Waterbury Reservoir’s future could be at risk

The Waterbury Reservoir’s many swimming and boating possibilities drew 42,000 people this summer to the state park. Photo by Gordon Miller/Stowe Reporter

This article is by Miranda Orso, of the Stowe Reporter, in which it was first published Sept. 18, 2014.

There’s a real possibility that the 850-acre Waterbury Reservoir could simply go away.

An argument about how to run the flood-control dam that creates the reservoir could lead to a decision to stop filling up the reservoir for summertime use.

And the reservoir gets a ton of summertime use. It is the centerpiece of Waterbury Center State Park, which is wrapping up a record-breaking season. This summer, more than 42,000 visitors have enjoyed swimming, boating, picnicking, and hiking through the park, not to mention the naturalist programs that the park enables.

The reservoir’s future revolves around a new license for Green Mountain Power’s hydropower plant at the base of the flood-control dam. The utility has operated the hydro plant since 1953, but its license lapsed nearly two decades ago. Now, the company is seeking a new license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

In addition, a permit is required from the watershed management division within the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation.

Permit questions like these involve a balancing of hydropower benefits and environmental concerns.

The state agency will look at “everything from the effects on habitats, overall water quality, water temperatures, sediment levels as well as how the water flows and what happens to water downstream,” said Jeff Crocker, a river ecologist with the watershed division.

Those concerns also involve the effects on fish and other wildlife from raising and lowering the reservoir’s level season by season.

Now, the reservoir is drawn down to 562 feet above sea level in the winter, making room for the spring runoff that, except for the Waterbury dam, could cause flooding. The drawdown shrinks the surface area of the reservoir by 40 percent.

This is what the Waterbury Reservoir looked like for seven years after it was drained in 2000 for dam construction work. The 850-acre summer swimming and boating center all but vanished. Photo by Gordon Miller/Stowe Reporter

Once the runoff ends, the reservoir level is increased to 589 feet above sea level, creating the swimming-boating mecca at the state park.

The watershed division is concerned that the lowering and raising of water levels do not meet current water standards, said Bill Shepeluk, Waterbury’s municipal manager.

If the decision is to keep water levels low, then recreation at the reservoir would come to an end.

Shepeluk suspects state and federal officials have no idea of the furor that the reservoir debate will cause.

“This is a big issue to Waterbury residents, and people will be surprised at how passionate everyone feels about these things,” he predicted.

The community will have a chance to weigh in on the situation at a meeting tentatively scheduled for Oct. 7 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at Thatcher Brook Primary School.

Competing interests

The Waterbury dam was finished in 1938 to prevent the kind of flooding that devastated Waterbury and other Vermont communities in 1927.

The dam holds back the water from the Little River, which flows south from Stowe toward the Winooski River. The Little River carries the runoff from the Stowe valley, including massive winter snowmelt from Mount Mansfield and the western side of the Worcester mountain range.

Once the reservoir was created, fish, loons and other flora and fauna made it their home.

Waterbury has already had a seven-year taste of what life would be like without the reservoir. In 2000, the reservoir was drained so construction workers could shore up the dam; the job took seven years and $24 million.

Shepeluk said Green Mountain Power tends to keep the summertime water level as close to 589 feet above sea level as possible, with a 1-foot leeway up or down. It uses that 2-foot range to generate electricity.

“These 2 feet of fluctuations don’t cause tremendous problems, but they can have a significant effect on water quality,” Shepeluk said.

The watershed division would prefer a permit that says the reservoir depth can’t flucuate up and down, Shepeluk said. Ultimately, it would like the water level to remain low, close to the normal wintertime level, he said.

If the water level is low, Green Mountain Power can still produce electricity from the Little River’s flow. But the hydropower would be less reliable. Now, adjusting the reservoir height ensures a steady flow of water through Green Mountain Power’s turbine, but a shrunken reservoir would make the hydropower dependent on the weather — similar to the utility’s other river-run facilities across the state.

Another option is to keep the reservoir even lower, near 550 feet above sea level — a 39-foot reduction in the normal summertime depth.

In this balancing of competing interests, Shepeluk said the hydropower plant, the environment and recreation could all be losers.

“We will be looking at solutions to allow all the stakeholders to get what they want,” he said.

While Crocker wouldn’t comment in detail, he said “there’s a possibility of changes to the recreation proportions of things but the opportunity would still exist. The parks may have to be redesigned.”