Five Hydroelectric Dams On Conn. River Up For Relicensing

10/01/12 5:50PM By Charlotte Albright
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VPR/Charlotte Albright
Chuck Mekus of TransCanada shows visitors a control room inside the Wilder Dam. The tours are part of the dam's licensing process.

It's not often that members of the public are invited inside a large hydroelectric facility.

But that's what's happening this fall at five big dams on the Connecticut River. It's all part of a process of environmental reviews and meetings to help federal regulators decide whether to renew licenses for the dams.

On a drizzly Monday morning, the TransCanada Corporation, which owns three of the hydro stations, handed out safety coveralls, hard hats, protective glasses, and shoe covers to about two dozen people interested in the way the Connecticut River dams affect energy, the environment, and recreation.

TransCanada's relicensing manager, John Ragonese, avoided making an outright  pitch for relicensing. But he did emphasize  the dam's importance to New England's energy mix-especially because the supply from other renewables, like solar and wind, is variable.

"To support variable energy renewables you need hydro, you need other responsive energy renewables, of which hydro is one...so it's very important," he told the crowd.

VPR/Charlotte Albright
The top of the Wilder Dam offers a view of the Connecticut River.
Ragonese said the output of Wilder Dam is relatively large for New England, especially in conjunction with the four others that control the flow of almost 85 miles of the Connecticut River.

Katie Kennedy is a scientist with the Nature Conservancy. She said it's very unusual for five dams to be folded into one re-licensing review process.

"Yes, it is, it's a big deal but it's a really good chance to look at the system as a whole instead of little pieces. So when we look at the system as a whole we can get a better idea of how to solve large problems on a larger scale," she said.

For example, Kennedy hopes to learn about how the rise and fall of water levels impacts the aquatic environment, and which species are considered a priority for TransCanada.

VPR/Charlotte Albright
Migrating fish use this ladder to get around barriers of the Wilder Dam.
On tours through the facility, TransCanada staffers showed off high-tech turbines and generators.  They answered lots of questions about the fish ladder, which allows migrating species like shad and salmon to swim upstream in a series of steps.  

But barriers to fish are not the only reason that some residents see large dams as mixed blessings. Dave Hewitt lives on the river in Lyme, New Hampshire. He wasn't able to attend the tour.

Still, as a new board member of the Connecticut River Watershed Council, he plans to follow the re-licensing review process closely. The Wilder dam, he says, has significant benefits-and perhaps some drawbacks.

"It's given us 45 miles of navigable river that we can use for recreational purposes.... The other side of it is that there are many of us who believe (and I hasten to add this is not based on any scientific experience or experiment) that the continual rise and fall of the river is causing, and is the major cause, of serious bank erosion problems we have."

The review process could last up to five years.

The other dams along the Connecticut are at Bellows Falls, Vernon, Northfield, MA, and Turners Falls, MA. The latter two are owned by First LightPower Resources of Connecticut. To learn more about that process, upcoming site tours and to make comments, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, encourages people to visit the hydropower page on its website and click on "Projects Near You."

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