This article appears in the current(May-June) issue of the Pioneer Valley News, a small, bimonthly news-magazine available, free, at various Valley locations.

The Devolution of a River Restoration: killing the Connecticut softly

by Karl Meyer                                   Copyright © 2011 by Karl Meyer

May 5, 2010.  7:30 a.m:

THWACK!  Standing next to the pulsing waters of the Rainbow Fishway on the Farmington River in Windsor, CT, I’d just received a watery slap in the face from a 280 million year-old living fossil.  I was travelling by bicycle, heading to the Holyoke dam from Old Saybrook, CT at Long Island Sound.  I’d left the Sound the day before, with a final destination of Bellows Falls, VT, following the Connecticut River’s fish migration upstream.  But I just had to stop at this storied tributary.  Astonished, I stared at the frothy spot where a 2-1/2 foot sea lamprey had just been cemented to the concrete wall of a 34 year-old salmon ladder–its suctioning mouth holding it in the wild current.  Now, it was gone.

Wiping the spray from my cheek, I look upstream to the next frothing pool.  There, peeking just above the water like a spy-hopping whale is my lamprey.  Its snakelike body flutters in the current while its round, jawless-mouth keeps it fused to the concrete as if joined by Crazy Glue.  Two flooded basins downstream, three more lamprey do the exact same thing; in the pool beyond, another, nearly as thick as my arm, waves like a streamer in violent water.

THWACK!—another sprits of Farmington water hits me.  In a flash, the ropey, mottled-brown fish disappears, only to emerge a second later in the next higher pool, glomming onto the steep wall.  Its rudimentary gills writhe like bellows in the froth as they siphon needed oxygen.

I am witnessing a miracle of tenacity and evolution as these ancient fish scale an impossible fishway.  I’m also witnessing everything that is wrong with the Connecticut River basin’s failed 44 year-old federal-state migratory fish restoration here at the first dam on Farmington River–the longest tributary in the state of Connecticut.

This fishway is a trap.  It kills fish.  In fact, the Rainbow Fishway kills most of the fish the New England Cooperative Fisheries were charged with restoring way back in 1967—the American shad and blueback herring that once fed humans along 172 miles of the Connecticut River, as well as up tributaries like this one–all the way from Long Island Sound to Bellows Falls, VT.

In 1976, state and federal fisheries officials came up with the design here—a ponderously steep ladder with punishing flows charging through rasping, pebble-ridden concrete slots not much wider than a splayed hand.  It was based on West Coast ladders designed for Pacific salmon–here to be used for the Atlantic salmon, extinct in the Connecticut River since 1809.  From day one, Rainbow proved a killer.  For the past 35 years this ladder has drawn spawning-run shad and blueback herring upstream to its watery promise by the tens of thousands—only to flay them alive in repeated attempts to pass.  Those that succeed expire soon after reaching the top, their reward for tenacity.  In total, Rainbow Fishway has quietly killed more migrating shad and herring–classified as “federal trust fish,” than it has ever assisted.

Lacking scales, a’ la salmon, the scrappy sea lamprey is this fishway’s—and the Connecticut River restoration’s, single, unequivocal, unintended success.  By the end of the 2010 spawning season Rainbow had passed a grand total of 4 hybrid salmon.  But 3,090 sea lamprey made it out the top of Rainbow–exhausted, but otherwise uninjured.  Concurrently, those narrow, flaying, concrete slots injured and likely killed all 548 American shad and 25 blueback herring that were counted as “passing” the fishway.  That number is a trick.  The counting window is located in the bottom third of those 64 treacherous pools–where hapless, de-scaling migrants still have a wrinkle of life left in them when the staff checks them off.

By 1970, just three years after its start, fisheries officials had turned the basics of Connecticut River migratory fish restoration on its head–placing the extinct salmon as priority one, and relegating American shad and blueback herring to poor step-child status.  Their overarching federal mandate was to create “high quality sport fishing opportunities” in the Connecticut basin, and to “provide for the long-term needs of the population for seafood.”  The large, sporty American shad was the top fish named in that mandate; followed by the extinct salmon, and then those migratory herring.  Federal and state managers were entrusted with both river ecology and fish runs. At Rainbow, they crushed the possibilities of both.

