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Utility Warns Of Impacts After Court Protects Water Quality Over Power Resources

A dam with snow on it.
Amy Kolb Noyes
/
VPR File
Morrisville Water and Light says state-imposed flow restrictions upheld by the Vermont Supreme Court make the Green River dam uneconomic to operate.

The municipal utility in Morrisville says a recent court ruling threatens the future of the popular Green River Reservoir.

The Vermont Supreme Court ruled last week in a closely watched case involving three Lamoille County hydroelectric dams owned by the Morrisville Water and Light Department.

For all three dams, the high court unanimously supported flow conditions designed to protect water quality and fish habitat.

"We conclude that [the Agency of Natural Resources] was not required to take economic or social factors into account when setting limits or conditions to ensure compliance" with state water quality standards, the court said.

In the case of the Green River dam, which created the popular Green River Reservoir that is now surrounded by a state park, the supreme court said Morrisville has to limit how much water it takes from the reservoir in winter. 

Morrisville wanted to draw down the reservoir by 10 feet in the winter months. The state said it should only be lowered by 1.5 feet.

Utility manager Craig Myotte said in a statement that these conditions make the dam uneconomic to operate and ''will compromise the future" of the dam and the reservoir. Myotte did not agree to an interview with VPR.

Morrisville "cannot and will not operate the Green River Reservoir dam at a loss... Our revenues must be sufficient to cover our costs. Unfortunately, ANR's water quality conditions make this impossible." — Craig Myotte, Morrisville Water & Light Department manager

Morrisville Water and Light “cannot and will not operate the Green River Reservoir Dam at a loss,” his statement said. “MW&L is funded by the people of Morrisville and six surrounding communities and our revenues must be sufficient to cover our costs. Unfortunately, ANR’s water quality conditions make this impossible.”

The ruling was a victory for environmentalists and the ANR. Jon Groveman, water program director at the Vermont Natural Resources Council, said the decision was important because it overturned a lower court decision that said the economic value of the hydroelectric generation trumped fish habitat and water quality.

“The supreme court now has laid out very clearly that permitting for water quality is about protecting water quality and nothing else but that,” Groveman said. “We can't do an end-run around the law and protections of our public waters, because there is a concern about the economic impact of the conditions.”

"We can't do an end-run around the law and protections of our public waters, because there is a concern about the economic impact of the conditions." — Jon Groveman, Vermont Natural Resources Council

Groveman said the state has studied the relicensing of the dams for years, so Morrisville clearly had time to prepare for different flow conditions designed to protect the environment. He said the dams are licensed every 40 years, allowing a once-in-a-generation opportunity to restore rivers damaged by power dams.  

“They’re getting a 40-year-license to basically use public trust waters for a commercial purpose,” he said. “That’s a long period of time. So when those licenses come up, you have to come up to modern water quality standards, you have to make adjustments to your plant to make sure protecting water quality and the uses of that water.”

The Green River Reservoir is surrounded by a 5,500 acre state park. Utility manager Myotte said in his statement the state now needs to help figure out what’s next.

“We will now look to the state of Vermont for potential solutions that will ensure the preservation of the reservoir and the state park,” he said.

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