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N.H. Disputes Findings that Dams Aren’t Contributing to Erosion

  • The Wilder Dam over the Connecticut River, seen from the air on Saturday, Dec. 9, 2017. (Valley News - Charles Hatcher) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 4/26/2018 12:09:03 AM
Modified: 4/26/2018 9:13:47 AM

Lyme — The New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services this week joined Upper Valley residents and conservation groups in criticizing studies from the owner of the Wilder Dam that say the hydropower facility has little effect on erosion along the Connecticut River.

The current owner, Great River Hydro, and the former owner for many years, TransCanada Hydro Northeast, have steadily denied allegations that the three Connecticut River facilities — in Wilder, Bellows Falls and Vernon, Vt. — contribute to riverbank erosion.

In a just-completed comment period for federal relicensing, area residents and watershed conservancy organizations rebutted a ream of recent studies from Great River Hydro, which argued that natural causes, and not the dams, had eaten away at riverbank soils.

One of Great River Hydro’s reports concluded that “(dam) operations, while perhaps causing sediment entrainment in isolated incidents, cannot be responsible for widespread bank sediment entrainment or bank erosion.”

The state Department of Environmental Services was among many to question the findings.

“Visual observations strongly suggest that daily (water surface elevation) fluctuations associated with project operations impact stream bank stability, and erosion potential,” the state agency said in a Monday letter filed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

The letter cites several measurements of river flow and riverbank stress that it says the Great River studies left out. “NHDES requests that this information be provided,” the letter says numerous times.

Meanwhile, Upper Valley stakeholders and Great River Hydro are waiting on federal officials to moderate their debate.

FERC, which is considering the dams’ relicensing, is due to issue a decision in June on what additional study, if any, is necessary. A public comment period ended this week.

Others to dispute the notion that the erosion was natural included the Connecticut River Conservancy, the Upper Valley Local River Subcommittee of the Connecticut River Joint Commissions and numerous interested landowners.

“The overriding thing is that the operation of the dam is causing tremendous erosion on the river,” Lyme resident and Upper Valley Local River Subcommittee member John Mudge said in an interview on Wednesday.

Lyme has been hit particularly hard by erosion, which has closed a section of River Road for years. Mudge, who has lived in the area for decades, said he has watched pieces of his riverfront property surrender to the river year by year.

“It’s not limited to Lyme,” said Carl Schmidt, another river subcommittee member who owns land by the river in Orford.

Schmidt said the river tended to undercut its banks when the Wilder Dam released large amounts of water. The facility in Wilder and its two downriver cousins tend to hold back water until consumer demand is high, then let the water flow through when prices are highest.

“It’s not just normal erosion, which rivers cause as a natural function — this goes well beyond that,” Schmidt said.

Great River Hydro’s erosion studies took place at the request of FERC, which asked for the information as part of the relicensing process. Mudge said residents and area organizations were limited to asking for more comprehensive and accurate assessments from Great River’s experts because the research would be too expensive to do themselves.

“Part of the problem is just the cost,” he said. “All of us are out here just as individuals.”

Jennifer Griffin, who handles FERC licensing and compliance at Great River Hydro, said the next step was for the hydroelectric company to file its response to the public responses. That deadline falls on May 22.

The federal commission then will review the information it has received, with a June 21 deadline to issue a decision on what more study, if any, is needed.

All of this work will lead to Great River Hydro’s filing an amended application for a dam license, a process that “generally takes about two years and includes two opportunities for stakeholder comment,” Griffin said.

Griffin declined to respond to the criticisms in the public comments, which the company has not yet had time to review. But she noted that Great River had spent considerable time and resources to conduct its studies.

“It’s been a lot of money and a pretty extensive study,” she said.

Great River Hydro, a subsidiary of Boston-based ArcLight Capital Partners, bought the three Connecticut River dams, along with several others on the Deerfield River, from TransCanada for nearly $1.07 billion in 2017.

Rob Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.

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