Ongoing Legal Challenges Threaten The Quiet Waters Of Green River Reservoir
Northern Vermont's Green River Reservoir is a haven for wildlife and quiet water enthusiasts. It's also under threat because of a long-running dispute over how the water level is managed.
The reservoir and state park in Lamoille County is one of Vermont’s most treasured public waters. Engines are not allowed, so the 653-acre reservoir is popular with paddlers and campers. Several pairs of loons make the reservoir home, and their calls add to the remote, wilderness feel of the place.
But the future of this quiet water is in the hands of a small electric utility that controls the reservoir with its dam on the Green River. The utility, Morrisville Water and Light, has threatened to drain the reservoir unless it can run the dam the way it wants.
"No motor boats, one point of access... Also, it's very rare to find a lake in Vermont that doesn't have houses all over it. This one doesn't. That's the special thing about it." — Jan Lewandowski, quiet water enthusiast
On an overcast, late fall day, Jim and Doreen Noyes headed out to enjoy their 59th canoe excursion this year on the Green River Reservoir in Hyde Park.
“It is our go-to place when we need the quiet, the relaxation and the serenity,” Jim said.
Jan Lewandowski of Stannard is another longtime visitor. He’s been paddling and camping here for more than 40 years. Lewandowski listed what makes the place unique:
"No motor boats, one point of access. In general it’s very quiet," he said. "Also, it’s very rare to find a lake in Vermont that doesn’t have houses all over it. This one doesn’t. That’s the special thing about it.”
The reservoir is indeed a special place. Even though it’s man-made, it feels like a remote, wilderness lake. Moose, loons and bear are frequently seen. A bald eagle soared into the air right in front of me when I drove in the other week.
The public clearly loves the place. Head Ranger Ross Bryant said the park saw a record 16,000 visitors this year.
“Next year, if you look at advance reservations, it’s pretty much going to be the same,” he said. “We are 57% reserved [for campsites] for the entire season next year.”
Yet the reservoir’s quiet waters don’t tell you anything about its contentious legal history – and the continuing threats it faces.
To understand what’s going on, you have to remember that a dam on the Green River created the reservoir in 1947. Although initially built for flood control, a generator was installed in 1984. Like most power dams, this one comes up for a new federal license every 30 or 40 years.
In Vermont and around the country, the dam relicensing process has provided a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reduce the damage dams inflict on rivers and the natural environment. In general, less water in the river means less space for fish to live and spawn.
Most power dams are licensed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). But the federal Clean Water Act also requires a new water quality certificate for the FERC license. So in this case, the Agency of Natural Resources has insisted on higher flows in the Green River in its water quality review.
With the reservoir, the state agency also wants to limit how much water can be removed in the winter. The utility wants a 10-foot drawdown, but the state says that leaves too much lakeshore habitat – including fish spawning and feeding areas – high, dry and frozen during a critical time.
"Unfortunately, the water quality certification conditions mandated by ANR, they put the dam, and the dam's future at risk." — Penny Jones, Morrisville Water and Light general manager
Penny Jones, the general manager for the Morrisville utility, said the state’s flow conditions for operating the dam and power generator are no longer financially feasible.
“Unfortunately, the water quality certification conditions mandated by ANR, they put the dam and the dam’s future at risk,” she said.
Jones added that the power generated by the winter drawdown is a major boon for the utility's 4,000 ratepayers. That’s because the hometown energy is produced at times of peak demand – when electricity is very expensive. Without the drawdown, fewer kilowatt hours would be generated locally, and the utility would have to buy electricity on the wholesale market.
“It is not financially possible for Morrisville Water and Light, which is a not-for-profit utility, municipal utility, to operate the dam under the constraints of ANR’s mandate,” Jones said.
And if it’s not financially possible to operate the dam, the utility has threatened to take it down, which would drain the reservoir.
“At this point in time, all options are still on the table,” Jones said.
The Morrisville utility fought the ANR's water quality conditions all the way to the Vermont Supreme Court, where it lost last November. Morrisville Water and Light lost again in August when a lower court issued a final ruling on the flow conditions.
But the legal battle is not yet over. The utility has now asked FERC to overturn the state’s water quality permit. A decision is expected by the end of the year.
“We’re hoping that if that waiver petition [to FERC] is successful, we will be able to continue to operate the Green River Reservoir dam as we have for years,” Jones said.
The utility's argument to FERC essentially boils down to a claim that the state waived its authority for the water quality review because it took too long to issue the permit required by the Clean Water Act.
The state says that argument is plain wrong because the utility itself is responsible for the delay.
“Morrisville actively engaged in discussion and information exchange with ANR regarding the [water quality certificate] application, including submitting new proposals and twice voluntarily withdrawing its applications,” the state said in its response.
Meanwhile, Morrisville Water and Light has hired a Montpelier public relations and lobbying firm to make its case.
"There is no quick exit, no 'easy' button, regardless of the decision that gets made, and I think it is important that we continue to dialog about paths forward." — Natural Resources Secretary Julie Moore
For the people who love the place, the lobbying and the legal wrangling have gone on long enough. Sally Laughlin heads the nonprofit Friends of the Green River Reservoir.
“Friends of Green River wants to work with everybody involved in this to come up with a permanent solution, whichever way that [FERC] case goes,” Laughlin said. “We just need to have a permanent solution so that there’s no possibility that the reservoir would be drained sometime in the distant future. It’s just such a treasure for the state.”
Natural Resources Secretary Julie Moore said she’d like to settle the issue also. But any substantive negotiations will probably not happen, she added, until the utility exhausts its legal challenges.
Morrisville Water and Light wants the state to consider the economic benefits of the dam in its water quality certificate. But Moore said the federal Clean Water Act is clear that only environmental issues – not the utility’s finances – can be considered.
“And so far, we haven’t really gotten to the point where we can agree that’s a guiding principle, and so it makes moving beyond that point in the conversation really hard,” she said.
As for the utility’s threat to take out the dam and drain the reservoir? Moore said that would be expensive for ratepayers and also requires federal and state review.
“There is no quick exit, no 'easy' button, regardless of the decision that gets made," she said. "And I think it is important that we continue to dialog about paths forward."
Back at the reservoir, Doreen and Jim Noyes say they’re optimistic about the future of the place.
“Well, we’re very concerned," Jim said. "But we’re also very certain that things will turn out OK, and the reservoir will be here for a long, long time."
Doreen added: “We would be lost without it.”
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