Hydro Relicensing Begins for Five CT River Facilities
Five hydroelectric facilities in northern MA/southern VT that generate almost 30% of our region’s electricity and span more than 175 miles of the Connecticut River are being jointly relicensed for operation by the federal and state governments for another 30 to 50 years. The current licenses for these facilities were last issued between the late 1960s and 1980s and all expire in 2018.
The five hydro projects included in the relicensing are Wilder, Bellows Falls, and Vernon Dams in Vermont all owned by Transcanada which also owns hydropower facilities in northern Vermont and on the Deerfield River, and the Turners Falls Dam and the Northfield Mountain Pump Storage Project in Massachusetts owned by FirstLight Power, a subsidiary of GDF Suez.
CRWC submitted over 100 pages of comments and study requests to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) for additional information needed to make sound decisions about license renewal. These comments focus on improvements to the ecological health of the river and recreational opportunities for the public.
- Recreational and educational opportunities must continue to be provided including: improved fishing and boating access, walkable portage facilities, more and better campsites, and migratory fish viewing facilities that support educational programs and are ADA accessible.
- Minimize riverbank erosion by moderating river flow and reservoir fluctuations. Studies should be conducted exploring the option of a closed-loop system at the Northfield Mountain Pump Storage Project in Massachusetts.
- Many more studies are needed to improve aquatic species habitat. Important factors to consider include: efficient and successful fish passage, minimum river flows to support fish habitat and spawning, and impacts of dams on American shad, American eel, dwarf wedgemussel, and endangered shortnose sturgeon.
- Studies should be conducted exploring the option of decommissioning one or more of the dams.
The federal government will be making a decision on what additional studies will be required of the companies by July after releasing a draft document based on the information submitted to them this past week by many different organizations and individuals. CRWC river stewards Andrea Donlon (MA) and David Deen (Upper Valley) are participating in the formal proceedings and are working to engage the public in the process.
The federal and state laws that guide the relicensing process require a balancing of public and private interests, where in exchange for the right to dam the public’s river a private company must provide the public with direct benefits such as recreational facilities and ease the problems that dams cause to migrating fish and riverine habitats.
CRWC is a leading river advocate and stakeholder in hydro license reissues from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) on the Connecticut River. When licenses come up for renewal we begin our homework years in advance. Often we work with other river interests as we examine proposed operations for each facility. Then we make comments and offer our own proposals to insure hydro operations are balanced with protections and improvements for the River.
There are dozens of FERC-regulated hydropower projects on the mainstem Connecticut and its tributaries. Some dams are quite large, producing hundreds of megawatts of electricity. Their individual and cumulative river impacts are also huge, affecting flows and water levels from the Headwaters Region to Holyoke Dam, 86 miles from the sea. Hydro dams run our appliances, but they also slow rivers. They back up warming impoundments, impede oxygenating flows, and encourage siltation. Many lack functional fish passage. They are debilitating barriers to migratory and resident fish and scores of aquatic species requiring habitat access to sustain complex life cycles.
FERC licenses are issued for between 30 and 50 years—locking-in minimum flow requirements, impoundment levels, fish passage, and operating regimes for generations. Once a license is issued it is nearly impossible to make changes until it comes up for renewal. So CRWC begins work on license renewal improvements years in advance.
Recent main stem relicensing work
The 15-Mile Falls Project (FERC Project No. 2007-016) is a series of dams near Littleton, NH — the Moore, Comerford and McIndoes Falls dams. These impoundments represent the largest hydroelectric generating capacity in New England, affecting levels and flows from the Connecticut Lakes to the dam at Wilder, VT. CRWC is a signatory to the 2001 landmark agreement guaranteeing increased river flows. It also protects over 9,000 watershed acres, and created a $15 million Mitigation and Enhancement Fund.
The Holyoke Dam (FERC Project No. 2004-073) is the lowermost dam on the River, controlling fish access to 85% of the watershed’s spawning habitat. It directly affects migratory fish restoration to the Connecticut, including populations of American shad, blueback herring, shortnose sturgeon, and other species. In 1999, CRWC helped win increased habitat flows in the bypass reach below Holyoke Dam, as well as improvements in fish passage and the 401 Water Quality Certificate in the new license. CRWC's participation in a multitude of license requirements continues.
The Canaan Dam (FERC Project No. 2009-7528) is located in Stewartstown, NH and Canaan, VT. This 275 foot-long dam and hydro facility backs-up a 4,000 foot pond on the Connecticut. During the 2009 relicensing, CRWC and Trout Unlimited were successful in getting Vermont to include in the 401 Water Quality Certificate a condition that the dam owner would need to install fish passage at the request of the state.
Photo credits (above): ©2006 Al Braden www.albradenphoto.com
Image Credits at Right - Illustrations: Bill Singleton; Photos: ©Al Braden www.albradenphoto.com, CRWC Staff.