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CAN NEW ENGLAND’S GREAT RIVER SURVIVE MORE DECADES OF PUMPED STORAGE GENERATION?

Posted by on 12 Mar 2017 | Tagged as: 5-year FERC licensing process, American shad, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River migratory fisheries restoration, Dr. Boyd Kynard, ecosystem, endangerd shortnose sturgeon, EPA, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federal trust fish, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FERC, FERC licensing process, FirstLight, Montague Reporter, National Marine Fisheries Service, Northfield Mountain, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Reservoir, shad, shortnose sturgeon, Society of Environmental Journalists, Turners Falls, Turners Falls dam, Vermont Digger, vtdigger.org, WBUR

NOTE: The following piece first appeared on the website of vtdigger.org in late February. It also appeared in print in the Montague Reporter, montaguereporter.org in early March.

Copyright © 2017 by Karl Meyer

Can New England’s Great River survive more decades of pumped storage generation? Long-term FERC licensing could lock out new river-sparing energy storage choices.

Dr. Boyd Kynard, retired federal expert on the Connecticut River’s migratory fish and endangered shortnose sturgeon, tells a story about bass fishing in Massachusetts around 1990. He was drifting near the French King Bridge, a mile downstream of the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station’s subsurface tunnels when he glanced up and realized his boat had switched directions. It was being pulled upstream, “And at a pretty good clip.” Turbines at that Northfield MA plant had sucked New England’s river into reverse for at least a mile. This was nothing new, save that in this instance there was a daytime witness.

October 2, 2010, EPA ordered dredging at the site of Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station’s underground suction tunnels on the Connecticut.(CLICK TO ENLARGE, THEN CLICK AGAIN.)

In December a radio feature from Boson’s WBUR entitled “New England’s Largest Battery is Hidden Inside a Mass. Mountain” was rebroadcast widely in the Northeast. Referencing Ben Franklin, James Bond, even the Bat Cave, it painted a rosy future for the 1200 quick-start megawatts stored in a reservoir at the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station. Roaring turbines were noted as company spokespeople staked claim to the plant’s “green” future as they bid to lock-in a new 50 year Federal Energy Regulatory Commission license. The occasional ring of an old phone connected directly to ISO New England–the grid’s “independent system operator,” was described as “the sound of money.”

Altogether missing in that story was NMPS’s violent mining of the Connecticut River. That ecosystem artery was never identified as the sole water source enabling it to regenerate electricity. Prior to Northfield construction the Connecticut had forever run seaward from the Canadian border to the tidal zone near today’s Hartford, CT. But 12,000 years of New England natural history changed in 1972, on the day NMPS came on line.

On January 22, 1974, two years after it began operation using overproduced nuclear megawatts then available on the grid at night to fill a 5 billion gallon reservoir, the Federal Power Commission (today’s FERC) notified Western Massachusetts Electric Company it required their “earliest response” on Northfield’s impacts for a Draft Environmental Impact Statement: “Since the Northfield Mountain Project became operational, which of the conditions described have been observed to produce reverse flows?” WMECO’s lawyers belatedly replied on October 16, 1974, they didn’t have the information. Questions about environmental impacts and reversing rivers went unanswered.

In 1967 a federal Connecticut River migratory fisheries program to restore American shad to historic upstream reaches in Vermont and New Hampshire got underway. That same year the embattled Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon was listed under the Endangered Species Act. Exactly fifty years later recovery goals for hundreds of thousands of spawning shad and thousands of shortnose sturgeon remain utterly unfulfilled. Spawning habitat access for both are impacted by Northfield’s suck and surge flows, which also create daily bank-eroding 4-foot “tides” along this reach, sometimes reaching to 10 feet.

Pictured in a less glowing light, NMPS is a 45 year-old dinosaur–a formerly nuclear-powered, net-loss energy transfer machine hacked out of the bowels of a mountain. With the region’s nukes now shuttered, it runs daily on imported electricity and has never produced a watt of virgin power. Today it’s a quick-start, high-profit operation relying on boatloads of fossil-fueled megawatts purchased in bulk on the wholesale market. Suctioning the river uphill, it later releases those waters down through its turbines in dense pulses—pumping out 25 percent less juice than the virgin power it consumes.

