Bill to protect Warner River flows through energy committee

  • Fog lingers over the Warner River near the Dalton Bridge in Warner on Friday, Jan. 12, 2018. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor file

  • Water flows over the Warner River Dam in Warner on Friday, Jan. 12, 2018. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor file

  • A culvert on the Warner River.

Monitor staff
Tuesday, January 16, 2018

A bill that would change how the Warner River is regulated under a state supervisory program moved easily through the state Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday, setting the bill up for a future hearing before the full Senate.

Senate Bill 445 would designate the Warner River, which runs through Hopkinton, Warner, Webster, Sutton and Bradford, as well as 1.1 miles of West Branch Warner River in Bradford, a protected river under New Hampshire’s Rivers Management and Protection program.

Acceptance would allow residents of the river’s communities to form a Local Advisory Council and have a formal say in how the river is used. It would also establish certain “zones” that would regulate allowed usage. In total, 20.1 miles of river would be incorporated into the program. Acceptance would create a chain of protected river land that would start with the Warner River, flow into the Contoocook River, then into the Merrimack.

The public support the measure has garnered was not lost on senators and members of the public who spoke during a public hearing on the bill. The nomination has been endorsed by all five town municipal boards, as well as dozens of environmental and conversation groups.

For some, that support signaled a change in feelings about river land being under state protection.

Sen. Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, a member of the committee and a co-sponsor of the bill, said he remembers when the Pemigewasset River was up for nomination in 1991, three years after the program began. People felt differently back then, he said.

According to the state’s Department of Environmental Services, public support for designating the Pemi as a protected river was split, with equal opposition and support displayed at public hearings and through “several hundred letters.” A majority of the opposition to the nomination came from the towns of Thornton and Campton, according to documents from the state’s Department of Environmental Services.

“There was huge opposition,” Bradley said after the hearing. “It’s remarkable to see there’s just a handful of people opposed to it. I think it’s telling that the program is as its advertised – it doesn’t put undue property restrictions on owners.”

According to DES, 19 rivers representing 990 river miles are protected under the program.

Several supporters of the bill testified that the program would still allow for local control of the river, noting that local ordinances and the Shoreline Protection Act would supersede any suggestions the Local Advisory Council would have.

“The most that happens is that landowners would get information sent out by the management committee,” said state Rep. Judith Sprang, D-Durham.

But committee Chairman Sen. Kevin Avard, R-Nashua, wanted to be sure of that, noting multiple times that there was just one person present opposed to the project on the grounds that it would affect future hydropower on the river.

That perspective was represented by state Rep. Natalie Wells, R-Warner, who said she had been contacted by several of her constituents about the bill. She said the zoning that occurs when a river is accepted into the program – either natural, rural, rural-community or community, which determine what use would be allowed on that section of the river – would prevent future development, noting that current landowners may someday sell.

“The proposal states that designation of the Warner River would create an intermunicipal forum,” Wells said. “It’s not clear to why this elaborate involvement is needed for towns to talk to each other. They should already be doing that.”

The river has 13 historic dam sites, most of which are ruined, according to Sam Durfee, assistant planner with the Central New Hampshire Regional Planning Commission. All but one of those dams would be located in a community zone, where hydropower dams are allowed.

(Caitlin Andrews can be reached at 369-3309, candrews@cmonitor.com or on Twitter at @ActualCAndrews.)