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Farmington River included on 'Most Endangered Rivers® of 2024' listing

Advocates say conditions at Rainbow Dam are preventing fish migration, degrading the ecosystem.

By John Fitts

Staff Writer


Renowned for its trout fishing and recreational amenities, one might not immediately think of the Farmington River as “endangered.”

But the waterway is included on American Rivers’ Most Endangered Rivers® of 2024 listing.

Conditions at Rainbow Dam, eight miles from the Farmington River’s confluence with the Connecticut, are degrading the ecosystem there and creating a barrier to migratory fish species, according to the organization and other river advocacy groups.

Rainbow Dam, located in Windsor, is operated by the Farmington River Power Company, a subsidiary of Stanley Black & Decker while the upstream and downstream fish passage facilities have been managed by the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (CT DEEP).

“The Farmington River supports diverse fish and wildlife, is a vital source of clean drinking water for the region, and provides boating and other recreation opportunities, but this dam is an ongoing threat,” Katie Schmidt, Associate Director, National Dam Removal Program with American Rivers, stated via a press release.

“This is an important moment for the river and an opportunity for [Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Commissioner [Katie S.] Dykes to continue her leadership in river restoration and environmental stewardship. We need Stanley Black & Decker to fix the problems it has created.”

“The time is now to act for the Farmington River,” stated Aimee Petras, Executive Director of Farmington River Watershed Association. “Stanley Black & Decker has ignored Connecticut’s environmental laws and held the Farmington River hostage. The company has had well over a century of largely unrestricted use of the Farmington River’s resources. It is time for them to demonstrate respect for the river they benefited from and ensure future generations can enjoy it too.”

On Monday Will Healey, DEEP’s Communications Director, issued the following statement to the Valley Press in light of the listing, which was officially released at midnight.

“The Farmington River is one of New England’s most treasured natural and recreational assets, and it is the largest tributary to the Connecticut River. DEEP has been hard at work in collaboration with public and private partners to identify opportunities to improve the quality of the Farmington River in several ways - including addressing aquatic invasive species and other stream flow impediments.

With 95% of fish habitat for migratory fishes in the Farmington River system located upstream of Rainbow Dam, working with Stanley Black & Decker (SBD) to address fish passage and stream flow issues at Rainbow Dam is one of the most impactful actions that we can take together to benefit the fisheries and environmental health of the entire watershed.

DEEP has shared information regarding upcoming federal grant opportunities with SBD that may provide significant financial resources to help address some of the ongoing issues caused by the dam. DEEP is working with partners across the state to aggressively pursue various federal funding opportunities and encourages SBD to consider applying to these anticipated, upcoming grant opportunities while the funding is available.”

In response to an inquiry about the listing, Debora Raymond, Vice President, Public Relations for Stanley Black & Decker stated, “Farmington River Power has safely operated the Rainbow Dam for more than a century, providing sustainable hydropower for the local grid. We are committed to finding ways to make the Farmington River a vibrant and healthy river for fish, wildlife, and the community.”

Rainbow Dam in Windsor. Source: CT DEEP September 2023 presentation on potential removal of lower Collinsville dam

Generally, dams are regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, but CT DEEP has rights to manage both the upstream and downstream fishways at the facility, based on agreements it reached with the company in 1976 and 1994, according to CT DEEP records.

According to a 2018 Stanley social media post, “Built in 1925, the Stanley Farmington River Power Plant generates around 32 million kW hours of electricity every year – enough to power approximately 2,000 homes. This plant is a prime example of our ECOSMART™ philosophy: a plan we’ve developed to help us meet our goals for sustainability across the world.”

Stanley did not elaborate on current conditions outside of its statement. American Rivers and its partners allege that Farmington River Power Company has not kept up with dam maintenance and that conditions at the dam have deteriorated to the point where power generation is limited, water releases fluctuate, the environment is degraded, and fish passage facilities so compromised that CT DEEP did not open the upstream passage in 2023.

“They’ve deferred most maintenance and allowed their facility to degrade mostly because they wanted to avoid FERC licensing,” Petras said. “It’s a standard dam owner responsibility and this company has shirked that and kind of pushed it off to Connecticut DEEP. So really, the reason that FRWA nominated the Farmington River as an endangered river is because this company has continued to allow their facility to degrade and it’s causing harm to the Farmington River in terms of fish passage.”

Fish passage at the facility has been less than ideal for some time, according to a March 29, 2023 letter from DEEP to Farmington River Power. From 1976 to 2018, just 57 percent of American Shad that were visible through a viewing window “exited the fishway,” with some 22 percent being diverted downstream and 21 percent found dead, the letter states.

In the spring of 2022, a record low number of American Shad – 11 – passed through the facility, “compared to a 46-year average of 483,” according to DEEP documents. The documents acknowledge that river levels were low that spring, but also contend that nighttime water releases, done to compensate for overheating turbines, exasperated the situation greatly.

Fluctuating releases is known as “hydropeaking” and DEEP contends it also disrupts fish passage.

“The wide and sudden fluctuations in flow experienced by American Shad and river herring during their spawning migrations are particularly disruptive to their successful upstream migrations. This hydropeaking also impacts the effectiveness of downstream passage,” the DEEP letter states.

The upstream fishway was shut down in 2023, according to the DEEP letter to Farmington River Power Company.

“We have made this decision on upstream passage because the fishway does not provide safe, timely and effective upstream fish passage,” it stated. “The existing upstream fishway is in poor condition and was originally designed for Atlantic Salmon. Restoration efforts for this species are no longer considered feasible in Southern New England and the vertical slot design of the fishway has proven to be ineffective at passing American Shad and river herring.”

