Copyright © 2012 by Karl Meyer.  All rights reserved.

The Connecticut River for the next Half-Century: a federal hydro relicensing process already leaving the public behind.

The only public site visits scheduled in the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) relicensing process for five giant hydro-power facilities and dams operating on the Connecticut River are taking place in less than two weeks.  In Massachusetts few members of the public appear to have been apprized of the opportunity to attend federally-mandated public site tours to GDF-Suez-FirstLight’s Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station and their Turners Falls Dam and Canal generating facilities.  A few news items appeared in the local media about the visits, published less than 48 hours before the deadline to sign up for tours.

Thus, few members of the public registered in time to tour the complex of facilities GDF-Suez operates on a seven-mile long stretch of the Connecticut that profoundly hamper upstream migratory fish runs, and directly impact the annual spawning success of the federally endangered Shortnose sturgeon. The shortnose sturgeon’s Connecticut River spawning grounds are on a short stretch riverbed a mile below the Turners Falls Dam, adjacent to the US Geological Survey’s Silvio O. Conte Anadromous Fish Research Center.

The next chance for the public to visit and judge the impacts these facilities have on New England’s Great River may not come around again for two generations. These site visits are the critical beginnings to a six-year process that will dictate whether or not the Connecticut River is a restored and functioning ecosystem through at least the year 2058.  FERC licenses are issued to corporations for up to 40 years. The Connecticut belongs to the public, but licenses allow the leasing of a certain amount of flow to corporations to produce power, while dictating conditions that will protect the public’s interest in a restored and functioning ecosystem–including migratory and resident fish, and other riverine species and critical habitats.

Today, the Connecticut River ecosystem restoration fails profoundly at approximately river-mile 120, where most of the river’s flow and its upstream migratory fish have been shunted out of the riverbed and into the Turners Falls Power Canal.  Most migrants never emerge upstream of the punishing currents, upwellings, slicing turbines and silt-laden habitats found in the power canal.  The Connecticut River above the Northfield Mountain/Turners Falls hydro facilities has never been restored to anything resembling a functioning ecosystem.

In 1975 hearings before the Federal Power Commission (today’s FERC) that established the fish passage facilities that have failed for decades at Turners Falls, Colton Bridges, then Deputy Director of Massachusetts Fisheries and Wildlife, appeared as a member of the federal/state Connecticut River Fishery Program (established in 1967, and today known as the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission).  Bridges was asked, on the record, about the specific goals of the program:

“The program was designed to establish a run of a million American shad at the river’s mouth and extend their range to historic spawning and nursery grounds near Bellows Falls, Vermont.”

Thirty-seven years later, after Commissioners from four New England States and federally fisheries directors from what is today’s US Fish and Wildlife chose a complex series of Pacific salmon-based fish ladders and the Turners Falls Power Canal as the primary upstream route for migratory fish on the Connecticut, nothing resembling restored fish runs or an ocean-connected ecosystem exists above Turners Falls.

Simply put, those officials chose wrong—and the hangover has impacted this river for decades.

They get just one chance to do it right this time; for all of us.  But again, their silent stance seems to exclude bringing the public in on the process.  No messages or notices on state and federal public websites were posted about site tours and input.  Little or nothing on non-profit, river group sites, either. Once again it’s: “Don’t worry, we’ll take care of this.”  That’s a pretty dangerous position, considering the track record.  State and federal agencies have failed to demand operational changes that should have provided protection of federal-trust American shad, and federally endangered Shortnose sturgeon all these decades.  They have simply kept mum about their little mistake at Turners Falls back in 1975.  It has served no one well, save the power companies.

Dr. Boyd Kynard, an expert on migratory fish behavior and fish passage at large dams who helped established the federal Conte Fish Lab under the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 1990, led studies of the federally endangered Shortnose sturgeon in the Connecticut River at Turners Falls for 17 years.  It’s the fish fisheries officials don’t talk about in public.  Dr. Kynard spent over a decade compiling his work and that of nearly a dozen co-authoring scientists into a book entitled Life History and Behavior of Connecticut River Shortnose and Other Sturgeons, published by the World Sturgeon Conservation Society in Germany last February.  Intervention by the US Geological Survey delayed distribution of the book in the US for several months, and it continues to be difficult to purchase.

However, Dr. Kynard, with permission from the World Sturgeon Conservation Society, released a chapter of the book to me for citation while it was “in-press” back in August of 2011.  Since so few members of the public will get a chance to visit these sites, and since the book is currently only easily available through its chief author, Boyd Kynard, (contact Dr. Boyd Kynard at BK Riverfish, LLC, kynard@eco.umass.edu), I’m printing the abstract from the chapter on spawning and the effects of power company regulation of downstream flows at Turners Falls Dam.  The chapter’s science was done at the federal Conte Lab using funds from UMass, along with federal funding from US Fish & Wildlife Service and USGS.  Kynard’s co-author on this chapter is Micah Keiffer.  Note that the “Rock Dam” is not a conventional dam, but an ancient stone formation in the riverbed, creating a natural spawning pool that Shortnose sturgeon have used for centuries.

Abstract: “During 17 years, we studied the spring spawning migration and spawning of adult Shortnose Sturgeon Acipenser brevirostrum in the Connecticut River, Massachusetts.  Increasing day length (13.4−14.2 h), not increasing temperature (7.0–9.7°C) or river flow during 13 April–2 May likely triggered pre-and non-spawning adults to leave wintering areas and migrate.  Females initiated pre-spawning migration later than males, during lower flows and higher water temperatures, a strategy that conserved energy after wintering.  The pre-spawning migration failed one year (2002), an event probably related to reduced energetic resources of wintering fish caused by high temperatures and low flows during the previous summer foraging and wintering periods.  Pre-spawning adults homed each year to the same 1.4-kilometer-long spawning reach at Montague, Massachusetts, where river current likely determined where spawning occurred: either the Cabot Hydroelectric Station tailrace (area, 2.7 ha) or the Rock Dam, a natural mainstem fast run (area, 0.4 ha).  Spawning occurred when three spawning suitability windows were simultaneously open: (1) day length = 13.9−14.9 h (27 April–22 May), (2) mean daily water temperature = 6.5–15.9°C, and (3) mean daily river discharge = 121–901 m3s-1.  Annual spawning periods were short (3–17 d), which may be typical when only a few females are present.  Spawning periodicity was 1–5 years (mean 1.4 years) for males and 2−10 years (mean 4.5 years) for females.  Peaking operations at Cabot Station did not prevent females from spawning in the tailrace, but likely displaced and stranded early life stages.  During 14 years, spawning at Cabot Station succeeded 10 years and failed 4 years (28.6% failure); while spawning at Rock Dam succeeded 3 years and failed 11 years (78.6% failure).  Spawning failures at Rock Dam were due to river regulation.  Females spawned in a wide range of water velocities (0.2−1.3 m/s); however, the flow regimes created by river regulation and peaking operations exceeded even their broad adaptation for acceptable water velocities.”

* It should also be noted here that not a single representative from the National Marine Fisheries Service the agency federally mandated by Congress to protect the shortnose sturgeon, signed up to tour FirstLight’s power facilities.