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Environmentalist eye Northfield Mountain relicensing

  • One of two tour groups looks out over the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project's upper reservoir on a foggy Thursday morning. The tour is part of the project's federal relicensing.

    One of two tour groups looks out over the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project's upper reservoir on a foggy Thursday morning. The tour is part of the project's federal relicensing. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Recorder/David Rainville<br/>Four massive hydroelectric turbines sit below these housings in the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project. A tour of the facility Thursday was part of the project's federal relicensing process.

    Recorder/David Rainville
    Four massive hydroelectric turbines sit below these housings in the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project. A tour of the facility Thursday was part of the project's federal relicensing process. Purchase photo reprints »

  • One of two tour groups looks out over the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project's upper reservoir on a foggy Thursday morning. The tour is part of the project's federal relicensing.
  • Recorder/David Rainville<br/>Four massive hydroelectric turbines sit below these housings in the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project. A tour of the facility Thursday was part of the project's federal relicensing process.

NORTHFIELD — As FirstLight Power Resources prepares to have its area hydroelectric projects relicensed, stakeholders get the chance to suggest studies to be conducted as part of the process.

FirstLight operates the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project, as well as two Turners Falls hyroelectric facilities — Cabot Station, at the lower end of the power canal, and Station One, at the upper end. All three operate on licenses from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which are not set to expire until April 30, 2018, but the relicensing process takes nearly six years.

As part of the process, FirstLight conducted a tour of the Northfield Mountain project Thursday, and has a tour of the Turners Falls projects set for today. More than 60 people signed up for the tour, representing local and regional environmental groups, municipal governments, state and federal environmental agencies, and other hydroelectric companies. They were joined by several representatives of FERC and FirstLight.

The process gives interested groups and individuals a chance to suggest studies of the projects’ effects.

“This is a chance to add some ecological protections that aren’t there now,” said Andrea Donlon, river steward for the Connecticut River Watershed Council. “When the licenses were first issued, there wasn’t as much environmental consideration as there is now.”

Donlon said the CRWC is mainly interested in the projects’ effects on fish, bank erosion, and recreational opportunities on the river. She said the CRWC is not ready to suggest any specific studies at this early point in the process.

Though Donlon said the CRWC is interested in all things pertaining to the river, other groups have more specific areas of concern.

“There’s a disappointing shad passage at the Turners Falls project,” said Caleb Slater, anadromous fish project leader for the state Department of Fish and Game.

He said fish ladders at the ends of the power canal were designed for salmon, and don’t accommodate shad as well. He said FirstLight has promised to install a fish lift, but that the project is being put off until after the relicensing.

The relicensing gives Slater and his colleagues a chance to address other fish issues, though.

He hopes to have the effect of Northfield Mountain’s Connecticut River inlet on shad studied. He said adult shad are strong enough to swim against the current when water is being pumped from the river to the mountaintop reservoir, but the young shad often aren’t as lucky.

FirstLight has a net in front of its inlet that keeps salmon and other large fish out, but Slater said many small fish are still sucked through the turbines.

He also had concerns down-river.

“We’d like to get more water into the bypass reach (below the Turners Falls Dam); it’s almost dry in the summer. “We want enough water there to get a successful spring spawning of sturgeon.”

Atlantic sturgeon were declared endangered earlier this year by federal authorities. Slater said that the relicensing of the Holyoke dam’s hydro plant led to more water in its bypass reach.

Russ Cohen, with DFG’s Division of Ecological Restoration, hopes the relicensing will mitigate erosion issues. He said the Connecticut’s banks are particularly susceptible to erosion, composed of fine, easily washed-away silt.

Northfield Mountain isn’t entirely to blame for erosion, though. He said normal river current, as well as boat wake, also contribute.

He suggested that FirstLight look into the possibility of constructing a lower reservoir to draw water from, rather than using the river. The 300-acre upper reservoir stores 5.6 billion gallons of water.

The Northfield Mountain project was built in the late 1960s and came on line in 1972. It has four turbines, capable of generating 1,119.2 megawatts of electricity. It can run for about 8.5 hours at full-bore before depleting its upper reservoir. The upper reservoir is typically filled at night by using the turbines as pumps. This is the first time the project has had to be relicensed.

Cabot Station houses six turbines, and generates 62 megawatts of power, while Station One’s single turbine cranks out 5.7 megawatts. The projects were last licensed in 1980.

FirstLight will hold a public meeting as early as Jan. 29, after which properly filled-out study requests will be accepted for 30 days. Field studies will be conducted in 2014 and 2015. For more on the relicensing process, visit www.northfieldrelicensing.com.

“The relicensing gives us time to think about the big issues (associated with the projects),” said Cohen.

David Rainville can be reached at:
drainville@recorder.com
or 413 772-0261, ext. 279

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