Jim Fossum’s lifelong commitment to balancing hydroelectric dams and healthy rivers

Sep 21, 2023 | Dam Removal, Fish Passage

Jim Fossum has served as River Alliance of Wisconsin’s hydroelectric relicensing consultant for 18 years. According to Jim, hydroelectric dams can have a profound impact on a river. Hydroelectric dams can make power. They can also disrupt a river’s flow, the path of traveling fish, and the quality of water. 

“Power companies use a public resource to generate electricity for a profit,” Jim explains. “The federal government allows them to do that. In exchange for that right, companies have to answer to the public. To keep their license, agreements can include environmental measures that benefit the public and protect the river.”

A utility company could want to make as much electricity as it can. Peak power, however, is bad for a river’s health. 

“When I was with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, we saw the impacts of a dam on the Oconto River,” Jim remembered. “The Oconto River dam operated in a hydro peaking mode. They would store water in a reservoir at night with a small flow going through the dam. In the morning they would start generating electricity with a huge gush of water. In this 24-hour cycle, the river went from nearly drying up to flooding the whole riverbed. This on-and-off, watering and rewatering the river channel was very harmful for fish and other wildlife.” 

Jim Fossum stands with his successor at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Nick Utrup, at a waterfall on the Menominee River in the U.P. of Michigan.
Jim Fossum stands with his successor at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Nick Utrup, at a waterfall on the Menominee River in the U.P. of Michigan.

Through the relicensing of the dam, stakeholders negotiated moving from hydro peaking mode to a run-of-the-river operation where the amount of the river’s water that entered the project was released in a constant flow. 

“That’s the tradeoff we had to negotiate,” said Jim. “Now every time I cross the Oconto River I feel good and I smile because we really did a lot of good for that river.”

The process to renew a hydroelectric dam’s license takes at least five years. Making sure the process includes protections for rivers and input from the public takes a lot of knowledge and tenacity. Jim put both to work in two memorable projects.

“The biggest project and the highlight of my career is being a part of the planning team as a consultant for River Alliance on the design of the fish passages in the lower two dams of the Menominee River,” said Jim. “It took about ten years and ten million dollars to get that done. The dams were a historic impediment to a healthy Lake Michigan sturgeon population. A lot of planning went into engineering a way to pass lake sturgeon around the hydroelectric dams and up to their spawning habitat in the Menominee River.”

Before the dams on the lower Menominee could renew their license, many stakeholders came together to create a plan to support the fish population, study their health and travels, and help their instinctual passage up and down the river. The facility now has an elevator that lifts fish into sorting tanks to be weighed and monitored before releasing them upstream at the Park Mill Dam. After spawning, sturgeon have a bypass channel to swim back downstream.

Jim talks to Helen Sarakinos from River Alliance on the shore of the Menominee River
Jim talks to Helen Sarakinos from River Alliance on the shore of the Menominee River.

“That was at least ten years or more of meetings,” Jim remembers. “A conference call every Monday for years! But it’s a great facility that’s working well.”

Another achievement was being involved with the negotiation and implementation of hydropower settlement agreements. Both the Wilderness Shores and the Lower Chippewa agreements brought utility companies and multi-state natural resource agencies together to agree on managing multiple dams and licenses in one plan. It was more efficient and agreements funded projects that mitigated the impact of the dams on a river. 

“We agreed to set aside environmental enhancement funds,” said Jim. “The funds were used for environmentally beneficial resource projects in a river, or to study them. Local groups, academics, or the DNR could propose projects and we’d review them. It was very rewarding to me to help approve projects that improved fish habitat, restored eroding shorelines, monitored invasive species, or purchased land along a river to protect prime recreation areas or habitats for endangered species. It was special to me to be involved in that and see how the river has improved.” 

As he looks back at the evolution of laws on hydroelectric dams, he believes policies are evolving for the better. However, he does have a concern that the need for green energy could overshadow river protections.

“In the future, if there is a big push to allow dams to operate in a hydro peaking mode so they can produce more electricity, it would be very destructive to a river,” said Jim. “The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission could face a lot of pressure to do that. But this is why we need groups like River Alliance and local organizations to be involved in the relicensing process. Maximizing power generation at the expense of a river’s health would be very harmful for the environment. It’s a long haul, but the more river advocates we have, the better.”

Upon his retirement, we gifted Jim a framed image of the rivers of Wisconsin and a proclamation describing and thanking him for his many years of service.

Thank you for your many years of service Jim!

– Stacy Harbaugh, Communications Director


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