For decades, when a power company wanted to build or relicense a hydroelectric dam, it could do so with little outside input about the structure’s impact on fish, animals, or recreational users downstream. The Deerfield River Agreement of 1994, which AMC helped facilitate and which turns 25 this year, changed all that—not just for its namesake watershed, but for rivers across the country.
The agreement was the first of its kind in the Northeast and only the third nationally wherein a dam operator and a coalition of stakeholders reached a consensus before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) renewed a dam license.
Dr. Ken Kimball, AMC’s recently retired director of research, was a key negotiator in the process. Kimball says success was far from a guarantee when, in 1993, AMC and other public interest groups brought forward a list of environmental and recreational concerns to New England Power Company (NEPCO), whose license for a multisite dam project on the Deerfield River in Vermont and Massachusetts had expired on December 31, 1993. Over the next nine months, the motley crew of anglers, hikers, boaters, environmentalists, public officials, and representatives of the power company worked to hammer out a management plan for the Deerfield that would benefit all parties.
In the agreement signed October 5, 1994, NEPCO pledged to protect more than 18,000 acres of land it owned along the river and to safeguard animal habitats in the watershed. Where the water flow previously had stopped or slowed along roughly 12 miles of river, NEPCO committed to minimum water releases, allowing fish to migrate and spawn, anglers to cast their lines, and paddlers to shoot the rapids.
The Deerfield case study became what Kimball calls a “catalyst for a major new trend,” serving as a boilerplate for similar dam-relicensing agreements on the Connecticut, Androscoggin, Rapid, Kennebec, and Penobscot rivers in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine.
“The ‘water pie’ is of a finite size,” Kimball says. “Balanced mitigation instead of litigation proved in many cases to be the least expensive way forward, with the most benefits.”
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