08/19/2013 12:59 pm ET Updated Oct 15, 2013

Clean Energy, Safer Rivers, More Fish

For an environmental organization, working with major companies is complicated territory. Some critics view these alliances as consorting with the enemy.

Dam companies in particular have historically been at odds with the environmental community. Dams have seriously impacted the health of over 60 percent of the world's major rivers, blocking migratory fish, degrading water quality and altering natural flow patterns that support aquatic life.

Why, then, would The Nature Conservancy choose to work with the operator of the largest dam in the world?

The reality is that hydropower investments are rapidly growing. In fact, on our projected path we have reached only the halfway point of global hydropower development. While it's crucial that we continue to seek out other energy options, hydropower is a critical part of the solution to climate change and the transition to renewable energy. Dams provide other important benefits, too, from drinking water and electricity to flood control and irrigation for farms.

So what if instead of saying "no" to all dams, environmentalists ask "where" and "how"? Where can we put dams that make the most sense, and where should we keep rivers free flowing? How might hydropower companies change their practices to achieve better environmental outcomes? These are important questions that I believe deserve to be explored.

That's why The Nature Conservancy is pleased to sign an agreement today with China Three Gorges Corporation. Over the next five years, we will work together to demonstrate that hydropower, flood protection and improved environmental outcomes are not mutually exclusive goals.

The agreement builds on our collaboration over the past five years to develop a plan for sustainable hydropower on the Yangtze. The results are still early, but we are starting to see positive impacts on the health of the river and of depleted fish populations. For example, by designing water releases from dams to mimic natural river flows -- combined with the release of adult fish back into the river -- we've recently seen a promising increase in the number of eggs produced by the most important carp species during their annual spawn.

What's more, collaborations like this can be good for business as well as nature.

For instance, many large dams in China have a dual purpose: to generate hydroelectric power and to protect people and agriculture from flooding in the valleys below the dams. These two purposes, however, are in conflict. The amount of power that a dam can produce is determined in part by the height of its reservoir--the head. A high reservoir produces tremendous pressure on the turbines to maximize power production. But full reservoirs can't stop floods. Leaving space behind the dam to catch flood waters reduces the head and reduces power production dramatically.

By collaborating with companies like China Three Gorges Corporation, however, our scientists are discovering ways to circumvent this conflict -- and achieve much better environmental outcomes, too. In some places, for example, restoring downstream floodplains and wetlands can help soak up floodwaters. This allows dam operators to maximize hydropower upstream by maintaining higher reservoirs. The revenue from that added power could pay for the wetland restoration. And the downstream restoration, our scientists believe, will provide much better flood control.

In the Yangtze, we are exploring a different but similarly innovative model. The key here is better coordinating the operations of new dams upstream of Three Gorges Dam. It turns out that more sustainable operations upstream can result in increased hydropower production -- and increased revenues. By investing a portion of that additional revenue in both conservation and traditional flood risk management in the downstream floodplain, we can create a triple win: more hydro-power, better flood control and better ecological outcomes. Or put another way -- more clean energy, a safer river and more fish.

This is just one of the strategies we are exploring on the Yangtze, and success is not guaranteed. But helping companies that have big footprints make better decisions and understand the value of nature has the potential to create significant conservation gains. With bigger scale comes bigger win-win solutions. The time to experiment, and to be scrupulous in assessing the results, is now.