NMPS is not renewable energy, nor anything resembling the public’s idea of hydropower. It reproduces just a fraction of New England’s power at peak times, and peak prices, but can only generate for eight hours maximum. After that it is literally dead, its reserves spent. The Canadian-owned plant must then start consuming juice by reversing its turbines anew, yanking the river backward, sideways, and a mile uphill for hours into its reservoir.

That pumping occurs nightly at rates of up to 15,000 cubic feet per second. Picture 15,000 milk crates filled with a living river–every second for hours at a time. For more than two-thirds of the year the Connecticut’s “natural routed flow”—the water moving into and through this reach, is less than 15,000 cfs. Thus this plant is consuming more water than is entering the river. That’s how to turn an ecosystem on its head. The result is the evisceration of all manner of aquatic life, juiced twice through those turbines—tens of thousands of resident and migrating fish, millions of developing eggs, and their young. There’s nothing more violent you can do to a river.

Now the Canada Public Pension Investment Fund—latest in the decade’s revolving door of four different venture-capital owners of the FirstLight Power Resources-branded plant, is angling to lock those ecosystem assaults in place for another half century through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s 5-year hydro relicensing process.

In its planning stages one model would’ve required Northfield to shut down during fish migration season due to impacts. That didn’t happen. Still, a chance experiment in 2010 gave a belated glimpse of those potential benefits. For half a year, from mid-spring through a hot summer into early November, NMPS sat broken, sanctioned and off-line. But seven miles downstream the migrating shad normally impacted by its violent suck-and-flush flows made great and unexpected gains in tandem with that spring break. Having languished for decades, the federal program to move American shad upstream into Vermont and New Hampshire saw a stunning boost at Turners Falls Dam. Shad passage jumped over 700 percent above the previous ten year average–16,440 shad swam past the dam in 2010, compared to the 2,260 annually over the previous ten years. Though meager, it was by far the best result since MA energy deregulation came to the NMPS reach of river in 1999.

The 5 billion gallon Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Reservoir, as it sat emptied and idle from May 1st through early November 2010.
(CLICK TO ENLARGE, THEN CLICK AGAIN.)

On that May 1, 2010, NMPS had choked on the tons of silt and eroded riverbanks it constantly sucks into its reservoir. In attempting to clear that mucked-in lake a mile of mud-slumped tunnels resulted. Desperate, they began dumping it directly into the Connecticut at a rate equaling 30-40 dump truck loads a day. FirstLight’s sludge turned a mile of river brown for weeks. A contractor died when a suction hose broke loose.

One of thousands of dump truck loads of sludge the EPA ordered FirstLight to dredge back out of the Connecticut River. (CLICK TO ENLARGE, THEN CLICK AGAIN.)

Severe thunderstorms on May 27, 2010 resulted in tens of thousands of western New England power outages, many lasting for days. Yet as a back-up energy plant, Northfield’s sole output that week was more of the 45,000 cubic square yards of muck they’d eventually dump directly into the river. They succeeded for over 90 days, until they got caught. On August 10, 2010, the EPA issued a cease-and-desist order citing FirstLight for “polluting the navigable waters of the United States” under the Clean Water Act.

Major dredging operations continued for months at Northfield where FirstLight had dumped their sludge in the Connecticut for 90 straight days.(CLICK TO ENLARGE, THEN CLICK AGAIN.)

Throughout NMPS’s half-year off-line–and record-breaking summer heat in the Northeast, the purportedly ever-hungry, ever-fragile grid ISO New England claims makes Northfield’s dense, quick-start functions so indispensible, never faltered or failed—not even when the nearby( now closed) Vermont Yankee nuclear plant went down in June to refuel.

NMPS’s main claim to its indispensability came 14 years ago during the 2003 August Blackout. Its quick start power was employed by ISO New England to smooth out Massachusetts’ reconnection to the New York sector of the Northeast’s mega-grid—which had failed due to a computer glitch in Ohio. That sprawling network would have been reenergized regardless, but Northfield’s dense energy provided a convenient assist and made ISO’s job easier. But are rare-hour emergencies enough to justify more decades of NMPS daily destructive use? In truth–what would amount to virtual energy storage monopoly, need not be locked-in, de facto, by FERC as this region’s energy future for decades to come. There are other options.

