battle over restoring an abused Capital Region treasure pits
an engineer against an environmentalist; and at first glance,
they are taking unlikely sides
are the falls? They’ve turned them off!” The woman leading
a teenage girl into Overlook Park in the Harmony Mills section
of Cohoes is more right than perhaps she knows.
Bruce Carpenter, executive director of New York Rivers United,
turns away from the 65-foot-high Cohoes Falls, the second-largest
falls by volume in New York state. At the moment it looks
more like a wide barren cliff with only a tiny trickle running
down its center. “It’ll be back,” he tells them. “At least
some of it will.”
York Rivers United executive director Bruce Carpenter
at Overlook Park, Cohoes, with the falls in the background.
a hill and behind a big fence is the hydroelectric plant,
known as the School Street plant, that has turned off the
falls, and has been doing so for nearly 100 years. It diverts
the water from the Mohawk River at a dam a mile upstream into
a canal that runs along the Cohoes side and uses it to make
38.8 megawatts of energy—about enough to power 38,800 homes.
Unless the water flow in the river exceeds the amount of water
the plant can use to make power, which generally happens only
in the spring, a mile of river bed and the historic falls
are essentially bone dry. And like the falls, the stream of
tourists that once visited also has dried up.
Overlook Park is pretty much the only place to view the falls
up close today. There’s room for two cars to park, and the
four white concrete benches are peeling paint. The view is
crisscrossed with dozens of power lines and edged on the left
with chain-link fencing, a prefab couple-story garage, and
roving maintenance vehicles.
The less-visible problems are more serious: The humming turbines
are chewing up unacceptable amounts of blueback herring and
American eel that try to migrate between upstream and the
ocean. Even above the dam and below the falls, the river ecosystem
is disrupted by what is called daily “peaking”—where a power
plant raises the level of water in its impoundment (the lake
created by a dam) and then lets a lot of it come rushing through
at once, generating more power at times of peak need, but
also leaving a “bathtub ring” of exposed bank around the impoundment
and stranding fish downstream as the high water recedes. The
School Street plant doesn’t peak as much as some plants, but
its 2- to 3-foot variation is still more than the maximum
6 inches that is considered stable.
No one, except perhaps the current owner of the plant, Brascan,
thinks the current state of affairs at the Cohoes Falls is
acceptable. Not the federal government, not the state. Not
the environmentalists or the whitewater advocates or the local
governments or the tribes that consider the falls sacred ground.
That’s why the plant’s federal license hasn’t been renewed
since it expired in 1993.
It’s been 14 years, but that doesn’t mean that the answer
to the question of what is acceptable has been easy
to come by.
The tension between hydro-power plants and rivers is nothing
new to Carpenter. In fact, it’s been his bread and butter
for the past 13 years. He’s been involved in environmental
issues his whole life, and one of his earliest environmental
fights was trying to explain to New Yorkers in the ’80s why
they should support the Cree Indians who were fighting a huge
HydroQuebec dam proposal, even though it promised New York
cheap power. Come 1992, he was managing a car dealership,
but itching to get into environmental work full-time.
So he listened when Pete Skinner, a whitewater paddling advocate,
came to him looking for someone to staff a new group called
New York Rivers United. Advocates like Skinner had been waging
battles against various hydro plants for years during their
free time. They were burnt out, but they also knew that 43
major hydro projects were all coming up for relicensing at
once by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in 1993.
Since FERC licenses last up to 50 years, and most of these
projects were easily as problematic as School Street (which
was one of the group), environmental and whitewater advocates
felt they couldn’t just let the licenses breeze through. But
the challenge was huge, and they really needed someone on
Carpenter asked how they were going to fund it. Skinner said
they’d raised $500 so far, but expected to pull in a few grants.
“And so I quit my job,” recalls Carpenter. He took some crash
courses in hydropower relicensing, and waded into the fray
with challenges to all 43 licenses.
Of course, it was quickly apparent that one full-time person
wasn’t enough. The studies done by the companies in the 1980s
weren’t sufficient, so there were new studies to be done,
analyzed and argued over, and a myriad of factors to be negotiated.
