The DEAD REACH of the Connecticut River just bellow Turners Falls Dam, 7/9/2017. (Click; then click again to enlarge)

NOTE: The following piece appeared in the Vermont Digger (www.vtdigger.org), The Daily Hampshire Gazette (www.gazettenet.com), and the Greenfield Recorder (www.recorder.com), in June.

Copyright © 2017 by Karl Meyer, All Rights Reserved

Last chance for a great river

It’s sink-or-swim time on the Connecticut River at Turners Falls for the National Marine Fisheries Service, the US Fish & Wildlife Service and the MA Division of Fish & Wildlife. Fifty years ago they signed the 1967 Cooperative Fishery Restoration Agreement for the Connecticut. It’s “Statement of Intent” was to pass “one million fish at Holyoke, 850,000 at Turners Falls, and 750,000 at Vernon,” restoring American shad to 86 miles of their spawning habitat upstream to Bellows Falls, VT. Back then a simple elevator at Holyoke Dam, 36 miles downstream, had already proven effective at passing shad upriver since 1955. Instead, the agencies opted for complexity.

Within a decade they decided to have three fish ladders built at Turners Falls, forcing all fish out of the river and into a 2.1 mile, turbine-lined power canal. That complex solution failed spectacularly. Deprived of a river route upstream, the runs withered while power company profits accrued. Instead of the 10,000 cubic feet per second flows needed for river habitats, they only required the power company to dribble 400 cfs over that dam. That also wrecked recovery prospects for federally endangered shortnose sturgeon at the Rock Dam, their ancient, natural spawning site just downstream.

Today these agencies are again on the hook to safeguard the river, and fish passage. They’re now taking part in potential backroom settlement negotiations at the invitation of PSP Investments, a Canadian venture capital outfit. PSP is the latest owner of the Turners Falls dam and canal. They also bought the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, now powered on imported, fossil-fueled megawatts that suck the Connecticut into reverse at Northfield, yank it up a mountain, and send it back down as peak-priced, secondhand electricity.

PSP, operating here as FirstLight Power, is bidding for a new Federal Energy Regulatory license for their new pension investments, where profits—and the river itself at times, will all flow north. PSP is bidding to withdraw 30% more water at Northfield for a third of the year, and get paid handsomely by ratepayers for the practice—whether they regenerate electricity with it or not. Positions taken by federal and state reps in these mandated non-disclosure, negotiations, will define this four-state ecosystem for decades to come.

On May 19th, an influx of ocean life not seen in 170 years occurred at the 1848 Holyoke Dam. In a three-day span, two elevators at its base lifted nearly two hundred thousand silver-green American shad toward spawning habitat in Vermont, New Hampshire and northern Massachusetts. Previous records were shattered. As the East Coast’s most successful passage, Holyoke has lifted as many as 720,000 shad in a season. Turners Falls has never passed more than 60,000 fish. For a full decade success there dropped to around 1-fish-in-100.

Two days after that burst of sea life through Holyoke, half those fish would’ve reached the brutal Turners Falls reach. There, confused industrial flows charge the river at all angles, and just a thin curtain of water is required to spill from the dam. Ultimately, every migrant was forced into the canal. Just a few would emerge upstream. For the rest, migration had ended abruptly—far short of rich upstream spawning grounds.

The run past Holyoke is this region’s last great migration–a pulse of planetary life, magical to witness. Each sleek, agitated shad is hell-bent on spawning as far upstream as time, energy, and luck allows. The few that found a way beyond Turners would have had little trouble following the river to the Vernon Dam. There, most could easily swim directly up a short ladder–passing the last hurdle toward that historic Great Eddy between Bellows Falls and Walpole, NH, 172 miles from the sea. Young spawned there would fatten on river-rich nutrients. Surviving adults could turn back toward the sea.

But Turners Falls has slammed the door on hundreds of thousands of others. Industrial currents, dead-end flows, and slack water offer no real path forward. The canal is their dead end. Ken Sprankle, the USFWS’s Connecticut River Coordinator, posts Holyoke fish passage numbers three times a week. Holyoke personnel happily provide them. Sadly, the MA Division of Fish & Wildlife long ago abandoned a daily presence at Turner Falls, leaving the power company in charge to pass along woefully outdated fish count numbers. By the time they reach the public its weeks past when any flow adjustments might have helped exhausted fish attempting to pass there.

Turner Falls is a black hole. There’s really no river there at all. New England’s Great River has long been owed its water–and the habitat and fish passage protections mandated by federal acts and a landmark 1872 Supreme Court ruling centered on the Holyoke Dam. Let’s hope fisheries representatives in backroom PSP talks don’t sell an ecosystem short again. Keep it simple. Fish need water and a river, and a direct route upstream–like at Holyoke and Vernon. This is the public’s river, not a cash cow. If the price gets too high, walk away. Future generations will know.

Karl Meyer of Greenfield is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists. He remains a participating stakeholder in FERC relicensing proceedings for these sites. He is not attending these side-talks on settlements due to PSP’s mandatory non-disclosure requirements.