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Indigenous group opposes dams

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 9/30/2022 8:24:10 PM
Modified: 9/30/2022 8:19:58 PM

WILDER — As relicensing for a series of hydro-electric dams along the Connecticut River inches forward, indigenous groups continue to push for a voice in the conversation.

The Connecticut River Joint Commission, a partnership between governments and river stakeholders from both Vermont and New Hampshire, hosted Denise and Paul Pouliot, of the Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook-Abenaki People, in a virtual meeting Thursday night.

“The river and lakes are dying because of these dams. The oceans are dying as well — the fish can’t get to them,” Denise said, calling the environmental harm a “domino effect.” In pushing for reconsideration of the presence of dams in the Connecticut River Valley, the Pouliots’ goal is to restore the estuary back to “as close as we can get it when our people were here,” Paul said.

Hydropower is not a sustainable energy source, Denise argued. ” When you’re destroying other forms of life, that’s not sustainable. As the licenses get renewed for these dams, we’ll be saddling the next generation with the problems we have today.”

As the head female and male speakers of the Cowasuck Band, the Pouliots act as environmental and cultural advocates for the Cowasuck people.

Of particular interest to their work is a series of dams — including one in Wilder — owned by Great River Hydro, a Massachusetts-based company that spent $1.06 billion for 13 dams along the Connecticut and Deerfield rivers in 2017.

The hydropower produced by Wilder dam, which runs at a 41 megawatt generation capacity, “is one of the most enduring, proven, and reliable ways to produce energy, embracing the power of flowing water to generate carbon-conscious renewable energy,” Great River Hydro claims.

Hydropower projects are licensed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, which has authority over any generation or storage dam on navigable waters. Licenses last 30 to 50 years, after which the dams are reassessed to make sure they comply with state water quality standards.

The relicensing of Great Hydro’s dams, which began in 2020, also prompts a fresh examination of the dam’s impacts on archeological and tribal sites, of which the Cowasuck Band has many. While they’ve been petitioning for federal recognition since 1995, the “people of the white pines” have been located in the upper region of the Connecticut River for 13,000 years.

“The key thing is that we’re made community partners with conservation groups,” Paul said in an interview following the presentation. “What you can do is include us in the conversations. We may not have the resources to make any change, but we think the conversations need to be continued with us to fight for a cleaner environment and better waterways.”

The protection of tribal cultural properties became a flashpoint along the Connecticut when the once-in-a-generation relicensing conversation began, as many members of the Abenaki nation, including the Pouliots, felt that Great Hydro did not adequately consult with local tribal leaders.

But for the Pouliots, protecting their cultural history also means protecting environment resources. Migratory species including sea lamprey and American eel, as well as resident species like white sucker and walleye, have to find ways to navigate the Wilder Dam as they move up and down the river.

While the Connecticut River Joint Commission has worked with indigenous groups before in drafting management plans or communicating about specific permits, “there’s not a lot of understanding of how the tribes really work,” CRJC staff member Olivia Uyizeye said. “Sometimes a permit comes up, and there’s a question of who do we talk to, if there’s something considered in it like an artifact, or a burial site. We should know what we can do to make those connections, like we would be doing with any partners.”

Uyizeye also noted the connection between indigenous tribes and the commission in the dam relicensing process.

“We’re all stakeholders,” she said. “We will comment on the relicensing in different ways, so we try to be aware of what other people are saying so we can form our own individual, as well as collective, response.”

The earliest estimates from conservation officials have the relicensing process of the Great Hydro dams, including the one in Wilder, wrapping up this January.

Frances Mize is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at or 603-727-3242.

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