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Utility Says Hydro Dam Restrictions Could Affect Green River Reservoir

A dam with snow on it.
Amy Kolb Noyes
VPR File
The hydroelectric dam at Green River Reservoir is undergoing federal relicensing, but Morrisville Water & Light says proposed restrictions might force the utility to discontinue its use.

The hydroelectric dam at Green River Reservoir is undergoing federal relicensing, and proposed restrictions have the utility that operates the dam questioning its viability. And it appears that decision could potentially have a big impact on Green River Reservoir State Park. In 1999, Morrisville Water & Light sold the land surrounding Green River Reservoir to the state, creating Green River Reservoir State Park in Hyde Park. And according to Michael Snyder, commissioner of the Department of Forest, Parks and Recreation, it’s been a popular destination.

"Green River Reservoir State Park is one of the absolute gems in a pretty phenomenal state park system," says Snyder. "It’s a boat-access remote camping experience ... It’s hard to find anybody who doesn’t just love it."

But Morrisville Water & Light created the reservoir when it built its hydroelectric dam in the 1940s, and it says it could take it away if it’s no longer cost-effective to run the facility.

The Vermont Agency of Natural Resources is responsible for issuing a water quality certificate as part of the federal dam relicensing process. This winter it issued a draft certificate, which calls for changes in the way the dam operates.

Currently, Morrisville Water & Light is allowed to draw the reservoir down 10 feet throughout the winter for power generation. The reservoir fills back up during spring runoff. But the draft water quality certificate the state has issued for the project reduces the winter drawdown to 18 inches.

Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR
Fluctuating water levels downriver from the dam are one of the issues the water quality certificate addresses.

General Manager Craig Myotte says that will have a significant impact on power generation.

"It’s going to reduce it by about a third," says Myotte. "We generate about a million kilowatt hours now from the Green River project. So that will cut it back to something in the neighborhood of 650,000. And that’s a dramatic loss for that hydro facility."

"I can't ask Morrisville Water & Light's customers to pay for operating something that's really only benefiting the state and the recreation use for the state park." - MW&L General Manager Craig Myotte

Myotte says if the state imposes stricter water quality regulations but doesn’t pitch in to help cover the utility’s losses — or flat-out buy the dam — then he’ll look into decommissioning the dam and returning the Green River to its natural state.

"If it becomes uneconomic to operate," he says, "I can’t ask Morrisville Water & Light’s customers to pay for operating something that’s really only benefiting the state and the recreation use for the state park. It just doesn’t make sense." 

And, as Michael Snyder points out, a drained reservoir would have a significant impact on the state park.

"Clearly the water is the main attraction," he says, "and at Green River Reservoir the camping experience is all boat access. [It's] kind of hard to boat without water."

Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR
Green River Reservoir State Park offers a unique remote camping experience on islands throughout the reservoir, accessed primarily by non-motorized boats.

However, Agency of Natural Resources Deputy Secretary Trey Martin says decommissioning the dam and draining the reservoir isn’t that simple. He says decommissioning would require a federal review similar to the relicensing process now underway. And he doesn’t think draining the reservoir would be something the agency would support.

The reason the proposed drawdown limits are so different from what is currently allowed is that federal rules around water quality have changed since the dam was last licensed in the early 1980s.

Martin says the state’s water quality certificate is just one piece of the federal relicensing process. And, he says, it’s limited to addressing specific environmental, aesthetic and recreational impacts. Other factors will be taken into consideration by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) when it issues a license.

"That certificate that we issue gets incorporated up into the FERC process where economics and other considerations might come into play," Martin explains.

Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR
Habitat downriver from the dam is one focus of the draft water quality certificate issued by the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources.

Martin says once the FERC process is complete, the state will consider ways to help keep the dam a viable clean energy source.

"What we would like to do is get the certificate issued, and then figure out are there ways for them to optimize and create more efficiencies and generate more power," Martin says. "And what will it take to do that and what can we, as the state, help?"

The Agency of Natural Resources is on schedule to issue its final water quality certificate for the Green River Reservoir hydro dam in a matter of weeks. Meanwhile, Morrisville Water & Light plans to hire a consultant to assess the dam facilities and provide cost estimates of any needed improvements.

Amy is an award winning journalist who has worked in print and radio in Vermont since 1991. Her first job in professional radio was at WVMX in Stowe, where she worked as News Director and co-host of The Morning Show. She was a VPR contributor from 2006 to 2020.
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