THIS GREAT AND BROKEN RIVER

Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Issue # 1, First Daylight for an Embattled Run

The tiniest spark of life reentered New England’s Great River on Tuesday, April 21, 2020. According to Ken Sprankle, Connecticut River Project Leader for the US Fish & Wildlife Service, the fish lifts began operating that morning at the Holyoke Dam, 82 miles from the sea. And on that day the first two migrating American shad of the spawning season were lifted upstream.


Holyoke Dam. Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Click x3.

I got that fragile bit of good news on Earth Day, and it was truly a bright spot in what seems a very distant and fragile time for people, ecosystems, and our beleaguered planet. And during this Covid pandemic, while our warming atmosphere is experiencing a brief respite from the particulate pummeling of jets and cars, the Connecticut is being brutalized as catch basin for all the chemicals, chlorine and antibiotics that are currently being flushing out into–and right through, our sewage treatment plants to the River… As such, the Connecticut had little to celebrate on the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day.

Nonetheless those two fish meant there would at least be some vestige of the spring run that once fed river communities for hundreds of miles along this central artery for untold centuries into the past.

It’s the public’s river, and these are the public’s fish. Those are the facts that I always keep in mind whenever I write or speak about the Connecticut. But there’s also this basic tenet for me: a river is a living system; it exists of its own right and its right to survive and thrive should thus be an unquestioned part of its existence. We humans have a moral obligation to protect the life of rivers, just as they have nourished, protected and supported the very ecosystems we’ve relied on for time immemorial.

For me, to kill a river is an immoral act. To flaunt any part of the legal framework that federal and state law has put in place protecting them is both criminal and repugnant. But maybe that’s just me…

Holyoke Dam looking toward Fish Lifts. Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Click x3.

Now two shad aren’t much in many minds, I’ll admit. But what those two shad—likely early males meant, was that the Connecticut had actually become a living river once more. At least a part of it. That tenuous little reconnection was completed when one fat, industrial bucket of river water was pulled from the downstream side of Holyoke Dam and dumped on the upstream side. Two living, blue-green American shad swam out into 35 miles of upstream river that all downstream fish are denied access to for some six months out of every year. That’s way less than a half-living river.

But what that tiny spark meant, more than symbolically was that—on the most basic level, the Connecticut was reopened along a tiny stretch as a true river–a TWO-WAY highway where migrating and resident fish can move both upstream and down as part of this ancient ecosystem highway.

The Holyoke Dam is historic for two reasons: First, it is the barrier at the center of the 1872 landmark US Supreme Court decision in Holyoke Company v. Lyman that established that dam owners and operators must provide passage for migratory fish—both upstream, and downstream, of their barriers. Second, though imperfect and of the simplest most basic design—i.e. upstream, in-river attraction flows leading migrating fish to be corralled in a closeable, industrial bucket and lifted over the dam–those Holyoke Fish lifts have remained the most successful fish passage on the entire East Coast since 1955.

For the next few months Holyoke’s industrial buckets will facilitate a stuttering recreation of the former Connecticut as a living, 2-way river while American shad, sea lamprey, shortnose sturgeon and blueback herring attempt to access ancient spawning grounds. For many that open habitat reaches all the way to the dam between Bellows Falls VT and Walpole NH–nearly 90 miles upriver. That ancient destination, however, remains a cruel impossibility for all but a fortunate few migrants…

The Great Eddy at Bellows Falls Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Click x 3.

Once again this spring the vast majority of those hundreds of thousands of fish passing upstream at Holyoke will be thwarted from reaching the wide open spawning habitat anywhere above the Turners Falls Dam. That dam sits just 35 miles upstream of the Holyoke lifts. It’s an easy swim for most– just a day, maybe two.

But once they approach that river reach and barrier there won’t be accommodating riverbed flows or any lifts offering suitable passage upstream. They’ll encounter vacillating, confused flows and a series of obstacle-filled fish ladders that funnel all migrants into the grim habitats of the Turners Falls power canal before any get an outside chance to squeeze past the dam itself. Most never do. Perhaps one fish in ten will succeed–leaving the next 68 miles of Connecticut River habitat impoverished and all but empty of its ancient migrants.

And for shortnose sturgeon, one of this river’s most ancient species and the only federally-endangered migrant in this ecosystem, prospects are yet more dire. With the actual riverbed in the 2 miles below Turners Falls Dam sporadically deluged and emptied of suitable natural current, these fish are all vulnerable to being again robbed of what should be an annual, slam-dunk spawning aggregation at their only documented natural spawning site in the ecosystem–the Rock Dam in Turners Falls. Another season will go by without life-giving mandated flows to this critical habitat due an absence of enforcement protection and license requirements.

Of course, that was to have changed two years back.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission licenses for operation of the Turners Falls/Cabot Station hydro sites and the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project expired two years back on April 30, 2018. New flows and fish passage requirements should have been re-nourishing the endlessly pummeled and impoverished river in the beleaguered miles above and below Turners Falls Dam since that time. However, for the crippled run here, there is literally nothing new. Fish at Turners Falls today are almost as effectively blocked from moving upstream into Vermont, New Hampshire and northern Massachusetts waters as they were when the first dam across the Connecticut there blocked these runs beginning in 1798.

