Anglers and whitewater paddlers from around Vermont joined local electric customers at a public hearing in Morrisville this week. They were there to comment on conditions being proposed by the state that would improve water quality while scaling back Morrisville Water & Light’s hydroelectric generation.
Federal permits for hydroelectric dams need to be renewed every 30 years. And part of that process is obtaining a water quality certification from the state. Morrisville Water & Light is attempting to relicense three dams. Two are on the Lamoille Rive in Morristown, and the third holds back the Green River Reservoir, in Hyde Park.
Last month the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources issued a draft water quality certification that requires the utility to let more water bypass its dams, to improve downstream fish habitat. At this week’s public hearing, ANR Deputy Secretary Trey Martin said he realizes limiting the utility’s hydropower generation is at odds with the state’s beefed up renewable energy requirements.
"In order to issue a 401 Water Quality Certification, we have to find that the project complies with the federal Clean Water Act and the Vermont Water Quality Standards'" said Martin. "Those requirements have the potential to impact energy generation from the project, and we have very much grappled with the collision of the two policies at issue here – the Clean Water Act on one hand and the state’s renewable energy goals on the other."
Morrisville Water & Light says the limits the state is proposing would reduce the amount of energy the utility generates by about one-third and it will cost more to buy replacement power. Some ratepayers attending this week’s public hearing say they don’t mind paying higher rates in order to protect the river. But resident Diane Stone said she can’t afford to pay more.
"Your decision doesn’t just affect the pretty little fishes and the loons," she said. "It affects people like me, who live on a fixed income, and have given up basically everything they can so that they can remain in Vermont until they die."
The Agency of Natural Resources isn’t allowed to take economic considerations into account in issuing a Water Quality Certification. Instead, the state must consider the health of the river ecosystem, aesthetics and existing recreational uses. Both the Lamoille and the Green Rivers are popular with anglers. Fishing guide Willy Dietrich said he’s been fishing the Lamoille for 26 years, and he’s documented a decline.
He testified, "I’ve kept good journals for a long, long time and I have to tell you below Cady’s Falls and on long stretches of the Lamoille, my journals substantiate that Morrisville Water & Light has not been a good steward of the Lamoille watershed."
Morrisville Water & Light Superintendent Craig Myotte said he understands the utility needs to comply with stricter clean water mandates, but he’d like more time to meet the new requirements such as additional river monitoring equipment.
"We ask for a phase-in of the projects," said Myotte. "The things that are going to have to be done under this new water quality certificate are significant. We’re likely to have to spend anywhere from $9 million to $12 million to implement the improvements that are needed ... These things probably should have been done earlier in time. I think we’re way behind the curve. But, again, they’re expensive and we need to get them done."
A number of paddlers also came from out-of-town for the Morrisville hearing. The Green River, below Morrisville Water & Light’s dam, has become a popular spot for whitewater boating in the past decade. And while fishing is acknowledged as an existing recreational use in the draft water quality certificate, whitewater boating is not. Paddler Jordan Vickers says this is a significant oversight, since the Green River draws many whitewater boaters to the area.
"You know, it really does bring people from far away," he said. "People come from Quebec, they’ll drive as far as New York City and Pennsylvania to come paddle the Green River. It’s really high quality for whitewater and it’s not something that should be lost."
After two hours of comments, Morrisville Water & Light Superintendent Craig Myotte thanked the standing room only crowd saying, "The remarks tonight have been exceptional and I think it’s clear that we’ve got to find a balance between all of the needs that we’ve heard tonight."
The Agency of Natural Resources will take public comments into consideration before issuing Morrisville Water & Light a final Water Quality Certificate.