“Pumped hydro is the most cost-effective way to store electricity,” that story stated flatly. But in September of 2016 the MA Department of Energy Resources and the MA Clean Energy Center released a study: “Massachusetts Energy Storage Initiative: State of Charge.” It noted the Bay State lags behind in innovation and deployed energy storage, ranking 23rd nationally. However, comparing new storage technologies now available to the costs of pumped storage, it noted three that will all readily out-compete pumped storage costs by 2018: Lithium Ion, Flow Battery and Compressed Air Storage.

These local/regional storage solutions are already coming into use in New England. They create distributed generation and safer, more reliable micro-grids—less vulnerable to mass outages and mega-grid cyber attack and failure. They also create jobs. Certainly they are more attractive to consumers than sending local solar and wind across New England to recharge a river-crippling machine—and repurchase that juice later at inflated consumer prices.

That story mentioned Northfield’s 18,000 panel solar array–enough for a few hundred homes. But that tax-deductable FirstLight solar field actually covers the huge scar leftover from acres of EPA-mandated settling ponds—sludge pools required in 2010 when they had to dredge their mountain of muck back out of the river. Also not mentioned were handsome payments NMPS collects when it chooses not to generate any power. They accrue through a FERC mechanism known as “capacity fees.” If “spot market” prices aren’t sweet enough, FirstLight can simply sit their plant idle, collecting ratepayer cash just for their “capacity” to potentially generate. With NMPS as its chief hydro asset, former owner GDF-Suez once told investors 40% of its annual profits had been realized through capacity fees.

FirstLight’s EPA-ordered sludge settling pools and drying pile at the Rt. 63 site covered by a solar panel installation today. (CLICK TO ENLARGE, THEN CLICK AGAIN.)

Gus Bakas, FirstLight’s Massachusetts operations director, stated his goal for the 45 year-old plant is to someday see it running wholly on “green” power–solar and wind relayed to it from legions of regional rooftop panels and turbines. That would align with Massachusetts’ new “Energy Storage Initiative,” a 10-year effort purportedly aimed at saving ratepayers “hundreds of millions of dollars” while making the grid more reliable and reducing greenhouse gasses. But wind runs strongest at night and is not plentiful in western New England, while all solar is generated by day. With NMPS’s peak-demand profit model based on sucking up bulk power and the river at night, something seems missing from the equation. Unless there are now plans to again run the river backward by day, when migrating fish are most vulnerable to entrainment.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is charged with supplying reliable electricity at fair costs to the public, while fostering competition and protecting against energy monopolies. All licensing decisions from FERC must also comply with federal law including conditions set under the National Environmental Policy Act, the Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Clean Water Act. The operation of NMPS continues to prove a stumbling block to the successful execution of these federal acts and policies.

In the near-term, for rare big-grid emergencies, a summer heat-wave or winter cold snap, NMPS remains a credible back-up tool. But Northfield otherwise continues today as an expensive, profoundly-damaging energy relay device whose net-loss operations chew apart a critical four-state artery daily. Given its violent year-round ecosystem impacts, its drag on federal trust and endangered species restoration programs–and the market’s current and emerging alternative energy storage solutions, FERC should not sanction NMPS long-term, as its dominant, de facto, New England energy storage monopoly.

End

Writer and journalist Karl Meyer lives in Greenfield, MA. He has been participating as a stakeholder and member of the Fish and Aquatics Study Team in the five-year FERC relicensing process for the Northfield Mountain and Turners Falls projects since 2013. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

Karl Meyer: Connecticut River power storage plant is an ecological, economic and energy disaster

http://www.wbur.org/bostonomix/2016/12/02/northfield-mountain-hydroelectric-station

On Walking

Posted by on 15 Nov 2016 | Tagged as: American shad, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River migratory fisheries restoration, Henry David Thoreau, John Hanson Mitchell, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, National Marine Fisheries Service, Northfield Mountain, Society of Environmental Journalists, The Great Eddy, Turners Falls dam, US Fish & Wildlife Service, Walking

NOTE: the following essay first appeared in edited form in Spring 2016 in a book of essays published by the Massachusetts Audubon Society entitled The Quiet Earth. That publication represented the final work of the Society’s Sanctuary Magazine staff, including founder and long-time writer/editor and author John Hanson Mitchell; writer-editor Ann Prince, Rose Murphy, and others. For decades, Sanctuary was the flagship publication that helped define MA Audubon in the public square, offering insights into the heart and soul of a caring and engaged organization.

dead-reach-ladder-and-canal

ABOVE: In the foreground the disastrous fish ladder built at Turners Falls in 1980; leading all migratory fish into the deadly Turners Falls Power Canal–in upper background with bridge, here looking downstream.(CLICK; then click again to enlarge.)

