Dam management raises questions among locals

by Julian Nathan | 1/4/18 2:05am

As energy company Great River Hydro undergoes relicensing procedures for local Connecticut River dams, conservation and recreation groups, including Ledyard Canoe Club, are raising concerns about the company’s water management techniques. Relicensing procedures with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission take place once every 30 to 50 years. This iteration of the relicensing process is affecting the Wilder, Bellow Falls and Vernon Dams.

Former Ledyard Canoe Club business director and president Jolyon Pruszinski ’00 said he is concerned that the current flow management techniques at Wilder Dam will complicate paddling and other recreational use of the river further downstream. Under electricity company USGen New England’s management, he explained, water releases from the dam were regularly conducted and occurred for several hours at a time, which created conditions conducive for paddling in other areas in the river’s Hartland’s region. However, according to Pruszinski, when energy company TransCanada — which has since been acquired by Great River Hydro — purchased the dams from USGen New England, dominant water release paradigms changed. Instead of releasing water gradually and regularly, he said, he believes TransCanada began hydropeaking, which shortened the length of water releases and released more water at a time.

The changes allowed TransCanada to maximize profits by conducting releases during periods when energy is most in demand, Pruszinski alleged.

Great River Hydro FERC license manager John Ragonese denied Pruszinski’s claim that the change in ownership of Wilder Dam has affected flow management practices at the site, saying that there have been “absolutely zero” changes.

He said that Great River Hydro’s releases occur primarily in response to the availability of water, citing the fact that many variables are out of Great River Hydro’s control.

However, Ragonese noted that dam operators also consider demand curves for power and energy prices so that Great River Hydro can provide power when it is most needed. He said that while energy prices are often high during weekday afternoons, demand patterns vary by week, month and season.

Pruszinski said that new water release practices have threatened Sumner Falls, a “standout” surfing location that is especially valuable for beginner paddlers, as shorter and less predictable water release periods allow for less usable surfing time.

“There is nothing inherently wrong with weekday afternoon releases with respect to recreational use,” he said. “It’s just that the useful window for recreational use was drastically shortened.”

Pruszinski noted that current practices have not rendered Sumner Falls completely “unsurfable,” adding that they are instead only “less surfable.” Despite this, he said that current conditions compromise Ledyard Canoe Club’s ability to train beginner paddlers in the area.

“[Current conditions] are a real loss to Ledyard’s training program,” he said. “There isn’t anything local that is comparable to [the Hartland’s region].”

Alexander Toth ’10, who was also involved in Ledyard Canoe Club while studying at the College, echoed this sentiment.

“[Sumner Falls] is one of the most ideal teaching locations I have ever seen,” he said.

Pruszinski also said that local businesses have been “drastically affected” by the changes because tourism to the area has decreased. He estimated that paddling near Sumner Falls has decreased by around 80 percent since the changes were implemented.

“Not all effects of [Great River Hydro’s] management fall exclusively on them ... the tourism dollar has consequences ... and yet, their management practices seem to have their own interests in mind,” he said.

Toth said he became concerned that current Dartmouth students would not be involved in the relicensing process when he first learned of the ongoing procedures.

“I remember how important the Connecticut River was for my Dartmouth experience,” he said. “If relicensing goes well, the Hartland’s region could be exponentially improved for Dartmouth students looking to learn how to paddle.”

Ragonese also disagreed with Pruszinski’s claim that recreational use of areas downstream of the dam has decreased.

“The main recreational use [of the river at that location] is boating. Boating has increased,” he said, adding that camping areas in the area also remain popular.

According to Ragonese, Great River Hydro is currently studying the concerns of interested parties and intends to hold a meeting to discuss these concerns when the results of those studies are published.

Pruszinski noted that flow management practices can also affect more than recreational use of the river. The Nature Conservancy applied river scientist Katie Kennedy wrote in an email statement that hydropeaking can threaten native river species.

“Many organisms cannot withstand the repeated high velocities associated with peaking, or the repeated changes to habitat,” she wrote. “What we often find as a consequence is an absence of sensitive species below a dam, and a gradual increase in abundances as distance downstream from the dam increases.”

According to Kennedy, this is an especially important consideration for Wilder Dam relicensing procedures because much of the Connecticut River has already been inundated by dams and reservoirs. Only 5 percent of the length of the Connecticut River in New Hampshire and Vermont is free-flowing, and much of the free-flowing habitat is already affected by hydropeaking.

However, Ragonese said that flow management practices have little effect on bank erosion processes, which Kennedy identified as a consequence of high velocities associated with peaking.

“We have performed several hundred thousand dollars worth of studies on erosion,” he said. “The vast majority of erosion on the Connecticut River is a function of high flows.”

Ragonese said that precipitation patterns can create high flows and that extreme weather events can drastically affect flow rates.

According to Kennedy, action plans are being devised to better manage the operations taking place.

“The Nature Conservancy and other stakeholders have been working to figure out what changes in operations can support the river ecosystem, while continuing to allow Great River Hydro to produce a reliable source of clean energy, and we’re all hoping to work with Great River Hydro to come up with a viable and responsible solution,” Kennedy wrote.