So the companies, agencies, and advocates agreed that to do
this right, they needed to take on one project at a time,
on its merits. “Everyone made a decision that we would go
basin by basin,” recalls Carpenter. “Our organizations all
had specific staff to work on this. And they couldn’t work
on more than one at a time.”
Today, Carpenter has the mark of a man who not only raises
horses at home on property bordering the Mohawk River outside
of Rome, but spends much of his work time on the back roads,
visiting every corner of the state for endless meetings in
little town halls. His Jeep’s windshield is splattered with
bugs. The inside smells of stale cigarette smoke and sports
a chirping Fuzzbuster. He rarely leaves the office without
his New York Gazetteer. “I need a lot of the little
roads,” he explains. He knows every watershed in the state,
telling stories about the dams, rivers, and towns as he munches
through his lunch of gas- station gumdrops.
As he drives through Saratoga and Warren counties to the dam
at the confluence of the Sacandaga and Hudson rivers, everything
looks familiar to Carpenter, though it’s been several years
since he finished working on the settlement to relicense this
plant. He points past the “Danger Swiftly Rising Water” signs
(this plant still peaks, though less than it did) to land
where the negotiations preserved fishing and boating access
that the company wanted to get rid of by selling off the land.
And in the town of Hadley, just outside of Lake Luzerne, he
stands, glowing with satisfaction, by a rushing stretch of
blue water that he had negotiated to be released over the
dam. The wide gentle rapids could have been drawn by a child,
they are so quintessential an example of a small mountain
river. “It’s gorgeous, isn’t it?” he says. “This used to be
After dozens of settlements, Carpenter can point to more individual,
concrete successes than your average environmental activist.
NYRU boasts 40 miles of dry riverbed rewatered and hundreds
of miles newly free-flowing. At the Salmon River in Pulaski,
Carpenter fought for a base flow that would be enough to one
day reintroduce the native Atlantic salmon. He has forced
companies that had been exempt from licensing to get licenses.
In other cases, the challenge was balancing the interests
of whitewater enthusiasts who liked the peaking flows with
the ecological goal of run-of-river operation.
Engineering Corporation president Jim Besha in Green
Island Power Authority’s existing hydropower plant.
a master,” says Skinner. “He’s a chess player. . . . We’ve
got some of the best-negotiated settlements in the country.
He’s really professionalized the job of being a river advocate.”
And like anyone doing the same thing for that long, Carpenter
has figured out some ways to make it go more smoothly. “Early
on, we were fighting all the time,” he says. “We had to have
facilitators, someone to keep us in our corners. Finally we
said, ‘We know you [the company] are going to say the project
has no impact, and we’re going to say we want it all gone,
and we’re going to end up in the middle. OK, let’s start there.’
And it got easier.” Besides, after dozens and dozens of meetings
with the same company and agency personnel, they had gotten
to know each other pretty well, which also eased things along.
“We knew each other’s birthdays.”
Still, when asked if the whole process of being required to
balance power and nonpower needs has changed his mind about
hydropower being good for rivers or not, Carpenter gives a
flat “No.” He sticks by NYRU’s Web site, which decries hydropower’s
“lingering reputation as a renewable energy source.” “All
dams exact a heavy toll on rivers,” the site insists, listing
fish passage, sediment blockage, and lack of oxygen in the
water. “Even small dams can have big impacts.”
Gazing down over the dam on the Sacandaga River, he points,
pleased, past the tall rumbling power plant down the gorge
to where a group of kayakers are putting into the rewatered
stretch of river, but then looks back at the curving dam he’s
just driven across and says somberly, “We’ve just raised the
bar. We haven’t made hydropower green.”
an environmental standpoint, small hydro doesn’t have much
to apologize for,” says Jim Besha, president of Albany Engineering
Corporation. “Big hydro does.” After 25 years in the industry,
Besha is called upon to explain hydropower to government agencies
and other groups constantly—he spends four to five hours per
week on just that.
like to think of myself as environmentally sensitive,” says
Besha. “I think we can have both.” And that’s Besha’s business
model. His formula? Every site is unique, go for elegant integrated
design, go above and beyond minimum requirements, and focus
on tip-top operations. Besha has in fact moved into owning
some plants rather than just developing and operating them
for others because he got fed up with owners who balked at
spending the “last million” on the final details like landscaping.