Copyright © 2016 by Karl Meyer

ON WALKING

“I like walking because it is slow, and I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour. If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, or thoughtfulness.” Rebecca Solnit, from Wanderlust: A History of Walking.

I was deep in thought when the SUV pulled up. “Would you like a ride?” This was Herb, who’d repaired my computer a few times when I lived up this way. I’d just crossed into Shelburne Falls on a walk along the Deerfield from East Charlemont through parts of Buckland. “No thanks” I said, “but thanks for asking.” “But you’re limping,” he noted, a bit concerned. “Actually” I said, “I’ve been limping since I was twenty. If I stop limping, I’ll stop limping.”

There’s some truth to that last statement. My right hip is an inch higher than the left one—not by design. Some people notice the hitch in my gate, but most don’t. Still, I’m always grateful to be moving about the landscape under my own power. But I almost blew all that once—in one of those course-altering moments that occur in each life. Though some take time and reflection to recognize, this one was different.

This one transpired under a blistering August sun on the desert prairie of north Texas. For several minutes, broken and bleeding, I wasn’t sure I’d walk again. I’d just failed to vault over a looming guardrail from the back of a speeding motorcycle—my ragged skeleton cart-wheeling several times before coming to a halt. And there I lay like crumpled paper, an unspeakable pain hammered my extremities.

Someone finally came to help me out of a fogging helmet. An ambulance had been summoned. “Hang on, I’ll be back” he said, running off to locate the motorbike’s injured driver. It was then that I finally looked down at ripped jeans and some oddly turned legs that didn’t seem my own. I turned away, wanting to disappear into the Texas hardpan. But beyond that pain, there was also a profound numbness separating me from those odd-angled legs. They no longer felt part of me. Under assault, my mind and body seemed to have parted ways, perhaps forever.

At 50 miles an hour I’d made hash of all the strongest bones in the body. I knew then something more was required. I was 20 years old and had to know “Will I walk again?” Summoning all my courage I turned to face the moment. Against electrifying pain–and observing from what seemed a great distance, I gasped as my right knee twitched; then nudged up half an inch. “I’ll live,” I told myself, crumbling back in shock. That dodgy self-assessment likely helped save me.

Two months and five days later I left Wichita Falls General Hospital, rail-thin and barely able to take a few steps. I wasn’t well enough to travel home, but, I was in love. I’d continue recuperating at the apartment of one of the nurse’s aides who’d held my hand through weeks of surgeries and traction. It was absurdly romantic. My angel’s name was Karin.

Yet amongst those weeks of developing romance were endless days when no one visited. I’d only been in Texas for weeks before the crash–my people were all in New Jersey. Healing time crept by slowly; sometimes not at all. August drifted to September, which lumbered on into October. Dead center in Tornado Alley, fall settled in heavy and still, its light strange. Billowing storms flashed past hospital windows, yet I couldn’t detect any change in the season.

I daydreamed of home—of friends; familiar sights. But it was more than just a longing for things known. I craved my little corner of earth. My most fervent desire—one still tangibly sharp today, was to simply shuffle, ankle deep, through a pile of October leaves.

It’s been two years since Herb pulled up and offered me that lift. I live in Greenfield and close to town these days–where I often leave my car idle in the driveway for a week or more. I walk almost daily, more purposely in winter for the sun and its helpful shot of Vitamin D. In warmer months I move alternately by foot and bicycle, sometimes both. No matter the means, that quiet travel fulfills a longing to understand landscape and habitat, and to tread lightly across fertile tracts.

And I always go untethered. There isn’t a cell phone or I-Pod along. People today seem indifferent to their surroundings in proportion to the amount of digital armor weighing them down. Out in the world, they’re literally elsewhere–peering at screens telling them when to step left or right. We blithely wrap ourselves in the ever-spreading electric grid that’s now overheating our habitat—while denying any interdependence on what’s literally under our feet. We’ve allowed ourselves to become a pod-race of savants, vulnerable to interruptions of electro-magnetic pulses that can instantly pitch our daily lives all into an apoplectic stupor.

I was a full year recovering from that motorbike accident—three aspirin at a time, four times a day. Left with a tilted axis, I understood the need to keep moving—in order to keep moving. But somehow when I was able, it really wasn’t a burden.

Before Texas, I’d barely been out of New Jersey. Most of my recovery year was ultimately spent there. Immobile and youthfully-poor, I started reading: Melville, Dickens, Emerson, Conrad, Kerouac, Dostoevsky, Faulkner, and, thankfully, Thoreau. My world got a little bigger. When I was at last well enough to support myself, my first purchases were hiking shoes and a bicycle. They’d keep me moving.

That day along the Deerfield I was actually working, being paid something as I walked. These last six years I’ve supported a modest lifestyle by driving a bus–which might seem anomalous to someone who prefers to turn his back on his carbon belching car and hasn’t boarded a plane in two decades. Suffice to say, it’s what’s working for me at the moment.

I mainly drive high-schoolers to sporting events, museums, amusement parks and science fairs. Though there’s little glamour, it is mass transportation—efficient from an environmental standpoint. And though I was once a very disagreeable teen, today I’m pretty sympathetic, and happy to be working around their youthful energy. Is it high paid? No. Are there big benefits? Not so much. But yes—certainly in one way…

In between transport, there is down time. I can linger to watch them play—or root around the museum they’re visiting. Or better yet, I can get my feet moving and poke around the setting we’ve just descended on. Many trips are nearby, but some can be two hours distant—from Massachusetts into Connecticut, Vermont and New Hampshire. To me, walking is my own benefit. I’m paid something for my time, but it’s up to me to enrich that compensation.

So I go exploring, which often informs my writing. And, in doing so, I realize that I’m always treading ancient paths–walking atop other people’s stories. Present and past do literally merge when you wander into a 17th century graveyard huddled in the shadows of Hartford’s downtown towers. I go searching for the seeds of place. Who was here, first? When? Why on this bend of river? On longer trips I might cover 5 or 6 miles tromping a landscape or exploring a riverside–or haunting the frayed edges of 18th century New England towns.

My walks bend quickly toward the past—seeking out the oldest house, the earliest gravestone, an old ferry landing—or a town’s first mill site near an old stone bridge. On rural trips it might be ancient woods or a river crossing bearing an Algonquian name. Faced with the frenzied pace of our techno-consumer society, I’m hunting a language of place. It’s my attempt to recover some essence of earth.

I’ve always had an inescapable awareness that history is much more than the acceptance of dry, scholarly tales. I don’t enter a city or town center without thinking—or knowing, that this place was once home to others—that Deerfield was once Pocumtuck and Springfield was once Agawam. It never slips my mind that there is a Hockanum in Hadley, MA, and another in East Hartford, CT–both sites cradled in the shadow of an ancient Connecticut River oxbow. And it never leaves me that the people who first adopted those names for places they knew as home, did so in a deliberate tongue that connected them to what they understood as the essence of their earth.

Everywhere we tread, no matter how indecipherable a modern landscape has become, once had another name and another language—relayed in sounds that strove to offer its history and significance to its denizens. Those names were a key to an unbroken human connection to earth. Nearly all of that was erased. We are often left with just fragments.

That’s why I was once dumbstruck to discover a young Protestant immigrant and colonial trader named Roger Williams took time in 1643 to write A Key into the Language of America, translating Algonquian phrases for the English tongue. That opened a door for me, just a crack. A white spire may still be a great comfort to a little Massachusetts town, but just three centuries back the raising of that steeple signaled subjugation and conquest to still-living peoples whose ancestors had walked here for thousands of years prior.

“I believe in the forest, and in the meadow, and in the corn that grows in the night,” Thoreau wrote in On Walking–a swipe at rote Yankee preaching that exhorted ultimate dominance of the lands and landscapes so recently annexed. Today we rush across places where seminal cultures were brutally shattered and dispersed–conquests that, in very short order, led to the wholesale devouring of age-old New England’s forests.

So I go in search of a language of land. That may seem quaint in a time when Downtown Crossing is most identified as a collecting point for Boston consumers. Or here, Hadley—a 1659 Connecticut River settlement identified as Norwottuck on early maps, is now most notable for its ever expanding mall-strip near Old Bay Road. That’s part of what motivates me to walk. And I also think that maybe the earth talks to us a little bit through our feet, reveals some of its stories. We just seem to have stopped listening—perhaps when we abandoned walking to race across the earth in the hardened shells of carbon spewing conveyances.

