Housatonic- Here we go again...
Ruling revives river run question
Federal agency OKs store, release of Housatonic flow
Wednesday, July 16, 2003
© 2003 Republican-American
By Gale Courey Toensing
FALLS VILLAGE — The water still would run wild — but not naturally.
A controversy over recreation, economics and who decides the flow of water in the Housatonic River has resurfaced with a recommendation from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The commission has decided to allow two hydroelectric plants to continue to store and release water during part of the year.
The federal ruling, however, is in direct conflict with a state certification for the plants and therefore may set the stage of another bureaucratic battle over the issue.
The storing of water allows the plants to generate the most electricity possible. For the power plants, more water means more power. When the plants release that water, it sends the Housatonic into a whirl of whitewater, an event greatly anticipated by kayakers and other river enthusiasts who enjoy the river's unnatural burst.
The federal commission has recommended the Falls Village and Kent plants continue to "pond and release" water from July through February to allow them to generate the greatest amount of electricity at times of peak need and maximum profitability.
The report recommends a free flow, or "run-of-river" plan, for the rest of the year.
The recommendation was issued as part of a Draft Environmental Impact Statement for re-licensing five hydroelectric facilities known as the Housatonic Project. Other generation facilities are the Rocky River plant in New Milford, Shepaug Station in Southbury, and the Stevenson Dam in Monroe-Oxford.
However, the federal recommendation to continue storing and releasing water runs counter to a state Department of Environmental Protection Water Quality Certificate issued in 2000 that mandated a year-round run-of-river flow in Falls Village and Kent.
Under the DEP mandate, the plants would be required to generate electricity with whatever amount of water was coming down the river while also providing a minimum flow through the natural river beds in both towns.
The issue of river flow generated a stream of controversy during the summer of 2000 and is likely to do so again during the public comment period now in effect for 90 days.
Run-of-river is ardently supported by some fishermen, who say the river and its aquatic life will be healthier without the water releases, but indignantly opposed by some boating businesses and boaters who say they would be left high and dry by summer's low flows.
Additionally, both the town of Falls Village and the Northwestern Connecticut Council of Governments opposed the run-of-river recommendation because of fear that might reduce the profitability of the power plant in Falls Village — or make it economically unviable altogether — and therefore adversely affect the town's property tax revenue. The electric company pays almost 13 percent of the town's property taxes.
The economic factors played into the commission's recommendations, according to the draft report.
The commission "favors fishing and aquatic resources, but by eliminating the proactive delivery of boatable flows costs the region one of its most highly valued recreational offerings and jeopardizes the local businesses dependent upon white water boating. (Run-of-river would) severely reduce energy production and association regional income."
The reports states that the natural river flow in spring would protect aquatic life "during the biologically critical spring period."
The federal commission cannot overturn the DEP's water quality certification, which is a mandated part of the re-licensing process, said Brian Emerick, a DEP supervising environmental analyst.
"One would assume this will go through some legal review at FERC," Emerick said, noting that DEP had legal standing for its certification.
The DEP is not likely to change its stance, Emerick said.
Falls Village First Selectman Lou Timolat, who had vigorously opposed the DEP's run-of-river mandate, lauded the recommendation.
"This is a case of where exhaustive research and analysis conforms to the commonsense perception that we've been trying to draw attention to all along — that the river is healthy and robust even with storing and releasing — and certainly honors the intelligence, insight and experience of traditional fishermen and traditional users of the river all around our town and other towns," Timolat said.
Michael Piquette, a spokesman for the Housatonic Coalition, said his group not only expected the DEP's run-of-river condition to be implemented, but also were "hoping for additional protections" at the Bulls Bridge site. The Housatonic Coalition represents numerous fishing associations including the nationwide Trout Unlimited.
"It doesn't make sense. They're recommending ponding and releasing water at a time when it could be the most damaging to the river, environmentally," Piquette said.
The coalition will submit comments and lobby for the run-of-river flow, Piquette said.
"We're still very active and our position hasn't changed. We'll be fighting it just as hard as we did before," Piquette said.
Jenifer Clarke, of Clarke Outdoors, a Cornwall business that provides kayaking, canoeing and rafting expeditions down the river, said she was "stunned in a good way."
"I think FERC did a good job of balancing the three major users of the river — the boaters, the fishermen and the hydro plant. It was what we were saying all along. I know it's just a draft and I know that lots of people are in opposition (to storing and releasing water), but it just feels so good to know that somebody listened," Clarke said.