This article by Claire Potter was first published Sept. 6, 2021 in the Valley News.
LEBANON — Communities along the Connecticut River have a rare opportunity to influence how the company that owns the Wilder, Bellows Falls and Vernon dams operates them.
The relicensing process for Great River Hydro’s three dams is expected to include a public comment period later in the fall or winter. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has overseen the lengthy relicensing process since 2012. State-level analysis will also rev up in New Hampshire and Vermont, initiating another round of regulatory review.
The proposed license that Great River Hydro, which acquired 13 dams along the Connecticut and Deerfield rivers from TransCanada in 2017 for $1.06 billion, submitted to FERC last year calls for a shift away from intense hydropeaking.
The Massachusetts-based company is proposing to reduce the frequency, duration and magnitude of the discharges it makes to generate electricity at the Wilder, Bellows Falls and Vernon dams.
The current “peaking” license allows Great River Hydro to hold water behind the dam, and then drain it rapidly through the turbines when power prices are high, typically in the late afternoon. If the impoundment were a bathtub, the proposed change would be akin to filling it and then letting it drain at the same rate as water flows from the faucet.
Great River Hydro would only be able to “peak” for a limited number of hours each month. The proposed model is a balancing act between the dramatic hydropeaking of today and a natural river. The company would have more flexibility during winter months when wildlife is less vulnerable.
Kathy Urffer, a river steward at the Connecticut River Conservancy, said that the nonprofit, the Nature Conservancy and state officials were able to negotiate with Great River Hydro last year to come to a “win-win solution for how they would operate under the new license.”
But other matters remain unresolved.
“While we did have discussions with the company about the flow, we did not have discussions about recreation, or fish passage, or consideration of erosion or cultural resources,” she said.
Urffer has been speaking with town officials across the region for months to prepare communities to weigh in with public comments on issues that could impact the Connecticut River Valley. Hydropower dams are only relicensed every 40 to 50 years, so the decisions made now will shape the river for the next generation.
Enough for recreation?
Under the Federal Power Act, FERC gives equal consideration to all of the river’s uses — including recreation.
Urffer listed off improvements that Great River Hydro could invest in: improved portage, the Connecticut River Paddlers’ Trail, fishing facilities and full compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act at recreation sites.
Yet, she said that the licensing proposal detailed “little to no mitigation for recreation” beyond several primitive campsites.
“Because they control the whole river, they could be giving back to our river community in terms of supporting the recreation economy,” Urffer said.
At Bellows Falls, the portage route to carry boats around the dam is long and perilous, extending along an active highway. Portage at Wilder Dam also could benefit from improvements, although that route is shorter. Urffer said that the embankment where boaters pull off near the dam also is steep.
“Stone steps are not ideal for carrying a boat — they are wet and slippery. You could put in a boat slide instead of trying to heft it down,” she said.
Great River Hydro conducted studies on recreational impacts and committed $555,000 to further recreation at the Wilder Dam impoundment — which averages out to less than $14,000 a year for a 40-year license. The Connecticut River Conservancy argues that this is too low, and some Upper Valley communities would like to see more investment in recreational resources.
Lebanon Planner Mark Goodwin said that the city worked with other towns to draft a list of recreation projects, including improved portage at Wilder Dam and year-round maintenance at the Boston Lot in Lebanon.
“Relicensing is such a long, convoluted process. It’s challenging to stay on top of it,” Goodwin said.
Other stakeholders echoed his sentiment.
“These things drag,” said Bob Nasdor, the Northeast stewardship director at American Whitewater.
The river conservation nonprofit has been involved in relicensing processes of hydropower dams across the country. In his experience, it is a five-and-a-half-year process, but this round of relicensing has been dragging on for nearly 10 years.
The adjustments to hydropeaking will impact the opportunities for whitewater rafters on the river, who often time their trips to the river with large releases from the dams so that they can enjoy a more challenging run.
Nasdor said that reducing spikes is a “legitimate goal,” but that they “should be timed to maximize recreational power.”
“There is no consideration of recreation either in the current operation or in the future operations that are being discussed,” he said.
A flow change at Wilder Dam would impact Sumner Falls in Hartland, a particularly popular destination.
Under the current license, Great River Hydro releases water to maximize energy production when energy prices are highest, typically when consumers downstream turn on their lights and appliances in the evening hours or their air conditioning on a hot summer afternoon. Kayakers, rafters and others, though, would most benefit from a high flow in the middle of the day on weekends, Nasdor said.
Migratory species including sea lamprey and American eel, as well as a wide array of resident species including white sucker and walleye have to navigate the Wilder dam as they move up and down the river near Lebanon.
Other migratory species never reach Wilder Dam — with so many roadblocks downstream, they never make it, said Urffer.
“It’s important for the public to understand that these fish do exist. Almost with no exceptions, they are all at all-time low levels of abundance. These migratory fish have been excluded from much of their historical habitat along the East Coast,” said Ken Sprankle, the Connecticut River coordinator at U.S. Fish and Wildlife.
“An impoundment is not a natural riverine habitat. You have ecosystems that more resemble lakes and ponds,” Sprankle said.
Experts interviewed described an array of challenges that fish face. Turbines sometimes kill or injure fish and fish may spawn on the riverbanks, then the dam may release and lower the water levels, leaving the eggs to dry out and die.