Oh, and don’t forget: If a project can’t meet both your economic
and the environmental standards (which is the case in more
projects he’s offered than not), then don’t do the project.
Besha’s main trick for reducing the aesthetic impact of hydropower
is underground power houses: 100 to 200 feet straight down
into the earth, often “using mother nature’s materials,” i.e.,
rock, for the tunnels.
Besha loves to contrast his whole- system-yet-site-specific
thinking with corporate-style moves like that of Niagara Mohawk
at the Green Island hydropower plant. That plant, which Besha,
working for the Green Island Power Authority, took over from
NiMo in 2000, was built by Henry Ford in 1920 to provide power
for a neighboring factory of his. Generators make a lot of
heat, and operate more efficiently when cooled off, so Ford
had built in a whole wall of windows facing downstream that
could be opened to provide a breeze along the length of the
According to Besha, NiMo got tired of replacing broken panels
of glass, and so replaced the whole wall with translucent,
insulating plastic panes, getting rid of the view and
the cooling function in one swoop. They had to install fans
The plastic is still there, but it’s next in line to be replaced,
now that the plant has been cleaned up, computerized, and
put on a preventative maintenance schedule, improving the
power output from 2.5 MW to 7 MW.
Besha also is not afraid of challenge. When he first went
to NiMo in the ’80s hoping to learn about hydropower, the
person he spoke with told him, “I’ve demolished more hydro
plants than you’ll ever build. We’re going to nuclear.”
took it as a challenge,” says Besha. “I’m probably about even
with him.” When NiMo reneged on a contract to cooperate the
oldest continuously running power plant in the country, in
Mechanicville, Besha fought a nearly 10-year legal battle
for ownership and control of the historic plant. He won.
The license plate on Besha’s new red, leased Acura says PE
41 (PE is the designation for professional engineer). He jokes
with his workers about taking a shift himself with the same
assurance that he berates other hydro operators for throwing
the trash they filter out at the water intake back into the
At the Mechanicville power station, which is now coming back
on line, he proudly shows off the chestnut paneling in the
offices, in the process of being restored, and lists all the
ways that the plant, visually, is being restored to its original
condition. His plan is to bring schoolkids in for tours, and
he wants it to look and sound just like it did in 1898, hiding
away all the more modern equipment underground or in back
rooms. He’s even jackhammering out a massive raised area of
concrete in the turbine room that wasn’t original. His commitment
would impress the most obsessive historic preservationist.
public-relations side of Besha is also in evidence. The line
of generators in the historic hall are painted bright yellow,
a glorious sight. Historically, they were probably gray, but,
says Besha dramatically, if he’d painted them gray they would
no longer be here. Why? Because the long line of yellow generators
made a spectacular picture that got his fight with NiMo prime
press coverage all the way up to The New York Times.
Looking at the sight, it’s hard to argue: Few art directors
would have suggested that picture for the front cover of a
section if it were in gray.
Besha and Carpenter are both persistent, strategic, and passionate.
And the fate of the Cohoes Falls has them at loggerheads.
Besha tells the story like this: The relicensing process was
stalled for 14 years, the owners—first NiMo, then a group
of investors called Orion, then Reliant Energy (of Enron fame),
now the Canadian company Brascan (through its American shell
corporation Erie Boulevard Hydropower)—didn’t care because
they got to keep making power without making any improvements.
None of them made any improvements.
Then suddenly GIPA came along with an alternative plan in
summer 2004, and by January 2005 Brascan had rushed together
a secretive and hurried settlement that copied some of GIPA’s
improvements, but was much weaker, and was attempting to ram
it through the relicensing process despite GIPA having the
clearly better plan. They are “trying to sneak this thing
through and get FERC to rubber-stamp it,” says Besha.
