We’re writing about a both timely and time-bound opportunity to engage in a process, the outcome of which has the potential to affect the health of the Connecticut River Valley for generations to come: the relicensing of FirstLight Power’s hydropower facilities in Northfield and Montague/Gill.
Our team has been working on this issue for some time – in league with state colleagues and local advocates, but we haven’t paused to share our work. We’re engaging because the issue of FirstLight’s relicensing has ties to the species that inhabit the Connecticut River, the integrity of the riverbanks, the economies of communities in and around these facilities, and the ability for future generations to enjoy recreational access to the river.
What is FirstLight Power?
FirstLight Power operates hydropower facilities in Northfield and Montague/Gill along the Connecticut River. FirstLight’s Northfield Mountain is what’s called a pumped storage facility. It functions as a battery with the capacity to generate a large amount of energy. To do this, FirstLight draws water from the Connecticut River up to a people-made upper reservoir and then pushes the water back down into the river to generate power. FirstLight’s Turners Falls Dam in Montague and Gill is made up of two dams separated by a natural island, “Great Island”. The water at the dam currently flows at a rate of 400 cubic feet per second (cfs) between May and July 15 and then down to 200 cfs.
What is hydro relicensing?
Hydropower dams and pumped storage facilities (like FirstLight Power) exist up and down the Connecticut River.
Hydro relicensing is primarily a federal process governed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). But as part of the relicensing, hydropower companies must apply to the state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) for a 401 Water Quality Certificate (WQC), which refers to Section 401 of the Clean Water Act. In reviewing 401 WQC applications, the state, through DEP, seeks to ensure the activity will comply with applicable provisions of the Massachusetts Surface Water Quality Standards and other appropriate requirements of state law. This process begins when FERC issues a “Ready for Environmental Assessment (REA)” notice, after which FirstLight will have 60 days to submit their application to DEP for a 401 WQC, at which point DEP has up to one year to issue the 401 WQC. Any conditions established by MassDEP in a certificate must be incorporated into the federal license.
In addition to DEP, multiple departments within the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA) have been engaged in the relicensing process, including the Department of Fish and Game’s Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (MassWildlife), and the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR).
We anticipate a starting date soon for DEP’s one-year timeline to issue the 401 WQC. At that point, you will have the opportunity to engage in a way that is meaningful to you. We will update this blog post with information about how to engage with this process when it becomes available.
And what’s true about this process is that – even though technically the process begins with FERC’s notice, the delegation, the state, advocates, and federal partners have been getting ready for years.
How has our State Senate team engaged?
We have linked arms with the western Massachusetts state legislative delegation to ensure that our constituents’ voices are heard in this relicensing process. For the past two years, we’ve had regular conversations with organizations like the Connecticut River Conservancy (CRC) and the Franklin Regional Council of Governments (FRCOG) – and many other regional and community-based groups. We’ve also been engaged with municipalities that have much at stake with this relicensing process to ensure the state is taking their concerns into account. We have also engaged our federal legislative colleagues to make sure their offices hear the same concerns that we do.
Starting in February 2022, members of the western Massachusetts state legislative delegation have been meeting monthly with EEA and DEP to ensure we can both convey everything we are hearing from advocates and constituents to our state partners who will issue the 401 WQC, and to make sure we have the most up to date information from them to be able to communicate back to constituents. We plan to continue these monthly meetings throughout the full year that DEP has to issue the 401 WQC.
What are the issues at stake?
The following will give you a sense of the range of issues at stake in this hydro relicensing process.
Fish passage: We have advocated for safe, effective, and timely fish passage at the Turners Falls Dam for American Shad, River Herring, Sea Lamprey, and American Eel.
River flows: This refers to the rate at which water flows over the Turners Falls Dam and in the river channel. We have advocated for appropriate river flows below the Turners Falls Dam to support resident and migratory fish species and other aquatic animals and to re-establish boating and outdoor recreation.
Erosion mitigation: We have advocated for minimization and mitigation of erosion of the banks of the Turners Falls impoundment and between the Turners Falls Dam and the Vernon Dam. Specifically, we have asked for mitigation requirements to restore the damage from erosion, developed in the context of an adaptive river management plan that addresses facility operations and the impacts of climate change.
Economic impact: Some communities have requested expert assistance with utility asset valuation since FirstLight has indicated that any mitigation efforts on its part will result in possible lost revenue to certain communities.
Accessible recreation: We have advocated for increased investments in accessible recreational infrastructure and programming that reflect current and future recreation needs and uses.
Will there be public input?
At the suggestion of our constituents and with the delegation’s advocacy, DEP agreed to create a public website with information about the relicensing.
DEP is working with the UMass Donahue Institute to host a series of public meetings. The Donahue Institute will assist with public outreach and conduct an economic analysis.
There will be four public meetings:
- An introductory meeting, consisting mainly of a presentation of what’s in the application and about the process
- A listening session coinciding with the public comment period
- A presentation once DEP has processed the application to report back on their progress on the 401 WQC
- A final meeting as they’re finalizing the WQC to provide constituents a preview of the final 401 WQC and provide an opportunity for questions and discussion
Is my advocacy needed?
If this is important to you, as it is to us, this is your opportunity to make your voice heard on the issue of FirstLight’s relicensing. Please don’t hold back when it comes to advocacy as this will be the only chance constituents have to affect the FERC process.
We will communicate about this again as soon as we receive information about when and exactly how to do so.