Category Archives: Energy

Beaver Falls Recreation Area. Credit: USFWS

Making Connections in Beaver Falls, NY

Running water

Photo for Flickr Creative Commons user Rich Bachman.

Water is essential for life.

This is a widely known fact, so it should come as no surprise that communities are constantly seeking ways to maintain these life sustaining functions while also balancing the need for economic growth and power production.

One community in upstate New York is bringing this ecological balance to light. The Beaver Falls hydroelectric project in Beaver Falls, NY, has been the first of the large pulse of projects seeking to renew its federal license to operate in the Black River basin.  At this project, there are two dams (Upper and Lower Beaver Falls) that operate together to make power.

Beaver Falls Recreation Area. Credit: USFWS

Beaver Falls Recreation Area. Credit: USFWS

Hydroelectric projects work by using the potential energy held in our rivers and streams to generate electricity to power homes and business all over the state. However, they divert flows out of the river to generate power and can dry up sections of the river and alter natural flows.  In addition, hydropower facilities segment rivers and prevent aquatic species from moving freely to find the resources they need to grow and be healthy.

The New York Field Office worked with Eagle Creek Renewable Energy and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to complete a settlement agreement that will be included in a new federal license for the project.  This settlement agreement helps to reconnect the river, restore aquatic habitat, improve fish passage and protection, and improves recreational access for the Beaver River and the communities that depend on it.

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U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff meet with partners at Beaver Falls. Credit: USFWS

This reconnection at Beaver Falls has positive impacts for wildlife. Fish species that will benefit from the Beaver Falls Settlement include walleye, smallmouth bass, yellow perch, chain pickerel, northern pike, eastern blacknose dace, rock bass, brown bullhead, white sucker, fallfish, tiger muskellunge. Not to mention the benefits for smaller macroinvertebrates that serve as food for fish, mussels, and riparian foraging birds. The watershed is also a major destination for scenic viewing, camping, hiking, fishing, kayaking, boating, and other outdoor recreational pursuits. A win for wildlife is a win for people.

This settlement agreement at Beaver Falls is the first of many that will help to protect wildlife, promote aquatic connectivity, and increase recreation opportunities in New York communities surrounding the Black River.

New York Fish and Wildlife Biologist John Wiley discussed the broader picture for the basin, “The Black River Basin has one of the highest concentrations of hydropower facilities in the country. Nearly all of these will be relicensing in the next decade, and we will work to reconnect, restore, and improve the rivers in the basin, just like we did at Beaver Falls.  Doing all this work at the same time is also a once in a generation opportunity to make changes that can have a large and lasting impact for the people and the species that are connected to these rivers. “

This section will be improved through the relicensing, ultimately reconnecting it to the watershed. Credit: USFWS

This section will be improved through the relicensing, ultimately reconnecting it to the watershed. Credit: USFWS

When we focus on the connection between the land and water quality, watershed planning is of the utmost importance. This type of planning allows for the management of land uses in a way that recognizes the relationship between economic, social, and natural processes.

By supporting this large basin wide effort we encourage safer and more sustainable watershed protection, support our fisheries, and protect wildlife habitat for a more biodiverse landscape for years to come.

Vermont graduate student Christine Peterson collecting vegetation data along a power line right of way. Credit: Dr. Allan Strong

Birds on a wire: How power lines can help songbirds

Vermont graduate student Christine Peterson collecting vegetation data along a power line right of way. Credit: Dr. Allan Strong

Today you’re hearing from Christine Peterson, a graduate student in the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources. Here she is collecting vegetation data along a power line right-of-way. Credit: Dr. Allan Strong

Many people probably never think about power line rights of way or, perhaps, never even hear of them. But for some migratory bird species, rights of way could provide essential habitat, which is why they have become the focus of my research.

Here is a blue-winged warbler nest we found during habitat mapping. Credit: Christine Peterson

Here is a blue-winged warbler nest we found during habitat mapping. Credit: Christine Peterson

An electric power line right of way (ROW) gives an electric company access to areas where power lines occur, even on privately owned land. In order to access, maintain and repair electric power lines, vegetation along ROWs must be managed to prevent interference. This allows for these ROWs to remain in a shrubby state over long periods of time.

Here’s where the Audubon Society and I come in. The Audubon Vermont chapter of the National Audubon Society recruited local citizen science volunteers to look for priority songbirds to see if our feathered friends were using these shrubby areas created along powerlines. It turned out that four priority bird species, including golden-winged warbler, eastern towhee, blue-winged warbler, and field sparrow were visiting these ROWs. So, as a graduate student, I was called in to take a closer look.

You can find eastern towhees in brush, tangles, thickets and along forest edges. Photo from Flickr Creative Commons user John Beetham. https://www.flickr.com/photos/dendroica/14018896326

You can find eastern towhees in brush, tangles, thickets and along forest edges. Photo from Flickr Creative Commons user John Beetham.

Last summer, I led a field crew to ROWs across the Champlain Valley in Vermont to follow and map these priority songbirds to see which parts of the ROWs they were using. Eighty-seven birds and two months of very early mornings later, we could see where these shrubland birds liked to spend their breeding time. We then revisited all of these areas to collect countless thorn-induced wounds, as well as detailed vegetation data.

With all of this information, my research aims to paint a clearer picture of how these birds use habitat along powerline ROWs. So… why does this matter?

Only about 15 percent of the preserved land in Vermont is publicly owned. That leaves the fate of much of the land up to private landowners.

