Conn. River dam licensing offers chance for change

Associated Press Modified: September 23, 2012 at 2:30 pm •  Published: September 23, 2012
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — Five big hydroelectric projects on the Connecticut River are up for federal relicensing, providing a once-in-a-generation chance for environmentalists, recreational river users and others to recommend changes to the dams' operations.

The projects affect a roughly 85-mile stretch of the river, which forms the boundary between Vermont and New Hampshire, bisects Massachusetts and Connecticut and then flows into Long Island Sound.

"It's a huge opportunity for the public and project operators to think about not just one location but a whole stretch of river," said Andrew Fisk, executive director of the Connecticut River Watershed Council, based in Greenfield, Mass.

Site visits set for the first week of October will kick off a process of environmental reviews and public meetings that's expected to take five to six years.

It's too early to know what issues will garner the most attention during relicensing, environmental group leaders and dam owners TransCanada Corp. and FirstLight Power Resources of Glastonbury, Conn., said last week.

The dams provide low-cost power without big carbon emissions, as well as jobs and big tax revenues in nearby communities, spokesmen Grady Semmens of TransCanada and Charles Burnham of FirstLight said.

Fisk said one area of study may be the impact that raising and lowering river levels behind the dams has on fish and wildlife species, particularly at Wilder. A second issue may be whether enough water is being left in the river to support fish populations below the Turners Falls dam.

Relicensing begins less than three months after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it was abandoning a nearly half-century effort to restore populations of Atlantic salmon that had dwindled in the Connecticut basin after the dams were built, saying the program had not been successful enough to justify the continuing cost.

The dams' need for new licenses was not part of the decision to discontinue the salmon restoration program, said Bill Archambault, regional assistant director for fisheries with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "Our decision was really based on the science and where we were (with) the program," he said.