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Environmentalists See Relicensing As Way To Correct Hydropower Mistakes

June 8, 1991

NEWPORT, Vt. (AP) _ When hundreds of walleye, yellow perch and other fish were found dead on the banks of the Clyde River last month, Warren ″Jersey″ Drown became more determined than ever to save them.

He and other fishing enthusiasts have fought with Citizens Utilities Corp. for years, trying to get the power company to consider the fish while it operated its five hydroelectric dams on the river.

Now the activists have a once-in-50-years chance to make some changes - changes they hope will be good not only for the walleye, perch and trout, but for the landlocked salmon that thrived in the river until the dams went up in the 1950s.

The Clyde River dams, like nearly 250 others around the country, are up for relicensing by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission - some for the first time in 50 years. Applications from dam owners are due by the end of this year, with decisions to be made by 1993.

Anglers and environmentalists say they hope to bring dams built by 1930s and 1940s standards up to date, and may press to remove some.

″This is a wonderful opportunity for citizen activists across the country to ... try to set new terms of operation for these dams to make the dams more environmentally sensitive and to make those river stretches more usable for recreational purposes,″ said Randy Showstack of the Washington-based environmental group American Rivers.

Last month’s fish kill on the Clyde occurred, state and company officials say, when Citizens’ No. 11 dam was shut down for repairs for two days, the river backing up behind it. When the work was done, water was released too fast, leaving many fish in the midst of spawning high and dry upstream.

Drown said he believes the power company is genuinely sorry for last month’s fish kill. But he said the fish may have died for a good cause.

″It certainly is going to be a good argument for Citizens taking better care of the river,″ he said.

Doug Anderson, the company’s project manager for the Clyde River complex, was non-committal. He said the company was studying whether it should offer to trap salmon that try to swim up the Clyde from Lake Memphremagog on the Vermont-Quebec border and truck them above the No. 11 dam. No decision has been made.

The company is likely to agree in the relicensing process to increase minimum flows left in the river after water is taken for power generation to levels more acceptable for fish populations, and will aim to balance power needs with recreational and environmental interests, he said.

But he added, ″I think you’ve got very vocal special interest groups. ... You’ve got 30 to 40 people willing to raise the electric rates of 18,000 customers.″

John Mullen, a hydropower engineer with Central Vermont Public Service, said the changes in dam operations may be expensive, but most likely will not turn power dams into economic losers. Other utility officials said changes proposed by environmentalists would in most cases have only a small impact on electric rates.

Even if the company agrees to a trap-and-truck scheme to get salmon up the Clyde to spawn, it still may have a fight on its hands. Dave Smith, owner of the Irasburg General Store and president of the local Trout Unlimited chapter, and Drown both said they want to see Citizens’ No. 11 dam completely removed.

″All we want is the fishing back the way it was,″ said Smith. ″Citizens has done what they want for 30 years. Maybe it’s time for us to have 30 years.″

Similar fights are brewing at power dams around the country, in Michigan, Wisconsin, California and elsewhere, Showstack said. In Maine, the state has been trying to win removal of the Edwards Dam in Augusta, so Atlantic salmon may resume what was their annual trek to their spawning grounds on the Penobscot River.

New England has more than its share of the contested dams; there are 16 in Vermont alone.

″I call it the milltown legacy,″ said Vermont state fisheries biologist Len Girardi. ″Travel around New England and you probably can’t find a waterfall without a remnant of some civil works on it.″

Among the environmentalists’ chief concerns as they gear up for relicensing fights are minimum flows. Citizens’ No. 11 dam diverts the Clyde River into an artificial channel and leaves the natural riverbed all but dry, with just five cubic feet per second in the summer and twice that in the spring and fall when fish are spawning, Girardi said. Neither flow level is near adequate for fish, he added.

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