Because of this, encouraging conservation and management among private landowners is very important. These particular songbirds rely on shrubby (young forest) habitat to mate and reproduce. It is becoming increasingly hard for them to find this habitat, especially in the Northeast region, as forest recovers and matures from the agricultural boom of the early 1900s. Shrubland occurs as a transitional period between when a field becomes forest again, so it requires disturbance to be created. Using areas like ROWs is convenient because they are already managed or “disturbed” regularly and remain in transition.

In order to access, maintain and repair electric power lines, vegetation along rights of ways must be managed to prevent interference. This allows them to remain in a shrubby state over long periods of time. Photo from Flickr Creative Commons user mwms16 https://www.flickr.com/photos/mmwm/7926162740

In order to access, maintain and repair electric power lines, vegetation along rights of ways must be managed to prevent interference. This allows them to remain in a shrubby state over long periods of time. Photo from Flickr Creative Commons user mwms16.

By examining the patterns of how birds use this habitat and what management is being done, I can suggest management that might better serve these bird species. Audubon Vermont and I collaborated on a report that was submitted to the Vermont Electric Cooperative, which manages over 7,500 acres of ROW land in Vermont. With this information, we hope that future management will create more suitable habitat for these declining shrubland songbirds.

Blue-winged warblers breed at forest and field edges. Photo from Flickr Creative Commons user Matt Stratmoen. https://www.flickr.com/photos/stratmoen/9553133103

Blue-winged warblers breed at forest and field edges. Photo from Flickr Creative Commons user Matt Stratmoen.

Findings from this research can also help promote important habitat corridors for songbird migration pathways along what is referred to as the “Atlantic Flyway.” This migration pathway is used by a variety of birds traveling to and from breeding grounds that runs along the eastern coasts of North and South America.

During their long migration, birds need places to stop along the way to rest and refuel for their journey. Creating habitat corridors along migration routes can help these birds get to their destinations!

Increased use of renewable energy is a priority for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Credit: USFWS.

Self-Empowered

Oct. 29, 2012: Hurricane Sandy knocked out power to an estimated 8.1 million individual locations in 17 states, as far west as Michigan. Outages affected some areas for weeks, and often more remote locations – like those that tend to encompass wildlife refuges – remained without for longer or were forced to rely on whatever backup power generators they had on hand.

Power Line damage at Target Rock National Wildlife Refuge on Long Island. Credit: Todd Weston/USFWS.

Power Line damage at Target Rock National Wildlife Refuge on Long Island. Credit: Todd Weston/USFWS.

In the New York-New Jersey region, even some facilities that had generators found themselves faced with unexpected challenges like post-hurricane fuel rationing. This lasted an average of two weeks in the metro area and limited power supply, in many cases, to however much fuel had already been stockpiled. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Staff from the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in Basking Ridge, N.J. (only 25 miles from Times Square) found themselves driving as far as Pennsylvania to buy diesel for their generators. Other Fish and Wildlife refuges suffered in darkness for days after the super storm as well, including the Canaan Valley refuge in West Virginia, which was buried in over three feet of wet snow—a condition that did nothing to help keep power lines up in the region.

In response to extreme circumstances like those that occurred in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, backup and solar power system installations are planned for 18 U.S. Fish and Wildlife facilities throughout the Northeast region, including 17 refuges and the National Conservation Training Center in Shepardstown, West Virginia. The power projects form a unique subset of the Service’s Sandy recovery efforts—one that focuses keenly on resilience and preparation for projected future storms. They represent a substantial investment by the U.S. Department of the Interior in reliable emergency resources, and reaffirm its commitment to increasing federal facilities’ utilization of renewable energy sources.

After initially contracting out design work for a few planned power systems in Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey, Service engineers Mark Orton and Chuck Gess were tapped from within in an effort to speed up design and approval processes and save taxpayer dollars. The decision proved to be a good one, and now the power projects are nearing something of a critical mass, with many locations looking at installation by the summer of 2014.

Backup generators and photovoltaic solar power systems will be installed this year at 17 national wildlife refuges and the National Conservation Training Center.

Backup generators and photovoltaic solar power systems will be installed this year at 17 national wildlife refuges and the National Conservation Training Center.

According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service facility management specialist Kevin Ortyl, sites equipped with backup and solar power proved invaluable in the aftermath of the super storm.

“Those stations that had backup power during Hurricane Sandy, including those at Long Island and Rhode Island refuges, were a great resource for their local communities,” says Ortyl. “Their headquarters and offices were used to coordinate emergency responses, provide logistical support, make phone calls and even offer cooked meals and showers.”

Increased use of renewable energy is a priority for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Credit: USFWS.

Increased use of renewable energy is a priority for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Credit: USFWS.

Photovoltaic (PV) solar power systems also represent an important part of the Service’s mission, he says.

“Solar PV and the need for alternative energy have always been important to FWS. The more we are off the grid and can lessen our carbon footprint, the better, and installing more solar PV is an ongoing opportunity to achieve this. Using a renewable resource such as the sun aids in our continuing effort to tread lightly.”

In addition to reducing the carbon output of Service facilities, solar PV will also save taxpayer dollars. At the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Cambridge, Maryland, solar PV systems that Mark Orton designed are being installed at two buildings, and between them will save the refuge an estimated $6,210 in annual utility bills. Gess says that the systems he’s been designing will offset 40 percent of a building’s load (on average), though at least one PV system at Rhode Island’s Beane Point will provide 100 percent of its needs and will be totally off-grid.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been working to repair and restore public lands on the Atlantic coast since Hurricane Sandy impacted them in October of 2012. To learn more about the Service’s ongoing efforts to facilitate habitat recovery and build coastal resilience that helps protect communities, please visit http://www.fws.gov/hurricane/sandy.