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How Hydropower Impacts Water Quality and the Environment

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Jane Marsh's picture

Jane Marsh is the Editor-in-Chief of She covers topics related to climate policy, sustainability, renewable energy and more.

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Hydropower is as old as humanity, yet it takes a back seat in the renewable energy discussion. Solar, wind and geothermal are gaining popularity in the current clean power market. However, sourcing our electricity from water holds various benefits and follows recent political trends.

On his first day in office, President Biden rejoined the Paris Agreement. This signifies our commitment to greenhouse gas emission reduction. He also established the Build Back Better policy aimed at increasing sustainability.

Hydropower can help America reach its climate change prevention goals. First, we must reduce its environmental impact, ensuring optimal eco-friendly practices.

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Effect on Water Quality

Unlike nonrenewable energy sources, hydropower has no direct effect on water quality. The flowing natural resource powers internal dam generators by spinning metal turbine blades. Water only connects to the paddles before exiting the system, rather than absorbing any pollution throughout the process.

It is essential to note that hydropower plants differ from purification or filtration systems. If you source your water directly from a dam, you must treat it for microorganisms and toxins before rendering it potable. A filtration device will remove contaminants before consumption.

Filters remove microorganisms, contaminants and heavy metals from untreated water sources. Different systems contain various sizes, which alters their efficiency and effectiveness. Microfilters have a 0.1-micron pore size, allowing some microscopic contaminants through. Ultrafilters hold a 0.01-micron pore size and remove all unwanted elements.

General filtration systems have a challenging time removing chemicals from water sources, and reverse osmosis can help. It has the most petite pore sizes, generating the purest output.

Impact on the Environment

Regardless of how much you filter dam water, the adverse environmental effects remain consistent. Hydropower impacts land use by drowning natural areas under reservoirs, paving over natural regions and polluting the sky with many powerlines.

A team of environmental engineers and scientists developed a measurement tool displaying the amount of land destroyed when creating one kilowatt-hour of energy. The Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) tool evaluates all aspects of a hydropower plant, from construction to residential or commercial electricity extraction. Researchers calculated an average of 0.027 square meters degraded annually while producing hydropower electricity.

As the industry consumes natural lands, it destroys various species' habitats, placing biodiversity at risk. The physical barriers of dams directly interfere with aquatic species migration. Fish must swim upstream to breed and grow, accessing essential and localized resources.

Dams prevent vital migration patterns, preventing population growth. Over time, certain species may become extinct because of the physical barrier. Nearly 2 million U.S. hydropower plants affect aquatic species conservation annually.

Similarly, plant species experience adverse hydropower effects. Alterations to localized water sources create an inconsistent habitat for nearby vegetation. Inconsistent resource accessibility makes plant growth challenges.

Hydropower Advantages

Renewable energy is a new industry, and environmental engineers and scientists are still working out the kinks. Though some adverse ecological effects interfere with the success of hydropower, various benefits remain.

Hydropower derives from a nondepletable resource and reduces exploitation while in use. It also has a smaller carbon footprint than other clean energy sources. Our longstanding history with the system allows us to advance its technology quickly and effectively.

Building hydropower plants is cost-effective, allowing their integration into the Build Back Better plan. They also provide a domestic energy source, helping each region meet demands without relying on international fuel sources. Their adaptable power outputs make them an ideal backup option for disaster-ridden areas.

Power loss can hold dangerous consequences for specific areas. Hydropower can fuel medical facilities, shelters and other essential locations following a storm. As long as water fills the reservoir, a hydropower plant can support a recovering region.

Building Better

The undeniable benefits of hydropower maintain its rank in the renewable energy industry. Our nation must fund research and development on these systems, increasing their sustainability and decreasing their environmental impact. Technological advancements can improve hydropower systems, generating another climate change prevention resource.

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