noted for its spectacular mountain scenery, as well as for its groves of sequoias, or giant redwoods. The park’s pristine beauty was almost lost to future generations in the 1920’s, however, when speculators made plans to develop a series of dams and powerhouses on the forks of the Kings River. Only the timely intervention of the Federal Power Commission (FPC) in 1923 prevented an industrial development from occurring in what has since been recognized as one of North America’s most scenic wilderness areas. Federal Power Commission Kings Canyon National Park Hydroelectric power development [kw]Federal Power Commission Disallows Kings River Dams (1923) [kw]Kings River Dams, Federal Power Commission Disallows (1923) [kw]Dams, Federal Power Commission Disallows Kings River (1923) Federal Power Commission Kings Canyon National Park Hydroelectric power development [g]United States;1923: Federal Power Commission Disallows Kings River Dams[05710] [c]Environmental issues;1923: Federal Power Commission Disallows Kings River Dams[05710] [c]Natural resources;1923: Federal Power Commission Disallows Kings River Dams[05710] [c]Government and politics;1923: Federal Power Commission Disallows Kings River Dams[05710] [c]Energy;1923: Federal Power Commission Disallows Kings River Dams[05710] Merrill, Oscar C. Kelly, William Muir, John Pinchot, Gifford

When the FPC rejected the San Joaquin Light and Power Company’s San Joaquin Light and Power Company application for a permit for hydropower development on the Kings River, the agency was barely three years old. Congress had created the Federal Power Commission in 1920 following nearly forty years of lobbying and debate. The first hydropower development in the United States occurred in 1882, but despite the advantages noted by conservationists such as Gifford Pinchot—that hydroelectric power was a clean and a continually self-renewing resource—hydropower construction in general lagged well behind construction of steam-powered generating plants. For many years, the typical hydropower facility was a small run-of-the-river plant employing a simple diversion dam. Industrialists were reluctant to rely on hydropower, as its availability was often subject to seasonal fluctuations.

As the scale of power plants increased, moreover, steam plants also presented fewer legal complications. Many of the early hydropower plants were constructed on privately owned lands, and the electricity was generated within a single state. The legal questions that arose initially regarding permits and licenses did not seem too different from the concerns revolving around steam plants, such as ownership of the land on which the plant was to be built and rights-of-way for transmission lines. Federal jurisdiction came into play in only a few situations, for example if the waters involved were subject to international treaties or if the waters were located on federal reserves. The Federal Dam Act of 1906 Federal Dam Act (1906) added a third area of federal jurisdiction—navigable waters—and these three separate areas became the basis of federal authority over waterpower.

Riparian rights for the early developers of hydropower were also relatively simple. Because a hydroelectric plant does not permanently remove water from a river, downstream users and landowners in most states had little say in upstream development. A developer had only to purchase the land for the proposed dam and powerhouse, along with any area to be flooded by the reservoir the dam would create. As advances in both civil and electrical engineering led to increases in the scale of projects—from small diversion dams impounding a few acre-feet of water to large gravity and arch dams impounding reservoirs several miles in length and from transmission lines reaching five or ten miles to transmission lines stretching for hundreds of miles—the legal situation became more complicated.

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By 1900, both conservationists and industrialists were citing the lack of a coherent federal water policy as a reason for the lack of development of hydropower. Despite the general agreement that definite policies were necessary, however, Congress accomplished nothing concrete until the outbreak of hostilities in Europe. Following the entry of the United States into World War I, with both conservationists and industrialists urging Congress to pass a comprehensive waterpower bill to help cope with a potential power shortage brought on by a scarcity of fuel oil, the legislative deadlock was finally broken. Still, it was not until late in 1918 that a compromise bill was introduced. Written by Oscar C. Merrill, chief engineer for the U.S. Forest Service, the bill proposed creating a commission that would consist of the three departments already involved in waterpower regulation—the Departments of War, Interior, and Agriculture—and that would oversee waterpower on navigable streams, public lands, and national forests. Legislative inertia following the end of the war slowed the bill’s passage, so it was not until June 10, 1920, that the Federal Water Power Act Federal Water Power Act (1920) was signed into law.

