5-year FERC licensing process

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Redeem the promise at Great Falls

Posted by on 16 Nov 2015 | Tagged as: 5-year FERC licensing process, American shad, bald eagle, canal shad, Captain William Turner, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River Refuge, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Conte, Conte National Fish & Wildlife Refuge, Daily Hampshire Gazette, endangerd shortnose sturgeon, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federal trust fish, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FERC, FERC license, FERC licensing process, Greenfield Recorder, Holyoke Fish Lift, New Hampshire, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, Relicensing, Rock Dam, Rock Dam Pool, shad, shad fishing, shortnose sturgeon, The Greenfield Recorder, The Recorder, Turners Falls, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, USFWS, Vermont, Vermont Yankee, wildlife refuge

The following piece, with edits, appeared in the Daily Hampshire Gazette and The Recorder on November 12, 2015 as: “Federal wildlife service must preserve the promise at Great Falls,” and “River restoration retreat”

The US Fish & Wildlife Service’s recent abandonment of their flagship Conte National Fish & Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center at Turners Falls defies all logic. In August they abruptly withdrew their on-site interpreter and funding for The Great Falls Discover Center. That center was located above the falls two decades back precisely because of the site’s importance as an ecological refuge—perched at a river crossroads critical to the success of their new “watershed-based” refuge.

Back then bald eagles had just returned to Turners Falls; it was once again the place that hundreds of thousands of migrating American shad surged to each spring. And just downstream was the sole natural site where the only federally-endangered migratory fish in the watershed–the ancient Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, attempted to spawn each May. Known as the Rock Dam, its an ancient geological formation that remains a premiere retreat for spring shad anglers. For its biological and historic importance alone, Rock Dam should have long ago been offered the Refuge’s first “in-river” sanctuary designation.

Yet today, USFWS seems ready to walk away from its core mission and long history on the river at Turners Falls. Doing so would be no less an historic retreat than that of Captain Turner and his battalion after their pre-dawn attack on hundreds of Native American women, children and old men seeking refuge at that very site nearly 340 years ago. On May 19, 1676–having accomplished their grizzly goal with the loss of just one man, they were sent in reeling retreat when the first counter-attacking Native warriors arrived from a downstream island encampment opposite today’s Rock Dam. They’d been stationed there to intercept the teeming May shad runs to help feed their people. Turner and 37 of his troops died in the ensuing rout.

Today, Turners Falls remains the site of the US Fish & Wildlife’s biggest regional blunder in a mission to protect a nation’s fish and wildlife resources on New England’s Great River. In the late 1970s they signed off on the plan resulting in a series of fish ladders being built there. It forced all migratory fish out of the river and into the Turners Falls Power Canal. That resulted in a half century of failed fisheries and habitat restoration—largely drawing the curtain down on a spring ocean-connection for riverine habitats in Vermont, New Hampshire, and northern Massachusetts. That 1967 USFWS/four-state migratory fisheries restoration compact for the Connecticut River still founders at Turners Falls today.

That is why the recent USFW’s retreat from their ecologically and historically unique flagship perch remains inexplicable. Currently federal hydro-relicensing studies of dam and canal operations at Turners Falls are taking place. Their outcomes will determine environmental conditions governing the Connecticut River in this reach for two generations to come. The USFWS is playing a key role in these studies as the lead agency empowered to define and require changes at Turners respecting the protection and restoration of the public’s federal-trust and federally-endangered fish species there. In short, they’re at a crossroads. They are the key player able to restore past mistakes and make the Conte Connecticut River Watershed National Fish and Wildlife Refuge a true refuge for annual migrants passing from Connecticut to Massachusetts; then Vermont and New Hampshire.

That long-awaited success would occur at the doorstep of the Great Falls Discovery Center–replete with its life-sized displays of watershed fish and wildlife, and its accessible public auditorium. It’s a huge opportunity at a site virtually on the river, easily reachable by visitors from a broad swath of southern New England travelling the I-91/Route 2 Corridor. Great Falls is the only brick and mortar place for the public to regularly interact with USFW staff and a diversity of displays of characterizing watershed habitats for 80 miles in any direction. What’s more it’s the only publicly-funded flagship Refuge site where admission is free.

Without a touchstone site in this populous reach of the watershed, most citizens will remain unaware of the restoration and conservation work of the USFWS. They’ll be left to surmise instead that Conte is more a theoretical Refuge—a concept and an amorphous jumble of disparate parts lacking any true core.

In practice and in theory, Turners Falls and the Discovery Center site represent the best of opportunities for the US Fish & Wildlife Service to succeed in their core missions of conservation, restoration, public access and education. A second retreat at Turners Falls would be an historic failure. This fabulously rich reach of the Connecticut is uniquely situated to showcase the Service’s long-awaited success in river restoration on the public’s behalf. Many mistakes could be redeemed with the right decisions at this time. Don’t abandon the Great River at the Great Falls.

Public comments are being accepted through November 13th on the USFWS’s plans for Conte Refuge priorities for the next 15 years at: www.fws.gov/refuge/silvio_o_conte/

Karl Meyer
Greenfield

From the Rutland Herald: Where our fish are trapped

Posted by on 16 Nov 2015 | Tagged as: 5-year FERC licensing process, American shad, Bellows Falls, Connecticut River, Connecticut River migratory fisheries restoration, False attraction, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, FERC licensing process, New Hampshire, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, Rutland Herald, shad, shad fishing, The Great Eddy, Turners Falls, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS, Vermont Yankee, Vernon Dam Fishway


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.

Disastrous Fish Kill in the Turners Falls Power Canal

Posted by on 06 Oct 2015 | Tagged as: 5-year FERC licensing process, GDF-Suez FirstLight, Turners Falls power canal, US Geological Service’s Silvio O. Conte Anadromous Fish Lab

On Monday, October 5, 2015, GDF-Suez FirstLight Power drained the Turners Falls Power Canal for dredging in its annual “drawdown.” For many months out of the year all of the Connecticut River’s migratory and resident fish are forced into the power canal while the 2-1/2 miles below Turners Falls Dam is left virtually empty.This happens annually, and the related mortality has yet to be fully studied, even though the USGS Silvio O. Conte Anadromous Fish Research Center overlooks the TF Power Canal.

These few photos below are just a tiny sample of a 20-minute walk through a small segment of the canal at 7:00 a.m. on the day the canal drained. Thousands of fish lay struggling, stranded, and dead in the drying pools.Click on photos to enlarge.

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Greening Greenfield’s “Green Hero” for September

Posted by on 11 Sep 2015 | Tagged as: 5-year FERC licensing process, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River migratory fisheries restoration, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FERC licensing process, Fish passage results, Greenfield Recorder, Greening Greenfield, Holyoke Fish Lift, National Marine Fisheries Service, NMFS, Northfield Mountain, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project, Rock Dam, shortnose sturgeon, teachers, The Recorder, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS

Greening Greenfield’s “Green Hero” for September

I’ve had the honor of being selected as Greening Greenfield’s “Green Hero” for September, 2015. The award was announced in the pages of The Recorder on September 9th; the text from that piece is attached below.

Thanks to all the people of Greening Greenfield for extending me that recognition—as well as focusing on the importance of the critical artery in Western New England’s ecosystem, the Connecticut River. Greening Greenfield has been hard at work locally on issues of climate and sustainability for over a decade. Their efforts reach into all aspects of local energy, economy, and quality of life issues. They’ve made great strides in steering Greenfield toward an environmental future that will nourish coming generations. www.greeninggreenfield.org .

A special thanks from me to Susan and Dorothy.

Text of The Recorder piece follows:

A Passion for the Connecticut River

The first thing you notice about Karl Meyer is that his eyes light up when he speaks about the Connecticut River and the fish that live in it. His commitment and enthusiasm shows through in his words and in every action he takes.

In the 1970s’, Karl was interested in the river for its scenic qualities. But in the 1980’s, he visited Holyoke fishway during May spawning season and observed some of the more than a million fish moving through lifts there. One year 720,000 American Shad and 500,000 blueback herring came through the river at Holyoke. That image never left him.

Since that time, Karl has concentrated on the needs of the fish in the river, with a particular concern for American shad and the shortnose sturgeon, an endangered species. Karl believes the Connecticut’s restoration concentrated on the wrong species. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service put a great deal of effort into stocking the river and building fish ladders for Atlantic salmon, a fish extinct here since 1809. That emphasis diverted attention from shortnose sturgeon, shad, and blueback herring, none of which benefit very much from those Turners Falls fish ladders which diverted all migrants into the Turners Falls power canal.

In 2015, 410,000 American shad passed through Holyoke, but because they are diverted out of the river and into the power canal only 60,000, fewer than 15%, made it past Turners Falls to reach open, upstream spawning grounds. This is clearly unsustainable. Today’s US Fish & Wildlife Service passage goal is 60% passing Turners Falls. Their original 1967 target was 75%.

With fewer fish making it to food-rich, open habitats, fewer newborn fish survive. There will be fewer fish for eagles, herons and osprey, and fewer for anglers and the public to consume. Eventually 15% of very little will result in the failure of the restoration to return vibrant shad runs to three target states.

Karl has a simple solution for this problem. Require life-giving flows in the river throughout spawning and migration season. When fish aren’t diverted into a turbine-lined power canal they’ll have a much greater possibility of making it to spawning grounds in MA, VT and NH. It’s a last chance for river restoration.

The other great danger to river health is the Northfield Mountain Pumping Station. It draws on the 20 miles of river backed up behind Turners Falls Dam, pumping it uphill to a 5 billion gallon reservoir. Northfield hugely impacts river flows and migration.

“An original design proposal had Northfield closing during migration and spawning season. Implementing that today would return more natural flows to the river. It would allow fish to migrate directly upriver in natural habitat, and let sturgeon gather and spawn successfully at their ancient Rock Dam spawning site,” stated Karl.

So how do we encourage this change? Easy. Right now the Northfield and Turners Falls/Cabot Station facilities are both up for 30-year relicensing with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). We can all comment on the relicensing of these plants at http://www.ferc.gov/docs-filing/ecomment.asp. The FERC project number for Northfield is P-2485; Cabot Station is P-1889. Advocating that our river run free during spawning and migration season could make a huge difference in improving the health of the Connecticut.

Karl would like to see local high schools adopt the National Marine Fisheries Service’s SCUTES Program and encourage monitoring of tagged, adult shortnose sturgeon at their ONLY documented natural spawning site, The Rock Dam in Turners Falls. By developing an awareness of the numbers and needs of these endangered fish, students will build a new relationship to this river. http://www.greateratlantic.fisheries.noaa.gov/prot_res/scutes/kits.html

For his tireless work to create a healthy Connecticut River and a vibrant fish population within it, Karl Meyer is our Green Hero for the month of September.

Sucking out the river’s life

Posted by on 11 Aug 2015 | Tagged as: 5-year FERC licensing process, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River migratory fisheries restoration, EPA, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, FERC, FERC license, GDF-Suez FirstLight, National Marine Fisheries Service, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, Relicensing, The Recorder, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Environmental Protection Agency, US Fish & Wildlife Service

The following piece appeared in The Recorder in Greenfield, MA in the first week of August.

Sucking out the river’s life

Copyright © 2015 by Karl Meyer

Whether it’s Federal Energy Regulatory Commission licensing for a sprawling gas pipeline or a cluster of power projects on the Connecticut, the public isn’t getting the accountability and voice its entitled to. That hit me after contacting Tobey Stover from the US EPA’s Region 1 Offices about GDF-Suez FirstLight’s Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station. I called EPA because FirstLight had just given notice they were cancelling part of an ongoing sediment-testing program to gauge the impacts of their giant Northfield station on the Connecticut’s ecosystem.

EPA mandated that long-term testing after FirstLight massively violated the Clean Water Act by “polluting the navigable waters of the United States” in August 2010. To wit: they’d dumped the equivalent of 30 – 40 truckloads of sludge directly into the river at Northfield—each day for over 90 days straight, until getting caught. In the largest case of profligate dumping in decades, miles of river bathed in over 45,000 cubic square yards of sludge—smack in the middle of fish spawning time. Continuous testing was being required, in part, for inclusion in GDF-Suez FirstLight’s application for a new FERC license to continue sucking giant gulps of river to generate secondhand electricity.

Despite what many think, Northfield is not a hydropower plant. It’s a double-energy-loss, net-cash-gain contraption. It’s an energy transfer, storage and resale operation—offering twice-generated electricity back to the grid at peak-demand, peak market prices. Northfield was conceived as a giant, nuclear-powered pump. It technically qualifies on the books as a 1,200 megawatt unit —the output of TWO Vermont Yankees, but it supplies just a sliver of peak-priced electricity to our market while creating the most ecosystem havoc. This is a power-consuming operation, run on imported juice. On its own it can’t produce a single watt of electricity—nothing clean or renewable about it.

Northfield was built to profit from pumping the river backward via cheap, excess electricity produced at night at regional nuclear plants. With the nukes closed, it continues slicing through a river’s aquatic life on a diet of climate-warming fossil fuels. To do so it must purchases giant blocks of wholesale electricity so it can spend hours slurping endless gulps of river uphill through slicing turbines. When reversed those turbines spit our river back out as expensive, twice-produced juice. Sadly, Northfield can only offer 6 – 8 hours of peak-priced energy to the electricity “spot market”—because after that its 5 billion gallon reservoir is spent, rendering it unable to light your nite light. Then they start buying up “virgin” electricity to suck the river backward again.

If those daily pulses of destruction were silenced, an ecosystem would begin to heal. Though they fancy themselves as a key component of the grid, Northfield Mountain’s own sludge so-fouled its turbines in 2010 that it was instantly, unexpectedly, shut down for half a year. Yet nobody noticed, no one went without power—not even when Vermont Yankee went off-line to refuel. Instead of customers paying the high cost of a ruined river–sold back to them less than half-alive at peak prices, they received once-produced electricity without the collateral damage.

Mr. Stover at EPA was pleasant and helpful. He confirmed the world’s largest private energy purveyor would be let off their continuous-sampling-hook–because equipment they’d purchased had experienced repeated problems. They’d further petitioned EPA, whining about difficulties supplying electricity to their samplers. Hummn… GDF-Suez offered to instead use its own consulting firm to build a model of the plant’s operations, substituting simulations for real-time federal data. EPA was leaning toward accepting that too. Really?

It appears Northfield’s massive impacts are simply too violent to be directly calculated—perhaps too costly to allow to cripple an ecosystem? Why not order GDF-Suez to buy new equipment and start over? And isn’t it time EPA did their own study of the impacts of the massive sucking and juicing of all that aquatic life—fish, plants, insect larvae, twice through the turbines, for hours on end, at upwards of 15,000 cubic feet per second? Think 15,000 bowling balls a second, for hours—first up, then back through again.

Northfield creates such crushing impacts it shouldn’t have been built. Once Vermont Yankee closed, its damages should’ve been sidelined as well—used only as back-up to provide brief, dense pulses of juice during emergencies. Yet today it continues to operate, even during spring-summer fish migration season. Its voracious water appetite plays a key role in the failure of the half-century old, four-state Connecticut River migratory fisheries restoration program, Congressionally-authorized in 1967 under the US Fish & Wildlife and National Marine Fisheries.

This corporate “self-determination” is the grim legacy of the Bush-Cheney Administration’s secret energy policies. With huge gas, hydro, and pumped storage proposals on the docket, public accountability has gone AWOL. In the Holy Grail of “corporate citizenship” industry is now its own watchdog–“self-reporting” to agencies on the impacts of its own energy production and pollution. Both concepts belong in the Oxymoron Hall of Fame. Giant companies are running the table on climate, pollution, impacts and price–as our regulatory agencies fail to act on behalf of the public’s long-term interests.

Karl Meyer of Greenfield, MA is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists. He is participating in the FERC hydro relicensing process for power plants on the Connecticut River.

Spawning run ride from to Vernon; back to Turners Falls, Rock Dam and Cabot: May 17, 2015

Posted by on 17 May 2015 | Tagged as: 5-year FERC licensing process, American shad, Bellows Falls, Cabot Station, Connecticut River, Conte, Dead Reach, Federal Conte Anadromous Fish Research Center, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, FERC license, FirstLight, Holyoke Fish Lift, New Hampshire, power canal studies, Rock Dam, Rock Dam Pool, sea lamprey, shad, shad fishing, Turners Falls, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, Vermont, Vernon Dam Fishway

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The Headgates at Turners Falls Dam sending flow into the power canal were as quiet as I’ve ever seen them this Sunday. There seemed to just be a bit of attraction water for fish looking to get upstream, but no usual frothing rip that is usual with power generation.
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Downstream at the end of the power canal there was a nearly lake-like stillness as Cabot hydro station seemed to be producing little power.
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Looking upstream at Cabot hydro station from the bridge at Montague City, there was just a small run of whitewater coming down the spillway at Cabot. Data about these flow manipulations should be available for investigations and study results for the re-licensing
inquiries currently taking place under Federal Energy Regulatory Commission purview. They have significant impacts on fish passage.
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Three of the lucky anglers fishing Rock Dam today–two are in the boat in background.
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Rock Dam rocking with anglers and 6,300 cfs of flow.
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Letting a Rock Dam shad off the hook.

LASTLY, here’s today’s full POST:

Spawning run ride from to Vernon; back to Turners Fall, Rock Dam and Cabot: May 17, 2015

After cycling up Rt. 5 to Brattleboro early today, I headed south along the Connecticut. I was shocked to actually find the gates to Vernon Fishway OPEN! This is something that should be guaranteed to the public—regular, posted hours where the public can view their fish. Let John Rangonese of TransCanada know. There is always at least one pickup parked at the Vernon hydro station, all that’s needed is someone to walk over and open the gate; then close it upon leaving. Self-serve site, no cost involved. Public’s fish; public’s river.

Anyway, in the riot of effervescing current in the Vernon Fishway windows today were literally streams of American shad. They were running upstream like there was romance in the offing. Here, like at Holyoke, fish come directly upriver to the base of the dam. There, attracted by flows released down the short fish ladder at this modest falls, shad quickly find their way past the dam toward Brattleboro, Putney, Bellows Falls, and Walpole, NH. Today they were passing in pods at around 10:00 a.m. There were also a couple of smallmouths lower in the current, as well as one ropey sea lamprey flashing through the bubbles.
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USFWS tank truck used to transport tagged shad

Here, also, I ran into Steve Leach and his crew, from Normandeau Associates. Using the borrowed US Fish & Wildlife Service tank truck, they were preparing to tag fish and truck them a-ways upstream for fish passage studies connected to TransCanada’s hydro relicensing at Vernon, Bellows Falls, and Wilder. They’d done some previous tagging at Holyoke as well. We chatted a bit about test flows downstream, and the lack of rainfall, and the river’s temperature profile that is rising a bit early. I bid them luck, noting a few anglers fishing below Vernon Fishway—along with a perched bald eagle and a circling osprey.

After stopping to visit friends in Gill, MA, I was on the Turners Falls Bridge just a few minutes after noon. The test flow current is at 6,300 cfs (cubic feet per second) today, and the Connecticut is alive with frothy water across the wide, curving expanse formerly known as Peskeomscut. I look down at four people fishing the quick current along the Spillway Fish Ladder, just downstream of the bascule gate that’s pouring down current. In ten minutes time I watch five shad get hooked—four of them are landed, and one is lost near the waterline.

I get back on my bike and tuck in to the Canalside Rail Trail, scooting under the Turners Falls Bridge. As I come alongside the canal at the Turners Falls Gatehouse I notice that the canal is nearly quiet—almost like a still pond. This rivals the quietest flows I’ve ever seen passing through this site. FirstLight controls the headgates here–and with so few open, the fish coming up through their power canal can get a better shot at passage.

A cynical person might think they were manipulating the canal to make it look like a good industrial conduit for wild fish—especially during tagged-fish tracking surveys during test flows. One also might think this could be done to punch up fish passage numbers for weekend visitors to the TF Fishway—something that has shown up in fish passage tallies there for years. You’d think fish were only interested in migrating on weekends… Nonetheless, after well over a decade of subsidizing federal Conte Lab employees for fish passage studies and structural changes in the Turners Falls Power Canal, they have yet to succeed in passing more shad upstream than passed this site in the 1980s…

Curiously, when I head all the way downstream along the canal to Cabot Hydro Station, and then out on the deck of the General Pierce Bridge in Montague City—it is absolutely true that the TF Canal appears lake-like in its absence of flow, with just a small bit of whitewater bubbling down from its tailrace. Operators have certainly quieted the whole canal system this day.

In between I make a stop at the Rock Dam Pool, where the 6,300 cfs flows have the rocks roiling with lively current, and the anglers reeling in fish, seemingly at will. For the first time ever here I see two men standing and fishing below the Rock Dam’s fall in a motorized Zodiac type craft. Between the boat, the fishers wading out in the Rock Dam Pool, and the people tossing darts from the ledge over the pool, there are nine anglers fishing the site—eight men and a woman.

And the shad are streaming in. In the fifteen minutes I spend there, five fish are brought to shore. When I ask one guy to pause with his catch for a minute while I shoot a photo, he obliges. “How’s it been for you?” I ask. “I can’t seem to make a mistake today—I’ve had two dozen,” he tells me. “Well, I guess you know what you’re doing.” “Hey, I ran the Turners Falls Dam for 8-1/2 years,” he says. I nod, adding, “I guess then you know exactly when it’s time to come down here for shad.”
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The other great thing that has happened for anglers with these actual flows in the river: almost nobody is relegated to tossing lines in the stillness of the power canal. The anglers and the fish are all in the river.

Shad fishing reported as excellent below Turners Falls

Posted by on 12 May 2015 | Tagged as: 5-year FERC licensing process, American shad, By Pass Reach, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Dead Reach, FERC licensing process, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project, Rock Dam, Rock Dam Pool, shad fishing, Turners Falls, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, Uncategorized

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After decades of dismal flows and poor fishing, shad anglers immediately below the Turners Falls Dam and downstream at the Rock Dam Pool near the Conte Fish Lab, are reporting some excellent fishing. Federally-mandated test flows to help track migratory fish movement upstream through the Dead Reach of the Connecticut River below Turners Falls Dam commenced last Thursday. By Sunday, three fishermen at the Rock Dam Pool reported excellent catches while the dam was releasing 6,300 CFS (Cubic Feet per Second) the previous few days, though they noted it tailed off slightly when flow from the dam was tamped down to 4,400 CFS on Sunday.

Flow to the Rock Dam Pool, the only documented natural spawning site on the river for the federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, had been cut to mid-summer levels just a week prior. With the test flows, life-giving water was returned to this abused reach of the river and shad readily followed their ancient river path upstream toward Vermont and New Hampshire spawning waters, without being lured into the treacherous Turners Falls Power Canal at Cabot Station, just downstream.

Those shad, at the current 4,400 CFS test-flow level, are currently being landed just below the Turners Falls Dam, where ecosystem-nourishing flows are being introduced here for the first time in decades as part of the studies for relicensing of the Turners Falls and Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage hydro projects on the public’s river.

The test flows will continue for the next several weeks—which should prove an interesting citizen’s science experiment for anglers who report their catch. Flows at the 4,400 CFS level will continue today, May 12, then will be reduced to 2,500 CFS from Wednesday, May 13, through Friday, and then elevate back up to 6,300 CFS from Saturday, May 16, through Monday, May 18.

Spawning shortnose sturgeon denied flow at Rock Dam Pool

Posted by on 08 May 2015 | Tagged as: 5-year FERC licensing process, American shad, Atlantic salmon, blueback herring, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Dr. Boyd Kynard, endangerd shortnose sturgeon, Endangered Species Act, ESA, Extinction, Federal Conte Anadromous Fish Research Center, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federal trust fish, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FERC, GDF-Suez FirstLight, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, National Marine Fisheries Service, Rock Dam, Rutland Herald, shortnose sturgeon, The Greenfield Recorder, University of Massachusetts, US Fish & Wildlife Service, Vermont Digger

PRockDamPoolDewatered (2)
(to view lager image, click on photo).

NOTE: the photo above documents conditions found at the Rock Dam Pool on the Connecticut River on May 3, 2015. Seventeen years of published studies conducted by federal and University of Massachusetts fisheries researchers at the adjacent Conte Anadromous Fish Research Center show that these river conditions cause spawning failure for federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon at the Rock Dam Pool, their only documented natural spawning site. The May 3rd river conditions found at Rock Dam mimicked mid-summer flows on the Connecticut–conditions that research shows drives spawning-ready females from the site, and de-waters the cobble-strewn pool where eggs and embryos attach and develop. April 25 to May 22 is the documented spawning window for the shortnose sturgeon on the Connecticut. It is a crime to kill, injure or interfere with endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon under federal and state law. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the US Fish & Wildlife Service, and the MA Division of Fisheries & Wildlife are responsible for the protection of the Connecticut River’s only federally-endangered fish under the Endangered Species Act(ESA). GDF-Suez FirstLight controls river flows to this site via spill gate operations at the Turners Falls Dam, just upstream.

A RIVER PRESERVED IN PLASTIC Copyright © 2015 by Karl Meyer

(The following essay–with minor variation in each, appeared recently in The Recorder, The Rutland Herald, and at Vtdigger.org)

A lifeless, three-foot long Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon sits on display at the Great Falls Discovery Center in Turners Falls, MA. The shortnose has been this river’s only federally-endangered fish since 1967. That plastic sturgeon has sat amidst other replica fish for a dozen years now—a plastic American shad, a blueback herring, a trophy-size Atlantic salmon. They’re framed beneath a slightly-ruffled acrylic surface representing the Connecticut River at this flagship site of the Silvio Conte National Fish & Wildlife Refuge.

That display is the basic message offered to visitors here: ‘This is a river with congenial flows supporting populations of shad and herring, big native salmon, and federally-protected sturgeon.’

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Few upstream migrants reach Vermont and New Hampshire today. That’s part of the legacy of failure of federal and state fish agencies and watchdog groups claiming to safeguard an ecosystem and its native migratory fish. That legacy will remain intact until they confront ongoing conditions in Massachusetts that have been crippling the river here for decades.

That Discovery Center depiction falls apart if visitors simply walk outside onto the deck of the Turners Falls Bridge, adjacent to Turners Falls Dam. There, often for months on end, what they’ll see is the hollowed-out heart of New England’s Great River–a waterless chasm, or one teased by just a trickle from the power company’s dam. Conversely, when rain or snow send more river downstream than can be profitably sent through FirstLight’s power canal or stored upstream for their Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, those spill gates open wide–producing violent, see-sawing flows few fish can fight or follow.

Meanwhile a 200 million year-old evolutionary gem, the Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, remains all but abandoned just downstream–teetering on the verge of extinction for decades. Likewise, American shad can’t move upstream in the river here at all. They’re forced into that turbine-lined power canal where less than 1-in-10 will emerge alive beyond the dam. And those blueback herring–protected on paper as a “federal trust” species, have not been counted here in almost a decade. Just 20 years back they passed by the thousands.

That plastic salmon, showcased for decades as the darling of this river’s fisheries restoration, has been extinct here since 1809. It should not be presented as a living native fish. In science, extinct isn’t subject to interpretation.

That trophy-sized model derives from a massive hybrid hatchery program created by cross-breeding salmon imported from Canadian and northern New England rivers. For 43 years federal and state fish farms produced the millions of tiny fry dumped into the river each spring. Those fish factories repeatedly proved vectors for the potential spread of disease throughout the river system. Though those tiny fish proved great for public relations, no spawning population of engineered salmon ever took hold.

Hybrid salmon became the red herring that masked the massively broken ecosystem that exists on an eight-mile stretch of New England’s Great River from the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station to the tailrace of the Turners Falls Power Canal. Those salmon were the stand-ins for agencies including the National Marine Fisheries Service, the USFWS, and MA Division of Fish & Wildlife that had failed to protect living migratory species here–and an ecosystem suffocating right in their backyard.

The plight of the only state- and federally endangered fish here represents the ultimate failure of responsibilities. Dr. Boyd Kynard spent decades studying the shortnose and documented it’s only natural spawning site–the Rock Dam Pool, less than two miles downstream of Turners Falls Dam. Dam operations there were annually creating conditions that crippled spawning success for the remaining 300 sturgeon still able to reach their ancient rendezvous site.

Kynard’s federal- and state-funded findings were given to fish agencies a decade back. Each bore legal responsibility for that sturgeon. Yet no agency or non-profit stepped-in to monitor and enforce Endangered Species Act protections. None intervened to halt the trickle-and-torrent flows preventing reproduction. That step alone would’ve put living waters back into the river here–aiding the shad and herring attempting to reach Vermont and New Hampshire. Likewise in 2012, when Kynard published a book on the shortnose–documenting its life history and the river conditions necessary for its recovery, again, no one went to court to protect this public legacy.

Had agencies and watchdog groups taken responsibility years back for protecting spawning sturgeon at that Rock Dam Pool below FirstLight’s dam, native migratory fish and the river ecosystem would be in a far better place today. Instead, that work was left to become part of the current studies in the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s 5-year relicensing process for the Turners Falls and Northfield hydro sites, where I’m on the Fisheries and Aquatic Studies Team.

Sturgeon spawning is not monitored today. It’s unconscionable to have waited for a 40 year relicensing process to come around before broaching concerns for an endangered fish and broken ecosystem. Hopefully it won’t prove the difference between a living river, and one merely depicted in a museum model.

Greenfield, MA journalist Karl Meyer is participating in the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s relicensing process for the Northfield Mountain and Turners Falls hydro sites.

New Comments to FERC, RE: Turners Falls Fisheries Studies

Posted by on 08 Apr 2015 | Tagged as: 5-year FERC licensing process, American shad, Cabot Station, Connecticut River, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Conte, Dr. Castro-Santos, Dr. Haro, endangerd shortnose sturgeon, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FERC, FirstLight, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, Mr. Colton Bridges, New Hampshire, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project, Revised Study Plan, Secretary Kimberly Bose, shad, shortnose sturgeon, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, US Geological Survey's Conte Fish Lab, USFWS, Vermont

NOTE: the following comments were submitted to Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Secretary Kimberly Bose respecting FirstLight’s withdrawal from its stated position of using video-monitoring equipment at the Turners Falls Dam’s Spillway Ladder to compile study data and information on aggregations of migrating American shad.

This is information that has been the fisheries restoration’s Black Hole these last forty years. It can only be gathered at this site. However, with the withdrawal of these tools, fisheries agencies and the public will be relying on just a few hundred radio-tagged and tracked fish as substitutes for on-site, real time monitoring of aggregations of what are understood to be perhaps hundreds of thousands of migratory shad. (Comments to FERC were slightly abbreviated due space limits in E-filing.)

Karl Meyer, MS
Greenfield, MA 01301 April 8, 2015

Kimberly D. Bose, Secretary
Federal Energy Regulatory Commission
888 First Street, NE
Washington, DC 20426

Re: P-1889; P-2485

Dear Secretary Bose:

Please accept the following comments in the matter of the hydro-power licensing studies for P-1889, the Turners Falls Project; and P-2485, the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project. These comments focus on changes FirstLight made to the Revised Study Plan. I first aired my objections to these RSP changes at a meeting on March 24, 2015–as a member of the Fisheries and Aquatics Study Team. They highlight a lack of Existing Information and a Need for Additional Information that FirstLight’s RSP revisions will not satisfy.

FirstLight has summarily excised all video monitoring in the vicinity of the Spillway Fishway at the base of Turners Falls Dam—a technique they’d agreed was needed in the initial RSP.

3.3.2 Evaluate Upstream and Downstream Passage of Adult American Shad

Existing Information and Need for Additional Information

Passage through the Turners Falls complex:

Study Goals and Objectives: (18CFR; 5.11(d)(1)

“Evaluate attraction, entrance efficiency and internal efficiency of the Spillway Ladder for shad reaching the dam spillway, under a range of conditions.”

FirstLight stated the following in their initial RSP response: (bolded italics below, mine

“Video monitoring will be used for specific study areas such as the Spillway Fishway. Use of video monitoring of the Spillway fishway will provide data on fishway efficiency; shad attempting to pass would be monitored versus only those shad that have been tagged.”

Task 2: Study Design and Methods:

FirstLight then wholly eliminated that key video information gathering technique that would help inform these studies with aggregate numbers of shad reaching the Spillway Entrance, versus only those few tagged fish approaching and passing the Spillway entrance.

From FirstLight’s March 14, 2015 RSP changes distributed to the Fisheries and Aquatics Study Team:

“The study will monitor shad migration within the study area using a combination of active and passive radio techniques and video surveillance.”

This needed information gathering was eliminated by FirstLight despite their description in the initial RSP that this was a proven and inexpensive technology:

“FirstLight proposes to conduct video monitoring using the Delta System commercial series of underwater video camera and lighting manufactured by Ocean Systems Inc. This system was recommended by A. Haro (Conte Lab) and has proven effective at other facilities. Video data will be recorded on a dedicated video recorder (DVR).”

“Video monitoring of the Spillway would add a modest cost to this study.”

