May 2013

Monthly Archive

Crunch Time for the Connecticut River: you snooze; you lose…

Posted by on 30 May 2013 | Tagged as: American shad, blueback herring, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Dead Reach, ecosystem, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FirstLight, National Marine Fisheries Service, Rock Dam, US Fish & Wildlife Service

Copyright © 2013, by Karl Meyer

Crunch Time for the Connecticut River: you snooze; you lose

(Note: the following piece appeared earlier this month in the Rutland Herald,, and Times-Argus in Montpelier,, as “Fish Future Hangs in Balance”) 

On May 7th the Holyoke Fish Lift passed 21,608 American shad upstream.  The next day they lifted 44,456—the all-time, single-day record for the Connecticut River.  In two days they’d passed over 66,000 shad–6,000 more than the highest number ever to pass upstream through the Turners Falls power and beyond its dam in a single season.  That occurred back 1992.  Sadly, upstream denizens may never see but a shadow of the ecosystem’s annual run of fish.  Here’s why:

 As April ended, GDF-Suez FirstLight Power cut off flow to the Connecticut below Turners Falls Dam.  Essentially the river died, reduced to a drool of 400 CFS (cubic feet per second) of flow leaking through a wide, 200 million year-old chasm of cobble, bedrock and shale.  In order to remain a working migratory system, 3,000 CFS of flow would’ve been needed to nourish the river below that dam.  Pinching off the flow there ensured that the fittest, early-arriving American shad and any remaining blueback herring (currently candidates for federal endangered species listing) would be forced from the river and into that power canal 2-1/2 miles downstream.

Right at the cusp of spawning season FirstLight diverted at least 97% of river’s flow.  It sent some 16,000 CFS through the dam head gates into the power canal to supply a portion of the region’s base-load electricity.  But beyond that, a still-undisclosed percentage of the Connecticut was gobbled-up to serve the massive pumping and generating operations of the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, five miles upriver.  Tumultuous, tide-like effects created by those operations create a whole different animal.  There, using river water amassed in a five billion-gallon mountaintop reservoir, FL generates electricity via massive surges into- and out-of the riverbed either when demand peaks—or, when prices spike instantly on the electricity “spot market”.  So, while habitats are being deeply impacted by flow manipulations at the dam for Northfield, FirstLight harvest profits form a crippled riverbed.

One result this year is that an unknown number of the last 300 federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon surviving here were forced from their ancient river spawning pool to attempt their spring rite elsewhere.  The overwhelming yearly result is, in retreat from a de-watered river, nearly all upstream migrating fish here are left with no choice but to swim into the flows exiting the Turners Falls canal and turbines 2-1/2 miles downstream.

To successfully get upstream there, fish must move through two miles of alien flows and habitat.  Then they must thread their way through brutal currents, blinding turbulence and tangled cross-currents while approaching the dam’s head gates, where–unknowingly, they are required to locate a tiny canal exit.  If they get this far, all shad and herring must punch through more quickened flow, a final series of steps, and yet another narrow opening through fluctuating water levels at that gatehouse in order to emerge above the dam.  In the best of years less than 1-in-10 shad succeeds.  For most adult fish, any trip through that canal will prove fatal.

If, this year–like at Holyoke, two fish elevators had been installed at the base of Turners Falls Dam, and–if ample flow nourished the river bed, as it does below Holyoke, some 33,000 of those 66,000 Holyoke shad would’ve passed Turners Falls a few days later.  A couple of days after that—say May 13 – 15, some 16,000 shad would’ve begun wriggling their way up the Vernon ladder past Brattleboro and Hinsdale on their way to Walpole and Bellows Falls.  And thousands more would’ve followed.  But with a deadly canal intervening, that just wont’ be happening.

Connecticut River fans anywhere from Turners Falls and Northfield, MA, to Chesterfield, NH and Bellows Falls, VT are currently hoping this ecosystem will be revived through improvements via the federal relicensing of dams at Vernon, Bellows Falls, and Wilder.  But two federal hydro licenses here in Massachusetts for the Northfield Mountain and Turners Falls hydro complex are also up for 2018 renewal.  The hard truth is, if they don’t get it right down here, there won’t be more than a whiff of a renewed ecosystem upstream.  Forget any connection to the sea.  Turners Falls/Northfield really is the ballgame.  An ugly compromise that uses that power canal as an upstream migration route will ensure a functioning river ecosystem and ancient runs of shad and blueback herring to Bellows Falls and Walpole won’t ever materialize.

Public relicensing meetings are taking place at 9 a.m. at the Northfield Mountain Visitor Center, 99 Millers Falls Rd. (Rt. 63), Northfield, MA, on Tues. and Weds., June 4 & 5.  Those ecosystem-shaping decisions will be made by those who participate.

Karl Meyer of Greenfield, MA is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

Dam Relicensing: Diving into the Dead Reach

Posted by on 28 May 2013 | Tagged as: American shad, blueback herring, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Dead Reach, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FERC license, FirstLight, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, National Marine Fisheries Service, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Reservoir, Rock Dam, US Fish & Wildlife Service, US Geological Service’s Silvio O. Conte Anadromous Fish Lab

Watch Diving into the Dead Reach on LOCAL-BIAS: Learn why information about fish mortality in the the deadly Turners Falls Power Canal has been kept from the public these last 14 years.

Tune-in Greenfield Community Television’s (GCTV) Local-Bias Host Drew Hutchison and guest Karl Meyer, and find out what happened when he went snorkeling in this critical segment of the Connecticut–which should be deemed a spawning sanctuary for shortnose sturgeon and migrating American shad.

The program airs Weds. May 29th at 5 pm, and again on Thursday, May 30, at 9 pm; then again on Saturday, June 1, at 9 pm.  The series repeats at those time the f0llowing week.

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