Historically, for millennia, American shad fed Native Peoples and later European immigrants throughout the Connecticut Valley.  Herring were salted and eaten too, and used in livestock feed and fertilizer. Here, that extinct salmon had colonized the Connecticut River system just a few hundred years prior at the very southern edge of their cold-water range–during the Little Ice Age in New England, 1400 – 1800 AD, a time of shifting ocean currents and unusual cold for Northern Europe and Northeastern North America.

The salmon were large but few—amounting to perhaps one fish in five thousand in the annual runs of migratory fish.  Though tasty, they never fed the populace.  And, with warming Atlantic currents and the first dams on the Connecticut, the salmon run had died off by 1809.  Yet, in 1976, fisheries officials built this fish trap in the name of salmon, fueled by their trophy fish desires.  It flew in the face river ecology principals, and it has crippled fish restoration on the Farmington and depleted the Connecticut River’s migratory fish stocks for decades.  Four salmon used this ladder in 2010.  Four.

One biologist refers to Rainbow Fishway as “the world’s greatest shad de-scaler.”  That’s what it does–it rakes the scales off hapless two foot-long American shad, drawn into those narrow slots by the upstream current.  Thousand perish annually.  With bellies flayed raw in the effort, they either wash back down downstream, or expire after reaching the top of the dam.  The smaller, foot-long herring receive the same fate.  And the public hasn’t a clue.  Remarkably, Rainbow holds an “open house” each June, with smiling state fisheries personnel standing over a few listless shad, live-trapped at the base of the dam.  They politely explain how the system functions…  The place is a PETA protest waiting to happen.

Though few people admire this member of an ancient order of jawless fish, I’m watching a miraculous creature—one that does nearly everything a salmon restoration effort on the Connecticut never will.  The wonderfully adapted sea lamprey is ghoulish-looking.  They appear more eel-like than fish, but they are fish indeed.  They were thriving before the glaciers arrived here—indeed, living-well before even the molten rise of the Holyoke Range and the ancient layers of earth rose and parted to later become Turners Falls. Sea lamprey were making a good living 200 million years before dinosaurs laid tracks here in the fogs of Valley pre-history.

Lamprey are large, but hardly sexy.  They are writhers, not leapers.  Indeed, upon hatching they will spend well over half an unglamorous decade rooted and waving like worms in riverbed silts, growing slowly as they filter nutrients and detritus from the downstream current.  Then, in an amazing transformation, they head to the sea to spend the final two years of their decade-plus lifespan in the open ocean, maturing quickly into two- and three- foot fish who making a living as ocean parasites attached to larger fish–using their sucking-disc mouths full of hundreds of needle-like teeth to draw in nutrition.

Then, come spring– blind, fasting, and loosing those teeth, they return to the Connecticut River tributaries of their birth to spawn.  Using their powerful sucking jaws, the male and female will move fist-sized rocks to create a rounded rock nest called a redd– remarkably similar to one a salmon would make.  That rock-corral will catch the doomed couple’s fertilized eggs after spawning.  Their life-cycles complete, upon spawning all adult lamprey perish, leaving both their thousands of tiny eggs and their rotting carcasses to the clear-running reaches of Connecticut River tributaries.

In a 2007 study, Drs. Keith Nislow and Boyd Kynard of the UMass-Amherst Dept. of Natural Resources and Conservation surveyed the results of 20 years of sea lamprey spawning research on the Fort River–a Connecticut tributary in Hampshire County, MA.  Their findings show that the quick-rotting carcasses left by spawned-out adult lamprey contribute critical ocean-derived nutrients–including phosphorus and nitrogen, to freshwater systems at a time when other spring nutrient sources are largely unavailable to freshwater organisms.  In short, dead, unlovable, lamprey carry needed “seafood” to our streams—like salmon on the West Coast.

Though you can’t hook’em, sea lamprey were eaten in former times in Hampshire County, and also fed to the hogs, according to Sylvester Judd’s posthumous, 1863, History of Hadley, 1905 edition: “Lampreys came above the falls in great numbers, and entered the streams that run into the Connecticut, until the Holyoke dam was built in 1849.  They were very numerous in Fort River in Hadley, below Smith’s mills, and were caught by the light of torches, sometimes several hundred in a night.  Men waded into the stream, and grasped them with a mittened hand and placed them in a bag…  Some were eaten in a few towns in old Hampshire, but most were carried to Granby, Simsbury and other towns on the Connecticut.”

