A RIVER RETROSPECTIVE

Copyright © 2011 by Karl Meyer                                                               January 2011

All Rights Reserved

(This essay, with small edits, appeared in The Recorder and the Rutland Herald in early January.)

The year 2010 echoed the worst of times for New England’s Great River.  Last January 7th, radioactive tritium was found leaking at Entergy’s aging Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, right to the river’s edge.  The plume continues.  As of December 15th, still-rising tritium levels at wells next to the river registered 495,000 picocuries per liter–25-times the EPA safe drinking water standard.  Yet on November 18th, Entergy halted the groundwater extraction that slowed the radionuclide flow to the river.

May 3, 2010, witnessed Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage’s massive failure in what should have been routine maintenance.  They had not removed the sediments from their huge reservoir since 1990.  In this disaster giant turbines and the mile-long tunnel to the river were cemented shut by slumped, hardening sediment.  Owner FirstLight/GDF Suez began quietly shoveling the stuff into the river.  Daily, for 3 months, the equivalent of 40 – 50 dump truck loads of sediment poured in—up to 45,000 cubic square yards by its own estimate.

EPA counsel Michael Wagner says that on June 23rd a boater’s tip noting “a very visible plume of turbid water coming from the area of the Northfield Mountain facility” arrived at its Office of Ecosystem Protection.  EPA’s initial inspection wasn’t until July 15th–with a “cease and desist” order not coming until August 4th for Clean Water Act violations “in the navigable waters of the United States.”  Only 1/3 of the pollution was retrieved; 30,000 cubic square yards were simply flushed away–an oxygen- and-light-robbing assault on the fish, amphibians and myriad invertebrates that are the life of a river.  FirstLight was not fined.

For seven months, silt-choked Northfield produced not a watt of electricity; yet there was no hint of an energy shortage.  It begs the question: how critical, and of what value to the public are these power plants–as they abuse the letter and spirit of federal licenses and environmental laws in profiting from the public’s river?  In the 1950s the Connecticut was famously dubbed “the most beautifully landscaped sewer in America.”  Industry used it as a latrine; agencies and officials ignored it.  The 50s seem to be creeping back.

A further example: a decade back, the already-dismal annual fish passage success for hundreds of thousands of American shad reaching Turners Falls began to hover around 1%–as close to a 1950’s dead-at-the-dam-run as you get.  That began in 1999, when electricity deregulation came to the 7 miles of river comprising the Northfield Mountain/Turners Falls hydro-complex, and Northfield ramped-up its up-and-down manipulation of flows and river levels to profit from short-term energy price spikes.  The rapid fluctuations are experienced acutely at Turners Falls, as the shad attempt to pass upstream.

Last May, without foresight or pointed experimentation from the $12 million federal Conte Fish Lab in Turners, or the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission (CRASC)–the 40 year old state/federal fisheries partnership charged with protecting migratory shad, Northfield inadvertently created its own science experiment by shutting down for 29 weeks.  Some 16,768 shad–the most since 1995, passed Turners dam–an 800% –1,000% increase over the decade’s annual averages.

Those counts, made by Greenfield Community College with FirstLight funding, are suspect and likely low.  Counting equipment crashed on 17 different days at the dam’s “spillway ladder”–the one shad negotiate most effectively.  It’s accessed only when rare, ample flows are released at the dam to the river’s natural bed.  Shad will then by-pass a treacherous ladder two miles south at the canal, and swim directly upriver to the dam.  Shad surged there following a May 27th deluge.  Sadly, 7 more days of data was lost when “gatehouse” counting equipment failed.  Turners “daily” fish counts were AWOL for nearly a month.  Yet even with broken data the impacts of Northfield-Turners flows–long-ignored in lieu of Conte and CRASC’s failed $500-million salmon restoration (51 fish this year), come into stark relief.

It’s 2011, not 1950.  Yet the year’s best river science arose from a giant mistake—and some of its best protection resulted from a citizen picking up a phone.  It’s time for an all-new fisheries commission–and for Northfield-Turners hydro owners to build the fish lift the public’s been owed there for over a decade.  Vermont Yankee’s record speaks for itself: it’s time to shut down.

Greenfield, MA writer and author Karl Meyer writes frequently about the Connecticut River. He followed the shad run by bicycle from Long Island Sound to Bellows Falls, VT, last spring.