The following essay/OpEd appeared in the Connecticut River basin this month–printed in The Recorder, Greenfield, MA; The Daily Hampshire Gazette, Northampton, MA; The Times-Argus, Montpelier, VT; and the Montague Reporter, Montague, MA, among others.  It was submitted with the working title: “A long-owed debt on New England’s River.”  Here I have used the tag-line that appeared in the Gazette.

Karl Meyer                                                                 Copyright © 2011 by Karl Meyer

A long-owed debt on New England’s River

Given a chance to fix the ocean connection on the Connecticut River—the migratory fish link severed at Turners Falls, MA, since John Adams was president, wouldn’t you do it?  If that chance was blown decades back and you had a second shot to rescue New England’s River, you’d do the right thing, right?

The fate of our river for generations to come is currently being decided, out of the public eye.   Agencies responsible for the public trust are negotiating with global giant GFD-Suez/FirstLight.  Negotiators include Caleb Slater of the MA Div. of Fisheries & Wildlife, John Warner of the US Fish & Wildlife Service Field Office, Julie Crocker of NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, and NOAA attorney Kevin Collins.  Talks center on crippled fish passage at Turners Falls–and the fix, long overdue there under provisions in the current federal license controlling Northfield Mountain-Turners Falls hydro operations.

But the proposals under discussion mirror the worst decision made for the Connecticut River since 1978: continuing to send migrating fish into a trap–the Turners Falls power canal.  The reparation talks were announced at a 2010 Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission (CRASC) meeting.  They should have been in place back in 1998, the halfway point in that license.  Ongoing fish passage improvements are a mandated part of FirstLight’s 40 year license, compensation for profiting from use of the public’s river.  Yet studies from the 1980s proved using that canal as a migration conduit was a mistake.

What’s under discussion appears a surrender of the river to conditions surprisingly well-aligned with the unencumbered water-use desires of a for-profit company.  It forces shad and herring into a stress-laden environment nothing like a river–leading to more roiling waters at the powerhouse, where this run has died for centuries.  The one difference is that fish would get an elevator lift into alien, muck-laden habitat–instead of up useless salmon ladders in place since 1980.  Federal Conte Fish Lab scientists continue repeating studies remarkably similar to those of two decades ago, with FirstLight helping fund them.  Yet “improvements” recently touted at US Fish & Wildlife symposium are worse than numbers seen a quarter century back.

Engineers and biologists refer to it as the “by-pass reach.” It’s the Connecticut’s dead reach, the curving, 2-mile, river chasm of ancient shale directly below Turners Falls dam.  It once teemed with migratory life.  Today, flying in the face of federal law, environmental statute and license requirements, this critical river segment goes largely ignored and unregulated–unchallenged in the courts by public agencies and environmental interests.

The “dead reach” is subject, alternately, to withering, water-starved days when flows are cut to a trickle beneath FirstLight’s gates—or, to punishing, quick-changing flood tides there, pushed downstream from their nearby Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage plant.  Giant surges of water pulse into the river through turbines beneath its 5.6 billion gallon mountain reservoir to take advantage of price spikes on the energy “spot” market.  It wreaks havoc with fish and the river.  Like prior owner Northeast Utilities, GDF-Suez wants to continue its punishing practices below the dam—a crippled trench used by federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon.

Those unchecked operations force most migrants to abandon the river below Turners Falls–tricked out of the channel by out-flow from the power canal downstream, and forced “upstream” into its pummeling flows.  Just a tiny portion of migrants succeed in that industrial “by-pass.”  Stressed, depleted, faced with confused currents and an expanse of muck-filled canal leading to more roiling waters near the powerhouse, the fish simply stop migrating.  Shad and herring surrender their upstream spawning impulse at Turners Falls, languishing for weeks in the wide sections of canal—habitat best suited to carp and pond fish.  Barely three fish in a hundred ever pass toward Vermont-New Hampshire waters.

The solution at Turners Falls is simple: build the long-overdue fish lift at the dam, and return regulated spring flows to the crippled “dead reach.”  That simple solution has been in place at Holyoke dam since 1955–the most successful fish passage on the East Coast.  FirstLight, sanctioned by the EPA for dumping 45,000 cubic square yards of silt pollution into the Connecticut last year, can then use that mid-May-early-June window of low electricity demand for mucking-out their power canal, as well as silt in that mountain reservoir.  They’ll then be in compliance when bids begin on a new license, for 2018.

This is New England’s River; these are New England’s fish.  Biologists agree a lift at the dam with ample water in that riverbed will restore the first a bona fide ocean connection to Vermont and New Hampshire since 1798.  With mega-millions spent on a federal program that produced 51 salmon last year, it’s time both fisheries officials and dam owners got the real job done.  Building that lift makes decades of failure and unfulfilled obligations a thing of the past.

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Environmental journalist and award-winning children’s author Karl Meyer writes often about the Connecticut River from Greenfield, MA: