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Green River Re-licensing

Many northeastern paddlers have had the pleasure of paddling the Green River in northern Vermont. Thanks to the generally constructive relationship between paddlers, the power company and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the relicensing process has been progressed smoothly and we were optimistic that the end result would be favorable to everyone involved. Unfortunately, the State of Vermont’s Agency of Natural Resources, through their Section 401 Water Quality Certification, has stated their intention to ELIMINATE WHITEWATER RELEASES on the Green River. This page is intended to educate you on the process that got us here, describe some of the issues surrounding the Green and help you become engaged in this process.

FERC Relicensing and Whitewater Paddling on the Green River

A FERC license is required to construct, operate, and maintain most hydroelectric projects in the United States. As public resources, rivers cannot be owned by private industries. A developer may obtain a license from FERC, however, to dam the river for the purpose of hydropower generation. These licenses last 30 to 50 years and typically stipulate how the dams are operated, what minimum water flow levels are required, what forms of fish passage must be installed and, in some cases, how watershed lands are managed. The FERC relicensing process has been used to obtain releases on many well-known and popular rivers in the northeast including the Deerfield, Kennebec, Moose, Raquette and Beaver Rivers.

While the Green River had been paddled prior to 2011, American Whitewater (AW) and the Vermont Paddlers Club (VPC) did not become involved in paddling on the Green until the Green River Dam, along with several other dams owned by Morrisville Water & Light (MWL) came up for relicensing. A flow study in 2011 confirmed that the Green was an outstanding run and since then many paddlers have had the opportunity to paddle the Green on both natural and dam-release flows. Notably, the relationship between paddlers and the power company has been amicable and constructive, with MWL frequently notifying boaters of planned releases, and planning releases specifically so that boaters could paddle the Green.

The State of Vermont Agency of Natural Resources and the Section 401 Water Quality Certification

Section 401 of the Clean Water Act gives states considerable authority over hydroelectric projects. In many ways this is a good thing; state governments are ostensibly more accountable to everyday people than the federal government or large, politically powerful power companies are. But when a state’s Section 401 Water Quality Certification fails as bad as this one for the Green River has, it fails more than just the t natural resources.

The Vermont Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) released their 401 Water Quality Certificate for MWL’s hydroelectric facilities on January 7th. This 58-page document contains roughly 250 findings and conditions affecting the operation of MWL’s facilities, including the dam on the Green River. It specifically eliminates any possibility for planned whitewater releases for the next 30-50 years on the Green River, and proposes a flow regime which will reduce opportunities to paddle the Green on natural flows.

The Issues

The 401 Water Quality Certificate is a complex document that references a number of studies that have been done on the Green as well as several of the State’s laws and regulations, though it is easy to argue the ANR has, on the whole, either misinterpreted these or ignored key parts of them. To be clear, there are no studies or other data showing that whitewater releases within the range of the natural hydrology will result in ANY harm to aquatic habitat or other resources, and on the whole, the Green River is not impaired as a result of hydropower operations. A couple of the most significant issues are listed below:

Hydrology of the Green River

Boatable flows on the Green River would be very common under natural conditions. Daily mean flows are in excess of the minimum boatable level of 140 cfs 18 days per year, on average. Note that this does not account for days when the mean flow might be slightly less than boatable, yet boatable flows persisted for several hours. The ANR also notes “harmful” water level fluctuations. Anyone who has spent much time around a river or creek in Vermont knows water level fluctuations are incredibly common and part of a healthy riparian ecosystem.

Is Hydropeaking Really an Issue?

The ANR has targeted “extensive hydropeaking” on the Green River, when available data shows that extensive hydropeaking has not occurred in many years and MWL does not propose extensive hydropeaking. MWL proposes to operate the Green River Dam in store-and-release mode, a more general mode of operation that can both protect aquatic biota and habitat and provide ample recreational opportunities. The ANR further tried to justify their position with unfounded comparisons to a few other hydroelectric projects in Vermont.

Finally, there is legitimate doubt that hydropeaking is actually that bad for aquatic biota and habitat. A number of dams in the northeast operate under a hydropeaking regime, including the Kennebec, Deerfield, Hudson, Sacandaga, Connecticut and Androscoggin. Many of these rivers remain healthy and have become popular fishing destinations.

Computer Models Can be Misinterpreted

As part of the relicensing process, a number of computer models were used to identify what flows offer the greatest habitat for certain fish species. Development of these models is highly technical and won’t be discussed here. Conceptually, computer models just crunch numbers and the results are only useful when they are interpreted correctly and considered alongside relevant qualitative information. The ANR has failed in this regard and uses their own faulty in-house analysis protocol to prohibit whitewater releases.

Natural vs. Artificial Flows

Ultimately, the ANR has identified a run-of-river flow regime (one that mirrors natural flows) as ideal for the Green River. Yet the flow regime they propose is not run-of-river. Not only are they requiring a guaranteed minimum conservation flow (which would rarely occur naturally), they require that stored water required to sustain those flows be skimmed off the top of higher-flow (boatable) events. This is not just unnatural; it would likely eliminate natural boatable flows on the Green.

Existing Uses and the Anti-Degradation Policy

The Vermont Water Quality Standards Anti-Degradation Policy requires that the State of Vermont protect existing uses of waters, including paddling. Paddling, and more specifically dam-release paddling on the Green is well-documented and is therefore an existing use. The ANR’s prohibition of scheduled whitewater releases on the Green violates its own Water Quality Standards and undermines the purpose of the Clean Water Act, especially considering that available information shows that scheduled whitewater releases are compatible with the ANR’s other management goals for the river.

What Does This Mean for Paddlers?

It means that if the ANR gets it’s way, opportunities to paddle the Green will be few and far between for the next 40 years!

What’s Next and What Can I Do?

The 401 Water Quality Certification Process allows interested parties to appeal the ANR’s decision. This happens in court and it is a time-consuming, resource-intensive process. While this will likely happen, we need to do everything WE can to change the ANR’s mind before we get to that point. There are several ways (collectively) to do this:

  • Review some of the other information attached below.
  • Attend the public hearing on February 16th at 7:00 PM at the Morrisville Elementary School. The VPC will help you develop your oral comments if you wish to speak at this event.
  • Submit written comments to the Agency of Natural Resources by 4:30 PM on Friday, February 19th. The VPC will help you develop your written comments.
  • Contact your elected officials and let them know how important the Green River is to the boating community and ask them to support scheduled whitewater releases.
  • Encourage other paddlers to do the same.

Sample Public Comment Letter

ANR Draft 401 Water Quality Certification

ANR Draft 401 Water Quality Certification Public Notice

Green River Boating Study

Green River Flow Study

FERC Environmental Impact Assessment

American Whitewater Response to Environmental Impact Assessment

American Whitewater Response to ANR Comments on Environmental Impact Assessment

FERC eLibrary (use docket P-2629)

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