Go With the Flow

Hydropower – you may have heard the term, but just how do we generate electricity through water? According to the U.S. Geological Survey’s website, it is similar to the way coal-fired power plants generate electricity. In both instances, a power source is used to turn a turbine, which turns a metal shaft in an electric generator, which is the motor that generates electricity. While a coal-fired power plant uses steam to turn the turbine blades, a hydroelectric plant uses falling water to turn the turbine.

The advantages of hydropower are endless: not only is it a clean fuel source that won’t pollute the air like fossil fuels, coal, or natural gas, but it is a domestic source of energy, allowing each state to produce their own energy without being reliant on international fuel sources. In order to generate hydroelectricity, a dam must be built on a large river that has a rather sizeable drop in elevation – the dam stores water behind it in the reservoir, where the electricity is garnered. From an environmental standpoint, it is crucial that these dams are performing in a productive and safe way with as little impact on the environment as possible. That’s where organizations like the Connecticut River Conservancy (CRC) come in.

The CRC collaborates with partners across four states – Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire. They protect and advocate for the rivers within the states, educating and engaging their communities along the way. Preventing pollution, improving the habitat, and promoting the enjoyment of rivers and streams in a safe and fun way are just a few of the CRC’s missions.

Kathy Urffer, the River Steward in charge of the Vermont/New Hampshire area, joined the CRC in 2017. River Stewards engage in issues like policy making, coalition building, watershed monitoring, community outreach and habitat protection. Urffer is no stranger to working directly with the natural world – before joining the CRC, she was a Special Projects Manager and Operations Director for the Hackensack Riverkeeper in New Jersey. She developed and ran their river cleanup program, assisted with their canoe and pontoon boat eco-cruise programs, managed stream restoration projects, and fish advisory, outreach and education projects.

“When it comes to dams, we interact with them in two basic ways,” Urffer explained. “dam restoration and renewing FERC-issued licenses.”

Urffer explained that Ron Rhodes, a full time conservation scientist, serves as the Director of Restoration Programs. The CRC is in charge of restoring and removing dams in all four states. Rhodes and his team help to identify grants that support landowners the access and funds to remove dams on their property with the least amount of environmental impact.

According to Urffer, New England has had a history of channelizing rivers or building dams along the river instead of across the river, creating more dangerous flood scenarios for property owners downstream – the CRC’s goal is to identify those farm and land owners and address the issues accordingly.

Since 2012, five hydroelectric facilities in the Connecticut River have been in the process of renewing their operating licenses issued through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). The process is referred to as relicensing. These licenses are good for 30 to 50 years: the two facilities in northern MA and three dams in southern VT and NH (Wilder, Bellows Falls and Vernon) up for relicensing will impact more than 175 miles of the Connecticut River, so the relicensing process is crucial for all involved. In order to renew their operating license, the companies that own these facilities and dams must report the environmental impact on the facility and its surroundings. Urffer and her team are in charge of ensuring these licenses are being used properly as well as suggesting studies and shedding insight on what these companies could change before renewing their license, depending on what they find.

“The goal is to try to keep the public informed and keep the relicensing procedure as transparent as possible,” Urffer said. “It can be a very bureaucratic process.”

Uffer explained that hydropower facilities are mostly owned by private companies who are trying to make a profit, making the environmental impact lower on their list of priorities. The license renewal process is a public issue, and Uffer stresses that is important that people know they have a say on how these facilities are operating.

“Hydro dams are essentially invisible to the public,” Uffer said. “It’s important that the public is aware that they have an opportunity to be involved with the decisions at hand. We are trying to ensure that these licenses reflect, encourage and even require that the most ecologically sound decisions are made when it comes to renewing licenses.”

Check out the CRC’s website to find out what you can do to ensure rivers and reservoirs in your area are being accounted for!