Fighting for a River: Legislator, Guide, and River Steward

David Deen, MS ’96, an avid outdoorsman, and fly-fishing guide was elected to the Vermont House of Representatives in 1990, a new legislator determined to be actively involved when it came to environmental legislation.

“I didn’t think I knew enough about the natural resources in terms of my legislative job,” says the Vermont state representative. “We’re a citizen’s legislature; no one’s supposed to be an expert about anything. I just felt like I wanted to be better prepared than I was.”

Deen’s undergraduate work had been in chemistry and English at the University of Connecticut. “It was clear that work didn’t have a whole lot to do with the natural resources arena he wanted to focus on in the legislature,” he says.

“Others, I would say, are better prepared for their chosen fields in the legislature; there are teachers who are on the Education Committee, CPAs, and attorneys on the Ways and Means Committee. They have backgrounds specific to their area of interest; I did not,” he says. “So I figured, ‘Eh, what the hay. Let’s go back to school.’ ”

A Grasp of Natural Systems

After shopping around a little, Deen chose Antioch University New England (AUNE) and its Environmental Studies program. He says what he learned at AUNE has helped him in innumerable ways, especially in his work on the Fish, Wildlife, and Water Resources Committee, of which he is now the chair.

His AUNE classes gave him a better understanding of natural systems, he says. They allowed him to understand reports, to interrogate witnesses during the legislative process, and to challenge, if necessary, the information he’s given. They also helped him craft legislation a few years ago that designated groundwater in Vermont as a public trust resource, putting it into the same class as surface water.

“The resource belongs to all of the people,” he says. “And that designation gives the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources an affirmative responsibility to protect everybody’s access to groundwater and protect the groundwater from pollution.”

Protector of the Connecticut

When he’s not busy with his legislative duties, Deen still has his fly-fishing guide business and is the river steward for the Connecticut River Watershed Council. “My job is to protect the Connecticut River and celebrate all the good things about the river whenever I can,” he says.

He says, “the biggest and perhaps most successful project that he has been involved with as river steward was the relicensing of the 15-Mile Falls hydroelectric facility, on the upper Connecticut River. Three dams together make up the facility, the largest hydroelectric complex in New England.”

“We were able to get significant gains for the river in terms of minimum flows, reservoir fluctuations, dissolved oxygen levels, fisheries improvement just a whole raft of things that became part of the first license for those three dams,” Deen says.

As river steward, Deen has also been involved in trying to stop Entergy Vermont Yankee from discharging hot water from the nuclear power plant into the Connecticut River.

“Again, it goes back to me being a fishing guide,” he says. “In the springtime, during the shad run, I used to be able to offer my fishing guests an opportunity that few had ever participated in, and that was catching an American shad on a fly rod. And the run was healthy and strong, and for years I took people out there and they really enjoyed it. Then around 2004, 2005, the run stopped. So I’ve lost that aspect of my business.”

It wasn’t until years later that he discovered that the shad stopped running exactly three years after Entergy had applied for a permit to discharge its thermal waste, Deen says.

“I finally had, in my mind, the reason for the precipitous decline of American shad above Vernon dam. They were running into that thermal plume and it stopped their migration further upriver.”

He took the issue all the way to the Vermont Supreme Court, which ruled that Vermont Water Quality Standards apply, and so Entergy is reapplying for a permit. (Entergy has announced it will close Vermont Yankee in 2014.)

Deen vows he will “take them on again.”

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