Today, the crushing suck-and-surge impacts of Northfield Mountain’s net-energy-loss, peak-price/peak-demand operations continue brutalizing the grimmest 10 miles in the entire ecosystem–cannibalizing the river’s fish runs and chewing through young-of-the-year. Pumped storage is not renewable energy, nor is it anything like the conventional river hydropower much of the public thinks it generates. Northfield Mountain consume vast amounts of virgin electricity from the grid here—most if it generated through imported natural gas, to pump the Connecticut backwards and a mile uphill. NMPS is in reality an energy consumer. It’s massive pull off the grid gets tallied in negative megawatts.

Today, the revival and protection of those long-ago, lawfully mandated runs remains stuck at Turners Falls and Northfield Mountain. The so-called FERC 5-year Integrated Licensing Process(ILP) that should have given them their two basic necessities for survival—water, and a safe, timely route upstream and down, actually began in the fall of 2012. It drags on to this day.

The day after FirstLight at long-last submits its final license application for examination to FERC–and the federal fisheries agencies with conditioning authority on the Connecticut, it will be September. September signals the beginning of the 9th year this supposed stream-lined FERC ILP has been malingering on this river system. FirstLight left off negotiations over a year ago with the US Fish & Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, and the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife for required new river conditions and construction of fish lifts. There has been no movement since that time.

Any delay in the construction of a fish lift at Turners Falls, and the requirement for real, life-sustaining flows in the riverbed, benefits this recently-arrived power company. Their interest is in stakeholder and corporate profit—and this is a Canadian-owned outfit that re-registered all of these assets out of Massachusetts, chopping them into a series of tax sheltered Delaware LLCs in late-2018. FERC continues to allow FL “extensions of time” to make their license-required filings, delaying what have long-been federally required mandates for river and migratory fish protections.


The de-watered Rock Dam Pool where shortnose sturgeon attempt to spawn, just after 6:00 a.m., May 17, 2019. Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Click x 3.

FL is now citing that restructuring as another reason for delay in submitting their “final license application” until August 31, 2020—that’s two years and four months of operating and profiting from a destructive and river de- pauperizing extended license. The current extension still requires only 400 cubic feet per second to be released into the Connecticut River bed in the spring migration season through which shad attempt to move upstream in—and embattled,federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon attempt to spawn in. That’s the equivalent of substituting a small brook for a river. Sturgeon spawning fails at the Rock Dam site most years, often caused by the abrupt ratcheting of those spring flows down to little more than that trickle.

Studies and investigations by the federal fish agencies show that a massive increase in sustained spring flows are baseline requirements for a living river here. Last year n the first week of May spring flows of some 10,000 cubit feet per second were coursing down the Connecticut’s “dead reach” here–and right through the Rock Dam pool. Shad anglers were landing fish by the dozen. On May 10, 2019, USGS Conte Lab researcher Micah Kieffer put out a research net overnight in that pool. Then next morning he found 48 federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon weighing it down—the largest aggregation ever recorded there. Kieffer continued his successful sturgeon netting through the following week, until coming up empty on Friday, May 17, 2019. He got “skunked” that day after flows through the Rock Dam reach were abruptly cut by FL to a relative trickle, exposing the cobble-lined shores of that pool where embryos and young develop.

Clearly, those 10,000 cfs flows are what are necessary to restore life to this river. They are required and long overdue—at a season when electricity demand is at some of its lowest points in the year.

The first year license extension by FERC was allowed because of the shuttering of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant upstream. VY’s excessive, night nuclear megawatts were the grim, 40 year engine that enabled Northfield Mountain to suck the river into reverse and pump it up into a 4 billion gallon reservoir to later re-create second-hand electricity at high prices.

Now restructured, FL appears in no hurry to move ahead with new licenses. Their study results have often been delayed in being handed over to the federal fisheries agencies and study teams in this relicensing–or handed in on the very last day the process requires. They seem happy to tread water and realize profits–while NMPS’s fish-eating, net-energy loss operations continue running along, largely fueled via the imported, climate-scorching, natural gas generated electricity now bloating the grid.

The longer you don’t have to put a shovel in the ground or give this US River its flows for federally-required fish passage, the more money you keep. It’s time FERC stopped letting them off the hook. Stop stringing this process along. It’s time this river was brought into compliance with 1872’s Holyoke Company v. Lyman; it’s time to comply with the federal Endangered Species Act of 1973. It is the public’s river; these are the public’s fish.

Addendum: on Friday, April 24th, USFWS’s Ken Sprankle sent a note that the Holyoke Gas & Electric had shut down its fish lifts due to accumulating debris in its assembly. They would not operate through the weekend, and a fix would be attempted on Monday. Thus, the Connecticut became a one-way stream again anywhere above South Hadley Falls, leaving the next 88 empty miles of river still in midst of an endless vigil–awaiting the migratory runs guaranteed by the Supreme Court 148 years ago. Hopefully, for those migrating shad—and perhaps other early migrants wasting another week’s precious spawning-energy reserves while knocking on Holyoke’s door, those lifts are again operating and in full motion today.