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The large hydra of small hydro

By Clark Amadon

Hydra: 1. A many-headed serpent or monster of Greek mythology slain by Hercules, each head of which when cut off was replaced by two others. 2. A multifarious evil not to be overcome by a single effort. (Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary.)

"Small" hydro has recently become a poster child for what is being portrayed by its advocates as an environmentally benign and economically sound solution for at least part of the energy "carbon footprint" quandary. But when exposed to the unblinking stare of real-world science and unemotional cost-benefit analysis, it becomes clear that it is often neither.

The current promoters of small hydro decry the time- and expense-intensive application/approval process and lobby for a streamlining of what is often a daunting, confusing and contradictory review regimen. This, of course, should not be. But neither should the process be "streamlined" to enable "quick" implementation of projects that, little by little, have the potential for large-scale denigration of Vermont's already stressed river systems.

I am suggesting that detailed and extensive applications are necessary and actually very common when limited resources such as hydro sites are being sought. I'd like to draw an analogy to a highly detailed permitting process of which I am very familiar. This is the higher education financial aid application process, which is littered and populated with myriad forms and processes. I'm sure some reading this piece have completed the very detailed Free Application for Financial Student Aid (FAFSA) or perhaps, heaven forbid, the even more daunting CSS Profile. There is a good reason for this detailed paperwork whitewater. The reason is a limited amount of funding.

If there were a generous amount of financial aid the application process would be simpler, more money to go around. Regrettably, this isn't the case. We exist in a time when there's a limited amount of funding so applicants must make a good case to be funded. Now here's the connection between college financial aid and small hydro: In Vermont there's a very limited amount of viable sites for hydro power development. The best river reaches have already been developed decades ago. What we have left are limited resources, in this case small streams. Therefore, small hydro development must measure up to strict qualification criteria and applications for approval for limited sites just like families have to complete strict, detailed applications for limited college financial aid resources.

Continuing on, the singular and cumulative effects of small hydro do harm that far outweighs its unproven benefits. This is precisely because its contributions to energy production's big picture are extracted directly from small and often fragile riparian systems that are often as different in character and ecology as the Batten Kill is to the Wallomsac, is to the Mad River and is to Saxton's River.

I would like to point out that what we're seeing here is a narrow, linear approach to problem solving, the same sort of thinking that has gotten us into so much environmental trouble in the industrial and post-industrial age. It is important for everyone to understand the broader, holistic picture that considers the ecosystem-wide impact of such actions. Global thinking is essential if we are to survive in the ecologically sensitive years ahead of us.

Dams also are one of the most visible of human impacts on rivers. Typically built on river stretches with a rocky bottom and fast-moving water – attributes shared by good fish-spawning habitat – dams can harm water quality and fisheries. In recent years, scientists have developed a clearer understanding of the detrimental effects of dams on rivers, many of which are not immediately obvious to the casual observer. Small dams and diversions can:

–Block or inhibit upstream and downstream fish passage.

–Increase water temperatures.

–Decrease water oxygen levels.

–Obstruct the movement of sediment, woody debris and nutrients.

–Inundate wildlife.

–Alter timing and variation of river flows.

–Block or slow river flows.

In my opinion, the Warren Village dam is guilty on all the above detrimental effects.

Small hydro development sacrifices the public good for the benefit of the few. Small hydro can only provide enough intermittent power for a few users and comes at the sacrifice of those who enjoy the entire watershed.

Some small hydro proponents talk of only a few projects specifically; however, the overall purpose is clear – to build dams or diversions, be they run-of-river or otherwise, on every available small stream, headwater and tributary to some of Vermont's wildest rivers. While one run-of-river project may not have a large impact on a small stream, the potential for dozens in the headwaters of a small watershed would have tremendous negative consequences. Advocates of small hydro don't account for the cumulative influences of multiple dams in a single watershed.

While proponents argue that run-of-river has less negative impacts than impoundment of the stream as a whole, it is not completely green. Waters can be diverted and altered by run-of-river. Some of the nation's largest dams are considered run-of-river for the simple reason water does not pool behind it, but nonetheless a dam spans across the entire waterway.

I will not pretend in this discussion to invoke any higher moral calling than the issues I've cited above. Wild trout environs are my prime concerns, my unabashed ulterior motive. My position is this: We must not affect the fisheries and their habitat. Dewatering and decreasing flows kill fish and their eggs. Like the venerable "canary in the coal mine" trout are bellwethers for the health of our environment. I remind readers that the Vermont state fish is the brook trout. Small hydro sites would destroy wild brook trout populations and habitat in higher elevation streams. In Vermont, sadly, in most cases, wild brook trout exist only in higher elevation streams and brooks. Above Warren Village there's very good wild brook habitat, reproduction and fishing in the Mad River. Below Warren Village the state has to stock fish in the Mad River. The brook trout is truly the "fish canary." Eliminate higher elevation stream habitat and you lose brook trout. Keep the Warren dam in place and continue to have a carved up river system and the potential for a catastrophic flood event.

Further, Vermont's economy benefits greatly from the revenues generated by our high quality fisheries – from tackle purchased, lodging and meals consumed to last minute purchases of raincoats and countless other impulse transactions involving recreational durable goods.

It is our hope that the state of Vermont will maintain a high bar with respect to the small hydro permitting process. Vermont is seen as a model for maintaining legislated environmental quality. Streamlining small hydro development will be a potentially devastating retreat on our commitment to a high-quality and interconnected environment.

Applying a shotgun approach to the streamlining of the review process for small hydro in deference to the myth of its enviro-friendly nature, is more than naïve. It would be irresponsible and potentially devastating for generations to come. At a time when increasing numbers of our young have more interest in cyber stimulation than the real-time wonders of Vermont's rich and unique natural environment, let's not blink in the face of small hydro.

Clark Amadon lives in Moretown.


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