Run-Of-River New Standard For Waterbury Dam

Last week, the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation issued a water quality certification governing the future operations of Green Mountain Power’s Waterbury hydroelectric project.

The decision calls for the Waterbury Reservoir to be maintained at the current, higher summertime level year-round, and says flows should be managed to “more closely mirror the natural flow of the Little River.” However, that requirement won’t go into effect until needed work on the dam is completed.

The department’s water quality certification is part of Green Mountain Power’s federal re-licensing of its hydroelectric operation at the Waterbury Dam. And despite the fact that the decision limits the utility’s ability to manipulate river flows, Green Mountain Power applauded the state’s decision.

“We are pleased with this decision, which balances all interests, including our on-going generation of clean renewable hydropower, protecting the local environment and recreational uses,” said Josh Castonguay, GMP director of generation and renewable innovation.

draft version of the decision was issued last month, following a public hearing held in Waterbury in October. A second public hearing was held Dec. 6, drawing comments from community members and several groups that use the Waterbury Reservoir and the Little River.

Among the groups submitting written comments to the state was the Friends of the Waterbury Reservoir. That group was supportive of the draft decision stating, “Consistent with the Friends of Waterbury Reservoir’s mission, vision, and core values, and after considerable research and consultation with experts, we support the maintenance of the reservoir’s average year-round water level at so-called ‘summertime level’ of an average of 589.5 feet, with adjustments made as required and appropriate as determined by the agencies and officers who are responsible for making decisions regarding flood prevention and mitigation.”

In addition, Friends of the Waterbury Reservoir member Fred Abraham commented at the Dec. 6 public hearing, “We support the position that keeps the water levels up year-round. We believe that the main basis for doing this is the ecological integrity of … the Waterbury Reservoir  and the river basin. And we see that’s the state’s goal as well, so we’re happy to see that as their goal.”

Other groups commenting in favor of the proposed run-of-river standard included the Vermont Natural Resources Council, Friends of the Winooski River, Central Vermont Trout Unlimited, and Mad Dog Trout Unlimited.

However, some paddlers were not happy with the prospect of loosing whitewater runs. Written comments were submitted by American Whitewater  and cosigned by Vermont Paddlers Club and New England FLOW.

Bob Nasdor,  Northeast stewardship director for American Whitewater, testified at the Dec. 6 hearing that the change to flow-of-river management ignores a major recreational use of the waterway.

“We believe that you go too far in the draft water quality certification with too little basis and that the elimination of all scheduled whitewater boating opportunities is unsupported by any studies or science on the Little River,” said Nasdor.

In a press release, the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation stated its decision “ensures that dam operations are conducted in a manner that protects fishing, swimming, boating and other recreational uses of both the Waterbury Reservoir and Little River. The decision also ensures that the dam will continue to serve its primary purpose of flood control.”

The dam was built in the 1930s for flood control purposes, but has also been used for hydroelectric generation for much of its existence.

“We are pleased to be issuing a water quality certification that meets our obligations to protect water quality, while ensuring continued access for the recreational uses of the Waterbury Reservoir and the Little River that are loved by many thousands of Vermonters,” Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner David Mears said in a statement when the decision was finalized.