A complete constellation of river uses and values depends upon the flow of the Connecticut River. People use the river for swimming, boating, fishing, irrigation, power production, industrial water supply, and waste assimilation. Creatures use it for habitat and migration. Sometimes these uses compete with one another, and in the past, when the river was far less attractive for recreation, industrial uses often superseded others. This competition between users was one of the reasons why the Connecticut River Joint Commissions worked with the people of the valley to nominate the river into the New Hampshire Rivers Management and Protection Program in 1991.
The river's flow depends upon snow and rainfall, and here on the Connecticut River, also upon how water is held back, removed, or released, either directly at dams, through water withdrawals, or as a result of clearing, planting, or paving lands in the watershed. There are 14 dams on the mainstem in New Hampshire and Vermont. Fifty-three percent of the length of the Connecticut River here is captured by impoundments.
The waters of the Connecticut River are under the jurisdiction of the State of New Hampshire up to the historic mean low water line on the Vermont shore. Where the state line is flooded by impoundments, Vermont also shares jurisdiction. Altering the natural flow of a river can change how it moves in its floodplain, how it erodes and deposits sediment, how well it provides habitat for nesting, feeding, and migrating fish and wildlife, and how well it accommodates the public's desire for recreation. Impoundments whose water levels rise and fall can leave a "bathtub ring" around the shore where vegetation cannot become established. Impoundments can alter bank stability, obliterate important habitat, and prevent fish from successfully nesting.
Complicating the picture even further is the fact that the quantity of flow can also directly affect its quality, which is one way of saying that dilution is an unfortunate but necessary part of the solution to pollution.
Issue: New Hampshire has worked long and hard to develop a flow management policy for rivers like the Connecticut in the Rivers Management and Protection Program, that will control the amount of water available for consumptive use during periods of low flow and in the future when the demand for water could be even greater. However, there may be gaps in policy, or inconsistencies between the policies of Vermont and New Hampshire agencies, which need to be addressed. Among them is the question of how Vermont will provide flow management similar to that affecting New Hampshire.
Opportunities: The river flowing between the two states warrants cooperative management by those states, enabled by the federal government and facilitated by the CRJC as coordinators of such policy within the valley. The CRJC, with support from the Environmental Protection Agency, are already pursuing the opportunity to study flow policies on the Connecticut River. The study will identify state and federal policies and regulations that affect flows and appropriate water quality standards, and recommend opportunities for cooperation and policy development.
1. Any flow policies developed for the Connecticut River must maintain water flows at levels which will support the full range of its uses and values.
2. New Hampshire and Vermont should cooperate on an on-going basis in managing the Connecticut River and have coordinated policies on flow management and water withdrawals.
Issue: The management of water levels at dams is a major determinant of river flows. The dams on the mainstem require close coordination for effective management of water flows, and since they are strongly influenced by tributary dams as well, the dams on major tributaries also must be included in this calibration. Poor communication among dam managers has in the past and could in the future result in unnecessary flooding, bank erosion, and sedimentation, impacting water and habitat quality and hydropower generation efficiency.
Opportunities: Efficient, well-coordinated, informed management of both mainstem and tributary dams is critical to responsible water flow management on the Connecticut River. The watershed must be viewed and managed as a single river system. The computerized flow model currently in preparation by New England Power Company (NEP) is a promising step in this direction, as has been the management of the majority (11 out of 14) of the mainstem dams by this single company.
1. Managers of tributary and mainstem dams should communicate and cooperate to manage flow effectively on the river.
2. Future owners of NEP facilities should make a priority of utilizing NEP's valuable expertise in managing the flow of the Connecticut River.
3. All dam owners, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, should have an integrated flow control system.
Issue: When the hydro dams on the Connecticut River were first built, the river was so degraded that energy production was one of the few values remaining to the river, other than waste assimilation. Since the Clean Water Act went into effect in 1972, resulting strides in water quality improvement have brought the river back to a condition where it encourages rather than discourages recreation and once again offers valuable fish and wildlife habitat.
The river is a public resource that offers incalculable tangible and intangible public benefits. The public rightly wants to understand the ways in which this asset is being managed by a private company. This is particularly true of riverfront landowners, and those who are abutters to lands owned by hydropower companies. Fishermen are concerned about low flows below dams and fluctuating impoundment levels above dams which may leave fish nests high and dry. Riverfront landowners in general and the agricultural community in particular are concerned about the role of rapid water level fluctuations in bank saturation and slumping.
Managing the flow of the largest river in New England is, however, a highly technical and complicated business. It involves separate and different kinds of responsibility to corporate shareholders. Both kinds of responsibility, to the public and to private investors, are closely defined by law and both must be met fairly.
