We’re all a little hydro-phobic after Irene. If you live near a river, if your septic system erupted through the yard or if your satellite dish is on its way to the middle stratosphere, you know what I mean. You cringe when the toilet flushes, and sleep with an inflatable dolphin.
That is, unless you’re a whitewater kayaker like me. While rational citizens grab flood insurance papers from the safe, kayakers gleefully check rain forecasts. Vermont’s whitewater streams only flow after big rainstorms, and even then not for long. If it rains in Ripton overnight, the Middlebury River will probably be too low to kayak by afternoon.
But, the conservation group American Whitewater has plans to slowly integrate Vermont kayakers into the fabric of society with a revolutionary concept — a dam released river. Instead of waiting for a storm, we’ll put a date on the calendar a year in advance and invite paddlers to show up then.
American Whitewater has organized several recreational releases in New England, including on the West River in Jamaica, Vt. This past weekend, I paddled in an AW flow study, testing the suitability of the Green River near Morrisville for dam releases.
Kevin Colburn, an American Whitewater representative from Montana, told the 30 kayakers gathered at Applecheek Farm in Hyde Park what to expect.
“The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) relicenses hydro projects every 30 years. The Green River Dam is up for relicensing, and we’re here to see if recreational releases can be a part of that license. John is going to put four different flows through the river, and we’ll paddle on each of them, then fill out some paperwork after each run to see what you thought. Don’t try to game the system, just tell us what you thought.”
Morrisville Water and Light Company has managed flows on the Green River for 70 years. Depending on rainfall, wildlife, and the cost of power, the company generates different amounts of electricity at the outflow of the Green River reservoir.
Usually when John Tilton opens the gates, though, no one knows about it. The water flows through the turbines, and then spills down five miles of riverbed before emptying into the Lamoille River. This past weekend, though, he had plenty of company.
I first heard about the river last summer from Vermont Paddlers Club member Ryan McCall. A month or two later, we paddled it after an autumn rainstorm. A handful of runs followed, but this past weekend built the hard data to present to FERC during the relicensing process.
If recreational releases are incorporated into the new license, the Green River will provide a reliable whitewater resource. The river is a good venue for intermediate paddlers looking to challenge themselves, and for expert whitewater boaters who want to run the optional drops. Applecheek Farm provided food, drink and a warm banquet hall. They raise organic dairy cattle, emus, llamas and poultry. If the Vermont Paddlers Club can partner with the farm for a river festival, the event could attract paddlers from across the Northeast.
The Green River is a small river; its watershed is only 19 square miles. It drops over a series of class III and IV rapids with a few harder drops in a three mile section from Garfield Road to Route 15A. We paddled under one defunct logging bridge, but otherwise the scenery felt natural — the river cut through sculpted bedrock overhung with birches and pines. Unlike most streams in Vermont, no roads follow the Green River. There’s no blasted stone armoring the banks, and the deepest channel isn’t carved by anything other than moving water.
Just because there haven’t been any backhoes in the riverbed doesn’t mean that it’s as natural as it appears. The power generation schedule has robbed the Green of its natural flood and drought cycle in favor of more continuous, low-level flows. After a rain in the summer months, Morrisville Water and Light runs the generators at a low release for several days, spreading the flow volume out rather than letting it concentrate in a single spike, like a natural river would. As a result, the riverbed doesn’t get periodic flood events that scour vegetation off of gravel bars or move woody debris downstream. Periodic releases of relatively high water would eventually return the riverbed to a more natural state. Additionally, fish benefit from fluctuating water levels that relocate nutrients and habitat in the streambed.
But, there’s more to the procedure than just requesting releases. The Green River Reservoir is loon nesting habitat, and the level can’t vary more than five inches during the nesting season. Depending on rainfall and evaporation, the company can release more or less water to regulate the reservoir height. In the summer, when whitewater paddlers want releases the most, the reservoir level drops from evaporation alone, and it will be difficult to send more water through the riverbed. In addition to the natural constraints on river level, releases depend on the price of power. Vermont has a winter peak and a summer peak in the price of electricity, and Morrisville Water and Light tries to generate power at the dam during the most lucrative times.
So, until American Whitewater and FERC hammer out an agreement, the Green will run at unpredictable times. This, like the rain, is part of the allure of Vermont kayaking. Someone will drive by the takeout and see water in the river. They’ll make a joyful phone call to a few friends. In an hour, a small group will be floating through the gorge, high on the gift of the water.