CRC is a leading river advocate in the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) process to regulate hydropower facilities in the Connecticut River basin. In exchange for the privilege of damming our rivers, a private hydropower operator must provide direct benefits to the public and the river. These benefits may include recreational facilities, better fish passage and reducing damage to healthy river habitats. CRC has, since our founding in 1952, worked to see that hydro projects meet the federal and state laws that require a balancing of public good and private interests.
Hydropower licenses typically last for 30-50 years and when they come up for renewal, we begin our homework years in advance. Working with other river guardians, we examine proposed operations for each facility. Our formal comments offer our own proposals to ensure balance between hydro operations and protections/improvements for the river. We use solid scientific and technical information to negotiate the best deal for our rivers – and our presence does make a difference.
There are dozens of FERC-regulated hydropower projects on the mainstem Connecticut River and its tributaries. Some dams are quite large, producing thousands of megawatts of electricity. Their individual and cumulative river impacts are also huge. These dams affect flows and water levels from the headwaters region, 410 miles from Long Island Sound, to the Holyoke Dam, 86 miles from the Sound. Hydro dams run our appliances, but dams disconnect rivers and block the movement of migratory and resident fish and other aquatic animals. They create reservoirs where people boat and swim but reservoirs warm rivers, impede natural river flows and accumulate sediment, burying important river bottom habitat.
Being an advocate for the river during relicensing of these facilities is vital because FERC issues these licenses for 30 to 50 years. These licenses lock-in minimum flow requirements, impoundment levels, fish passage and operating regimes for generations to come.
Five Connecticut River facilities up for new licenses
Beginning in the fall of 2012, FERC began the relicensing process for five hydroelectric facilities in northern MA and southern VT that produce over 30% of hydropower generation in New England. Together they affect more than 175 miles of the Connecticut River. FERC last issued licenses for these facilities between the late 1960s and 1980s, and all are due to expire in April, 2018.
The five hydro projects include dams at Wilder, Bellows Falls and Vernon in VT, owned by TransCanada which also owns hydropower facilities in northern Vermont and on the Deerfield River. The MA facilities up for renewal are the Turners Falls Dam and the Northfield Mountain Pump Storage Project, owned by FirstLight Power, a subsidiary of GDF Suez. Both companies are multinational corporations with their headquarters located in foreign countries.
A crucial step in this process is getting good information on how these five facilities impact wildlife, recreation, historical and cultural resources, and clean water. In 2013, CRC and stakeholders submitted study requests and reviewed and commented on study plans. CRC pushed for better erosion studies, more water level loggers, better recreational-user surveys, more rigorous studies of the impacts of redirected flows, impact of canal drawdowns, among other concerns. As a result, TransCanada and FirstLight are required to complete 71 studies to help inform all stakeholders how these facilities impact our river.
The closure of Vermont Yankee at the end of 2014 affected the relicensing schedule for these facilities. Several fisheries studies had to be delayed until after closure. For that reason, TransCanada has received a 1-year extension on their licenses but FirstLight is not eligible for an extension, which means the schedule has become awkward in that they are required to file an application for a new license before some of their studies are complete.
Most field work for the studies was completed in 2014 and 2015 though some will continue in 2016. Studies are submitted to FERC as they are completed. As an active stakeholder, CRC has submitted comments on the completed studies. See our blog for comment letters.
A license application from FirstLight is due April, 2016 and TransCanada’s is due April, 2017.
CRC river steward Andrea Donlon (MA) is participating in all the formal proceedings. She reviews reports, prepares CRC comments, and is working to engage the public in the process. Get in touch if you would like to participate!
Tributary dams undergoing relicensing
Bear Swamp Pumped Storage Facility and Fife Brook Dam are located on the Deerfield River in MA and are owned by Brookfield Power. This license expires in 2020 and the relicensing process began in 2015. CRC wrote study requests and filed extensive comments on the study plans. Field work for the studies happens in 2016 and 2017.
The Great Falls hydro station on the Passumpsic River in Lyndonville, VT is in the early phase of its relicensing process.
We continue to observe the hydroelectric modifications at the flood control dams on the West River at Townshend and Jamaica, VT for license compliance.
A new application has been submitted for a preliminary license for a hydro complex on the Mascoma River. One dam is planned for the existing Mascoma lake outlet dam and construction of a new dam located down-river in the center of Lebanon, NH.
Past work to improve hydropower
The 15-Mile Falls Project is a series of dams near Littleton, NH — the Moore, Comerford and McIndoes Falls dams, currently owned by TransCanada. 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. CRC is a signatory to the 2001 landmark agreement guaranteeing increased river flows. The agreement established permanent easement protection on 9,200 watershed acres and created a $15 million Mitigation and Enhancement Fund. CRC continues to monitor license conditions and the workings of the M&E Fund.
The Holyoke Dam is the lowermost dam on the River, controlling migratory fish access to 85% of the spawning habitat in the Connecticut River basin for American shad, blueback herring, shortnose sturgeon, and other species. In 1999, CRC 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. Post-relicensing work has kept us busy for more than a decade. Years of studies, designs, and meetings with Holyoke Gas & Electric finally led to the construction of upstream and downstream passage for shortnose sturgeon in 2015-2016.
The Canaan Dam 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, CRC and Trout Unlimited successfully requested that Vermont include a condition in their 401 Water Quality Certificate that the dam owner would need to install fish passage at the request of the state. Although appealed by the dam owner to the VT Environmental Court, the condition remains in the VT 401 Certification and thereby is a condition of the FERC license.