I’d actually left Simsbury, CT that very morning—biking the six miles to Rainbow Fishway.  It was still early, 8:10, but no one was around.  The gate, supposedly open at 8 a.m., was still locked.  I’d snuck in.  Special “salmon transport” trucks sat idle in a fenced-off area.  The thwack-splash of lamprey was ever present–but no sign of a single shad, herring or salmon, living or dead.  I backtracked over Hatchet Hill to the Farmington River bikeway as jets from nearby Bradley Airport roared above.  I’d make my way through Granby, then across Southwick and Westfield, MA on my way to the Holyoke dam, some 30 miles distant.  I’d told a friend I’d meet him by noon.

By 12:15, I was rolling through the streets of Holyoke, down to the Connecticut and the Holyoke dam at South Hadley Falls.  Grabbing my wallet, I left my loaded bike, and headed over the cement wall to the river near Slim Shad Point.  There, a dozen guys are waist deep in the river, flicking shad darts into an ample current.  My friend Tony is one of them.  They’ve had some luck this morning.  Upstream, the river makes a low roar rolling over the dam and through the spillway at Holyoke Gas & Electric’s generating plant.

I was hoping to catch Tony for lunch, but he’s too involved.  Shad fever, they call it.  He greets me, can hardly turn around—so intent is he on the catch.  “Sorry, I can’t stop,” he says.

One of his compadres, getting that I’d biked from Long Island Sound just the day before, chides, “Geez, he won’t even leave the water to shake this guy’s hand.”  Tony does offer me one tidbit though, “Karl, you’ll never guess what a guy caught this morning.”  From his tone, it’s obvious, a salmon.  “Thirty-three inches,” he laughs, “tossed it back in.”

Though classified as “extirpated” by the USFWS, you still cannot catch or keep the Connecticut hybrid they’ve created through a series of $ million-dollar hatcheries across New England.  Just a few dozen from the millions of industrial-hybrid salmon fry dumped in Connecticut River tributaries each spring grow and survive to adulthood to swim back from the ocean each year.  “Too bad he didn’t keep it,” I say, “We could’ve had a barbeque!”  The fishermen laugh.

I grab my bike and walk the quarter mile back to the Holyoke Fishway next to the dam.  This fishway is the prototype for what should have been the Connecticut River’s successful fish restoration.  Built in 1955, it is the East Coast’s oldest and most successful fish passage facility.  Since 1848, all migratory fish here had been blocked by Holyoke dam.  In its first year, the lift installed here passed over 5,000 American shad–more than the total number of hybrid salmon that have returned over the entire 44 year salmon program—a hatchery based effort that has cost taxpayers well over a half billion dollars.

Simple, direct, elegant—over the last half century the elevators have successfully passed tens of millions of fish upstream here—all kinds, all species—including shad, herring, lamprey, salmon—even endangered shortnose sturgeon.  The design is common-sense-simple: a square, water-filled elevator with one swinging-door side that closes behind fish drawn to it by an ample flow of downstream “attraction” current.  You corral the fish; close the side door–and lift them over the dam.  Done.  A winner, this design is what they might have copied 21 years later, when they built Rainbow.  But they went for sexy, they went for salmon.  Today, they are left with a festering, open sore.

A public viewing site, this is opening day at Holyoke Fishway.  Two of the fishway guides greet me as an old friend, “They’re here,” they assure me.  I climb the stairs.  Scores of shiny blue-green shad are nervously milling in the windows.  A few lamprey are here as well–all waiting to be released upstream.  There are no herring, no salmon, but a lone white sucker lurks near the bottom of the tank.  Still, this window is full of promise–agitated, determined life.

It’s early in the run; the shad are mostly males—sleek, wiry, “bucks” about two feet long.  I check the bulletin board: already 15,000 have passed here.  By season’s end that number will be 164,000, hardly a record.  In 1978 this fishway was further improved by adding a second fish elevator.  The fish runs blossomed.  By the mid-1980s totals of shad and herring here averaged nearly a million fish passing annually.

