The Bellows Falls hydroelectric facility.
Robert F. Smith/The Commons
The Bellows Falls hydroelectric facility.

Clock ticks for weighing in on license renewals for hydro projects

Comment period ends May 22 for new licenses for multiple hydroelectric dams and stations in Vermont and Massachusetts — a ‘once-in-a-lifetime opportunity’ to weigh in, the Connecticut River Conservancy says

BELLOWS FALLS-Three Vermont hydroelectric dams and generating stations on the Connecticut River in Wilder, Bellows Falls, and Vernon, plus two in Massachusetts, are in the process of renewing their operating licenses - a process that has been extended for public comment by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) until Wednesday, May 22.

The operating license renewing process has been going on since 2012.

The facilities were last issued licenses by FERC over 40 years ago and the licenses for the five facilities expired in 2018.

Renewed licenses can cover a period of 30 to 50 years, making public opportunity to comment on the process fairly rare. Per FERC policy established in 2017, the default license term for these dams is 40 years.

The Wilder, Bellows Falls, and Vernon dams are owned by Great River Hydro (GRH), formerly known as TransCanada. In February 2023, GRH was sold to Hydro-Québec, a corporation owned by the government of Québec.

The two Massachusetts hydro facilities, Turners Falls Dam and the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project, are limited liability companies owned by PSP Investments under FirstLight Power Services LLC. PSP is also a Canadian company that manages a large pension investment fund.

These dams and companies control the flow of the river over approximately 126 miles, affecting three states and 30 towns.

On Feb. 22, FERC issued a notice that the final license applications had been completed and accepted and were ready for environmental analysis. An initial 60-day period to submit comments and interventions for the projects was extended to the May date.

FERC requires that hydropower operators provide direct benefits to the public and protect its ecological health. The public comment period offers an opportunity to address these issues and suggest improvements.

The publicly available comments came from individuals, organizations, and municipalities up and down the river, including the towns of Vernon, Wilmington, and Dummerston, and organizations such as the Springfield Trails and Rural Economy Advisory Committee and the Thetford Conservation Commission.

Several themes emerged repeatedly in the comments, particularly with regard to rate of water flow and bank erosion in the miles of rich farmland and ancient agricultural meadows along both sides of the Connecticut.

The dams' impact on aquatic life was also a major concern. Mentioned several times was the need to control extensive damage from more frequent flooding events, such as the one last July.

Another major concern was increasing access to the water on both sides of the river for fishing, camping, birding, boating, and general recreation, as well as greatly increasing accessibility and improving facilities in general.

GRH has already agreed to change river flow to a more natural "run-of-the-river, inflow equaling outflow" rate, which will minimize peaking.

Kathy Urffer, director of policy and advocacy and Vermont river steward at the Connecticut River Conservancy (CRC), said the flow decision is "a great outcome, and we're really pleased with it."

The CRC has been advocating for the health of the Connecticut River and the communities in its watershed since 1952 and participates in the relicensing of hydroelectric facilities. A recent release from the organization stated: "These facilities use a public trust resource - your river - to produce power."

Comments and concerns

Marina Garland of Perkinsville spoke for many in commenting that Great River Hydro is "a company that will be profiting hugely from this public resource over a long period of time."

Like many commenters on the relicensing, Garland wants to see continued improvements in recreation infrastructure; restoration of the eroding riverbanks; protection of wildlife and river ecology; improvements for fish passage; and more research, data collection, and reporting on how operation of the dams affects river ecology.

"It is insufficient to hope that going run-of-the-river will be good enough on its own, without continuous and thorough data collection," Garland wrote. "Another 40 years is too long to just hope for the best."

Chris Parsons of Hadley, Massachusetts, wrote that his family has farmed the Northampton Meadows for 13 generations. He expressed particular concern over variations in river flow.

"In all the years we have farmed along the river," he wrote, "it has never come up as fast as it does today after a rainstorm."

He added that he recognizes the need for the dam operator to "maintain a flow of water for their purposes," but added, "they need to consider others that have interests along the Connecticut River."

He was especially concerned about the crop damage farmers experienced following the July 2023 flooding.

"I can assure you," Parsons wrote, "that if this happens again, many farmers won't be able to take the financial losses the flooding caused."

The town of Dummerston noted that it occupies a unique position on the river, affected by both the Vernon Dam, 10 miles to its south, and the Bellows Falls Dam, 15 miles north.

The town's comment urged "that FERC require, and GRH commit to, allocating funds and creating an action plan to monitor and address any erosion issues as they occur (or already exist)."

Dummerston also requested that GRH hold regular public meetings as it works with towns within the Connecticut River watershed to develop an ongoing Recreation Management Plan "that provides recreational opportunities that are regionally beneficial, equitably distributed throughout the project area, and financially supported over the entire life of the license."

The return of spawning shortnose sturgeon to the Connecticut River is also a factor in the relicensing and operation of the dams. The species has been verified as far north as the Turners Falls Dam.

Micah Kieffer, a research fishery biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, specializes in sturgeon and has been studying the species in the Connecticut and other rivers for decades. He was one of the scientists who wrote the 1998 "Final Recovery Plan for the Shortnose Sturgeon," produced by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries.

Kieffer leads a group working to establish just how far up the Connecticut River spawning shortnose sturgeon have made it. As to whether they've made it as far as the Bellows Falls dam, Kieffer said, "There is enough compelling evidence right now to indicate the need for further investigation by experts."

FERC will consider all of these factors in the relicensing process.

River conservation advocates consider community response especially urgent, given that the consequences of this decision will very likely stretch at least 40 years into the future.

Urffer called it "literally a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to shape how the hydroelectric facilities mitigate for their impact on the river for future generations."

Hydropower relicensing information, as well as a FERC Comment Guide, can be found at

This News item by Robert F. Smith was written for The Commons.

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