Plans to limit hydropeaking during peak migration would give fish a better chance at successful reproduction but swimming upstream past the dams could remain a struggle.
“Think of it like being a pregnant woman and needing to eat, and having to run a marathon three times before you can have your baby,” Urffer said. “They get below the dam and they’re confused and they’re swimming around there for hours, a couple days, until they can figure out how to get through the dam.”
“They’re spending time and energy in this confused state,” Urffer added.
The dams up for relicensing have fish ladders, but they were built when salmon were the priority. The ladder at the Wilder Dam was designed solely for Atlantic salmon, but the years-long effort to restore the salmon in the Connecticut River is defunct.
“Each species is different in terms of their swimming capabilities, their ability to leap … salmon tend to be good leapers, and super, super strong,” said Lael Will, a fisheries biologist with Vermont Fish and Wildlife.
Still, the ladders run seasonally to allow other species to try their luck.
Resident fish can only swim upstream when the ladder is open for migratory fish, and the migratory fish using the ladders have to navigate infrastructure built for another species. Shutting down the turbines at night could benefit fish trying to swim downstream.
Urffer said that while fish and wildlife departments works with the dam owners over the lifetimes of the products to monitor and improve fish passage, the licensing period is a singular opportunity for larger capital investments in fish ladders.
Great River Hydro intends to implement “additional upstream and downstream passage” at all three of its dams up for relicensing, said John Ragonese, who manages the relicensing process for Great River Hydro. The company keeps the fish ladders open from April 1 to July 15.Erosion
Erosion along the river, which critics say is caused by the dams, is another issue sure to draw public comment.
John Mudge, a longtime Lyme resident, described a cycle he has seen repeat again and again on his 150 acres of prime agricultural land along the Connecticut River: The river seeps into the fine, silty soil along the bank and washes it away, forming a sinkhole, and then a chunk of the riverbank washes away downstream.
“And then the erosion continues,” he said, with a gesture over his diminishing field.
He has lost almost 40 feet of land since 1969, according to professional surveys.
Last spring, he installed a layer of riprap (large rocks) to protect his river bank. It was level across the surface. Just months later, it had sunk to a concave curve.
Mudge is not alone. Larry Scott, who owns Ekolott Farm in Newbury, Vt., said that he has lost 50 feet of land along the river over the last 40 years.
“We have some of the best soil in the world,” he said. “It’s pretty critical that we keep what we have here.”
Erin Darrow, who owns the New-London-based Right Angle Engineering, has worked with the towns of Plainfield and Lyme to mitigate erosion along each community’s River Road. She has 21 years of experience in civil engineering and she said that it is her professional opinion that the hydropower dams contribute to the erosion along the Connecticut River.
“When you have the water flowing along the river banks, and high flows both in elevation and velocity frequently, especially if it has been modified from its natural meandering, it accelerates erosion,” she said. “Erosion occurs naturally, but the modification in elevation and velocity definitely have an impact.”
She said that reducing the frequency of water elevation changes once the new license comes into effect will “likely” decrease the erosion process. In the meantime, she is working with the towns to mitigate the damages, and possibly move sections of the road away from the river.
But Ragonese said that the erosion comes from “naturally caused high flow conditions.”
He cited studies commissioned by the company which assert that the dams are not to blame for the erosion.
Abenaki concern for native lands
The National Historic Preservation Act requires projects under federal jurisdiction to take cultural resources into account, and so Great River Hydro is legally obligated to consider the impact of their projects on archeological sites.
TransCanada officials met with representatives of the Abenaki Nation and the Narragansett Tribe and commissioned a legally required “Traditional Cultural Properties Study” in 2016. But some native groups feel they did not incorporate their input.
“We critiqued some of the things they had written by consultants and offered a number of times to help guide them through a process of what’s here, what’s being damaged, and how we best take care of everything. Silence,” said John Moody, a West Hartford resident with the Winter Center for Indigenous Traditions.
He has been working on relicensing issues across the northeast for about 50 years. New England Power, which built the dam and operated it until 1996, “had a history of doing good things,” Moody said. The company helped maintain a sacred site.
“They don’t seem to be interested in following up on that legacy,” he said of the dam’s new owner.
Rich Holschuh, a cultural relations spokesperson for the Vermont-recognized Elnu Abenaki Tribe, said that he has been actively engaged with FERC and the dam companies for six years.
“The Abenaki people being a river-centric culture, this has a direct impact on that relationship between people and land,” he said.
He added that a cultural properties study with no tribal participation “holds no value.”
Great River Hydro has said in documents filed with FERC that the meetings with tribal representatives did not lead to “further identification of traditional cultural properties,” and so the 2016 study was not revised. But the company has also said it plans to develop a historic and cultural resource management plan with input from tribal representatives.
Ragonese said that the company will financially support initiatives to raise awareness, identify at-risk sites along the riverbank and educate the public about traditional cultural properties through local tribal groups.
Once FERC has all the information it needs and any settlements are concluded, a public comment period will begin.
FERC also is considering the relicensing of two dams in Massachusetts owned by FirstLight Power at the same time as Great River Hydro’s three Connecticut River dams.
FirstLight has initiated settlement meetings with some stakeholders, which could delay FERC’s regulatory process.
And while the public comment period for the Wilder Dam was initially expected this summer, it will likely not begin before late November, officials say.
Claire Potter is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at [email protected] or 603-727-3242.