West Branch storage project relicensed

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Earlier this month U.S. hydropower regulators issued a new license for the West Branch Project, which includes water storage facilities on the West Branch of the St. Croix River in Maine.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission first issued an original license for the West Branch Project on September 4, 1980.  The project includes two developments, Sysladobsis and West Grand, that operate as water storage facilities to provide flood storage and flow releases for downstream hydroelectric generation.  The Sysladobsis Development uses Sysladobsis Lake as its impoundment.  The license describes the West Grand Development as composed of several natural lakes including Scraggly Lake, Keg Lake, Bottle Lake, Junior Lake, Junior Bay, Norway Lake, Pug Lake, Pocumcus Lake, Horseshoe Lake, and West Grand Lake. 

Dikes and dams are used to control and release water, first from Sysladobsis Lake into the downstream West Grand impoundment, then into either Grand Lake Stream or Grand Lake Brook.  Many of the dams and dikes at these sites are old -- the Sysladobsis dam, West Grand dam, and Farm Cove dike were constructed in 1861, 1836, and 1879, respectively, although all three have since been rebuilt.

Each of these developments operates in a seasonal store-and-release mode whereby water is stored to reduce downstream flooding during periods of high flow and released during periods of low flow to augment generation at the downstream hydroelectric projects.

The West Branch Project also operates as part of the larger St. Croix River headwater storage system.  This network of dams includes Woodland Pulp LLC’s Forest City Project No. 2660 and the recently relicensed Vanceboro Project No. 2492. Generation associated with these projects occurs at the Grand Falls and Woodland hydroelectric projects downstream on the St. Croix River.

The West Branch Project's original 1980 license was amended in 1987 to include the existing Farm Cove dike, but the original license expired on September 30, 2000.  Since then, the licensee has operated the project under an annual license pending the disposition of a new license application.

On March 19, 2009, the licensee filed, pursuant to sections 4(e) and 15 of the Federal Power Act (FPA), an application for a new license to continue operating and maintaining the West Branch Project. The licensee proposed to continue store-and-release operation with some changes, continue operating fishways and take other measures to promote fish populations, enhance a land use plan, and develop a historic properties management plan.

Fishery issues have been contentious in the St. Croix River system.  After opportunity for public comment, agency consultation, and preparation of an Environmental Assessment, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife asked the Commission to delay its licensing decision until fishery management talks concluded.  After being notified by the Department that those talks had concluded, on March 15, 2016 the Commission issued Woodland Pulp a new license to continue operating and maintaining the West Branch Project. 

The new license requires a number of measures to protect and enhance water quality, aquatic habitat, fisheries resources, terrestrial resources, and recreation opportunities at the project. These include a requirement to operate the developments in store-and-release mode between defined pond elevations, to provide certain minimum flows of water, to develop an Operation Compliance Monitoring Plan, and to provide and enhance fish passage.

A list maintained by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission shows over 1,000 active hydropower licenses.  Many of these licenses will expire in the near future, so relicensing activity for FERC-licensed hydroelectric projects is expected to increase. 

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