Water vs. recreation: High profile debate centers on Green River Reservoir

Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff File Photo Canoers ply the waters of Green River Reservoir in Hyde Park.

By Sarah Galbraith Correspondent On the Green River, a tributary to the Lamoille River in Hyde Park, sits a hydroelectric dam waiting for a court decision to determine whether and how it will continue to make power. In addition to providing renewable energy, the water held back by the dam creates Green River Reservoir State Park, a place enjoyed by Vermonters for its wild loons, bass fishing, boating, and camping. The river provides fish habitat and whitewater paddling, and a number of homes sit down-river. “This is a beloved river,” said Bob Nasdor by phone from his office in Sudbury, Massachusetts. As the northeast stewardship and legal director for American Whitewater, the dam on the Green River is one of a dozen throughout the Northeast whose fate he is monitoring. Morrisville Water & Light, the owner of the dam, recently applied for relicensing after its former 1981 license ran out on its 30-year term. The approval of dams like this one is a federal decision, and licenses are given 30- to 50-year terms following rules put forth in the Federal Power Act, the implementation of which is overseen by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. But, this federal-level decision hinges on state-level certification that requires each dam to meet certain water-quality standards. When three decades pass between licensing applications, a lot can change in water quality science and conservation. In the case of this dam, the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources is now asking the utility to leave more water in the river, and divert less to the power plant, to protect the quality of the river. The utility had anticipated this change, and included in their application a reduction in the volume of water diverted from the river, but ANR’s requirements exceeded the utility’s proposal. The utility appealed the decision in Vermont environmental court in April, and was joined there by other groups like Nasdor’s and Vermont Natural Resources Council. VNRC cross-appealed the state’s decision, asking for more-stringent water-quality requirements than those required by ANR. Nasdor said, “This legal case is ultimately about, ‘how do you protect water quality through recertification?’” He says the law requires that equal consideration be given to non-power values like habitat, aesthetics, and recreation, and that recreation is also protected “very clearly” under the Water Quality Act. Morrisville Water & Light has scheduled dam releases that draw 100 or more boaters to enjoy the rapids created by the increase in water flow. Nasdor says protecting the recreation value of the river is part of protecting water quality. His group has also proposed terms for the license to include a certain number of seasonal scheduled dam releases and time-shifted releases, all of which would mimic the natural flow of the river. The utility has been operating under its former license by diverting water from the river and holding it behind a dam, and then releasing it through its power generation plant as needed to make electricity. To be economical, the hydro power plant is best used when regional power prices are high, such as times of high energy demand. At these times, the utility can generate their own inexpensive power using a free resource — water — instead of buying expensive electricity from the regional power grid, a move that boosts the utility’s profits and keeps electric rates lower for customers. ANR wants more water to stay in the river and less to be diverted to the hydro power plant. Their rules aim for the water flow leaving a hydroelectric plant to be identical to the natural flow of water running into the plant. Called run of river, this mode of operation protects the natural flow regime, allowing fish and macroinvertebrates to thrive. While ANR’s rules would still allow some water to be diverted to the power plant, VNRC is calling for water to instead run continuously through the plant without any being held back. It’s a move that VNRC says would protect water quality, but it would also mean the utility would lose control of storing this potential power source for use at optimal times, thereby reducing profits. “Some of the biggest challenges (with hydroelectric plants) are the fluctuations of water level that negatively impact habitat, as well as downstream flow, or keeping water in the river,” said Leslie Weltz, an environmental litigation attorney with ANR. “We regulate by maintaining natural flow,” she added. But, at a time when utilities have been mandated to generate 55 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2017 and 75 percent by 2032, utility general manager Craig Myotte feels the state has conflicting goals. He says, while one state agency is asking for more renewable energy, another is being prohibitive to hydropower, a main source of renewable energy in Vermont. “You have aggressive renewable energy targets from one state agency and another [state agency] who is not concerned with renewable energy is operating in a vacuum, they have their blinders on. They’re not considering any other perspective,” said Myotte by phone. He feels ANR should consider other perspectives like economics, customer rates, and the state park. But, said Groveman, “This is precedent-setting in Vermont, saying that economic impacts on a facility should be considered when considering water quality. We shouldn’t allow our waters to slowly degrade. We should maintain, restore and improve water quality.” Myotte said the utility recently hired a consultant to study the health of the Green River by measuring fish populations, and the results were positive. “We’re not doing the damage they’re saying we’re doing,” said Myotte. This legal case is one that appears to be putting renewable energy at odds with water quality, both of which can be argued to be important environmental considerations. Weltz said that using water, which is in the public trust, to make renewable energy is a good thing and that the rules proposed by ANR are meant to encourage renewable energy while protecting water quality. The state’s comprehensive energy plan speaks to this balance, acknowledging and accounting for some reduction in hydroelectricity due to more-stringent water-quality standards. “I don’t accept the idea that we’re pitting renewable energy against water quality,” said Groveman. “Hydropower is not renewable if you’re having adverse impacts on water quality. That doesn’t meet the definition of renewable energy.” In addition to the profitability of power production for the utility is the cost of owning and maintaining the dam itself. While the dam is depreciated and paid for, there are costs for maintaining it. Once a year, the utility puts all staff time for a single day to an emergency drill, along with the town and local emergency response departments, to simulate their response to a dam failure. Plus, every five years, the utility spends $25,000 on a dam inspection conducted by a consultant. “If the dam were to fail,” said Myotte, “there would be loss of life and property damage at the houses below the dam. That’s our responsibility.” These costs are required by the utility as owner of the dam, and they pencil out when power is being produced and sold. “The economics of owning the dam change significantly to hold water without power generation,” pointed out Myotte. If the utility was unable to obtain a new license or the improvements needed to meet modern water-quality standards were cost-prohibitive, the utility would most likely sell the dam. Some worry this would put the dam under consideration for decommissioning, which would mean the loss of the state park up-river. “The loss of Green River State Park is very unlikely,” said Jon Groveman, with Vermont Natural Resources Council. “That’s an alarmist point of view.” He said if the utility backed out of owning the dam, it would most likely be sold as a valuable asset. And, even if it wasn’t sold, he couldn’t envision any state administration doing away with a state park that so many enjoy. Plus, decommissioning a dam is a long process that also requires an application to FERC and public input, points out Jeff Crocker, a river ecologist with ANR. He agrees that the loss of the state park is unlikely. But Nasdor has a different take, saying, “People who enjoy the recreation in this reservoir ought to be concerned about the economic viability of this hydro-power dam.” Since the trial in April, there has been one round of post-trial briefing, and final post-trial filings were due last week. The court will then take these filings into consideration when making a decision, which some expected would come as early as August, while others expected it later this fall or over the winter.

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