WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled unanimously today that the federal government has exclusive legal power over federally licensed hydroelectric power plants and that individual states cannot impose environmental regulations on the projects.
Writing for the court, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor rejected the pleas of California, 43 other states and environmentalists seeking to give state agencies the authority to regulate water flow to power plants.
The case involved a hydroelectric project on Rock Creek, a tributary of the American River near Placerville. The owner, Rock Creek Limited Partnership, planned to generate electric power and sell it to Pacific Gas & Electric Co.
In approving the project in 1983, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission required that the plant maintain minimum water flow rates to protect the creek's fish population.
The state water resources agency then sought to further limit the flow of water for the project in an effort to assure the survival of trout and other types of fish in the creek.
O'Connor, normally a strong advocate of states' rights, ruled in this case that the federal government was given exclusive authority by Congress in regulating hydroelectric power plants.
"Allowing California to impose significantly higher minimum stream flow requirements would disturb and conflict with the balance embodied in the federal agency's determination," she said in the 14-page opinion that was a victory for the nation's utilities.
The decision keeps sole power over the plants with the federal government, which has had broad authority over developing and licensing hydroelectric projects since 1935.
Electric utilities had warned that the financial health of numerous plants could be threatened if states suddenly were allowed to limit the flow of water to them.