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Hydroelectric dam operator should be fish-friendly

Whichever company ends up with the license to operate the hydroelectric dam on the Shetucket River at the Scotland-Windham border will have to build a fish and eel passage and maintain natural water flows, according to a proposed decision by state regulators.

The conditions are included in a draft water quality permit issued last week by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to the two applicants for the license to operate the dam. The license held by the current operator, First Light Power Resources GDF Suez Energy North America, is expiring this year. In a relatively unusual situation, First Light is now competing with Norwich Public Utilities for a new license.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is expected to award the license to one of the two companies by this summer. As part of its decision-making process, it is conducting an environmental assessment of both companies' proposals, said Celeste Miller, FERC spokeswoman.

While the final decision rests with FERC, either operator must also obtain the water quality permit from DEEP as a condition of the FERC license. Essentially, said DEEP spokesman Dennis Schain, the state agency's decision last week indicates that both proposals meet its requirements and either one would be granted the DEEP permit if FERC grants it the license.

DEEP will be receiving public comments on the draft decision until mid-April, and a final decision issued after that, Schain said.

Charles Burnham, external affairs representative for First Light, said his company is willing to abide by all the conditions proposed by DEEP.

"We'd have to make some adjustments, but we're more than willing to comply," he said.

Along with building the fish and eel passages, the company would also be required to modify the way the dam currently operates. Instead of water being pooled behind the dam and then released at intervals to turn the turbines, DEEP wants a "run of the river" facility, where natural river flows are not restricted.

"Currently, the flow of the river goes up and down, which is not good ecologically," said Stephen Gephard, supervising fisheries biologist in the Inland Fisheries Division at DEEP.

DEEP, he said, has long sought to restore natural flows in that part of the Shetucket so it can better support populations of native and migratory fish as well as other aquatic life.

The fish and eel ladders would give species such as alewife, river herring, American shad, American eel, sea lamprey and brown trout access to part of the Shetucket that is now blocked because of the dam, Gephard said.

Opening that section of the river is essential to the success of DEEP's longstanding efforts to reestablish healthy fish populations in the Shetucket, he said. By expanding their available habitat, he said, there will more areas for fish to spawn and feed.

"What produces fish is habitat," he said.

Below the Scotland dam, there is a fish lift at the Greenville dam and another at Occum dam, both of which are operated by NPU. Between the two is the Taftville dam, owned by First Light. The fish lift there has not worked for several years, but DEEP has instructed First Light to make the necessary repairs, Gephard said. DEEP and First Light met this week about a repair plan.

Once that work is complete, Gephard said, "we're hoping to have fish knocking on the door" at the Scotland dam.

In addition to the fish and eel lift that would be built at Scotland, DEEP would also require that the new license holder monitor the water quality at the dam and relocate freshwater mussels found above the dam during any water level drawdowns for dam maintenance.

Christopher LaRose, NPU's assistant general manager in charge of operations, said his company is also willing to comply with the conditions proposed by DEEP. In its application, NPU said it would add a low flow turbine at the plant so that power could be generated even when river flows are naturally low.

"We'd like to increase the generating capacity by a half megawatt," he said.

NPU is also pleased about the "run of the river" requirement, he said, because restoring natural flows will allow for improved operations at its two dams downstream from the Scotland dam.

If FERC grants the license to NPU, NPU would have to reach an agreement with First Light to purchase the facility.

LaRose said NPU wants to acquire the Scotland dam for two reasons.

"We would love to increase our renewables portfolio," he said. "And it would also allow us to better optimize the generation of power at the two lower dams."

j.benson@theday.com

How to comment

The state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection will receive public comments on its draft decision until April 17. Written comments should be submitted to: Robert Kaliszewski, director; Office of the Commissioner; Planning & Program Development; state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection; 79 Elm St., Hartford, CT 06106-5127.

For information on the proposed decision, call Brian Golembiewski of the Office of Environmental Review at (860) 424-3867 or visit: http://www.ct.gov/dep/cwp/view.asp?A=2586&Q=501078.

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