Connecticut River Conservancy holding Portage Parade to advocate for river accessibility

  • Kayakers paddle down the Connecticut River in Northfield. Staff File Photo/Paul Franz

  • A view of the Connecticut River from the French King Bridge. Staff File Photo/MARY BYRNE

  • The Connecticut River Conservancy building on Bank Row in Greenfield. The organization is holding a public Portage Parade event on Saturday to advocate for portage route upgrades for paddlers around the Turners Falls Dam. Staff File Photo/Paul Franz

For the Recorder
Published: 7/8/2021 7:29:49 PM

TURNERS FALLS — The Connecticut River Conservancy will hold a public Portage Parade event on Saturday to advocate for portage route upgrades for paddlers around the Turners Falls Dam, one of several recreational accessibility investments the group is seeking to benefit local communities.

The Greenfield-based organization is calling all river advocates to join them at 11:15 a.m. at Unity Park in the far end of the parking lot. Paddlers will arrive promptly if river levels permit. According to a Connecticut River Conservancy press release, the event will begin with a press conference and follow with a public parade along what organizers are seeking as a shorter and improved portage route.

This event occurs in light of the obstacles hydroelectric facilities, including FirstLight locally, can create to river recreation. This discussion follows FirstLight’s application in December for its 50-year relicensure through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). While the company is still awaiting relicensure, the result will determine how its facilities on the Connecticut River — two hydroelectric dams in Turners Falls and a hydro-pump facility at Northfield Mountain — will operate in the coming 50 years.

Saturday’s press conference will serve as an opportunity for stakeholders to speak about the problems surfacing between outdoor recreation and dam ownership, including investments the Connecticut River Conservancy believes FirstLight should make as part of its new operating license finalization. In addition to conservancy staff, representatives from the Appalachian Mountain Club, American Whitewater, Adventure East and All Out Adventures will be present.

The long portage for paddlers around Turners Falls is certainly an issue, said Connecticut River Conservancy Communications Director Angela Chaffee, but it’s only one of the examples of FirstLight’s lack of substantial proposals.

“It would be really nice to have a walkable portage around the dam,” Connecticut River Conservancy River Steward Andrea Donlon said. “Right now, paddlers who want to portage around the dam have to take out at the Gill side at Barton Cove and be driven about 3 miles downstream.” The parade planned for Saturday will go along the bike path that’s part of their proposed portage route.

While FirstLight is proposing “long overdue” improvements with regard to some aspects of river accessibility, including a proposed access point below the dam down to the canal, “Given their revenue, we think their investment in providing access to the river needs to be more than what they proposed,” Donlon said.

FirstLight claims to have proposed $130 million in additional spending on recreation and environmental stewardship. Per Len Greene, FirstLight’s director of government affairs and communications, $5.6 million is proposed to be invested in new recreation development and improvements to existing recreation facilities.

Donlon noted that there will be a comment period for stakeholders and community members to write to FERC, the agency in charge of FirstLight’s relicensing. It is important that people of all ages and abilities tell the commission about their experiences on the river, she said, considering FirstLight’s final recreation plan was placed in its license application without a draft or public commentary.

Greene stated via email on Thursday, however, that “Throughout this process, we have had active, ongoing conversations with each of the towns and our other stakeholders to develop recreation proposals that would enhance our community, promote tourism, improve the health of the river and maintain public safety.” FirstLight welcomes suggestions from local stakeholders, Greene said.

The ability FirstLight has with its current license to alter the river’s flow and levels so significantly is also a major concern for the Connecticut River Conservancy. The Northfield pump storage facility especially fluctuates the river levels, Donlon said, which is not only detrimental to  recreational activities on the river, but to the wildlife that calls it home.

“We are encouraging the public to get involved because this is their one chance to have a say,” Chaffee said, referring to the period of public review of FirstLight’s license renewal. “We are doing an event like this to bring the public into that conversation.”


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