Connecticut River May Soon Flow Freely Again

Scope Correspondent

The Connecticut River, among the most extensively dammed rivers in the United States, may soon be flowing at a more natural pace again.

A recently developed computer model could help dam managers coordinate the holding and releasing of water between the river’s 54 largest dams in an effort to balance human and natural needs.

It is the latest development in the emerging field of data-driven natural resource management, work made possible by recent advances in computing power.

Historically, the Connecticut River roared freely through New England’s wooded valleys. Teeming with fish, the river’s waters often overflowed its winding banks when snowmelt and rainfall combined during spring months.

Colonists began taming the 410-mile-long river soon after arriving from England. First, the forested valleys alongside the riverbanks were clearcut and converted into farmland. Starting in the 19th century, dams were added to prevent seasonal flooding, and to provide drinking water and hydropower to nearby towns.

Today there are over one thousand dams on the Connecticut and its tributaries.

Creating safe passage for migratory fish species past dams and other obstacles has long been a focus of conservationists, but recently scientists have discovered that the natural rise and fall of river waters are nearly as important as circumventing physical barriers like dams. Salmon, for instance, use changes in water levels as a cue to spawn.

To address such challenges, a team of scientists at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have created a program designed to help managers mimic the river’s natural flow patterns without sacrificing the major functions of the dams.

Researchers used commercial engineering software to map the tradeoffs between a wide variety of objectives including the production of hydropower and drinking water, flood risk reduction, and the restoration of historic water flow patterns. The resulting model shows how the movement of water between the river’s largest dams can be coordinated to re-create natural variations in water levels and speed while staying within safety and production standards prescribed by the Army Corps of Engineers.

“Our ability to solve these types of problems has changed dramatically,” said Dr. Richard N. Palmer, the principle investigator in the study. “When I was in graduate school, there were no computers large enough to solve problems a tenth this size.”