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Column: Hydro companies need better recreation plans

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    The "portage parade" around the Bellows Falls Dam in Walpole, N.H. (Photograph courtesy of the Connecticut River Conservancy)

Published: 7/23/2021 10:10:00 PM
Modified: 7/23/2021 10:10:11 PM

Hydroelectric companies are required to provide recreation amenities as mitigation for using the public’s water to generate power. The dams in Wilder, Bellows Falls and Vernon, Vt., operated by Great River Hydro, are renewing their operating licenses under the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Later this summer, the public will have an opportunity to comment on these licenses, which will impact more than 175 miles of the Connecticut River for the next 40-50 years.

Recreation impacts include the barrier that a dam represents to boating, water fluctuations upstream and rapid changes in the velocity of flows downstream, and the creation of lakes upstream of a dam. FERC is required to give “equal consideration” to non-development interests, including “protection of recreational opportunities.”

Hydro companies need to address these impacts on recreation while also updating their recreation offerings to reflect current needs and desires.

Some of Great River Hydro’s current recreation offerings, like the viewing windows at fish ladders, or sites like Herrick’s Cove or Governor Hunt Recreation Area, were required as part of its last relicensing process more than 40 years ago. As the new licenses are being finalized this year, it is time to ensure that the recreational amenities we want developed to support our local economies for the next 50 years are built in to the new licenses. The public deserves more than meager recreation improvements.

Great River Hydro claims that it invested $170,015 in recreation amenities at the Wilder, Bellows Falls and Vernon facilities in 2014, and $65,500 at all three in 2008, based on federal filings. But in a March filing to FERC, Great River Hydro is proposing to invest an average of only $58,575 a year over the next 40 years. This is less than what it claims to have been investing under the previous license, and amounts to .02% of its stated 2016 revenue of $27.9 million.

The Connecticut River Conservancy, the Appalachian Mountain Club, American Whitewater and other recreation partners recently organized two “portage parades” at the Turners Falls Dam in Turners Falls, Mass., and at the Bellows Falls Dam in Walpole, N.H. In Massachusetts, parade marchers proved a 20-minute walkable portage around the Turners Falls Dam is possible. In New Hampshire, parade marchers proved how extreme the current portage route is along the busy Route 12 roadway.

“The events sent a message to dam owners ... that better recreation plans, including improvements to these portage routes, are needed as part of their current applications for renewed operating licenses,” said Connecticut River Conservancy Executive Director Andrew Fisk,

“Excessively long portages around these dams and poorly maintained put-ins are examples of the lack of investment the companies are making in publicly accessible recreation,” said Kristen Sykes, director of Southern New England conservation projects and partnerships for the AMC.

“People need to advocate for access to and protection of recreational resources. It doesn’t happen without you,” said Faith Salter, the AMC’s director of volunteer relations. “You can compel the hydro companies to be more specific about the funds they will commit to support not just the maintenance of existing infrastructure, but the improvement and expansion of opportunities to enjoy the river.”

Tim Lewis, a participant in the Turners Falls portage parade, has paddled the length of the Connecticut River — a journey many people travel to the region to experience. “If the owners of the dams took a different approach and were more welcoming,” he said, “it would go a long way both in terms of their perception and in the ease of recreation for everyone to go around the dam and travel down the river.”

Everyone who cares about recreation on and along the Connecticut River needs to get involved and to speak up for the river this year. Insist that Great River Hydro make significant investments in recreation for the entire 40- to 50-year life of its new licenses.

Andrea Donlon and Kathy Urffer serve as river stewards for the Connecticut River Conservancy in Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire. For more information, visit and

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