Wilder Station, Wilder, NH, also controls Bellows Falls and Vernon Station (Credit: Al Braden)

Environmentalists Tout Once-in-a-Generation Opportunity with Dam Relicensing on Connecticut River

Almost 60 years after the start of efforts on the Connecticut River to restore native fish, including Atlantic Salmon and alewife, environmentalists are touting a major breakthrough for migratory species. 

Currently, three dams – Wilder, Bellows Falls and Vernon — in New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Vermont are up for relicensing by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and all of have critical roles in restricting fish passage up and down the longest river in New England. 

“FERC recognized that there is an advantage to these dams being relicensed as a system,” said Andrea Donlon, a river steward for the Connecticut River Conservancy.

In other words, the three facilities together can be renovated in a way to allow fish to more easily swim up and down that portion of river without getting stuck either above, below or in-between the dams. 

“Although these are not Connecticut dams, water and fish don’t adhere to state boundaries,” said Kelsey Wentling, another river steward for the Connecticut River Conservancy. “In order for us to have a healthy ecosystem downriver, we need responsible management upriver.”

The relicensing proposals are currently in review by FERC. 

On January 14, drafts of the proposals were sent back to Great River Hydro – the company completing the projects – with notes on deficiencies and requests for additional information before approval can be given. 

According to FERC, once the application is amended, it would take approximately two more years before a new license is finalized.

Although the new plan would greatly improve the river for fish and eels, the primary remaining complaint from environmental advocates is the lack of attention in the plan to recreation for residents and tourists to the area. 

“All these facilities were built in the patterns of what people were doing in the 1960s, we wanted a fresh look at what people want for the next 50 years,” Donlon said. “Given the revenue of these facilities, we expect them to invest more in the recreation plan and so far, they haven’t proposed anything. We are very happy about the flow agreement, but that is just one piece of the license.” 

The value of reconstructing and removing dams

Before thousands of dams were constructed throughout the Connecticut River watershed, fish traveled freely each year back to the smaller streams, lakes and swamps where they hatched. Small dams – including the 4,000 scattered throughout Connecticut – and large dams like the five up for relicensing, prevent this natural journey. 

“Currently these dams are operated in a peaking manner,” Donlon said. “Part of the proposal is to change the facility to run of river. Basically, the flow coming in from upstream will be the same as the flow going downstream.”

This would reduce fish mortality as they swim over the dam and – for the first time – allow eels to pass through the facility. In addition, the projects would redesign the current fish ladders to allow fish like the federally endangered Shortnose Sturgeon to swim upstream. 

“This will give a better chance of spawning success and more fish overall being in the Connecticut river,” Donlon said. 

And it’s not just fish that benefit, environmentalists say.

“This becomes a really important cascading effect for the entire ecosystem around the Connecticut River,” said Juliana Barrett, an Extension Educator at the Connecticut Sea Grant College Program. “Think about the food web. It offers a better supply of fish for birds and bigger fish. It can also have consequences for the tourism industry.” 

The opportunities to make such significant changes as this are few and far between. Relicensing for hydroelectric dams like these only comes every fifty years. In addition, funding for the removal or reconstruction of smaller dams has all but disappeared since the federal government pulled the plug back in 2012 after more than $25 million had been spent to restore salmon without success. Today, changes to dams rely on private owners.

As of 2020, the state’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection removes about two dams each year, while other non-profit groups including the Nature Conservancy and the Connecticut River Conservancy are each removing as many as four every year in New England. The next two projects in the works is the removal of two dams in Collinsville, Connecticut. 

“Every little dam that gets improved in some way has really positive benefits when they’re cumulative we can start to see an impact,” Barrett said. “As we are thinking about climate change and sea level rise, every little block that we can take out helps the fish and water have a little bit more flexibility.” 

Of the 4,000 dams once present through the watershed in Connecticut, 50 have been removed in the last twenty years. 

“With each removal or renovation more fish pass through Connecticut and the population of fish can begin to increase,” said Harry Yamalis, an environmental analyst for the Land and Water Resources Division of the state’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. “Within three years of a project we look for an alewife population increase in that area.” 

According to Yamalis, some projects have better results than others. The most successful in Connecticut has been Bridesbrook in East Lyme. 

“We took out a pair of pipes that were long and replaced them with a bigger, open culvert,” he said. “We have seen that population skyrocket since 2010.”

Despite increases and successes throughout the Connecticut River, the population is still far from the historical populations seen before the Industrial Revolution. There are still several dams that are total barriers to fish migration, including the Winchell Smith dam in Avon.

Photo credit: Al Braden

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