BELLOWS FALLS, Vt. – On Tuesday, April 20, the Rockingham Selectboard discussed Great River Hydro’s Federal Energy Regulatory Commission relicensing with Kathy Urffer from the Connecticut River Conservancy.
Wilder, Bellows Falls, and Vernon Hydroelectric Projects began their relicensing process in 2012, Urffer said. The license, once issued, will be valid for 30 to 50 years.
Urffer suggested the town of Rockingham consider adding provisions for capital investment on preservation and conservation projects and said this was “a once in a lifetime opportunity” for Rockingham and Bellows Falls. She explained the fish ladder was an addition to the last license renewal in 1979.
For the past 40 years, the dam has worked as a peaking facility where water was held until electricity prices raised and then released each day. Urffer explained the changes included constraints on the rate of upramping, how quickly the water was released, and downramping, which is how fast the water level dropped. Urffer said normally the measurement was 800 cubic feet per second to 10,000cfs.
Under the new operational scenario, Urffer explained, the water speeds would be “closer to run of river” and the Connecticut River “would function more like a naturally flowing river…which is going to be more protective of a lot of our species.”
Urffer added that GRH would provide protection mitigation and enhancement measures. She explained that the Fifteen Mile Falls settlement resulted in a mitigation fund of over $16 million administered by the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation for restoration work on the upper Connecticut River, north of White River.
Urffer said once FERC deemed the license complete, there would be opportunity for public comment. She explained it would be useful for the town to include enhancements to recreational amenities, which is anywhere people can get into and out of the river and included Herrick’s Cove and Pine Street boat launch in North Walpole, N.H.
Rick Cowan asked if the amount of electricity would reduce, lower, or stay the same with the new output model. Urffer answered that basically the same electricity would be generated overall. She said a financial analysis showed a 1% reduction in possible revenue.
Cowan followed up with how this reduction would affect the tax rate and assessed value of the facility. Urffer said she would expect GRH to appeal and that the town should anticipate this due to the major relicensing agreement.
Cowan mentioned that as a volunteer at the fish ladder, “We never see any fish.”
“In 2004, I was lucky to see a tagged Atlantic Salmon,” Urffer said and explained that the problem with fish migration was “the bottleneck” in Turners Falls, Mass.
Urffer mentioned a colleague who is the river steward in Masschusetts and is currently working on their relicensing. “We should see improvements.”
She added that they studied the migration of three fish: American shad, sea lamprey, and American eel. Traditionally, there were millions of American shad, but there have been as little as 348,000 in Holyoke and only 3,000 reported in Vernon. The sea lamprey, also called the Ancient fish, are going blind and dying on their trip up the Connecticut River. The American eel are resident species for the tiver and unlike other fish the adults migrate to the ocean with the young returning to spawn.
Urffer said each fish “can be finicky,” and they were tweaking the fish ladders to make it easier for them to maneuver. For example, eels slither on their bellies.
Concluding her presentation, Urffer said that she would follow up with the Selectboard with more information and would be available to answer their questions. For more information on the CRC, visit www.ctriver.org.
The next Selectboard meeting is Wednesday, May 5 at 6 p.m. in the Lower Theater of the Bellows Falls Opera House.