Copyright © 2014, by Karl Meyer 

                          River Science Dead Ends…Again

Since 1980 it’s been clear the Turners Falls power canal is a dead end for the Connecticut River’s American shad migration.  Thirteen years of federal fish research in that watery rabbit hole only serves to reinforce the point.    

A Federal Energy Regulatory Commission inquiry of US Geological Survey Conte Fish Lab researchers in Turners Falls, MA, found that it takes a radio-tagged American shad an average of eight days to swim the 2-1/2 miles from the end of the Turners Falls power canal to an area near the dam.  A person can stroll those same 2-1/2 miles along the Canal Side Rail Trail to the dam (basically the entire TF power canal) in less than 45 minutes.  So, what’s dragging these fish down?

Things are becoming clearer as information dribbles out from Conte Lab’s endless fish passage studies in the Turners Falls power canal via the FERC hydro-relicensing process on the Connecticut River.  What’s obvious is how little we know about conditions encountered by the thousands of migrating shad forced into the private canal.  Nor do we have any definitive science describing what happens to tens of thousands of shad that choose their ancient migratory route directly up the Connecticut to Turners Falls Dam.  These are fish seeking passage toward Gill, Millers Falls, and Northfield, MA; Brattleboro and Bellows Falls, VT; and Chesterfield and Walpole, NH.  That dam holds back migration-sustaining flow to feed FirstLight’s deregulated pumped-storage hydro plant inside Northfield Mountain.   

The first thing noticed from a FERC memo dated January 27, 2014, is that the 2008 – 2012 studies from the USGS fish lab are being provided “with the caveat that they contain preliminary data that is subject to revision and that the reports have not been subject to independent peer review.”  In short, this un-vetted research does not meet some basic scientific benchmarks for making long range decisions on river regulation.  And, while conducted by federal researchers, some of it is over a half decade old, while all of it’s been subsidized with power company funds.

Today just one-fish-in-ten passes upstream through that canal to the river beyond TF dam–no better than averages tallied there in the mid-1980s.  So why has hydro-company FirstLight had access to this study information over these years while the public has gone wanting?   And when do study findings from 2008, 2009 or 2010 get finalized—when do they get published and made available for peer review?  Is this public-science, or private consulting?  How much weight can FERC accord them?

Here are further tidbits from a January 30, 2014 memo released by FERC.  They’re from a follow-up phone call between FERC’s Ken Hogan and Conte Lab’s Dr. Ted Castro-Santos, a principal investigator in the Turners Falls canal studies.  “Specifically, Mr. Hogan sought information from Dr. Castro-Santos on the duration of the upstream migration of adult shad within the Turners Falls power canal.”  Though there isn’t an exact transcription for the public record, we do have this telling quote: “Dr. Castro-Santos stated that duration of the radio-tagged shad migration within the power canal from Cabot Station to the vicinity of the Gatehouse, is a median of 8-days.”

Examined carefully, the language of Dr. Castro-Santos’s reply is specifically—vague.  What it reveals is that most tagged spawning-run shad take over a week to swim less than 30 city blocks.  Some take much longer.  But on average that’s a full four days to swim the mile from The Farren Care Center to 18th Street, and another four days to fin the last 18 blocks to 1st Street–the “vicinity” of the dam.  Castro-Santos specifically describes fish as reaching “the vicinity of the Gatehouse.”   “Vicinity” in this instance, is exculpatory language.  It means shad experience further delay here, with some not proceeding upstream past TF dam.  It describes another fatal choke point in the power canal configuration–underscoring failed engineering, fish passage, and science. 

Curiously, Dr. Castro-Santos has noted at fisheries meetings that a small segment of the shad population that does manage to thread the canal maze and emerge above Turners Falls Dam to continue upstream arrives at the base of Vermont’s Vernon Dam just 1-1/2 to 2 days later.  That’s a 20 mile swim in 36-48 hours.  After 14 years of study and 34 years of excruciatingly poor fish passage through that canal towards the 50 miles of empty Connecticut River spawning habitat upstream, the only explanation for shad taking 8 days to arrive at the “vicinity” of the dam through a 2-1/2 mile-long canal is this: it’s a failure. 

 What’s dragged these fish down?—clearly an alien migration route, unasked questions and poor public science.  But electricity demand eases in spring; and FERC is asking good questions now.  Federal statutes require working fish passage and river flows that facilitate the time-sensitive spawning and migration requirements of the public’s fish.  Those requirements have clearly not been met at Turners Falls these last 34 years.  FERC releases its Study Plan Determination for new science required for hydro-relicensing on February 17th.

Note: new book on restoring East Coast migratory fish runs: Running Silver: Restoring Atlantic Rivers and Their Great Fish Migrations, by John Waldman, published by Lyons Press.  A good read, with fine, thought-provoking writing—and plenty to chew on about the Connecticut River including takes on the Turners Falls power canal migration route, river rats, and researchers.  www.LyonsPress.com