(Host) Vermont’s Natural Resources secretary has overruled his staff on permit conditions for a Clyde River hydroelectric project. The permit would allow Citizens Utilities to get a new federal license for its two Clyde River dams. But environmentalists argue the power generation will come at the expense of stream habitat.
VPR’s John Dillon has more.
(Dillon) Citizens Utilities wants to sell its power plants on the Clyde River near Newport. But before the Connecticut company can unload the dams, it wants a new federal license that will allow them to operate for 40 years. Before it gets the federal license, the company first needs a state water quality permit that shows the project will not harm stream life.
The state Agency of Natural Resources has been working on the permit conditions for over a year. State biologists wanted the utility to be required to leave more than 100 cubic feet of water per second in the river in order to provide habitat for walleye and landlocked salmon. The biologists wanted more than 300 cubic feet left in the river when the walleye are spawning. But ultimately the state settled on a much lower number Â– 30 cubic feet per second.
Agency of Natural Resources Secretary Scott Johnstone says he overruled his staff because he tried to balance the need for renewable energy with the need to protect the stream habitat:
(Johnstone) “It’s not unusual for these type of issues. These issues of relicensure for dams are very complicated. They involve a whole lot of different environmental media. When you think about these things you’ve got to think about water quality. You got to think about air quality. Because the reality today is that when you shut down hydro, you are probably using fossil fuels from somewhere else.”
(Dillon) The issue is controversial within the Agency of Natural Resources. A state biologist said in an internal memo that the low flow that Johnstone recommended amounts to a “habitat write off.” But Johnstone says the project will still meet water quality standards.
(Johnstone) “The first draft certainly had more water flowing through the bypass and even at that it wasn’t certain that fish would be able to make it up all the falls. And if they did they would have ended up at a dam. So there’s around a thousand feet or so where we’ll have this lower flow of 30 cfs and I think that will meet the test for water quality standards.”
(Dillon) Environmentalists are opposed to the new permit. Kelly Lowry is a lawyer with the Vermont Natural Resources Council. He says more water is needed in the river to support habitat for salmon that run into the river from Lake Memphremagog.
(Lowry) “There’s no scientific basis for this decrease in flow and in fact the findings of fact that are relevant for this section of river indicate that the other flows that were suggested in November are still necessary to meet water quality standards. So it’s not entirely clear why the Agency has diluted flows in this section of river so aggressively.”
(Dillon) The Clyde River project has been operating under a temporary license since 1993. It produces about 16,000 megawatts a year. Under the proposed license conditions, the power output would drop slightly.
The period for public comment on the permit expires on July 12.
For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon.