May 2020

Monthly Archive

SPRING: Private Profit; Public Loss

Posted by on 26 May 2020 | Tagged as: American shad, Connecticut River, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, FERC, FirstLight, FirstLight Power, FISH CAM, fish passage, Holyoke Dam, Holyoke Fish Lift, Humor, ISO New England, migratory fish, Northfield Mountain, shad fishing, Silvio O. Conte Connecticut River National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, Slim Shad Point, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, USFWS

THIS GREAT AND BROKEN RIVER VI

Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

SPRING: Private Profit; Public Loss

Despite the enormous and longstanding damages the Industrial Age visited upon the Connecticut River—the early clear-cutting of the north woods, the building of the main stem dams and canals, the profligate effluent pollution, the thermal heating from a pair of nuclear reactors, the eviscerating impacts of a massive, river-reversing pumped storage project, it somehow has survived into the 21st century with a relatively robust and still-restorable spring run of American shad in its lower reaches.


Fishing Slim Shad Pt. Holyoke Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. (Click X 3 to enlarge; back arrows to return)

The Connecticut is indeed rare in that respect—as well as for being host to the most successful fishway on the entire East Coast, with a lift first put in place at Holyoke Dam in 1955. That spurred a New England fisheries restoration effort begun here between federal and state fisheries agencies in 1967. It is why the Connecticut ultimately became the central artery of the 4-state Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge in 1997. But by that time the river’s migratory fisheries restoration had already stalled and foundered in Massachusetts just 36 miles upstream of Holyoke, at the foot of the Turners Falls power canal and dam.


Shad Angler Wading at Holyoke Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. (Click X 3 to enlarge; back arrows to return)

The complex of fish ladders and canal routes chosen and installed there in 1980 were largely weighted toward passage of a new, mass-produced hatchery-hybrid salmon strain. They proved an obvious and instant failure for the hundreds of thousands of shad returning to pass that place as soon as all the concrete dried. Vermont, New Hampshire, northern Massachusetts—never received their promised bounty.

And so it is to this day. The Connecticut, still massively overworked and under-protected, remains without any new bona fide restoration success for migrating shad in 3 out of 4 of the states over its 410 mile reach over the last 30 years. Where have the fish successfully passed? You need not go far to identify the break point. Smack in the heart of this spring’s migration peak here’s a quick look at the stats for fish passage success up through Memorial Day weekend. As of May 25, 2020, some 274,370 shad had been lifted past Holyoke Dam according to USFWS Connecticut River Project Leader Ken Sprankle.

And at Turners Falls? Well, the last report offered included a total of 735 shad passing as of May 17, 2020. They don’t report regularly from Turners Falls. If FirstLight had just installed a simple Fish Cam the public would have had something this year—while all their license-required recreational access has been shut down tight this spring, including fish viewing, camping, even hiking trails. But, just to compare: as of that same date, May 17, 2020, Holyoke had already reported passing 51,000 shad upstream. It only takes the 1-1/2 – 2 foot long, blue-green migrants just a day or so to start knocking on the door at Turners Falls. But as the failed restoration numbers have grimly shown for decades, the river’s great run dies in the alternately starved and ramped-up industrial flows set in motion by gatehouse and dam operators at Turners Falls and Northfield Mountain.

Listless Riverbed at Turners Falls, May 14, 2020
Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
. (Click X 3 to enlarge; back arrows to return)

It’s now three migration seasons past the April 30, 2018 expiration date of the current Federal Energy Regulatory Commission license for FirstLight’s Turners Falls Dam, yet no legally-mandated fish passage–upstream and down, has been constructed. Literally nothing has been done. While citizens in three states—including fifteen cities, towns and villages, are yet to see their rightful share of the river’s fish.

As always, FERC and ISO-New England (in Holyoke) have both made sure to requisition and have available a glut of power for the sprawling Northeast power grid here (at public expense, but without public input of course) It’s way more than enough to easily exceed the grip of a summer heat wave. Climate emergency be damned… It does means big corporate profits. Meanwhile, it’s mid-spring. Power use is at a low annual ebb. Yet New England’s Great River here in the United States is currently starved of both its fish and life-giving flows at Turners Falls–while Canada’s shareholder-owned FirstLight Power exports its profits out of the region.

A living river is a public right here. Whose pockets are being lined?

An Upstream Invitation: COME VISIT; THEN PLEASE SUE US!

Posted by on 21 May 2020 | Tagged as: American shad, bascule gates, Bellows Falls VT, blueback herring, Connecticut River, Connecticut River migratory fisheries restoration, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Dead Reach, Deerfield River, Dr. Boyd Kynard, endangerd shortnose sturgeon, False attraction, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, FERC, FERC license, fish passage, Greenfield, Holyoke Fish Lift, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, Massachusetts Division of Fish & Wildlife, migratory delay, New Hampshire, Rock Dam, shad fishing, The Dead Reach, Turners Falls, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Geological Survey's Conte Fish Lab

THIS GREAT AND BROKEN RIVER V

Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Issue # 5, An Upstream Invitation: COME VISIT; THEN PLEASE SUE US!

Dear Vermont and New Hampshire (and northern MA):

Our Connecticut River–as grimly battered by diversions and reversing industrial currents as it is down here in Massachusetts, is way better than yours upstream. That’s not very neighborly to say, but it’s true. Your states probably should’ve sued our Commonwealth years back for depriving you of a living river. It’s what’s been owed you. Down here we have a spring river with at least a credible ocean connection stretching all the way from Long Island Sound to just past the mouth of the Deerfield River. It really isn’t fair you don’t…


Just a single bascule gate open with thin spill at Turners Falls Dam, May 20, 2020. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. (Click X 3 to enlarge, back arrow to return to text)

Case in point: as of May 20, 2020, Holyoke Dam had passed some 130,000 American shad upstream. Enough federal and state fisheries data from studies has been produced to safely estimate that as many as 100,000 may have arrived at Turners Falls, just 36 miles distant, still heading upstream. The only data from Turners Falls Dam was reported as of May 8, 2020, showing a total of 38 shad successfully passing that site…

In the interest of good relations, I’d like to invite you downstream to experience what you’re missing. After all, everyone has a right to a living Connecticut River. Some of us just have a little more right, while others—living upstream, have forever had almost none at all. Ironically, that none even includes Bay State residents living in the towns of Greenfield, Gill, Turners Falls, Erving, and Northfield. An ocean connection for them is barely perceptible as well.

But for the rest of you far northerners, whether you live in Vernon, Brattleboro, Dummerston, Putney, Westminster or Bellows Falls VT–or Walpole, Westmoreland, Chesterfield, or Hinsdale NH, please come visit your river where it at least still remains partly tethered to its ancient ocean connection. It’s worth the trip.

And, why not bring along fishing pole?—because, truth is, we’ve been hanging on to your fish here for decades. Most of the hundreds of thousands of migrating shad, blueback herring and sea lamprey here annually never get past the Turners Falls Dam—becoming mired in the 2-1/2 mile long Dead Reach and canal diversion leading up to that ponderous obstruction. Turners Falls is where your living river connection with the ocean, ends. Thus, including all three states, 15 towns have been robbed.

Really, come down and experience what us “haves”, have. Meet us at the cull de sac of the Connecticut here, and we’ll show you where your thousands of fish are foundering. They were promised you way back in 1967, but you never received them. This is a peek at the river your kids should be experiencing at up at home today, and the one that’s the birth right of their grand kids decades into the future. Somebody should’ve stood up long ago. There should have been a lawsuit.

BTW: there’s even a free fishing weekend down here on June 6 and 7, where you don’t even need a license to toss in a line. Come! There should still be good numbers of shad and lamprey fighting the good fight upstream–right up to the dead end dam in this largely impassible reach. You need not come far; your ocean connection ends abruptly here in Turners Falls.


The ponderous–difficult for shad to find and access, fish ladder below Turners Falls Dam, May 20, 2020. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. (Click X 3 to enlarge)

If you don’t feel like waiting, and want to catch the peak of the run here in the next week or so, just grab a short term fishing license at the MA Wildlife website. Honestly though, I’m not sure they deserve your business. Massachusetts Division of Fish & Wildlife was the only entity with specific rights to intervene over the last 50 years in the federal (FERC) license governing fish passage conditions at Turners Falls if conditions changed. In the first decade of this century, the long-paltry (6-7%) fish passage success beyond that dam evaporated down to less than 1% percent in some years. That plunge began right after Massachusetts deregulated its electricity generating markets. Those were your fish! That was your last remaining thread of an ocean connection. MDFW did nothing. Like I said, there should’ve been a lawsuit. They sat on their hands. We let you down.

For that reason alone, please come and visit. Come fish. Pop on a shad dart. We’ll be happy to social distance with you.Try your luck where your fish are stuck!

And if you don’t happen to be an angler–but just want to experience what the remains of an ocean- connected ecosystem look like, bring a folding chair and just enjoy the spectacle. A living river can be quite inspiring. And witnessing sleek, healthy fish that have travelled thousands of ocean-going miles and then 120 miles upstream here to their ancient spawning grounds, might just encourage you to take action. You deserve this. And, we know exactly where your lost fish are trapped today—the same places they’ve been spinning their upstream migratory wheels and energies for decades.

The best way to locate the nearest ocean connection on the Connecticut here is to go where the currents are—go where there is still flow in the riverbed. That’s where the agitated shad will be, trying to discover and fight their way through promising upstream currents. They want to go into the flow, but that’s the bit tricky down here–as the power company is constantly jacking the currents up, down, and all around. That’s why its the river’s dead-end. Those see-saw currents and flow diversions are tricking the shad into alien industrial flows producing endless streams of what’s called “false attraction.”

Some sites, as you will see at the company’s Station # 1 outflow into the river adjacent to the Turners Falls Power Canal, dump their industrial effluent, back into the river while creating just a few small amount of hydro power.. That false upstream signal to migrating shad essentially traps them there–for hours or days on end, spending energy in that false current as they await an open upstream path that never comes.

For anglers not tied to anything like a natural setting, the Station #1site teems with scores and scores of tricked shad, ripe for the hooking. It’s a supremely ironic dead end for the fish and run—nosing for hours into a nowhere current. But, for fish-in-a-barrel anglers, this sad site can be a slam dunk.

Other sites are rather more “scenic,” but the same waffling, insufficient flows ultimately lead to dead-end routes for the vast majority of the fish run. Less than 1 fish in 10 annually ever make emerge out of the Turners Falls Power Canal–which all must pass through before popping out beyond that dam toward your Vermont and New Hampshire doorsteps. Most just give up.

Anyway, here are some visit/witnessing recommendations from my personal investigations on May 20, 2020:

Ocean Dead End Stop # 1: Turners Falls Dam, Turners Falls. Take I-91 south to Rt. 2 East. Rt. 2 E to the second set of lights, where you turn left over the Turners Falls Bridge. Park just over the bridge near the Great Falls Discover Center and find your way across the little power canal bridge and down to the river. Note that the paltry flow is unlikely to be drawing any shad upstream to the dam and fish ladder.

Lone, disappointed shad angler in low flows below dam: look far left at center, adjacent to the bend in fish ladder. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. (Click X 3 to enlarge and view; then back arrow)

Ocean Dead End Stop # 2: Station # 1, your false attraction fishing hole. Follow the above directions—crossing the bridge into Turners Falls. Make an immediate right after passing the Great Falls Discover Center. Continue straight after the stop sign, and then make the second right, going over the SECOND, one-way bridge there. Continue along until you see the brick outline of Station # 1 on the right, adjacent to the river. If they are dumping good current here, the fish will be stacked up like sardines, nosing into the flow that will not allow them a path upstream. Anglers fish both sides of this outflow. You’ll find the paths. An exhausting dead end, for your share of the shad run. The two gents here landed 3 shad in the 10 minutes I lingered there.

Station # 1, exhausting attraction flow leading…nowhere. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. (Click X 3 to enlarge and view; then back arrow)

Station # 1, fish-in-a-barrel fishing! Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. (Click X 3 to enlarge and view; then back arrow)

Station # 1, bring on the net! Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. (Click X 3 to enlarge and view; then back arrow)

Ocean Dead End Stop # 3: the Rock Dam. Continue with the above directions and go along past Station # 1, winding around until you come to G Street. Go right and continue south on G Street—do not recross the canal, or you’ll be off track. Continue down G Street to the end, where it becomes, rather ironically, “Migratory Way,” beyond the sign for the US Geological Services Silvio O. Conte Anadramous Fish Research Center. Follow this route down to the parking turnouts adjacent to the canal, and walk down the path there leading to Cabot Woods.

At the Cabot Woods site you will find a few picnic tables, but, most importantly, several severely eroded paths down to the Rock Dam. Flows to this site, critically important to endangered shortnose sturgeon, have already been tamped down enough to chase those ancient fish out of their spawning ground here. But, those same tamped-down flows weeks later here are keeping tricked shad into thinking the viable upstream flows through the notches here will somehow magically return, giving them a viable route. Sadly, they are not going anywhere. Again, some pretty good fishing here this day. These 5 anglers grabbed three in the 25 minutes I stayed along shore.

Fishing in the oft cul-de-sac attraction flow at the Rock Dam.
Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. (Click X 3 to enlarge and view; then back arrow)

Note: there are far more shad struggling just downstream–attracted by the outflow of the Cabot Station hydro site. But there’s no good fishing access to these flows, some of which are designed to lead the shad into what’s been described as the “world’s longest ladder for shad,” by fisheries biologist Dr. Boyd Kynard. It’s a brutal exercise–fishladder 66 steps to fight through, which dumps them into the alien flows and environments of the power canal…

So, that’s where your fish are. Down here, where the ocean connection breaks. Come and visit! Then, take us to court to get what you deserve. It’s your river too!

Honoring Peskeomscut

Posted by on 18 May 2020 | Tagged as: American shad, blueback herring, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Deerfield River, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, FERC, FERC licensing process, FirstLight, FirstLight Power, fish passage, Holyoke Dam, Narragansett, Nipmuck, Norwottuck, Peskeomscut, Pocumtuck, Relicensing, Riverside, sea lamprey, shad, The Dead Reach, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls Massacre, Uncategorized

THIS GREAT AND BROKEN RIVER IV

Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Issue # 4: Honoring Peskeomscut


Peskeomscut, Island?
Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer(Click X 3 to enlarge; back arrow to return to text)

At a glance, this could be a photo of a quiet pond in New England. It is not. This is the mid-May, midstream view of an island in the Connecticut River, just 250 yards below the Turners Falls Dam in Massachusetts. With a quick look you might be wondering: where’s the river—and, what island?? This is a chasm and landscape robbed of its water, life and dignity. On any mid-spring day for ages past, thousands of American shad would’ve been pulsing through the rolling froth on both sides of what is a now-erased and bereft island. Today, shad here are not even offered a decent puddle to flop in.

Glancing quickly, you might not have made note of an island. But a closer look reveals a small, tree festooned bump in the center-right background. That site was identified by FirstLight Power as PesKeomscut Island in their initial 2012 application for a new federal hydro license to operate Turners Fall Dam—which is just out of view to the right of this photo. Unfortunately, Turners Falls Dam has been the place where New England’s Great River has died for well over two centuries now.

As far as any real river here?—there’s a just-visible bridge in the upper right, beneath which the mouth of the Fall River is adding a little flow and a tiny bit of froth to the barely-running current in the background. What should be the strong, rolling pulse of the spring Connecticut here should to be pushing downstream from left to right across the entire foreground of this photo. Instead, there’s just a stilled pond. And, yes, that island has been virtually erased. To be an island, you must have water.

On this May 14, 2020, FirstLight has subtracted that main ingredient. At mid-afternoon the Connecticut has been turned off in its own 200 million year-old chasm, robbed of all but a riverlet of dribbling flow. They do that most months out of the year. This spring day all but a tiny percentage of its life-giving current is diverted into FL’s adjacent power canal. The Connecticut is broken here at a place once called Peskeomscut–broken since the first dam stretched across this ancient chasm from Turners Falls to Gill in 1798. That began the 2-1/2 mile reach just downstream that robbed the river of life and flow. It gave rise to a landlocked “island” without a watery moat.

Further out and to the left in the photo, two more humans engage in a leisurely stroll over exposed sand—mid-river at mid-spring, padding over a dry shoal that should be teeming with river life at this season. But not here; not in northern Massachusetts. The place is a desert.

Instead of a life-giving, roaring spring cataract–encircling an inaccessible island, just a salutary wash of water is spilling from the dam above. Peskeomscut Island has been reduced to an abandoned, rocky spit in a parching, emptied chasm.

Looking closely, lower left of center you can make out an angler at the quiet, current-less shore. He might as well be on a pond—migrating American shad won’t find an upstream current deep or strong enough to follow their ancient migratory path toward the lost waterfalls here this day. While downstream, Holyoke Dam had reported 10,000 shad passing there through May 8, Turners Falls Dam had a whopping 38 passing here…

Peskeomscut is an approximate spelling of an Algonquian term used to denote the place where an ancient waterfall, cataract and island anchored the landscape. That place, which teemed with life throughout its annual seasonal cycles back into the mists of time, is today robbed of its soul–deprived of dignity. What, in 2020, should be a restored, thriving, May Connecticut River–full of shad, herring, lamprey eels and frothing currents, is today a drying, emptied bed. Its “island” is simply a rocky spit, easily accessible across the barren, bedrock ledge.


Midstream Peskeomscut 1-1-2018 (Click X 3 to enlarge)
Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer

There is more than a little irony to this site being referenced today in Massachusetts as Turners Falls or the Great Falls. Any visitor here would more than likely find this curving, ancient chasm hollowed out at nearly any month of the year. There rarely are falls to see here. This is a broken place, a starved place. There is something raw and enduring about the injuries perpetrated here year in and year out. The once abundant life of this place is merely an afterthought here, if considered at all.

From Turners Falls Dam downstream to just above the river’s confluence with the Deerfield River, these 2-1/2 miles of the Connecticut are best described as its “Dead Reach.” There is no river in this stretch, just a parching/choking series of on-off flows that alternately starve and inundate what was once a life-filled artery.

In the spring of 2020, this should not be. It should all be the past history of the Great River. The current 52 year-old Federal Energy Regulatory Commission license to operate Turners Falls Dam expired in 2018. But FERC has allowed repeated extensions of that license, in a so-called “5-year” relicensing process that began in 2012. This stilted, corporate-skewed federal process has seen virtually no forward movement for over a year–and will soon be celebrating its 8th birthday. That stale status quo seems to suit FERC and FirstLight–as well as their shareholders, quite nicely. It’s just another abuse in the ongoing nightmare for the central artery of Western New England’s largest ecosystem.

On May 19, 2004, I witnessed a reconciliation ceremony at a park in Montague adjacent to the Connecticut, just above Turners Falls Dam. Local officials, citizens, and representatives from several of the region’s Native American tribes were present. All were there to honor, and attempt to heal the lingering injuries and moldering legacy of a grim injustice committed here in the pre-dawn dark on the morning of May 19, 1676.


Turners Falls Dam and Riverside Massacre Site
Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer(Click X 3 to enlarge, back arrow to return to text)

Just across the river in the Riverside flats of Gill, 160 colonial troops swept down a hillside, firing muskets and stabbing bayonets into the tents of sleeping elders, women, and children of the Narragansett, Nipmuck and Pocumtuck and other peoples—encamped there in a hungry and desperate attempt to harvest fish and plant sustaining corn in their ongoing attempt to defend and keep the territories of their ancient homelands. For the colonists, it was a grim and successful slaughter of hundreds of defenseless Indians. For the indigenous tribes, though their surprise counter attack quickly sent the blood-bathed attackers into a chaotic, F-Troop rout, the loss of life ultimately proved a spirit and soul crushing disaster.

On this May 19th, 2020, much of the signaled healing and reconciliation of 16 years back seems to remain orphaned on the 344th anniversary of the Turners Falls Massacre. The wounds of that day are yet present. And, the later and ongoing theft of a river’s life-giving current–begun with that 1798 dam, still remains in place. The Connecticut here is–most days, an emptied and soulless place. It is long past time for the life and lives lost at Peskeomscut–and some of what is still missing as well, to see the beginning of a long overdue restoration. The river belongs to the people. Some of that healing must begin with water. Water is where life begins…

Issue # 3: The River Emptied at Spring

Posted by on 13 May 2020 | Tagged as: American shad, Bellows Falls VT, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Endangered Species Act, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeion, FERC, FERC license, FirstLight, Greenfield Recorder, Holyoke Dam, Holyoke Fish Lift, migratory fish, Narragansett, Nipmuck, Northfield Mountain, Norwottuck, Pocumtuck, Rock Dam, Rock Dam Pool, shad, Silvio O. Conte Connecticut River National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, Turner Falls Massacre, Turners Falls, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, US Geological Survey's Conte Fish Lab, USFWS, Vermont, Walpole

THIS GREAT AND BROKEN RIVER III

Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Issue # 3: The River Emptied at Spring

Dismal Mother’s Day flow at Turner’s Falls Dam and Fishway Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer (Click X 3 for closeup, click back arrow to return to text)

It was a grim Mother’s Day weekend for the Connecticut River in Massachusetts. The only current left in the riverbed below Turners Falls Dam amounted to little more than a thin, spreading soup winding a shallow path around successive ridges of drying ledge as it threaded together a downstream path along it’s ancient, impoverished bed. Anyone with a pair of rubber boots could’ve easily walked across the Connecticut just a few hundred feet below that dam without much risk of getting wet to the knees–smack in the middle of fish migration and spawning season in the heart of the Silvio O. Conte Connecticut River National Fish and Wildlife Refuge.

There’s something soulless in starving a river of its flow—particularly in the spring when the shadbush is in bloom, the columbine have sprouted, and the fish are in the river. This year, with the corona virus draining spirits and sapping energy during March and April, the presence of a living river in Western New England’s back yard was something to anticipate come May. The light returned, the trees were in flower, birds were making music, and energy use was in its usual seasonal retreat—demand being down ever since a warmer than normal winter.


Days Earlier Flow over Turners Falls Dam May 5, 2020 Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer (Click X 3, back arrow to return to text)

This should have been a promising early May on New England’s Great River. But no–not here in northern Massachusetts–not this Mother’s Day weekend. For migrating American shad seeking a route upstream here, the river was literally a road to nowhere. As of Monday, May 11th, though some 18,000 shad had passed upstream at the Holyoke Fishway, 36 river miles to the south, not a single shad had been tallied managing to pass beyond the grim maze of a power canal and several ladders to emerge above Turners Falls Dam. By Monday not a single migrant from the ocean had been tallied passing that dam–thus none were present moving upstream to open Vermont, New Hampshire and northern Massachusetts habitats. The public has no access to the fishway this year, and FirstLight has not provided a simple video feed for people to see their fish. At Turners Falls, the power company alone, is left to monitor itself and report on the public’s fish.


Shad Anglers below Holyoke Dam May 7, 2020 Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer

But, most grimly again this May, river conditions on Mother’s Day were altogether devastating for federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon attempting to spawn and nurture young in the currents at their ancient Rock Dam spawning pool–a mile and a half downstream of the dam. Vital river flows at a natural basalt, in-stream formation known as Rock Dam–which had been accommodating for spawning sturgeon just a week before, were shut down to the point where the cobble shoals that shelter eggs and developing young were now visible along a receded shoreline.

Hopeful shad anglers from the adjacent USGS Conte Lab and nearby US Fish & Wildlife Service in Sunderland were present to witness the impacts. This year’s potential progeny–at the sturgeon’s only documented natural spawning site in the ecosystem, were once more left to desiccate–starved of life-giving, oxygenating water as the sun warmed the prematurely exposed, rocky shallows. Though not fishing on this Mother’s Day morning, one of the leaders of the local Nolumbeka Project stopped to inquired of me if the sturgeon had been able to successfully spawn this year. I had to tell him no.

For the second year running FirstLight Power had squeezed the bascule gates closed at Turners Fall Dam, leaving just a curtain of a few hundred cubic feet per second (cfs) of flow entering the starved riverbed below Turners Falls Dam. The Federal Energy Regulatory license for FL’s Turners Falls and Northfield Mountain operations expired two years back on April 30, 2018. . Conditions in a new license would have hopefully increased that dribbling flow at the dam by a factor of 20. Grimly, the starving of this Great River is occurring at the exact site where women, children and elders of the Nipmuck, Pocumtuck, Norwottuck and Narragensett People were set upon and slaughtered in their pre-dawn sleep in the Turners Falls Massacre on May 19, 1676.

But FERC stepped in on FirstLight’s behalf, and has now offered two years of license extensions to this Canadian-owned, Delaware-registered company, allowing these grim impacts to continue. In doing so it has now green-lighted these conditions for three consecutive spawning seasons–allowing crippling industrial practices put in place 52 years back to choke the life out of four-state migratory fish runs, and crushing the spawning prospects for those sturgeon–literally the Connecticut’s only federally endangered migratory fish species. This, in an ecosystem that should have had connected and sustaining flows and fish passage upstream to Bellows Falls VT and Walpole NH long ago.

The flows present in the river on Mother’s Day are flows that force endangered sturgeon to default downstream to attempt spawning in the pulsing industrial flows churning out of the Cabot Station powerhouse a half mile downstream. There, any spawned and developing young-of-the-year will have no defense against the scouring-out hydro surges pulsing canal water back into the riverbed below once fertilized young are dispersed in the flows to shelter in rocky shallows .

Those tamped-down Mother’s Day flows from the dam also create conditions that keep American shad in an endless Groundhog Day cycling at Rock Dam–circling and re-circling in the depleted currents at a pool where depths become too shallow to find a flow offering a negotiable upstream path. Anglers sometimes do quite well at this migratory cull-de-sac where agitated, circling shad snap at darts while wasting hours and energy in this suspended-migration.

But those same tamped down flows diverted at TF Dam also cause just-arriving American shad from Holyoke to be led directly to the false upstream currents exiting the power canal at Cabot Station. Sensing that upstream attraction flow, those unlucky fish get drawn into a ponderous and exhausting fish ladder there. There they are diverted entirely out of the riverbed and into a concrete chute where they must attempt to better an impossible series of steps, twists, and turns that will ultimately dump them into the alien and un-river-like environs of the Turners Falls power canal. Once they enter that industrial habitat, many end their upstream migrations altogether, spending weeks in the labyrinth of that walled corridor without finding a way out and upstream.

Grimly, this year was nearly a carbon copy of the brutal conditions visited below Turners Falls the week of Mother’s Day 2019. Last year at this time researchers tallied the largest-ever catch of spawning-run endangered sturgeon gathered at their Rock Dam nursery pool, corralling 48 fish in a morning survey of a biologist’s net. Days later, at the height of shortnose spawning season, FirstLight abruptly cut off life giving flows to the site. Those same banks and cobbles were exposed, and the spawning run sturgeon were sent packing—forced to abandon the site, with any embryos and young that might have proved viable left withering in the shallows.


FL’s Locked Entrance at Cabot Woods & Rock Dam mid-afternoon May 5, 2020 Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer

You might have expected more from FirstLight this year. This is a Canadian shareholder company seeking a new federal license to operate these facilities on the Connecticut River in Massachusetts after recently re-registering them in Delaware as tax shelters. But, now that FERC continues to allow them to profit off the grim and antiquated tenets of a license written under the Federal Power Commission 52 years ago, they seem in no particular hurry to become relicensed neighbors operating for profit on a four-state US river that is the centerpiece of a National Fish and Wildlife Refuge.

These ongoing grim flow regimes fly in the face of mandates long-ago included in the Endangered Species Act and the Anadramous Fish Conservation Act, here, in the most biologically important and critical habitat in the entire Connecticut River ecosystem. They also feel like a thumbing of the nose at Massachusetts taxpayers—as well as all the deserving citizens in the three states from Montague MA to Walpole NH, who also pay taxes and are certainly entitled to a living river. It is a form of public theft.

As the Connecticut River is left starved, its ancient fish runs foundering, there is no movement to bring to a close the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s “5-year” relicensing process—begun here in 2012 and lingering on, laughably unfinished. The power company continues to pocket profits, while the FERC is led by a stilted and hand-picked majority happy to feed the corporations what they want, to the benefit of foreign shareholders far from New England. Sadly, there is no state or federal environmental agency that appears willing to challenge this endless delay. And, as noted here before—this four-state river lacks a true NGO watchdog with a mission-mandate and staff lawyers protecting it. See The Greenfield Recorder: https://www.recorder.com/New-England-s-great-river-without-a-watchdog-33291778

FISH CAM: Let the People See Their FISH!

Posted by on 05 May 2020 | Tagged as: American shad, blueback herring, Connecticut River, FirstLight, FirstLight Power, FISH CAM, Great River Hydro, Holyoke Dam, Holyoke Fish Lift, migratory fish, Northfield Mountain, sea lamprey, shad, shortnose sturgeon, Turners Falls, Vermont, Vernon Dam Fishway

THIS GREAT AND BROKEN RIVER II

Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Issue # 2, FISH CAM: Let the People See Their FISH!

Covid-19 shouldn’t be an excuse to cancel everything–especially when you owe something to an isolated and deserving public. If you’re a power company profiting from a resource like the Connecticut River, isn’t it just the minimum of responsibility and common courtesy when things are taken away, to offer something in its place? I’m not seeing that on New England’s Great River. But I am certain all will be seeing new electricity bills this month–the companies seeking payment while so many are out of work.

Holyoke Fishway w/Shad Debry sign. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.Click X 3.(NOTE: then hit the BACK BUTTON)

Yet there will be no spring family trips to the River to see the great fish migration through Holyoke Gas & Electric’s viewing windows at the South Hadley Falls. No moms will be receiving a little public relations carnation for visiting there this Mother’s Day. And scores of anglers will go wanting there too. The company-sponsored annual Shad Derby won’t be held on successive weekends this spring either. The Fishway lot at Holyoke Dam will be gated and locked.


TF Fishway Gate Locked. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Click X 3.

Upstream at Turners Falls, FirstLight’s little fish-viewing cavern just above the ancient falls will be locked down tight as well. There will be no family or school program visits; no access to the churning river at its most dynamic season. Just further upstream, FirstLight has closed Barton Cove to all camping, kayak rentals, and hiking. Five miles further on they’ve cancelled all riverboat tours, use of the Riverview boat launch, plus all use of the extensive trail system on FirstLight’s sprawling Northfield Mountain recreation property. It’s quite a cancellation laundry list. They want us safe—noting, as others, the state safety guideline for Covid 19.

Turners Falls Dam, May 25, 2019. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Click X 3.

If you were thinking—maybe a bit further upstream in Vermont you might get to witness the great migration of American shad, sea lamprey and blueback herring at Great River Hydro’s Vernon Dam Fishway, well, you’re again out of luck. The padlock remains on the gates there too. Nobody will be entering that bunker where bubble-filled windows sometimes offer a steady stream of passing shad, and close-up looks at the pulsing gills of lamprey—suctioning mouths glued to the glass, resting a minute before continuing upstream. Only the nesting phoebes in the dark corner of that cavern will have free access in that chained-off place.

Vernon Dam March 19, 2020. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Click X 3.

Phoebe’s nest at Vernon Fishway. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Click X 3.

But don’t these for-profit and shareholder-owned companies have a responsibility to the local citizenry as they bill them to benefit stockholders who likely have no physical and intimate connection to the far-off Connecticut River they profit from? The truth is–the activities they won’t be providing for the public this year because of the Covid virus are actually required by law, as part of their federal and state operating licenses.

Conversely, these companies will not be carrying the payroll obligations for all their seasonal employees. There won’t be fishway guides and Shad Derby officials staffing Holyoke; nor will there be seasonal employees hired and staffing the Turners Falls Fishway, Barton Cove Campground, their kayak rentals—nor staffing and running the riverboat, the Visitors Center, nor staff maintaining those mileS of extensive trails and Riverview Picnic area, nor the Munn’s Ferry camp sites. All closed. That’s a considerable Covid-19 savings, and great loss to a cooped-up public…

TF Fishway, Simple Snapshot–its that easy! Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Click X 3.

Can’t something be done to give the public back their river access in this Covid-skewed spring? Is the public owed nothing more than an electric bill?

Well here’s a suggestion—and it’s not even thinking outside the corporate box. It’s time to offer the public FISH CAM, at each of these privatized falls and fish passage sites on the Connecticut. They fish cams in Virginia, Minnesota and elsewhere—heck, we even have a turn-key-ready version of it that could be hooked up in a minute at the Turners Falls Fishway. There, for decades, the company got great public relations for broadcasting Eagle Cam, a simple camera feed trained on the nest of the Barton Cove eagles and offered to an eager and enthusiastic public audience near and far.

It could be again reinstituted in a heartbeat at Turners Falls. And nobody would have to climb up into the nest to secure a camera—just put a video cam in those fish viewing windows and let the public have the delightful and comforting views of the Connecticut’s great spring migrations, right from the confinement of their homes. Just set it, and forget it. This would be great therapy for all those hungry for diversion and a river connection—and, wonderful for kids and student’s alike. It’s at least something they can do–and they have all the wires and electricity anyone could ever want. Local CCTV stations would surely help get it going at all these river sites, and viewers would likely tune in with grateful enthusiasm.

The Connecticut’s great migratory fish migration is just picking up steam now. Typically the runs begin moving toward peak in the several weeks following Mother’s Day, and continue right through June. Let’s give the public–the moms, dads, and kids something back during this greatly deprived spring. Hey Holyoke Gas & Electric; hey FirstLight—hey, Great River Hydro, please—it’s time to honor those obligations to the public on the public’s river. No excuses while shareholders profit. This is the simplest and quickest way to give just one thing back. With today’s technology you wouldn’t imagine this couldn’t be done by just aiming a laptop at the fish-viewing windows at Holyoke and Vernon, where an Eagle Cam never existed. It’s of out-of-the-box technology, to fulfill just one of the many unoffered public obligations this spring. Zoom in on the fish!

Please, no more telling the folks what won’t be offered or done in this bright season—now’s the time—and the place–and the season, for Fish Cam. If Minnesota and Virginia figured this out years ago, we should have it here on the Connecticut. It should be the standard. It’s a small gesture at a tiny cost–giving back a bit of comfort to those isolated at home or unable to get to the river. It’s a win-win, for all involved. Let the people tune in; let the public see their fish!