As to why gathering information about aggregations of American shad at the Spillway adjacent to Turners Falls Dam is needed at this time–that need was stated in FirstLight’s initial RSP response as well:

“In general, the numbers of tagged fish passing through the Spillway Fishway were too low for vigorous evaluation (Haro and Castro-Santos 2005).”

Information about aggregations of migratory fish moving upstream to the base of Turners Falls Dam and the Spillway has been paltry to nonexistent these last 40 years. In the last 15 years, Dr. Haro and Dr. Castro-Santos of the USGS Conte Lab have focused nearly all their work in FirstLight’s power canal, while the Connecticut River passage route for these federal trust fish has been almost wholly ignored.

As to the huge gap in the information for American shad aggregations at this site, I herein cite expert testimony delivered before Commission members four decades back:

On August 21, 1975, in hearings before the United States Federal Power Commission in Boston, Mr. Colton Bridges, Deputy Director of the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife delivered the following expert testimony on the need for Spillway Fish Passage at the Turners Falls Dam:

To Mr. Bridges: Question: “Would either the Cabot power house fishway or the gatehouse fishway be effective in passing those early arriving shad?”

Answer from Mr. Bridges: “No, because with spill conditions at Turner Falls the major source of attraction water will be coming down river from the Turners Falls Dam and emanating from Cabot Station. Consequently, the conditions that existed at Holyoke with spillway flows limiting fishlift efficiency will prevail at Turners Falls Dam with only a Cabot Station fish passage facility in operation.”

Question: “What, in your opinion, would be the effect of the construction of the proposed fish passage facilities at Turners Falls Dam without the inclusion of the spillway fishway?”

Answer from Mr. Bridges: “Without a spillway fish passage facility, fish approaching Turners Falls during periods of spill will be attracted to the base of the dam and those isolated pools located immediately below it, and be subject to the same conditions that exist below Holyoke without the spillway fish collecting facility, i.e., migration delay and mortality due to lack of flow, increased water temperatures, and decreasing oxygen content.”

Given that, as of this date, FERC is refusing to allow the USFWS any in-situ access for snorkeling to get a general assessment of fish using this passage route to Turners Falls Dam during migration season–and that FERC is further disallowing any seining for fish or shad eggs in this reach due to concerns for endangered shortnose sturgeon, this is the only key place where any new information about Spillway aggregations of shad can be gained. This was stated as a result of FERC internal policy, though NMFS indicated a willingness to consult—and NMFS is the ultimate key-holder in decisions concerning Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon.

Hence, denying the gathering of this needed information at the Spillway effectively limits the public’s understanding of what is happening at this site. Though overall successful fish passage through the Spillway Ladder has proven ineffective these past 30 years, it should not limit the Entranceway as the key place to collect long-absent information on aggregating shad.

These are the early arriving fish that have long been known to be the key migrants–most likely to move upstream to Northern Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire spawning sites on the Connecticut. As of this date, 40 years after Deputy Director Colton Bridges testimony, those fish are still not making it past Turners Falls Dam, and we don’t have the information about their numbers and when, where, and in what flow conditions they gather at the Spillway site.

For these reasons I respectfully request that Spillway video monitoring be returned to the Revised Study Plan for this season–to gather the data that cannot be gained simply by monitoring a few hundred radio-tagged fish.

Thank you.

Sincerely,
Karl Meyer, MS, Member, Fisheries and Aquatics Study Team for P-1889; P-2485

A look inside the FERC licensing process

Posted by on 06 Jan 2015 | Tagged as: 5-year FERC licensing process, Drew Huthchison, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, FERC, FERC license, FERC licensing process, fracked gas licensing, GDF-Suez FirstLight, ISO New England, Kinder Morgan, Kinder Morgan pipeline, Mt. Tom Coal Plant, National Marine Fisheries Service, NOAA, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project, shad, shad larvae, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, US Geological Service’s Silvio O. Conte Anadromous Fish Lab, USFWS, Vermont Yankee, Yankee Rowe Nuclear Plant

In mid-December I was interviewed on Greenfield Community Television’s Local Bias feature by Mark Wisniewski, former Greenfield City Council President. In a wide-ranging talk we discussed my experiences with the ongoing Federal Energy Regulatory Commission licensing process as both a journalist and stakeholder in the hydro projects at Northfield Mountain and the Turners Falls Power Canal on the Connecticut River. The FERC licensing process is a cumbersome and lengthy ordeal–transpiring over a 5- year swatch of time.

Anyone interested in–or involved as a citizen in, the deluge of FERC projects currently affecting our region, might gain some insight by tuning in: from fracked-gas pipelines, to hydro, nuclear, climate and ecosystem impacts.

Local Bias airs beginning Wednesday, at 5:30 pm, and repeats on Thursday and Saturday nights at 9 pm throughout the month of January 2015.

Local Bias is produced and directed by Drew Hutchison.

Try the link below,.. or go to look up GCTV, Local Bias to connect to a copy of the show.

http://gctv.org/videos/local-bias-karl-meyer-121514

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