In 1992, a record 720,000 American shad were lifted at Holyoke dam, as well as 310,000 blueback herring.  But it’s been downhill ever since.  The key reason: in 1978–two years after the Rainbow Fishway became operational, federal and state fisheries experts ordered a second fish trap built—this one at the Connecticut’s next upstream dam from Holyoke’s simple fish elevators: Turners Falls.  If Rainbow proved an ugly slap in the face for the Farmington, the design they insisted on for passing migratory fish blocked at Turners Falls since the time of George Washington proved a devastating blow to fish restoration throughout the Connecticut River basin.

Renamed the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission (CRASC) in 1983, it was this same group of federal and state fisheries directors in 1978 that insisted Northeast Utilities build another system based on Pacific salmon and the Columbia River at Turners Falls.  NU was obligated to create and improve fish passage under federal environmental law and regulatory statutes.  It is an ongoing obligation of all owners of federal generating licenses on the Connecticut, including the current owner—multi-national FirstLight GDF-Suez, a mandate that operators must accept for being allowed to profit from use of the public’s river.  NU, and now FirstLight-GDF Suez, derive great profits from using our river’s power at their Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage-Turners Falls hydro generating complex along a 7-mile stretch of the Connecticut.  Once this new design was completed as requested, it was agreed that no major changes in fish passage would be advanced again until mid-way through the 40-year Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) license—1998.

Completed in 1980, the Turners Falls Fishway proved another day-one disaster—but on a much grander scale.  Federal-state studies from the 1980s quickly documented the failure.  But fisheries officials took little action.  Though the new Turners Falls fish passage complex didn’t kill fish outright, it essentially strangled this river migration’s ancient, upstream connection with the sea right where it had died when a dam was built here in 1798.  Rather than build a proven elevator at the dam suited to all species, they turned the migrating runs out of the ancient riverbed and forced them to attempt an upstream run through the punishing flows and the barren, silt-and-muck habitats of the Turners Falls Canal.

Annually, hundreds of thousands of shad would arrive, but 98 fish out of 100 fish would repeatedly attempt to pass that two miles of alien habitat and fail—met by the harsh pulses and quick-changing pond levels sent downstream from the unchecked operations at the upstream Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage facility.   That promised ocean-fish sport and seafood connection never reached Vermont and New Hampshire.

So intent was this group on resurrecting extinct salmon, that the pact they made with the power company to get their salmon ladders actually yanked the fish out of the Connecticut River.  They forced them up the impossibly treacherous steps of the “Cabot Ladder,” built at the downstream end of Turners Falls Canal.  The design proved so useless that–other than a handful of hybrid salmon and that ever-remarkable, unfishable, sea lamprey, it has crushed any hope for meaningful fish runs to Vermont and New Hampshire waters for these last 30 years.  That tragedy too, continues.

By utilizing the simple lift design achieved at Holyoke 23 years prior, fish officials would’ve restored the remaining 60% of historic upstream spawning reach for American shad and blueback herring all the way to Bellows Falls, VT, 172-miles from the sea, in a single stroke–a site unreachable since 1798.  Today, shad passage continues to teeter at anywhere between 0 – 5 percent at Turners Falls “fishway.”  Though it doesn’t de-scale shad, its series of ladders and jumbled currents so stresses and depletes shad energy reserves that they simply stall in the lower part of the system, and eventually wind back down to the bottom—only to begin the whole ugly gauntlet over again the next day.  The few that reach the top and enter the canal simply stop migrating at that juncture, languishing for weeks in mud-barren habitat that is nothing like a river.  The herring no longer arrive.

The Turners Falls boondoggle was such an embarrassment that CRASC has worked mightily to keep it quiet.  Responsible US Fish and Wildlife Service and state fisheries officials kept mum, partly because the system DID at least work for the few dozen returning salmon.  Costing taxpayers some $10 million per year via hatchery operations, salaries, and grant studies funded through NOAA, the National Science Foundation, state programs—and a byzantine money pipeline, the 44 year-old effort today known as the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission (CRASC) restoration produced 51 returning hybrid salmon last year.  The numbers reaching Holyoke, the first dam on the main stem Connecticut remain startling: 2005—132 fish; 2006—115 fish; 2007—107 fish; 2008—86 fish; 2009—60; 2010—41 fish.  After decades and over a half billion public dollars spent.

