In dam relicensing, advocates urge environmental responsibility

by Parker Richards | 10/7/14 5:38pm

Last week, the TransCanada Corporation took the latest step in a six-year relicensing process for the Wilder Dam, which spans the Connecticut River between Lebanon and Hartford. Wilder is the largest of five Connecticut River dams – three of which are operated by TransCanada – up for relicensing in 2018, a process that has sparked discussion about the dam’s environmental impact.

The 578-page report released last week summarized the studies undertaken to date, on topics from erosion control to water quality. TransCanada has operated the 64-year-old dam since 2005, and began the relicensing process in 2012 with studies and public tours of the facilities.

TransCanada must submit its application for a new license in April 2016, with the first draft of an environmental impact study due a year later, and the final draft due in September 2017.

Local officials and conservation groups are attempting to influence the new license.

Adair Mulligan, executive director of the Hanover Conservancy, said her group hopes to see changes in the dam’s new operating license. The Hanover Conservancy, a land trust that works to protect the town’s environment, is one of the several groups working to ensure that the new license is environmentally friendly.

Government professor Linda Fowler said that the Pine Park Association, of which she is a trustee, will also pressure TransCanada to maintain land along the riverbanks that may be subject to erosion.

“In theory and in practice, they should be fixing our banks as we speak, and they should have fixed them two years ago because they’re obligated to do that, but we agreed that it didn’t make sense for them to undertake remediation when there might be much more involved,” Fowler said.

Fowler said that the Pine Park Association, a nonprofit founded in 1900 to conserve pine forests on the banks of the Connecticut River, has an agreement with TransCanada dating to 1944, when the dam’s original owner, the Bellows Falls Hydro-Electric Corporation, agreed to maintain the park’s riverbanks.

“The permitting process is an opportunity for a small group like ours to get some leverage over a very large company like TransCanada,” she said.

The Mink Brook conservation area was substantially altered when the dam was first put in place, as were several other streams and brooks that flow into the Connecticut River, Mulligan said. The brooks were often transformed into “backwaters” of the river rather than free-flowing waterways, and Mulligan said that she hopes to see some brooks return to their natural state.

Mulligan said that the dam’s operators “have tried very hard to operate in an environmentally responsible way,” but she added that the current license did not anticipate all of the dam’s impact on the surrounding area.

The Hanover Conservancy is concerned with abrupt water level changes, Mulligan said, since the Wilder Dam operates by raising and lowering the water levels built up behind it throughout the day in a process known as “daily peaking.” This constant rise and fall may accelerate erosion, Mulligan said, noting that the phenomenon is being studied.

The 2009 Connecticut River Management Plan for the Upper Valley, released by the Connecticut River Joint Commissions, noted that the fluctuations are “a particular concern.” Mulligan, in her former job as the commission’s conservation director, was responsible for compiling the report.

Part of the research currently being conducted on the dam relates to “ramping rate,” the speed at which the dam’s gates may be opened and shut.

“Right now, there are no limits on that, which means that they are legally permitted to open up the gates and let the river rip,” Mulligan said.

Were the rate decreased, erosive pressures on the river’s banks could be less severe, according to Mulligan, although she stressed that research is ongoing.

The TransCanada Corporation is following the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s “Integrated Licensing Process,” an efficiency-focused method that involves identifying and studying key issues, incorporating stakeholders and setting deadlines.

Representatives from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission did not respond to requests to comment by press time.

TransCanada spokesperson Sharan Kaur wrote in an email that the company is committed to working with all stakeholders in the relicensing process.

“As one of North America’s leading energy infrastructure companies, we are vigilant about minimizing the environmental impacts of our projects and operations. We put extensive effort into collecting and analyzing information about the environment in order to mitigate effects of any project,” Kaur wrote.

The dam saw environmentally friendly changes when it was last relicensed in the 1970s. Then, upstream and downstream passages for fish were installed.

The Wilder Dam is crucial to the area’s power grid as its control center also serves dams at Fifteen Mile Falls, Bellows Falls and Vernon.

After more than 30 million people in the northeastern U.S. and Canada found themselves without electrical power in November 1965, the Wilder Dam restarted the Northeast’s electrical grid.

The dam’s ecological impact is equally great, as its girth impounds the Connecticut River for 45 miles upstream, according to the Connecticut River Management Plan.

The relicensing process has been constructive and collaborative thus far, Mulligan said, noting that she hopes to elicit more involvement from the local community.

“Managing the greatest river in New England is a pretty complex process,” she said.