GIPA’s plan has been rejected twice by FERC from even being
considered as a competing plan, because the law states that
competing license applications have to be filed at the same
time as the renewal applications. That means GIPA had a window
of opportunity from 1988 to 1991. As of now, without lawsuits
or legislation (both of which are under consideration), it
would take an outright rejection of Brascan’s application
to allow GIPA’s to enter consideration.
Everything but bureaucratic inertia is on GIPA’s side says
Besha: political will, environmental sense and economic sense.
What other plan has garnered the support of Joe Bruno and
Shelley Silver, of Chuck Schumer, Hillary Clinton, and John
Besha has taken this version to the court of public opinion,
telling the story dozens of times, talking to everyone from
American Whitewater to the Malta Rotary Club. He travels with
a portable easel and a set of graphics that starts with a
painting of a loon at the base of the falls. His pitch fits
with his business attitude: The GIPA plan proposes to go above
and beyond all requirements, he says. The subtest: It doesn’t
have to be beaten into submission with lawsuits and negotiations.
GIPA’s proposal—which it is submitting, despite having had
its preliminary inquires denied—includes “100 percent” fish-exclusion
screens, a whitewater course at the base of the falls, a river
walk, and nighttime lighting of the falls. It would take down
the old dam and build a new one closer to the falls that would
visually mimic rapids. It proposes a brand-new but unobtrusive
underground powerhouse with the existing plant turned into
a heritage center (with a Guggenheim-like ramp inside). The
new plant would make 100 MW, twice as much power as the proposed
settlement agreement, which allows Brascan to add one turbine
and bump up to 49.9 MW. GIPA, as a public authority, proposes
to sell most of the power it generates through long-term contracts
to local governments and businesses in the region in order
to help keep taxes down and create jobs.
Then there’s water flow. Brascan’s settlement agrees to release
120-245 cubic feet per second through much of the year, and
500 cfs only during the day, on weekends and federal holidays,
from May 13 to Oct. 31. “Why bother?” snorts Besha. “It’s
preposterous.” He’s proposing 500 cfs minimum flow, all the
time, subject to a public process to determine if that’s “enough.”
“Five-hundred may be enough if it’s spread out properly,”
says Besha. “It may take 800. It may take 1,000. Whatever
it takes to make the falls look white and noisy.” The river,
on average, ranges from several hundred cfs in summer to 25,000
cfs in spring floods. In a dry summer, even 500 cfs over the
falls will mean that some summer days the plant doesn’t produce
any power at all.
Besha certainly got GIPA’s word out well. An April 13 public
hearing on a state water quality permit for Brascan—the last
step necessary before sending the license back to FERC—brought
about 100 people, mostly Cohoes-area residents, to the Ukrainian
Hall on the tip of Cohoes’ Simmons Island.
After an uninspired presentation by Brascan that boiled down
to “We’re following the rules” (“We believe DEC has conditioned
the certificate appropriately in light of its standards” was
the highlight), speaker after speaker lashed out at Brascan’s
offer as insufficient compared to GIPA’s alternative (though
speakers were supposed to limit themselves to commenting on
Brascan’s permit). They spoke passionately about keeping local
control of the people’s natural resources, recovering a dramatic
tourism possibility, and not settling for second best.
In three hours, no one but Carpenter and Cohoes Mayor John
McDonald, who agreed to support the relicensing as part of
settlement to a tax lawsuit in 2001, spoke in favor of granting
Brascan a water quality permit.
At the intermission of the public hearing, Carpenter’s face
is serious, but he doesn’t appear wildly perturbed, even though
many of the people speaking have their facts confused (a common
hyperbole was that the settlement won’t release any water
at all), and even though GIPA has erected a large picture
on one side of the hall of the falls in full-spring flood
with at least 15,000 cfs flowing over it, as if that’s what
its plan represented.
you involve the public, anything that can get said will get
said,” was all he would say. And when he got up to speak he
gave measured support to the permit, speaking, it seemed,
to the public record, and not bothering to correct or argue
with the various people who had come before him.
But later, when asked if being portrayed as suddenly on the
anti- environmental side rankles at all, some emotion definitely
lot of those people didn’t talk about impacts. They pointed
to a picture and said this is beautiful,” he says with frustration.