Countless studies tout the benefits of walking: to balance, creativity, emotional and physical health. Walking also offers reconnection, the possibility of discovering new places. But it’s that my footsteps touch upon the stories of others and grounds me on the planet that matters most. I get to see and listen in earth time. And the best days can be charmingly, exotically freeing for a quiet plodder sniffing around old towns and rarely trammeled places. Padding along in a minimal carbon footprint, past and present sometimes merge in moments that are downright exquisite.

There’s a leafy amusement park in North Granby, CT–relatively pleasant and not overly electrified. One could be tempted to just sit by the shaded pool there. Instead I headed out in mid-June heat along a narrow stretch of Rt. 189. After a mile I veered off at Day Street—an intersection flanked by an old farmhouse. That led me up along the ridge overlooking the Salmon Brook Valley. Most of the houses turned out to be newer, with little pasture remaining. But then came a break in that developed tract–an opening where the light appeared different.

What popped out next–monstrously-sprawling, and stubbornly clinging to life, was the Dewey-Granby Oak. It was simply stunning, and all the more so set along this old road—holding ground against a spreading suburban shadow. I recognized its name from some distant reading, but knew nothing more. Here, unannounced and magnificent, was that sun-dappled great oak—a specimen worthy of period films set on old English estates.

But truth be told, there was little in the way of detail to adhere to. Rooted here long ago, the Granby Oak simply remains a presence to this day. Someone must’ve taken a core sample when this patch of earth was preserved by the Granby Land Trust. A plaque from 1997 intoned it had begun life perhaps 450 years earlier. However accurate, that implied it was just a forest ridge seedling at the time of Shakespeare’s birth in 1564. The Tunxis were then travelling this trail–later to become Day Street, passing and re-passing a white oak growing to maturity. Yet little more than a century on Europeans began swarming this little valley, quickly felling the upland tracts to stump pastures. An ancient woodland path disappeared beneath cart ruts and grazing cattle, but one venerable wolf tree was left as witness.

Here then was my day’s clue to understanding a moment in time. Survival, longevity, green leaves sprouted along sprawling, weathered branches–I’m not sure exactly why that satisfied me. Yet unheralded bits of knowledge are often what offer context to the fabric of life. I paused there for a few minutes, breathing in the continuity of a long life. “I have great faith in a seed,” Thoreau wrote. Today my seed was an old oak.

Wilder hikes on bus trips are rare, but there was a recent scramble up Mt. Monadnock– accompanied by that rare fellow bus driver not glued to a seat. We hustled up; then down, to deliver the dozens of prep-schoolers we’d unleashed on that hill. But briefly, in between, there were grand three-state views connecting back to another companion who’d passed this way. Thoreau visited here a handful of times, finding Monadnock a worthy place to “go a-fishin in.”

We’d soon meet again on a trip to Bellows Falls High. A walk there brought me to the train stop near the Connecticut River where Thoreau once disembarked. Unbeknownst to me, he’d also once walked to the Great Eddy—an ancient Abenaki fishing site below The Falls. Into the late 1700s Yankee farmers could still pull up 1,200 American shad here in a single haul of the net.

PHOTO: The Great Eddy at Bellows Falls today.

But we’d both found disappointment on the Connecticut. For Thoreau it was that there was hardly any river at all, the lingering result of the navigation canal diversion for riverboats, just upstream. Mine remains that those migrating shad–a half century after Congress authorized the four-state Connecticut River migratory fisheries restoration, still fail to reach Bellows Falls. From day one, shad were the program’s key restoration species. Far from extinct today, most remain blocked and imperiled 50 miles downstream–trapped in the private power canal below Turners Falls Dam at the place once called Peskeomscutt. Though a small portion of the run squeezes upstream toward open Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire habitats—some 200,000 shad or more never make it past a dam where they’ve been blocked since 1798.

Winter 2015 wasn’t easy for ambulation. Still, a mid-February trip to Phillips-Exeter in New Hampshire had its highlights. Though sidewalks were lined in waist deep snow, I tramped Exeter’s centuries-old byways for hours. I bundled down to the Squamscott River and its old bridge and frozen fishway. A turkey vulture swooped in–yards above the snowy street, the surprise of a brief squall. Sculptor Chester French’s birthplace is marked in downtown Exeter—along with the first meeting site of the Republican Party. Historic houses are now festooned with the symbol of an alewife, or smelt–ancient staples of the Pennacook and those who came after.

