Hydro companies must engage Native voices

The presence of dams over the past 200 years has damaged the Connecticut River, the fishery, and many of the living beings who relate to the waterway. The hydro companies applying for license renewal are failing to adequately engage the Abenaki and other Native communities in this work.

For hundreds of years, the Indigenous history of the Northeast has been systematically erased. It is time to speak up to make sure that the federal government and power companies do not continue that bitter legacy.

Five hydroelectric facilities on the Connecticut River are renewing their operating licenses under the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Later this summer, the public will have an opportunity to weigh in on terms for these licenses, which will impact more than 175 miles of the Connecticut River for the next 40 to 50 years.

The five hydro facilities are the Wilder, Bellows Falls, and Vernon dams in Vermont and New Hampshire, and the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project and Turners Falls dam in Massachusetts.

The FERC relicensing process involves understanding and then rectifying impacts on various resources like fish passage, water quality, and recreation.

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One ongoing element of this process that is consistently minimized is the collective impact to traditional cultural practices of Indigenous peoples who have been here in their homelands for thousands of years.

As part of the relicensing process, both hydropower companies were required to do a Traditional Cultural Properties (TCP) study, in addition to archaeology and historic building studies, to identify and address hydropower facility impacts to Native people's cultural considerations.

Regrettably, neither company has adequately engaged the Abenaki and other Native communities in this work.

A TCP study should look at the present, at connections to the past, and at consideration of the future. This study should include how cultures value the exchange of life forces among fish, the water, humans, and other animals.

It is not about who owns what and how much money is made, unlike some of the other studies done during relicensing. The presence of these dams over the past 200 years has damaged the river, the fishery, and many of the living beings who relate to this waterway.

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As an advocate for the river - all of its communities, critters, and itself as a being - Connecticut River Conservancy desires the best possible outcome for the river and the people.

While CRC is not in the position to speak for the Indigenous people of this place, we are able to highlight when they are not being fairly considered in this process.

In Massachusetts, FERC told FirstLight that to be consistent with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, the company had to consult with tribal representatives before selecting an ethnographer to do the study. FirstLight did not do so.

In its final application, the company said it was unable to identify any TCPs because tribal representatives have “not yet agreed to meet with FirstLight's ethnographer.” It appears that FirstLight went ahead and selected an ethnographer without first obtaining approval from the tribal representatives.

Great River Hydro indicated in its application that “no Project effects on traditional cultural properties have been identified at this time.” A complete TCP study requires consultation with the tribes. The company created a TCP report that consisted of a collection of texts and a literature survey, but Great River Hydro has not followed through with additional outreach to the Abenaki people to complete the recommendations that were outlined in its own study - including actual consultation with indigenous people.

Great River Hydro contends in the application that no traditional cultural properties have been identified; therefore, there is no need to consider protection, mitigation, or enhancement measures for cultural concerns.

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Both companies need to complete the job of reaching out to local Native tribal representatives to address the traditional cultural values of the Connecticut River in and around the hydropower projects.

The Abenaki people's past, current, and future relationship to the river and the lands and creatures that inhabit it should not be overlooked or minimized in this once-in-a-lifetime federal process.

Comments to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission by local communities, the states, and individuals are needed to ensure that these new licenses address the very real concerns of the original inhabitants of this land.

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