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Eye on  the water

Hydroelectric relicensing session weighs what should be looked at in study

  • The reservoir atop Northfield Mountain Hydroelectric Pumped Storage Facility holds 5 billion gallons of water.<br/>Recorder file photo

    The reservoir atop Northfield Mountain Hydroelectric Pumped Storage Facility holds 5 billion gallons of water.
    Recorder file photo

  • The reservoir atop Northfield Mountain Hydroelectric Pumped Storage Facility holds 5 billion gallons of water.<br/>Recorder file photo

NORTHFIELD — The public is getting a chance to weigh in on what will be studied in relicensing the Turners Falls hydro dam and Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project — including whether the 1,080-megawatt underground Northfield project changes its operation.

As part of the first relicensing of the Connecticut River hydroelectric projects in decades by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the agency began holding meetings this week to review the 36 proposed studies that will precede review of the license held by First Light PowerResources. Those meetings, which will continue next Tuesday and Wednesday at the Northfield Mountain Visitors Center, have their counterparts in meetings in White River Junction, Vt., on the Vernon hydro dam and two other Vermont hydroelectric stations owned by TransCanada.

First Light has recommended against 11 of the 36 proposed studies discussed Monday and again Tuesday by 40 or so representatives of various federal, state, regional and nonprofit organizations, as well as members of the public. The meetings are also being attended by some agencies via teleconferencing.

Most of the proposed studies deal with recreation and land use, or evaluate upstream and downstream passage of fish, impact of hydroelectric operations on fish and aquatic life as well as on erosion, sediment and geology.

Among the studies recommended against by First Light are those involving shoreline erosion caused by the pumped storage plant, which produces electricity by pumping river water up to a mountaintop reservoir and releasing it through turbines when there is the greatest demand for electricity.

On a proposed study of sediment that was rejected by First Light, Gill resident Jeff Suprenant said Northfield Mountain released a lot of sediment in 2010 when the 300-acre reservoir was drained for the first time in years. “I feel over the years of the river, historical changes have happened with channels that we can no longer use. ... It’s just a hard pill for me to swallow that you’re not going to do a study on that.”

‘Closed loop’ study

Another study, which would explore the feasibility of building a lower reservoir to avoid having to continually pump and release water from and into the river, was also rejected by the company because of its cost and complexity, and would amount to requiring the company to construct and operate an entirely different project from the one it has proposed, in the words of the proposed study plan.

The request, proposed by the Town of Gill, the Franklin Regional Council of Governments, Franklin Conservation District, Connecticut River Watershed Council and Landowners and Concerned Citizens for License Compliance, received scant review Tuesday, as Mark Wamser of First Light’s consulting firm, Gomez and Sullivan and others pointed to the enormity of engineering and building a new lower reservoir to mitigate problems that hadn’t yet been identified.

But Russell Cohen of the state Department of Fish and Game, and longtime chair of the Northfield Streambank Erosion Committee, said many of the expenses of dealing with erosion issues could have been saved if the river had been avoided in the first place.

“As we all know, there’s very fine-grain, highly erodible, beautiful flood plain, prime farmland soil along this part of the Connecticut River,” he said. “It’s highly susceptible to erosion, and it very easily washes into the river from various means, including boat wakes and the currents of the river, as well as contributions of the project operating.”

Andrea Donlon of the watershed council added, “People said the 40 years of operating Northfield Mountain ... has been almost an experiment on the river, and many people feel this has had a dramatic effect on the river.”

She added, “Although the timing of a study request like this does seem premature ... We haven’t done all the studies yet ... I don’t know what other appropriate time there is other than, ‘OK, We’ve been running this thing for 40 years, what effect does it have, cumulatively. The ‘closed-look’ study recommendation really gets at the magnitude of the seriousness we feel the facility is having on the river.”

Yet, First Light is recommending a study to evaluate the impact of proposed changes, including allowing it to make better use of nine additional feet of capacity of its upper reservoir.

Some at the meeting questioned whether the way the plant has operated since utility deregulation a decade and a half ago, with a more of a direct market-driven call for power at such ‘peak-load’ generating stations, has caused more dramatic river fluctuations than the primarily weekly cycles of pumping and releasing water in prior years.

“There was a more or less predictable pattern ... Basically the upper reservoir would be topped of on Sunday night and then would brought down in a predictable series of steps during the week,” said Cohen. “Then there was deregulation and then it was more like we generate when financially it makes the most sense. So that changed pattern, and ... even though it’s still operating within that 9-foot level, it may nevertheless have different effects on the way that the river is responding to a change in operating regimen.”

But Project Manager John Howard responded that the plant operates similarly to how it has since going online in 1972 — except that it’s not called on to produce as much power as it did before the economy slipped in 2008. Its capacity factor has reduced from about 15 percent in the mid-1980s, when he arrived, to about 7 percent today.

Under FERC’s schedule for relicensing, agencies and organizations in the process may file comments on the study plan by July 14, and First Light must file a revised plan by Aug. 13, on which parties could comment through Aug. 28. FERC is scheduled to issue its final study plan Sept. 12 and settle any disputes by Dec. 11.

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