Opportunities: Dam managers have a responsibility to inform and also to listen to and appreciate the needs of both their private shareholders and the general public. Congress amended the Federal Power Act in 1986 to require the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to give "equal consideration" to power generation and ecological, recreational, and historical values of a river when the terms of a dam license are developed. Relicensing discussions, such as those now underway for the three dams of the Fifteen Mile Falls reach of the Connecticut River, provide the key forum for addressing the public's concerns about water flow management.
1. Valley citizens must participate in relicensing discussions in order to be well informed about what is at stake, and to ensure that public opinion is well considered in the formation of the new licenses.
2. New England Power Company deserves credit for establishing a cooperative approach with river interest groups and public agencies to establish terms for the relicensing of the Fifteen Mile Falls project. This approach is preferable to the traditional FERC process where participants often have to litigate in order to be heard. The CRJC also recognize the ongoing and constructive dialogue between water managers at NEP with us and with our local subcommittees, and NEP's efforts to communicate with concerned landowners, river users, the towns, and the public at large.
3. FERC should attend closely to the results of the cooperative relicensing process for Fifteen Mile Falls.
4. FERC should also recognize the Connecticut River Corridor management plan as a comprehensive river plan for the Connecticut River to guide relicensing decisions. The CRJC will file the plan formally with FERC to ensure that the wishes of valley people for the management of the river are heard in Washington. Federal law states that in order to issue a license for a dam, FERC must determine that the terms of the proposed license are "best adapted to" and consistent with a comprehensive plan for that river. The river corridor management plan prepared by the CRJC and our local river subcommittees addresses specific dams and flow management in each of their five river segments, and can serve as the comprehensive river plan required by FERC.
5. The new license for Fifteen Mile Falls must be based on the recognition that this project is influenced by flow controlled by upstream dams, and does indeed influence the flow and health of the river downstream. Impacts of the project beyond its immediate vicinity must be considered to fully understand its effects upon the river.
6. NEP and its successors and other dam managers should continue or amplify a company policy of dialogue with the CRJC and the public in order to minimize conflicts.
Issue: There are four sites on the Connecticut River mainstem at which the river still drops precipitously. Lyman Falls, between Lemington and Columbia, and the Wyoming site between Guildhall and Northumberland are breached dams which have not been reconstructed. The longest free-flowing segment of the Connecticut River is here, between Canaan Dam and the Gilman impoundment (66.6 miles, over half of the unimpounded miles of the river). Downstream, a proposed dam near Sumner Falls between Hartland and Plainfield was never built due to local opposition. A license was granted by FERC in 1988 for development of the Baldwin Dam just south of Pittsburg Village, although the dam as yet has not been built due to questions regarding potential markets for its power.
The New Hampshire Rivers Management and Protection Act allows limited dam construction or rebuilding on the river in order to protect what remains of its free-flowing nature. However, not only could construction of the Baldwin Dam and reconstruction of the Wyoming Dam occur under New Hampshire law, but any of the other existing dams could be reconstructed should they fail. Vermont has long opposed reconstruction of the Wyoming Dam.
Dams have both positive and negative impacts on the local economy and environment. They create electric energy and provide jobs and a broader tax base for the adjacent towns. Their impoundments create new types of habitat for some species and can offer recreational opportunities such as flat-water boating and slow-water fishing.
Dams also inundate natural areas of rapids and waterfalls which have their own recreational, scenic, and ecological values. Impounding the river creates a sink for nutrients and sediment, obliterates habitat for fish spawning and naturally-occurring wildlife, sometimes eliminates historic and archeological sites, and allows water temperature to rise perhaps beyond the tolerance level of coldwater fish species. Damming a river reduces its ability to assimilate waste by reducing the natural aeration of the water. For example, the discharge permit for the paper mill at Groveton specifically depends upon the river's continued ability to clean itself of the pollutants it receives in Groveton by passing over the breached Wyoming Dam just downstream.
Opportunities: The present free-flowing nature of the Connecticut River, where it remains, is highly valuable for many economic and environmental reasons. These kinds of waters are beautiful, healthy, and attractive for fishing, swimming, canoeing, and kayaking. Above all, they show what the natural river is really like. Free-flowing parts of the river provide economic benefits through the tourism and recreation opportunities they offer both residents and visitors alike. They provide key spawning habitat for valued cold-water species such as trout. The tumbling of water through steeper sections returns oxygen and keeps water cold and clean so that it can continue to support both prized pollution-intolerant fish and safe enjoyment of the river.
1. The CRJC recommend no further construction of dams, nor reconstruction of existing breached and historic dams on the Connecticut River. The Commissions recognize that there are benefits to the river's many impoundments, but believe that the relatively few remaining miles of free-flowing river should remain, to remind us of what the Connecticut River once was, and to assure the ability of the river to recover in these places from the burdens it is asked to carry.
2. Over the long term, evaluate the appropriateness of decommissioning uneconomic dams in the watershed in cooperation with the utility, to restore natural river values and public use.
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