The following piece, with edits, appeared in the Rutland Herald on November 12, 2015.

Dear Vermont and New Hampshire:

Sorry, but your fish are down here in Massachusetts. With Vermont Yankee’s heated discharges no longer clouding issues, that’s become clear. We’re talking hundreds of thousands annually. This year a quarter million might’ve reached Vernon and Hinsdale had we not corralled them. A hundred thousand in the Great Eddy at Bellows Falls might’ve been a possibility.

And these aren’t small fry. These are free-swimming American shad straight from the briny Atlantic—wild fish that snap at lures and offer anglers an honest fight. Fresh caught and sweet, they’re a homegrown harvest for anyone taking the time to debone them or put them in the slow roaster. You could’ve been enjoying all that.

Actually you were promised them by the US Fish & Wildlife Service and state fisheries agencies back in 1967. They’d arrive in the 1980s–when much-touted fish passage facilities got built downstream. Each successive dam would pass 75% of the fish passed by the dam below it. Yet only excuses arrived. You weren’t told your fish got caught in a trap—that the Turners fish ladder diversion was a disaster; that your shad run dies in a muck-filled power canal. That’s where your bounty is still driven from the river today—where fish get diverted into a last-chance canal from which few emerge upstream.

We’ve now had the first spring where VY’s discharge has not intercepted spring runs. It appears the nuke played a smaller role than long-rumored concerning dismal fish passage at Turners. Heated effluent ain’t great for any species–but fish deprived of a river are an unending ecosystem disaster.

The 2-1/2 miles below Turners Falls Dam are that disaster. Down here government agencies don’t require anything approaching sustaining nature-like flows in the Connecticut’s bed. It’s either deluge or desert—much of it produced by the mega-flushing and pumping flows Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station sends downstream. Part of that blistering regime gets re-diverted into the power canal 5 miles south—a trap each upstream migrant is funneled into.

That canal is where a great migration dies—where fish get delayed; fatigued, entrapped and eviscerated. Not one in ten shad have made it beyond Turners Falls across the decades. It’s not rocket science to understand–in fact, the math just got a little simpler.

The years 2013 and 2014 were the final years Vermont Yankee was heating the river. Of the 393,000 American shad passing Holyoke Dam in 2013, just 9% or 35,000 fish made it past Turners. Yet of those 35,000 fish, 18,000 or 51% swam safely past Vernon–20 miles upstream. Similarly in 2014 of the 371,000 shad passing Holyoke, just 40,000 or 11% were able to get through the canal past TF Dam. But of the 40,000 that made it, a full 28,000 or 69%, swam beyond Vernon toward upstream destinations.

Turners’ fishways opened in 1980; Vernon’s in-river fishway in 1981. Across the decades the annual average of shad passing Holyoke that make it past Turners is 4%. In the same span, Vernon averaged passage of 40% of the shad arriving from Turners. Passage at Turners hovered near 1% for the decade beginning in 2000 when deregulation began allowing Northfield Mountain to pump and profit from the river according to price peaks on the electricity “spot market.” Those peaking pulses decimate river habitats below Turners Falls.

Which is why 2015 proved interesting. This spring, with VY silent, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ordered a series of nature-like test flows to be sent through the gates at Turners Falls Dam into the impoverished riverbed–to gauge their impact on the public’s fish runs. It’s part of the 5-year FERC licensing process for Northfield and Turners. At Holyoke 413,000 shad passed upstream, while at Turners just 14% or 58,000 shad passed the dam. Yet 20 miles north, 69% or 40,000 of those fish, swam past Vernon Dam—an all-time record for shad passage there.

So here’s some math: Turners passed 9% in 2013; 11% in 2014, and 14% in 2015. Vernon passed 51% of their shad in 2013, 69% in 2014, and 68% in 2015. The difference between a year with VY’s heated effluent, and one without—was insignificant, a 1% change with shad passage actually dropping a fraction with Yankee silenced. Yet they still set a new shad passage record.

It’s noteworthy the 34 year-old Vernon record was broken the first time more in-river flow was required below Turners Falls Dam, supplying a direct route upstream during FERC’s May-June test flows. It clearly spared some fish the energy costs of industrial entrapment and the dangers of weeks in a turbine-lined canal.

The problem is that canal, and a decimated river at Turners Falls. You’ve been owed fish totaling in the millions across the decades–and an ancient connection to the sea all kids should know. They’re not the power company’s fish, they’re yours. Demand federal and state fisheries directors sue for those fish—and for the Connecticut River refuge your grandkids deserve.

With apologies,
Karl Meyer, Greenfield, MA

Writer Karl Meyer is participating in the FERC hydro relicensing studies for MA facilities on the Connecticut River. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.