ROCKINGHAM, Vt. —Environmental and outdoor recreation groups are rallying citizens and recreational enthusiasts to demand a greater investment by Great River Hydro and other dam operators on the Connecticut River into recreational river accesses before the plants receive federal relicensing.
On Saturday, July 17, the Connecticut River Conservancy (CRC), Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), American Whitewater and other recreation partners will hold Portage, Paddle and Parade, an educational public event along the Bellows Falls Dam to show the need for upgrades to the portage, a land passage connecting to river drop-ins to bypass Great River Hydro’s dam operations.
Great River Hydro created the portage to accommodate river recreation around its dam, as a requirement to obtain its operating licenses. But this portage is the only access improvement that Great River Hydro has made to date, according to river protection advocates, and their current application for federal license renewal — which could be approved late this year — makes no mention of recreational improvements.
Meanwhile the portage is a “ridiculous” 1.5 trek between North Walpole and Bellows Falls that requires canoers and kayakers to trek their craft over trafficked streets and along the shoulders of busy highways, according to river recreation advocates.
Outdoors columnist Evan Johnson, in an article titled “Rolling on the River” (July 19, 2016, published by Vermont Sports), described his introduction to the Bellows Falls portage with harrowing detail.
“The next hour followed in a slog through pouring rain with the seats of the overturned canoe propped on top of our heads,” Johnson wrote. “The driver of a tiny Toyota pickup with a red Mad River on the back issued a thumbs-up as we stumbled over cracked sidewalks and through knee-high grass, the rain soaking our pants and shoes. One-and-a- half miles never felt so long.”
According to river advocates, Great River Hydro’s renewal application specifies no new improvements to the portage or other river recreation and are only likely to make upgrades if required by federal regulators.
“Excessively long portages around these dams and poorly maintained put-ins are examples of the lack of investment the companies are making in publicly accessible recreation,” stated Kristen Sykes, a conservation director for the Appalachian Mountain Club. “Our local economies would be enhanced with functional and effective access to rivers. The river offers incredible opportunities for boating, fishing, swimming, paddling, bird watching, and quiet contemplation.”
This fall, possibly beginning in August, citizens and river enthusiasts will have a “once in a generation” window of opportunity to speak on behalf of the Connecticut River and call for dam operators to increase their investment into recreational opportunities. Great River Hydro, which owns three of the five dams operating on the Connecticut River, is currently seeking an operating license renewal through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). These federal licenses run between 30 to 50 years, making this fall the only likely opportunity for the public to voice considerations before a license is granted.
Part of the federal review process for licenses includes a 60-day period for public comments, which is likely to open as early as next month, according to representatives from the Connecticut River Conservancy, a non-profit advocacy group based in Greenfield, Massachusetts.
“If people do not speak up during the comment period, the regulators will likely approve whatever plan the hydroelectric companies put forward,” said Kathy Urffer, river steward of the Connecticut River Conservancy.
The Conservancy, whose work to preserve the watershed ranges from environmental cleanups to facilitating fish migrations through dams, has actively followed the reliscening process of Great Hydro’s Connecticut River plants since the start in 2012. In 2017 the organization surveyed Vermont and New Hampshire communities and stakeholders about their long-term vision and wants for the river’s recreational use.
A central interest to the partnering organizations is the Connecticut River Paddlers’ Trail, a series of primitive campsites and river access points spanning 400 miles of the Connecticut River from the U.S.-Canada border to Long Island Sound. The river trail attracts canoers and kayakers throughout New England, who in turn contribute significantly to the local tourism economy.
But to build upon that asset will require greater investment, Urffer told The Eagle Times. Great River Hydro, who controls much of the river through its plants, should be a key partner in that process.
Many ideas to improve the Bellows Falls portage have been sent to the federal regulatory commission, Urffer said. Great River Hydro could provide a van shuttle to take paddlers and their crafts to the next drop-off, which may become the most likely solution. The hydro plant could also consider a shorter portage that takes travellers through town, though such a plan would need to involve Rockingham, Vermont town officials and the historical society.
Other improvements could include signage or trail upgrades or amenities such as a rest area.
The Portage, Paddle and Parade will begin at 11:00 a.m. at the Pine Street Boat Launch in North Walpole. After a brief gathering at the launch to discuss the issues, participants will parade the 1.5 portage.
For additional details about the event, visit the Connecticut River Conservancy’s event website at
https://bit.ly/36J4CmR. The event is expected to run until 12:30 p.m. and organizers say it will be family-friendly and wheelchair accessible.
To learn more about the Connecticut River Conservancy, visit ctriver.org.