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May 21, 2015. Head gate flows into the power canal at Turners Falls Dam at 3 pm on Wednesday, May 20th, were coursing downstream at a pace people are more accustomed to seeing during fish passage time. The canal was churning with whitewater–bubbly froth was strewn out going downstream to points far beyond that industrial conduit’s first long, wide bend. So, things were back to a more “normal” configuration for wild migratory fish forced into that 2-1/2 mile long trench outfitted with slicing hydro turbines. Those migrants need all the prayers you can send them—especially if you are a hopeful angler up in Millers Falls or Northfield, or Brattleboro, VT or Walpole, NH.

By tomorrow, Friday, May 22nd, test flows from the dam will again be reduced from the current 4,400 cfs to 2,500 cfs through Sunday. All these changes, from canal head gate settings, to spill over the dam, have profound impacts on fish trying to make it past Turners Falls.

Thirty-six miles downstream in the spring of 1955 a small miracle occurred. A simple fish elevator—essentially a giant bucket, was installed at the Holyoke Dam. Spill being released from the dam attracted fish directly into that clunky apparatus. By season’s end the first 5,000 American shad to pass Holyoke Dam since 1849 had been lifted upstream. With further improvements there in the mid-1970s, shad numbers skyrocketed to 720,000 in the early 1990s.
Sadly, when all those fish continued upstream to Turners Falls, they found their path ahead blocked once more. The upstream runs foundered there.

At Turners Falls today fish passage is still in much the same state as it was at Holyoke in the 1950s–before they installed that simple apparatus bringing fish directly upstream in the river and giving them a simple lift over the barrier.

Few fish make it upstream past the Turners Falls Dam today. The difference amounts to this: 2-1/2 miles of river that has gone without guaranteed flow for decades; and an industrial canal masquerading as a suitable habitat in which to send wild, migrating fish.

One other miracle began taking shape downstream at Holyoke after that 1955 lift was constructed. Blueback herring, one of the base forage and staple fish in the Connecticut River ecosystem, had a new route upstream to their old tributaries and spawning habitats. By the 1980s they were annually streaming past Holyoke by the hundreds of thousands. Fisheries studies at Turners Falls Dam at that time note that bluebacks were spawning in the mouth of the tiny Falls River–which enters the Connecticut just a few hundred yards downstream of TF Dam.
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Ken Sprankle, the US Fish & Wildlife Service’s Connecticut River Coordinator has been working to again restore blueback herring to upstream habitats for the last 5 years. Blueback numbers have crashed since the late-1990s. Test flows released at Turners Falls Dam this spring have re-nourished the depth and flow regime at the mouth of the Falls River, and—at least at higher flows, you can see where this is a perfect spawning site for migrating bluebacks. Hopefully, with continued work and renewed flows into the Dead Reach here at Turners Falls, blueback herring—which formally migrated upstream to southern Vermont and New Hampshire, can again spawn at the rejuvenated outfall of the Falls River.