© Copyright 2011, by Karl Meyer

(the following OpEd, appeared in the Greenfield Recorder, www.recorder.com , on 8/31/11)

A new Ecosystem Gamble: know when to hold’em; know when to run…

Some deals just smell fishy—like one for the Connecticut River being cooked up by global giant FirstLight/GDF-Suez and the US Fish & Wildlife Service and the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission (CRASC.)   Today CRASC, US F&WS and MA Div. of Fish & Wildlife are pushing a deal ignoring ongoing damage to federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon and federal-trust American shad.  It prioritizes retrenching the river’s migrating fish in FirstLight’s Turners Falls power canal—filled with slicing turbines, stress-filled currents and silt.  It’s this ecosystem’s black hole, crippling fisheries restoration here for decades–literally at the doorstep of the federal Conte Fish Lab in Turners Falls, MA where CRASC meets.

CRASC meetings can be Orwellian. The USFWS’s John Warner all but stated at an August 3rd meeting that the river’s only spawning population of federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon were immaterial to talks he’s leading.  Their ancient spawning grounds, just beyond Conte Lab’s west window, weren’t documented when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) license currently governing Northfield MT-Turners Falls hydro operations was signed in 1978.  So Endangered Species Act be damned, those fish don’t count.

UMass professor Dr. Boyd Kynard, an expert on many of the world’s endangered sturgeons who consults on fish passage behavior at large river dams including the Yangtze and upper Amazon, might disagree.  In a book on 20 years of sturgeon research slated for December publication, Kynard and colleagues cite manipulated hydro flows in a 2 mile stretch below the Turners Falls dam and canal as contributing to significant breeding failure for shortnose sturgeon.  Sentences from adjoining paragraphs fall out like this: “Flow regulation at Rock Dam makes spawning for shortnose sturgeon impossible during most years.” And, “Peaking operation of Cabot Station causes discharge shifts that have deleterious effects on spawning success of shortnose sturgeon.”  On March 12, 2010, FERC notified FirstLight they’d failed to comply with licensed provisions for “minimum flow” for those sturgeon during fall 2009.

When I asked Mr. Warner about any existing notes from talks with FirstLight, he wouldn’t give a direct answer.  Make no mistake, what’s being cooked up is a de-facto reopening of the current 40 year FERC hydro license governing conditions and flows from FirstLight’s Northfield Mt.-Turners Falls operations–only it sidesteps details like public input, endangered species, and disclosure.  Until caught last year, FirstLight used the river as its flush-sink for 65,000 tons of silt at its Northfield MT plant during peak migration and spawning season. Clean Water Act, be damned.

CRASC is the protector-of-record for the river’s ocean migrants and ecosystem, our federal trust.  They’re excited FirstLight is now interested in negotiating migratory fish passage—though river, fish, and fish passage protection and enhancements are mandated under federal law, and included in the current license.  CRASC’s never demanded them.  Instead of negotiating critical flows for shad–and spawning shortnose sturgeon documented since 1993 on Conte Lab’s doorstep, they’re again blithely substituting a canal restoration for a river restoration.

“Trust us,” say USFWS and CRASC, “We’ll protect the river–we just have to wait until the next full 40-year FERC license negotiation in 2018.”  But they’ve failed for 40 years now, emphasizing their salmon “restoration” which returned 107 fish this year; and its hundred million dollar federal (genetic hybrid)salmon hatchery system—essentially a jobs-program that’s never produced  a single, fishable-fish for this river.  It’s been CRASC–formerly “The New England Cooperative Fisheries,” that’s repeatedly abetted channeling 90% of the river’s migratory fish into a meat grinder: Turners Falls canal.  Fish don’t emerge from the other side.

Hydro companies like to use a river like there’s tomorrow–like they own it.  Their interests are profit; the weight of water shunted through turbines.  Ecosystem-protections don’t maximize profit.  USFWS’s John Warner, negotiating with FirstLight, admits any new river help from a 2018 license may take “until 2025” to be implemented by a foot-dragging company.  Yet everyone’s lining up with FirstLight’s “canal-first” idea—when they should be prosecuting for sustaining river flows, and prioritizing direct fish passage up the Connecticut’s currently-crippled reach to a lift at Turners Falls dam.  Several CRASC’s partnering scientists at Conte Lab are being paid by FirstLight—for ongoing fish passage studies in the TF canal.  With federal scientists on your payroll, how can you lose?

New England’s River can’t survive another losing hand.  Unlinking ecosystem-sustaining flows and fish-lift passage at Turners Falls dam from the current canal-restoration scheme is a recipe for disaster that could set a failed restoration back another half century.  Negotiate a sustainable river first.  If CRASC and USFWS allow themselves to be slow-danced into repeating a dead-end canal configuration for the Connecticut, its renewed use will be cited by the power company as an endorsement of its suitability as the best upstream route for migratory runs when a new 40-year license is negotiated in 2018.  Nothing is further from the truth.  Today, 44 years and three states shy of CRASC’s 1967 MA, VT and NH restoration goals, ecosystem fish runs choke to a halt in the Turners Falls power canal.

(* note: the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission is holding an emergency Tech Committee Meeting, tomorrow, Sept. 23, at 10:00 a.m., at 1 Migratory Way, in Turners Falls at the Conte Lab.  Use the 11th Street Bridge to cross the Canal, then take a left.  ALSO, the full CRASC meets on Sept. 29th, same time, same place.  Though not publicized, these are PUBLIC meetings with your public officials calling the shots.  There is currently NO Massachusetts “public representative on CRASC, the seat has sat empty for 3 -plus years.)

Writer Karl Meyer of Greenfield, MA, has served on the boards of two watershed associations and is former member of the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Safety Committee.  Reach him and read more at: www.karlmeyerwriting.com