Advocates speak out on Connecticut River dam relicensing
The Turners Falls dam on the Connecticut River, with the Gill portion visible.
A view of the Turners Falls dam on the Connecticut River, from the Turners Falls side.
TURNERS FALLS — What might owners of the hydroelectric stations on the Connecticut River do in return for using the river to make money in coming decades?
Whitewater paddling, better river access for paddlers, more flow in the “dry” river stretch through this village for anglers and paddlers and giving the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project a lower reservoir to eliminate troubling artificial river level fluctuations.
Federal regulators heard these and other proposals last week for what to consider in the coming relicensing of the Turners Falls and Northfield Mountain hydroelectric projects.
With about 100 people on hand Jan. 30 for the first of three local Federal Energy Regulatory Commission meetings to plan the scope of a five-year relicensing process, various organizations, government agencies and individuals sounded off on what studies First Light Power Co. should have to do to get a new license of up to 50 years. Its existing 40-year license for the Northfield Mountain and Turners Falls projects expire in 2018.
A variety of people asked for an analysis of siltation deposits at Barton Cove, saying those deposits from upstream have made power boating nearly impossible there.
Franklin Regional Planning Board member Sam Lovejoy pointed to the 22-mile-long “Turners Falls Pool” created by the dams at Turners Falls and Vernon, Vt., which also serves as the “lower reservoir” for the Northfield Mountain pumped storage project, as a major source of frustration because of the extent of fluctuations, thought to be a major cause of bank erosion.
“Every now and then you’ll hear people refer to the “Turners Falls pool” as the lower reservoir of the Northfield Pumped Storage Facility,” he said. “I always thought this was the Connecticut River, myself. I realize we’ve got a dam there, so we’ve got a pool. But by the time we’re talking about it as a reservoir, I sort of feel we’re not using it as a river anymore. We’ve twisted the attitude.”
Calling for FERC to require First Light to study the economic feasibility of creating a new lower reservoir from which to draw water to fill its existing mountaintop upper reservoir, Lovejoy said, “Fifty years ago, you allowed the Turners Falls pool to be an experimental use for the Northfield Pumped Storage facility, and now I’d like you to pull the plug on that experiment.”
In calling for analyzing a “closed loop” for the pumped storage project, Lovejoy drew applause. In studying the cost of no longer using the river for its lower reservoir, and amortizing that cost over 40 or 50 years, he said, “What you’re going to do is provide huge good will, you’re going to end all of the arguments about Northfield Pumped Storage problems, and you’ll have a closed loop so we won’t have to worry about what you’re doing. The Turners pool was an easy way to go; now it’s time to say the experiment’s over ... Let’s have our river back.”
Peter Conway said that from his year-round home in Riverside he watches the river level go up and down, with fish coming in to nest, “and then suddenly, the water goes down, and they’re left high and dry for sometimes 24 or 48 hours. It’s really annoying to see this happen, and I’m shedding a tear for the fish right now. It just goes on and on and on. I know we have to generate power, but we need a little more control of the fluctuation. How low do you want to drop Barton Cove and the rest of the river to generate power?”
Russell Cohen, a member of the Connecticut River Streambank Erosion Committee, said, “These projects, to some extent, are chasing power prices and seeking to generate when the prices are the highest. The question is, to what extent does that deviation from the natural run of the river cause adverse impacts to the fisheries habitat? The operators say they have specific pool heights that they’re allowed to operate under. The question is, is that a correct number, or should it be revisited? Is it actually too large in terms of the fish habitat biota, because too much fluctuation’s allowed to occur?”
First Light, in its Pre-Application Document, said it wants to study allowing it to use more of its storage capacity in its upper reservoir, since it was built with additional capacity.
Some of those attending the meeting, which lasted more than five hours, called for more water to be diverted to the 2.7 mile “dry stretch” of river downstream of the Turners Falls Dam, and representatives from New England FLOW, American Whitewater and the Appalachian Mountain Club called for better access to that stretch of river and a more constant flow of water into that section of river, with better portage facilities and trails.
“We know it’s a valuable resource, and we think it ought to have controlled flows with a standard control flow study,” said Norman Sims of AMC, who called for a study that compares the value of the resource to the economic value of power generation. Sims said his organization will request a study of quantity, quality and adequacy of portage facilities, as well as campsites all along the river for canoeists and kayakers who want to do multi-day paddling trips.
Sims also proposed having snowmaking at Northfield Mountain Environmental and Recreation Area, where cross-country trails are open to nordic skiers now but with only natural snow.
Michael Bathory of Gill presented the FERC meeting with photographs documenting more than 50 years of erosion of the riverbank, while Leena Newcomb, whose family has had a cottage on the Montague side of the river since 1934, voiced the concerns of the River Residents Association over “extreme erratic river fluctuation.” A display of photos she presented illustrated its 30-plus members’ observations of “shifts in the shoreline ... loss of recreation areas that allow boat access, sediment and silt buildup in the cove, sandbars that come and go, algae growth in Barton Cove, wetlands and cattail marshes we see changing, some of them vanishing, land mass lost around the islands, less herons, osprey and kingfisher sitings” and more.
Some observers, like Ken Sprankle of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Andrea Donlon, also raised concerns about passage of anadromous fish, with questions about how the timing of routine project maintenance affects fish habitat downstream.
Written comments on the scope of the studies, as well as formal requests for studies to be included in the process, may be requested through March 1.