“I heard a lot of talk about the falls, but not a lot of talk
about the river.”
Carpenter defends the results of the negotiating process.
“We pride ourselves that we use the framework of environmental
law that’s out there,” he says.
It wasn’t a matter of a secretive process that kicked into
gear at the whiff of competition either; the public record
bears Carpenter out on this point. It took 15 years to get
to the School Street settlement for one reason: the decision
to work through the “class of 93” relicensing negotiations
one at a time. One of them had to come last; School Street,
since it involved only one dam rather than a whole river system,
but did have the tricky bit about migrating fish, was it.
And the fact that there is limited time for filing competing
applications is partially about fairness, notes Carpenter:
Once the relicensing process starts, the information is public,
so companies coming late into the process have an unfair advantage
by getting to read the others’ proposals.
As for public involvement, as Judge Kevin Casutto noted at
an adjudicatory hearing on April 14, the negotiations were
the result of a lawsuit, and “parties who are trying to negotiate
a settlement [to a lawsuit] typically do so without members
of the public.”
Besides, notes Carpenter, there was public involvement: “We
represent a lot of the public.”
Despite Besha’s assessment that Carpenter may have gotten
“too close to the process,” Carpenter really bristles at the
suggestion that his support for the settlement with Brascan
is only procedural, a refusal to swerve from a chosen path
that turned out not to be the best option.
Carpenter sees this settlement as a hands-down win. The settlement
includes run-of-river operation (the opposite of peaking),
improved fish exclusion and passage—complete with studies
of its effectiveness—and extensive recreational offerings
including a footbridge onto the island between the canal and
the river and a system of trails there, viewing platform,
and a much improved Overlook Park. It does put water into
the dry mile of river and over the falls—the same amount as
GIPA during likely tourism hours, and enough in Carpenter’s
estimation to re-create some river habitat.
In fact, Carpenter maintains that it’s not only a win, but
that GIPA’s proposal would not necessarily be more of a win.
“The project itself is questionable, whether it would provide
the benefits they say it will. The presentation is certainly
questionable,” he says.
First off, there’s the part of the GIPA plan that involves
building a new dam only 800 feet back from the falls. What
Besha calls rewatering, says Carpenter, is really creating
a new impoundment. (He also claims GIPA does not plan to remove
the old dam, though that is part of its proposal.)
As a river person, Carpenter says, the view of the falls is
as much about the view back up the gorge as it is about the
falls, and a new impoundment would ruin that. “I hate to envision
the top of the falls with another dam on it. I can’t believe
that would be aesthetically pleasing,” he says. “My business
is river restoration, and GIPA is flooding the last remaining
section of the river.”
And then there’s the water over the falls. When there’s more
water in the river than a plant can handle, the excess will
go over the dam. Since the GIPA plant can handle twice as
much water, that excess over the dam will be far less frequent
under GIPA’s plan (about 7 percent of the time) than under
the settlement (It’s between 25 and 30 percent now, and will
be somewhat less with the new turbine).
15,000 cfs picture will be true more often under Brascan’s
plan,” says Carpenter wryly. This is particularly ironic to
him because the hardest public information battle he has is
to convince people that that picture, which is on the cover
of GIPA’s proposal, does not represent what it is proposing.
The fish-exclusion screen GIPA is proposing is untested on
the East Coast, he goes on, and the claim that GIPA makes
that it will move the power lines underground to improve the
view is absurd, because they are owned by NiMo, not the owner
of the plant.
Bottom line, says Carpenter, is that all the folks who assume
that GIPA’s plan is more environmentally sound, including
his own board member Pete Skinner, haven’t seen GIPA’s plan
put through the rigorous testing process required to actually
know that. “You don’t want to compare a preliminary application
to full and complete application because they are not apples
to apples and you could be setting yourself up to make mistakes
because of generalities,” he cautions. And meanwhile, the
benefits that the settlement would provide would be delayed
by endless lawsuits and a new round of studies.