The downstream fish passage was operational in 2023 but severely hampered by inadequate safeguards and compromised dam operation, including that hydropeaking, according to environmentalists involved with the effort.


A slide from the 2023 presentation on potential removal of the lower Collinsville dam. Source: CT DEEP

Fish passage is an important issue for those in the field, who see a golden opportunity for the Farmington River Watershed.

While DEEP has acknowledged the limited success of salmon reintroduction, biologists and river advocates have noted that several native strains of migratory fish species are present in the ecosystem.

“Save the Sound is very focused on removing as many barriers as possible in trying to restore the five primary migratory fish in our watershed, which are American eel, sea lamprey, American Shad and two river herring species – Alewife and Blueback herring,” said Paul Woodworth, Ecological Restoration Senior Project Manager for Save the Sound.

Those migratory species are “diadromous” – ones that move between fresh and saltwater. American Eel are catadromous, meaning they live mostly in fresh water but spawn in the ocean. The others are anadromous, meaning they spawn in freshwater but live mostly in saltwater.

The Connecticut River, from the confluence of the Farmington, has zero dams down river and "some of the best anadromous fish runs on the East Coast," according to a September 2023 presentation at the Avon Free Public Library at which officials from CT DEEP, Princeton Hydro, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Water quality, temperature and other factors make 58 miles of the Farmington River from the confluence with the Connecticut to Goodwin or “Hogback” dam in Colebrook/Hartland a prime “target” area for the fish restoration, according to DEEP documents and others.

“The proximity Farmington River to Long Island Sound and also the lack of dams downstream of that confluence make it the best opportunity to restore all those migratory fish species in the Farmington River Watershed if we can solve the problem at this dam,” Petras said.  

And removing fish passage barriers in the Farmington River has been a priority in recent years. In 2012 the Spoonville dam upstream of Rainbow in the Tariffville Gorge Fish was removed, while fish passage infrastructure was added to the upper Collinsville dam in 2022.

There are also plans to remove what remains of Winchell-Smith Dam in Farmington, which could take place as early as this summer. Plans continue for the likely removal of the lower Collinsville dam that straddles the Avon/Burlington town line. That latter effort was the main focus of the September 2023 meeting in Avon.  

If the issues at Rainbow remain unsolved, the efforts – at least in terms of those migrating species – are for naught, Woodworth said.

“All those species are depleted and not on a rising trend and this particular site is just of enormous priority,” he said. “It rises above so many others, if not all of the others.”

Solving the issues at Rainbow would open up as many as 250 river miles to the anadromous species, Petras said.

“If this dam owner was to confront and fix the problems related to fish passage at their facility that we would gain, in the Farmington River Watershed, between 50 and 250 river miles – depending on the species,” Petras added.

As far as a potential resolution at Rainbow, many environmentalists would love to see the dam removed but those involved in the effort said the dam owner must ultimately agree to explore the options.

“Removal is an option that would permanently and completely address all of the impacts that this dam is creating but that decision is really up to the dam owner,” Woodworth said.

“We don’t believe that the fishway can really be salvaged at this point. We don’t think DEEP believes that either, but Stanley needs to look at all their options and weigh their pros and cons. We understand it’s no longer generating power of any significance. It has multiple turbines but only one is working. It really doesn’t seem to be generating the benefit to them or to the region’s power grid to justify it and even when it’s at fully operational capacity, it’s still a drop in the bucket, so its impacts have now outweighed its potential benefits and it’s nowhere meeting its potential benefits.”

Petras said that Stanley, since learning of the Endangered Rivers listing, has been more responsive to the inquiries from the Farmington River Watershed Association and its partners that form a coalition known as the River Restoration Network.

And those involved in this effort acknowledge that the issue is complicated and would involve many steps in terms of business operation and regulatory matters for the dam owner and operator over the course of years.

But American Rivers and its partners contend the time is right for action with unprecedented funding available as a result of the Bipartisan Infrastructure law.

“Farmington River Power Company needs to be held accountable for dam operations and ensuring they meet reasonable standards for public health and safety, and the health of the river,” the American River press release stated. “The company can take advantage of current unprecedented funding opportunities to make a difference this year before they expire. At a minimum, this includes changing operations to fix the Clean Water Act violations, eliminate the toxic algae outbreaks, and to provide safe, timely and effective fish passage. The company has had well over a century of largely unrestricted use of the Farmington River. It is time for dam operations to meet reasonable standards so the public can have clean water and a healthy river.”


 The Farmington River is sixth on American Rivers’ Most Endangered Rivers® of 2024 listing. The complete list includes:

#1: Rivers of New Mexico   

Threat: Loss of federal clean water protections  

#2: Big Sunflower and Yazoo Rivers – Mississippi  

Threat: Yazoo Pumps project threatens wetlands  

#3: Duck River – Tennessee  

Threat: Excessive water use  

#4: Santa Cruz River – Arizona   

Threat: Water scarcity, climate change  

#5: Little Pee Dee River – North Carolina, South Carolina  

Threat: Harmful development, highway construction  

#6: Farmington River – Connecticut, Massachusetts  

Threat: Hydropower dam  

#7: Trinity River – California   

Threat: Outdated water management  

#8: Kobuk River – Alaska  

Threat: Road construction  

#9 Tijuana River – California, Mexico   

Threat: Pollution  

#10: Blackwater River – West Virginia   

Threat: Highway development  







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