Federal and state laws on hydropower require a balancing of public and private interests. In exchange for the right to dam your river, a private hydropower operator must provide you with direct benefits such as recreational facilities and ease the problems that dams cause to migrating fish and river habitats. Since our founding we have worked hard to ensure that balance is met.

CRWC is a leading river advocate and stakeholder in the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) process to regulate hydropower facilities. When licenses come up for renewal, we begin our homework years in advance. Often, we work with other river interests as we examine proposed operations for each facility. Then we make comments and offer our own proposals to ensure hydro operations are balanced with protections and improvements for the River.  We use solid scientific and technical information to negotiate the best deal for our rivers – and our presence makes a difference.

There are dozens of FERC-regulated hydropower projects on the mainstem Connecticut and its tributaries. Some dams are quite large producing thousands of megawatts of electricity. Their individual and cumulative river impacts are also huge, affecting flows and water levels from the Headwaters Region to Holyoke Dam, 86 miles from the sea. Hydro dams run our appliances, but they also slow rivers. They create reservoirs where people boat and swim but they also warm the river, impede river flows and encourage the accumulation of sediment. They are debilitating barriers to migratory and resident fish and many aquatic species.

This work is vital because these licenses are issued for 30 to 50 years, locking-in minimum flow requirements, impoundment levels, fish passage and operating regimes for generations.

Five Connecticut River facilities up for new licenses

Beginning in the fall of 2012, five hydroelectric facilities in northern MA and southern VT that produce over 30% of hydropower generation in New England and span more than 175 miles of the Connecticut River are being jointly relicensed for operation by the federal and state governments for another 30 to 50 years. The current licenses for these facilities were last issued between the late 1960s and 1980s and all expire in 2018.

The five hydro projects include Wilder, Bellows Falls and Vernon dams in Vermont, owned by Transcanada which also owns hydropower facilities in northern Vermont and on the Deerfield River. Also up for renewal are the Turners Falls Dam and the Northfield Mountain Pump Storage Project in Massachusetts, owned by FirstLight Power, a subsidiary of GDF Suez.

In March of 2013, CRWC submitted over 300 pages of comments and study requests to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) for additional information needed to make sound decisions about license renewal. These comments focused on improvements to the ecological health of the river and recreational opportunities for the public.

  • Recreational and educational opportunities must continue to be provided including: improved fishing and boating access, walkable portage facilities, more and better campsites and migratory fish viewing facilities that support educational programs and are ADA accessible.
  • Minimize riverbank erosion by moderating river flow and reservoir fluctuations. Studies should be conducted exploring the option of a closed-loop system at the Northfield Mountain Pump Storage Project in Massachusetts.
  • Many more studies are needed to improve aquatic species habitat. Important factors to consider include: efficient and successful fish passage, minimum river flows to support fish habitat and spawning and impacts of dams on American shad, American eel, dwarf wedgemussel, and endangered shortnose sturgeon.
  • Studies should be conducted exploring the option of decommissioning one or more of the dams.

TransCanada and FirstLight submitted proposed study plans in April, 2013.  This is an important early stage of the relicensing process aimed at filling in research gaps that will help participants negotiate license requirements. CRWC attended dozens of technical meetings related to all of the proposed studies, and submitted detailed letters on the updated and revised study plans in July and August, 2013. CRWC pushed for better erosion studies, more water level loggers, better recreational user surveys, a more rigorous study of the impacts on canal drawdown, among other things. FERC ruled on the study plans, except for the fisheries studies, requiring the companies to make several changes based on CRWC’s comments as well as those of other stakeholders.

TransCanada and FirstLight will conduct their studies in 2014 and 2015 (with possible schedule changes due to the closure of Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant), and will file their draft license application at the end of 2015. CRWC river stewards Andrea Donlon (MA) and David Deen (Upper Valley) are participating in the formal proceedings and are working to engage the public in the process.  Get in touch if you would like to participate!

Past work to improve hydropower

The 15-Mile Falls Project (FERC Project No. 2007-016) is a series of dams near Littleton, NH — the Moore, Comerford and McIndoes Falls dams. These impoundments represent the largest single hydroelectric generating complex of dams in New England, affecting levels and flows from the Connecticut Lakes to the dam at Wilder, VT. CRWC is a signatory to the 2001 landmark agreement guaranteeing increased river flows. It also protects over 9,000 watershed acres and created a $15 million Mitigation and Enhancement Fund.

The Holyoke Dam (FERC Project No. 2004-073) is the lowermost dam on the River, controlling fish access to 85% of the watershed’s spawning habitat. It directly affects migratory fish restoration to the Connecticut, including populations of American shad, blueback herring, shortnose sturgeon, and other species. In 1999, CRWC helped win increased habitat flows in the bypass reach below Holyoke Dam, as well as improvements in fish passage and the 401 Water Quality Certificate in the new license.

The Canaan Dam (FERC Project No. 2009-7528) is located in Stewartstown, NH and Canaan, VT. This 275 foot-long dam and hydro facility backs-up a 4,000 foot pond on the Connecticut River. During the 2009 relicensing, CRWC and Trout Unlimited were successful in getting Vermont to include in the 401 Water Quality Certificate a condition that the dam owner would need to install fish passage at the request of the state.