Developers almost immediately swamped the newly created Federal Power Commission with applications for power development projects, including development on the Kings River. The application by the San Joaquin Light and Power Company called for three storage reservoirs, eight diversion dams, thirty-five miles of power tunnels and ditches, and seven powerhouses. The development, designed with a capacity of 266,000 horsepower, would have covered fourteen thousand acres in the Kings Canyon region. Two of the plants would have operated with effective heads of more than two thousand feet. (“Head” refers to the difference in elevation between the point at a dam where water enters the power tunnel leading to the hydroelectric turbines and the point where the water exits the turbine.)

The pristine natural beauty of Kings Canyon had already been recognized for decades by the time San Joaquin Light and Power applied to the FPC to build there. John Muir, one of the founders of the Sierra Club, was an early advocate of the creation of Kings Canyon National Park. Many preservationists, including Muir, had been urging that a national park be created south of Yosemite, a park that would include Kings Canyon, even before Yosemite was officially designated a national park in 1890. As early as 1891, in an article published in The Century magazine, Muir had described the region as even grander than the already famous Yosemite Valley. Muir made numerous trips into the Kings River area, often accompanied by other preservationists, but he died in 1914, before his goal of preserving all of the High Sierra could be accomplished.

The chronically understaffed FPC was able to act on only a handful of the applications it received (more than two hundred by 1924). While Secretary Merrill pleaded for additional staff to handle the backlog, other engineers began to question the merits of many of the applications. William Kelly, chief engineer for the Federal Power Commission, toured the western states in 1922. Kelly reportedly noted that many of the conditions following World War I that had led to the passage of the Federal Water Power Act in 1920—scarcity of fuel oil, for example—were no longer valid. Kelly observed that the rapid development of hydroelectric sites seemed in some cases to be outpacing justification for their development.

The combination of an overwhelming backlog of applications and the perception that additional development was unnecessary may have led to Merrill’s decision to reject multiple pending applications. Trade publications such as Power reported that the FPC had decided to clear its record of applications for preliminary permits for a number of sites around the country. The proposed Kings River project was one such project, and the San Joaquin Light and Power Company was informed that they would not receive a permit. Before the company could reapply, the demand for hydropower development abated. As Kelly had noted, fuel oil was no longer in short supply. The pressure to develop hydroelectric sites as an alternative to fossil fuels eased, and the project no longer seemed as lucrative an investment.

Significance

The Federal Power Commission’s action proved significant for two very different reasons. First, Merrill’s decision to reject so many applications at once had the seemingly contradictory effect of both helping to establish the authority of the FPC in regulating hydroelectric development and highlighting the young agency’s many structural weaknesses. As authorized under the Federal Water Power Act of 1920, the FPC had only one employee, its executive secretary, Oscar Merrill. Congress had failed to allocate funding for even one clerk-typist for the FPC; all support staff had to be borrowed from the component departments, as the FPC could not hire anyone independently.

For example, William Kelly, who in 1922 had recommended against approving many of the applications on file, had been borrowed from the War Department and the Army Corps of Engineers. Prior to being assigned to the FPC, Colonel Kelly had worked on fortification construction for most of his engineering career. He was not an electrical engineer by training, but few military engineers at that time were. Merrill’s reliance on Kelly’s advice showed how limited the personnel resources of the Federal Power Commission actually were.

In addition, conservationists who had lobbied for the creation of the FPC noticed the often cursory reviews given to permit applications. Rather than weighing the merits of each application in terms of the best use of natural resources, as Gifford Pinchot and others had hoped the FPC would do, the young commission was quickly accused of too often considering only engineering design criteria. Merrill’s action in rejecting so many applications out of hand emphasized that the FPC was so understaffed that it was unable to fulfill its mission properly.