The other federal trust fish included for restoration in their mandate—the shad, the herring, continue their inexorable drift toward eventual failure below Turners Falls dam.  CRASC partners at the $12 million federal Conte Anadromous Fish Lab adjacent to the power company’s canal at Turner Falls, continue to do experiment after experiment on the behavior and genetics of tiny hatchery salmon fry and smolts.  They’ve become quite cozy with the recent and current owners of Northfield/TF hydro operations—who donate a paltry tithing of $40,000 per year for fish counting personnel and a few dilatory experiments proving what we knew in 1980—turning fish out of the Connecticut River and into the Turners Falls Canal is a fatal restoration choice.

The ongoing failure of officials and environmental groups to demand the fish elevator owed to the public at Turners Falls dam these last ten years is a complete abrogation of responsibility.  The current flow regimes–ignored by fisheries and regulatory officials, and ramped-up by operators of the Northfield-Turners Falls hydro complex since deregulation in 1998, compounds the treachery of this fish trap with punishing downstream surges in violation of federal environmental laws license requirements.  When I visited the true riverbed at Turners Falls last April 23rd there was virtually no river flow in the stretch of basin utilized by the federally endangered shortnose sturgeon.

It appears that, for the annual price of a mini-van, corporate donations are enough to keep dithering fisheries scientists and CRASC partners quiet next to that canal–experimenting on an extinct hybrid of a cold-loving species on a warming river in a time of documented climate warming.  At a CRASC meeting last year it was revealed that, under a bit of pressure, CRASC representatives from the USFWS and MA Division of Fisheries were beginning to talk with FirstLight about making long-overdue improvements for fish passage at Turners.  They’d already had an initial meeting—one behind closed doors and without public input.

Astoundingly, the solution they are now talking about is replacing the Cabot salmon ladder with a fish elevator at the same site–they are again ready to continue to steer those fish out of the river and into the same treacherous power canal system they abandoned them to in 1980.   Heck, it works for FirstLight–who can then use all the water they please for their 5.6 billion gallon pumped storage operations at Northfield and power generation in the Turners Falls canal, while ignoring the water levels and flows essential to the Connecticut’s biological integrity in the two empty miles of parched riverbed downstream of TF dam.  If that decision comes to pass, the river will essentially remain as it was upstream of the Turners Falls when that barrier was built in 1798–no shad, no herring, no fishing–no ocean connection, no sea food.  A restoration denied.

I hopped back on my bike that May 5th at Holyoke dam, making the final 30 miles to Greenfield by mid-afternoon.  I’d spend a full day at Long Island Sound, and completed 250 miles of river riding in five days.  But it wasn’t until the Friday of Memorial Day weekend that I completed tracing the historic upstream migration route of American shad and blueback herring to Bellows Falls, VT.  That was a “century ride”—a 100 mile round trip in a single day.  I suppose you could say I could’ve saved the bother.  The gates at both the Vernon and Bellows Falls Public Fishways were locked tight.  The reason was simple: there literally are no fish to see.  By season’s end, just 396 fish had reached that Bellows Falls counting site—392 of them were blind, slithering sea lamprey.

Curiously, on May 1st last year, Northfield Mountain ruined its pumping facility in an attempt to clear two decades worth of silt from its giant reservoir.  The downstream impacts of Northfield’s operations on fish migration were silenced for an entire season, into early August.  Even though state fisheries officials have abrogated all fish counting responsibilities to FirstLight, they were hard pressed to explain this amazing outcome: shad passage jumped an astounding 800% at Turners Falls, with nearly 17,000 fish swimming by—the most shad moving upstream since at least 1996.

What fish officials also couldn’t quite explain was this puzzling outcome: only 290 shad were counted at the next dam, just 20 miles upstream at Vernon, VT.   I’m thinking it likely had something to do with that silt from FirstLight’s Northfield Mountain.  Between May 1st and August 4th, FirstLight quietly flushed at least 45,000 cubic square yards of that muck into the Connecticut just five miles upstream of Turners Falls dam—that’s equal to 40-50 dump truck loads of mud fouling the river daily for a period of over three months.  Tired, and faced with that curtain of darkness, you might stop migrating upstream too.

The EPA finally ordered FirstLight to “cease and desist” their polluting of “the navigable waters of the United States” on August 4–the damage already done.

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