Friday March 22, 2013

SAXTONS RIVER -- The first of the month marked the deadline for public comments on five the hydroelectric facilities on the Connecticut River seeking renewal of their operating licenses.

The Connecticut River Watershed Council (CRWC), based in Greenfield, Mass., submitted more than 100 pages of comments and study requests to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) for additional information its members feel is necessary to make sound decisions about license renewal. According to the CRWC, the new licenses will be practically unalterable and the operating conditions FERC places on the new licenses will affect 175 miles of the Connecticut River for the next 30 years.

The five hydro projects included in the 2018 relicensing are Bellows Falls, Vernon and Wilder dams in Vermont and the Turners Falls Dam and Northfield Mountain Pump Storage Project in Massachusetts. The facilities account for at least 30 percent of hydropower generation in New England.

CRWC River Steward Andrea Donlon said relicensing is a multi-year process and the public comments "give an opportunity to contribute to a discussion on how the operations will be run" in the future. She said the CRWC submitted requests for study about fisheries, fish passage and fish habitats. She said anyone who uses the river for paddling or fishing will appreciate any issues that are identified.

Donlon said public comments and study requests were also submitted by other groups such as Trout Unlimited, The Nature Conservancy, the Connecticut River Joint Commissions and various regional planning agencies.

She said power companies TransCanada -- which owns the Wilder, Bellows Falls and Vernon sites -- and FirstLight (which owns the ones in Massachusetts) will come up their own plans for study by Monday, April 15. A new time period for public comments and questions will be held from that date until Monday, July 15.

The CRWC’s comments focused on improvements to the ecological health of the river and recreational opportunities for the public. It believes recreational and educational opportunities -- like improved fishing and boating access, reasonably walkable portage facilities and compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 -- must continue to be included. It also said studies are needed to improve aquatic species habitat and to explore the option of decommissioning one or more of the dams.

The federal government will make a decision on what additional studies will be required of the companies by July after releasing a draft document based on the information submitted to them by many different organizations and individuals.

Shawn Howard, TransCanada’s senior external communications specialist, said the corporation is now in the "engagement and field studies phase." He said the FERC-required public consultation meetings have been held and TransCanada is waiting to hear back on what the stakeholder issues are.

"Once FERC confirms this, we will know what studies are needed," he said in an e-mail, adding that the company has already proposed some studies.

According to TransCanada, Vernon has been operating for 104 years, Bellows Falls for 85 years, and Wilder for 63 years.

Notices of intent and preliminary application documents are all available on microsite www.transcanada-relicensing.com.

For more information about these projects, visit CRWC’s website www.ctriver.org.

Domenic Poli can be reached at dpoli@reformer.com, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoli_reformer.