At the same time, until the FPC acted in 1923 to reject dubious applications, such as that for the Kings Canyon project, many observers in both the hydroelectric industry and the conservation movement may have doubted the commission’s willingness to stand up to industry. Chronically shorthanded and hounded by would-be developers, the FPC might easily have become little more than a licensing bureau that passively collected permit fees and gave rubber-stamped approvals to all applications. Rejecting applications such as the one proposed by San Joaquin Light and Power for development on the Kings River demonstrated to the hydroelectric industry that the FPC was willing to turn down a developer. Despite the doubts of conservationists, the days of wildcat speculation in hydroelectric development on federal lands had ended.

Second, rejection of the application for development on the Kings River preserved the essential wilderness character of the region. A few years earlier, wilderness preservationists had lost the battle to prevent construction of the O’Shaughnessy Dam in Yosemite National Park’s Yosemite National Park Hetch Hetchy Valley. The timely intervention of the FPC, although motivated by nonaesthetic concerns, meant that Kings Canyon would not be similarly modified. Even though the canyon did suffer depredations from logging, its river was not dammed, nor were any of its canyons inundated by reservoirs. If not a totally virgin wilderness, Kings Canyon is still far more unspoiled than many national parks. Visitors to Kings Canyon can still enjoy a mountain wilderness little different from that visited by John Muir in the late nineteenth century.

Muir believed that, like Yosemite, Kings Canyon’s depth, width, and flat valley floor were the result of glacial action. The notebooks Muir filled with his impressions of the High Sierra contain numerous sketches of Kings Canyon rock formations and the evidence they displayed of extensive glaciation. Because the FPC seemingly saved Kings Canyon almost by accident rather than by acting deliberately to preserve the region, it is hard to say if Muir’s many years of drawing attention to the beauty of the High Sierra played any role in Merrill’s decision to reject the San Joaquin Light and Power application. While lobbying for passage of the Federal Water Power Act, Merrill had voiced strong preservationist sentiments regarding unique natural areas such as the Grand Canyon, so it is possible that he based his decision on more than simple economic analyses of the projected need for electricity in California. In any case, whether initially saved deliberately or by accident, Kings Canyon was designated as a national park in 1940. It remains natural and unspoiled, a uniquely beautiful national treasure. Federal Power Commission Kings Canyon National Park Hydroelectric power development

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Baum, Robert David. The Federal Power Commission and State Utility Regulation. Washington, D.C.: American Council on Public Affairs, 1942. Hard to find, but one of the few books to examine the history of the Federal Power Commission.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Blehm, Eric. The Last Season. New York: HarperCollins, 2006. Story of the disappearance of a ranger who spent twenty-eight years working in the Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks. Although focused on the tragic life of one man, it contains a wealth of information about the parks, their history, and the day-to-day routine of the people who work to preserve them. Includes maps and illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Despain, Joel. Hidden Beneath the Mountains: The Caves of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Dayton, Ohio: Cave Books, 2003. Useful guide to one of the least-known but most breathtaking resources of Kings Canyon National Park.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Grunsky, Frederic R., ed. South of Yosemite: Selected Writings by John Muir. Garden City, N.Y.: Natural History Press, 1968. Vivid descriptions of the Sierra Nevada range and Kings Canyon. Illustrated with Muir’s sketches and black-and-white photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gulliver, John S., and Roger E. A. Arndt. Hydropower Engineering Handbook. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1991. While much of the mathematics may be comprehensible only to civil engineers, the lucid explanations of the different factors involved in hydroelectric development and the numerous accompanying illustrations make this book an invaluable resource for anyone interested in the topic.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hughes, Thomas P. Networks of Power. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983. Fascinating history of electrification in the United States and Europe. Lavishly illustrated. A classic in the history of technology.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jones, Holway R. John Muir and the Sierra Club: The Battle for Yosemite. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1965. Excellent history of the early years of the Sierra Club and one of its first preservation battles, the attempt to prevent the construction of the dam in the Hetch Hetchy Valley. Lavishly illustrated with excellent photographs.

U.S. Congress Approves a Dam in Hetch Hetchy Valley

National Park Service Is Created

St. Lawrence Seaway Treaty

Adams Lobbies Congress to Preserve Kings Canyon

Natural Gas Act

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