If GIPA is so sure its plan is better, notes Carpenter, it
has an option: It could just buy the plant off Brascan.
there were something here truly beneficial to the public,
to the river, that could be done by tweaking the law, we’d
do it,” he says, “The people who think we are just signing
off and supporting the company don’t know us.”
Skinner, the most likely can didate to moderate between Carpenter
and Besha, is at this point strongly on Besha’s side—not because
he thinks GIPA’s plan is perfect, but because it carries the
aura of “We can do better” that appeals to his idealistic
nature. Power lines don’t belong to you? Offer to underground
the lines for NiMo. (This is something Besha has done before.
NiMo is generally receptive he says—after all, it gets new
lines for nothing out of the deal. “Some people just need
to be more creative,” says Besha.) Dam too close to the top
of the falls? Move it back. GIPA is not exempt from negotiations,
notes Skinner. “They talk a good talk,” he says. “I want to
see them walk a good walk.”
The environmental costs can be weighed and studied—but when
it comes to aesthetics, it becomes a matter of personal preference.
Skinner, for example, is drawn to GIPA’s plan because he prefers
the idea of the falls being watered steadily 24 hours a day
all year over a chance to get slightly more frequent views
of the really high amounts of spillage. “I don’t want to have
to time my visits to when there’s a spill,” he says.
At base, “it’s a community resource, the community should
decide,” says Skinner. He and Besha know that only a public
outcry will make the necessary legislative or legal avenues
they would need to even be considered come to pass. They’re
not alone in thinking something better could be out there—several
parties to the lawsuit, including the Audubon Society and
the Adirondack Mountain Club, declined to sign the settlement.
Carpenter, meanwhile, realizes that he probably should have
done more himself to promote his understanding of the situation
and counter some of the misleading information. Brascan is
no help. Someone, perhaps the company’s lawyers, has advised
them to take a “neutral” approach, which comes off as if they
think they don’t need to be bothered persuading anyone because
the technicalities are all on their side. Take Tom Uncher
of Brascan: “I guess really what it comes down to is there’s
a legal process you go through to get a facility relicensed.
We have followed that process. We have hit every marker to
make this process happen.”
Carpenter shakes his head. Language like that doesn’t make
his life any easier. He’s impatient to see water and fish
back in this stretch of the Mohawk and to be able to turn
more of NYRU’s energy toward its broader watershed protection
work rather than relicensing.
Besha and GIPA meanwhile, are settling in for the long haul.
we do at Cohoes Falls is it,” says Skinner. “We’re stuck with
it. It ought to be good. . . . No! It ought to be the best
we can do.”
the Haudenosenee (Iroquois) tradition, the Cohoes Falls is
where the Peacemaker, a Huron who brought peace to five warring
tribes and gave them the system of government that came to
be known as the Iroquois Confederacy, first appeared to the
Mohawks. Benjamin Franklin met with Iroquois at the falls
and learned about this system, on which, some scholars say,
he based much of the U.S. Constitution.
It is a sacred site to the Iroquois, who visit it periodically
for rituals. The Mohawk Nation Council of Chiefs has expressed
concern about any projects that would physically alter the
falls area, such as proposals by both Brascan and GIPA to
adjust the stream bed to spread water more evenly across the
falls, and the construction of GIPA’s underground powerhouse.
In a letter to FERC, council members also expressed concern,
even anger, that GIPA had not discussed its plans with them
or written out outreach plans to the tribes.
Jim Besha, who can recite a version of the Peacemaker story
at the drop of a hat, says ruefully that GIPA was not able
to discuss its plans with the tribes because without the official
recognition of FERC as being in the license process, a public
entity couldn’t conduct official business with a sovereign
nation. “I’m sad we didn’t take the risk,” he says, and promises
to start now. He says GIPA is willing to adjust the location
of the power plant in order to be sensitive to the site, and
believes that if the council got the full story about what
GIPA wants to do, it might support the plan.
1. Existing dam
2. Feeder canal
3. GIPA’s proposed dam
4. Existing power plant
5. Cohoes Falls
6. Overlook Park
7. Seasonally flooded bypass stretch
8. North Mohawk Street
9. City of Cohoes drinking water intake