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Dam review prompts river question

Should Northfield Mountain build closed system rather than relying on river?

  • Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage facility reservoir sits on top of Northfield Mountian drawing water out of the Connecticut River when power demand is low and releasing it to produce electricity when demand is high.  The intake/outflow can be seen at bottom of photo at the river and the power lines and entrance tunnel to underground turbines/pumps can be seen in center of photo. 08/07/15 Franz

    Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage facility reservoir sits on top of Northfield Mountian drawing water out of the Connecticut River when power demand is low and releasing it to produce electricity when demand is high. The intake/outflow can be seen at bottom of photo at the river and the power lines and entrance tunnel to underground turbines/pumps can be seen in center of photo. 08/07/15 Franz

  • Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage facility reservoir sits on top of Northfield Mountian drawing water out of the Connecticut River when power demand is low and releasing it to produce electricity when demand is high.  The intake/outflow can be seen at bottom of photo at the river and the power lines and entrance tunnel to underground turbines/pumps can be seen in center of photo. 08/07/15 Franz

    Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage facility reservoir sits on top of Northfield Mountian drawing water out of the Connecticut River when power demand is low and releasing it to produce electricity when demand is high. The intake/outflow can be seen at bottom of photo at the river and the power lines and entrance tunnel to underground turbines/pumps can be seen in center of photo. 08/07/15 Franz

  • Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage facility reservoir sits on top of Northfield Mountian drawing water out of the Connecticut River when power demand is low and releasing it to produce electricity when demand is high.  The intake/outflow can be seen at bottom of photo at the river and the power lines and entrance tunnel to underground turbines/pumps can be seen in center of photo. 08/07/15 Franz
  • Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage facility reservoir sits on top of Northfield Mountian drawing water out of the Connecticut River when power demand is low and releasing it to produce electricity when demand is high.  The intake/outflow can be seen at bottom of photo at the river and the power lines and entrance tunnel to underground turbines/pumps can be seen in center of photo. 08/07/15 Franz

Should the owners of Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage project be required to study the possibility of no longer using the Connecticut River as part of its hydroelectric generation?

The call for First Light Power to study a “closed-loop” system — and possibly end the 40-year “experiment” of directly pumping water in and out of the river for the Northfield plant’s operation — is one of the formal proposals by more than 25 environmental and recreational organizations, along with local, regional, state and federal agencies and river abutters.

In filings with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission as part of relicensing for five hydroelectric projects, the Franklin Regional Council of Governments, Connecticut River Watershed Association, Franklin Conservation District and the towns of Gill and Montague have requested additional studies of how operation of the generating facilities affects streambank erosion, fish habitat, water quality, recreation and a host of other issues.

“There’s a lot of studying that’s going to happen,” said Andrea Donlon, river steward for the watershed council, which among other groups called on FERC to require First Light study creation of a new lower reservoir from which to draw water to fill its existing mountaintop upper reservoir.

“Pumping and generation cycles of the Northfield plant cause daily river level fluctuations which the watershed council in its filing contends, “may cause extensive erosion of streambanks, downstream sedimentation, entrainment of large numbers of resident and migratory fishes, and destruction of important spawning and nursery habitat.”

The Greenfield-based organization also argues that the fluctuations may also affect recreation, habitat, and likely disrupt key life history stages of resident and migratory fishes” as well as other species. The “vast majority” of proposed pumped storage projects call for a closed loop, it says, “because of a growing consensus that open-cycle pumped storage causes unacceptable environmental damage.”

The COG

The COG adds in its comments that the Northfield plant and its use of the river “have been a long-term ‘experiment’ that has resulted in significant adverse environmental impacts. We now have an opportunity to seriously consider the benefits of taking the river ‘off-line’ and creating a closed-loop lower reservoir that would address most of the environmental impacts and specific resource concerns raised by federal and state agencies and stakeholders.”

A thorough study, including where a lower reservoir could be built, could find that there is an overall savings from not having to prevent, repair and monitor erosion caused by the plant, adds the COG, which also calls for more information from First Light about proposed use of more storage in the upper reservoir and increasing the plant’s generating capacity.

Among other issues raised in the comments, all of which are posted online at www.northfieldrelicensing.com, are calls for improved recreational facilities, including provision for “walkable” portage for canoeists and kayakers around the Turners Falls Dam, as well as better river access downstream near Montague City. The existing Poplar Street portage area, in a quiet residential neighborhood, has limited parking and a steep river approach.

Several groups, including New England Whitewater, also called for creation of a whitewater paddling area in Turners Falls and Bellows Falls, Vt.

A variety of organizations, including the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, call for various studies of water quantity and quality as an effect of flows caused by operation of the hydroelectric facilities — especially on their impact on habitat for short-nose sturgeon, shad and other species.

The COG calls specifically for a study of shoreline erosion caused by Northfield Mountain’s operation as well as a study of the impacts of both the Northfield and Turners Falls plants on sedimentation and sediment quality.

The two agricultural organizations also question FERC’s continuing the First Light’s authority to use river water to control irrigation by farmers.

“The issue boils down to the permit,” writes Farm Bureau President A. Richard Bonnono, and the authority given to the (FERC license) holder in allowing or disallowing other parties to withdraw water from the river. This has been a contentious issue with local farmers and was tied up in an ongoing legal exchange. Farmers are legitimately concerned that the license holder would prohibit them from withdrawing water during periods of drought, putting crops, livestock, and the farmer farmers’ livelihood at risk.”

A better alternative would be to have those water withdrawals subject to state agencies that govern water withdrawal, he suggests.

Richard N. Palmer, University of Massachusetts director of the Northeast Climate Science Center, writes to FERC, “Although it would be easy to simply use the past as a guide to the future in terms of expected streamflows in the Connecticut River basin, we would strongly urge you against taking this approach.”

“Research shows that climate change will cause significant changes from the flow regimes of the past,” he writes. Given projected increases in total annual precipitation and in high-flow events, as well as significant shifts in the timing of the annual peak flows and greater variability in the river’s low-flow regime, he adds, “Ignoring these changes in the FERC process could lead to erroneous assumptions about future conditions. Climate change projections should be a fundamental ingredient in all future work.”

After reviewing the study requests, First Light and TransCanada are required to file their companies’ study plans by April 15, with public meetings in mid-May and a formal comment period through mid-July to which the companies must issue revised plans by Aug. 13.

FERC will issue by Sept. 12 its final guidance for study plans, and those studies will take place during 2014 and 2015.

On the Web: www.nofthfieldrelicensing.com

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