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Relicensing for Conn. River dams enters final stages

Great River Hydro, FirstLight submit applications to feds; river advocates give them mixed reviews

BRATTLEBORO—Two energy companies that own hydroelectric facilities on the Connecticut River have filed their final revised license applications with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

Great River Hydro (formerly TransCanada), owners of the Wilder, Bellows Falls, and Vernon dams, filed its application with FERC on Dec. 7.

FirstLight Power, a subsidiary of ArcLight Capital Partners, a private equity firm based in Boston, owns the Northfield Mountain pumped storage project and the Turners Falls dam, both in Massachusetts. FirstLight filed its application with FERC on Dec. 4.

Together, these five facilities constitute more than 30 percent of hydropower generation in New England and affect more than 175 miles of the Connecticut River.

The Connecticut River Conservancy (CRC), a nonprofit group that is one of the leading advocates for maintaining the health of the river, has been carefully monitoring the relicensing process for these facilities since the latest 50-year relicensing cycle began in 2012.

FERC last issued licenses for these facilities in 1968. All were to have expired in April 2018.

“This is a generational conversation,” said CRC Executive Director Andrew Fisk at an online press briefing on Dec. 9. “There is a tremendous opportunity to be able to improve the ecological health of the river.”

Addressing erosion

According to the CRC, the biggest issues in the relicensing negotiations are defining Great River Hydro and FirstLight’s obligations to the ecology of the river, increasing investment in recreational resources, protecting cultural and historical resources, and improving fish passage.

The CRC says that because these facilities’ respective licenses are expired, they are permitted to operate in a “peaking” manner, where they hold water in a reservoir to be released to create energy at strategic times of high demand and/or high energy prices.

The organization contends that the release of large amounts of water causes riverbank erosion and results in inconsistent water levels and flows.

Erosion has been a big issue for the towns along the Connecticut River between the Wilder, Bellows Falls, and Vernon dams.

According to the CRC, the three dams have caused a daily surface water elevation fluctuation of 2 to 3 feet per day in the impoundment areas behind the dams for more than seven decades. That has meant a significant loss of land for property owners along the river.

In Vermont, ‘collaborating transparently’

CRC Vermont/New Hampshire River Steward Kathy Urffer said she was pleased with the willingness of Great River Hydro, the owners of the three dams, to collaborate transparently and effectively to address the erosion issue.

Urffer said the talks with Great River Hydro and other stakeholders about potential alternative operations have yielded positive results for the river.

These measures include operational changes that reduce peaking operations and will allow the river’s flow into the facilities to equal the outflow, thereby returning the river to a much more natural flow at the three facilities much of the time.

The current license allows fluctuations by as much as 5 feet, but the proposed license would limit the drop to about 1{1/2} feet. Great River would still have flexibility to draw down more water during times of high energy demand.

Urffer said the change “should have a lot of positive outcomes for the river health”: improved aquatic habitat, particularly for rare and endangered species; maintenance of minimum flow requirements to support resources and uses downstream during low-flow conditions; and a more stable water level above the dams, which should reduce erosion.

Disappointment downstream

Fisk said CRC was “incredibly disappointed” with FirstLight’s application, mainly because it offered nothing to minimize or fix erosion, which has been a huge issue on the Connecticut River since Northfield Mountain began operating in 1972.

Massachusetts River Steward Andrea Donlan said that CRC participated as a stakeholder for several years in settlement negotiations with FirstLight. After making some early progress, she said, the negotiations stalled, and any meaningful engagement with FirstLight ended years ago.

Donlan said CRC is pleased that FirstLight plans to build a fish lift at the Turners Falls dam to improve decades of inadequate fish passage and that the company will be putting more water into the river channel below the dam. She said these changes would cause less severe fluctuations in the river flow, making it “more like a natural river.”

At the same time, FirstLight has proposed what the CRC calls “meager additions” to three existing river access points for paddlers.

“After seven years, you would have expected more,” Fisk said.

FERC has not yet posted a notice for comments and interventions, which CRC expects later this winter or spring.

In a news release, CRC said it will be submitting “extensive formal comments on these applications to address issues such as minimum flows, upstream and downstream fish passage, recreational access and resources for river communities and the public, historic and native cultural sites, and advocating for ongoing streambank monitoring and mitigation funds to address erosion.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #592 (Wednesday, December 16, 2020). This story appeared on page A1.

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