But my best walk came in mid-April, though dingy snow piles still had plenty of life in them. I’d dropped my kids off in Lowell National Historic Park. The forecast wasn’t great–brooding, with showers expected, but temps perhaps nearing sixty. I had hours to burn, and a rain jacket, so I took to the streets. I’d been here once, briefly in mid-winter. The Merrimack, Pawtucket Falls and Lowell’s ragged bordering neighborhoods grabbed my fancy. I’d wanted more.

This April day, winter seemed finally ready to relent. The rain held off as I steered toward Market Street, where the Olympic Bakery had offered me a great Greek salad and fresh cannoli last time. The sun burst through in a neighborhood of unvarnished factory houses—a Greek-Latino mix. I ordered pizza slices to go and found a quiet doorway to sit in the late morning’s humid air.

Then I headed to the river, dreaming of the Merrimack’s shad runs of old–wondering if endangered shortnose sturgeon had ever spawned this high in its reaches. Landlords chipped away at stubborn ice, and the gates leading to the river walk remained closed, still snowed over. But I followed the Merrimack just the same, heading downstream on Pawtucket Street and crossing at the first opportunity. This landed me at the edge of UMass Lowell’s North Campus, to finish lunch on a wall overlooking the city’s old mill towers and spires. Ruminating on that bank, I reflected that the earth under me was once part and parcel of a Pennacook village here.

The showers remained at bay so I continued seaward beside the water—crossing the river four times at three historic bridge sites. I gained a new sense of Lowell’s Byzantine canal system—branching from, and linking, the Concord and Merrimack. As hydraulics got refined, the rivers and river travel here were quickly eclipsed by giant mills and locomotives. Further on, I stumbled into a tiny urban park honoring Jack Kerouac. Enshrined on a polished slab was one of his poems, a loving, edgy, retelling of his parents’ stark lives here and his own subsequent birth along hard-bit Merrimack shores. It lent a presence to the place.

My best minutes though, came further on, at the merging place of two branching canals not far from Lowell’s rust brick downtown and signature Lowell Sun Building. I’d walked back in time along remnants of the centuries-old navigation system to its convergence with the Concord River, just ahead. Here, some 175 years prior, young Henry Thoreau and his brother John had passed–heading through locks ushering them onto the Merrimack. They steered upriver on that larger stream–north toward New Hampshire towns already felling their last forests to fuel an Industrial Revolution. Under that warming April sun, my day’s walk somehow seemed complete.

But there’s another walking exploration I’ve repeatedly engaged in these last four years–my tornado walk. I’ve literally been walking around inside a tornado. On June 1, 2011, an astonishing EF-3 tornado touched down in West Springfield. It skipped across the Connecticut; then battered the landscape for a full 39 miles east–all the way to Southbridge. I’d been driving kids through West Springfield just the day before it thundered through.

Tornadoes stalked the dreams of my youth since childhood, likely an offshoot of viewing the Wizard of Oz. Though strangely fascinating, I’ve never hankered to experience one in the flesh. In dreams they’d always loomed ominously on the periphery—never quite catching me up. But the absolute destructive power of this one–here in the Northeast, was disturbingly eye-opening. Three people died, hundreds of homes were destroyed. It roared across towns in a traceable, half-mile wide trajectory, just south of Route 20—in places my bus trips often intersect with.

That fall at West Springfield’s Eastern States Expo, I walked out the gate and into the neighborhoods due north. Whole houses still lay in ruins, dozens uninhabitable. Thousands of windows had imploded and were boarded up, or being replaced. What trees remained were hulks, stripped of all lateral branches. At Union Street the devastation across tightly-clustered double and triple-decker apartment homes was withering. A mother died here while shielding her teenage daughter from the storm’s fury. Heading home on I-91, Springfield’s South End was yet a mass of tumble-brick ruins. In the distance, a checkerboard of tarped-roofs led up the ridge toward East Forest Park like it was a staircase painted in blue.

One snowy day the following December, I again walked that tornado’s footprint among the relict trees south of Wilbraham Center. Cars had skittering off the highway, but I got my kids settled in safe. I then bundled up and took off down Main Street, where that unseen power had descended with little warning six months prior. It peeled off roofs, toppled outbuildings and shattered scores of trees–then stalked off up the mountain ridge toward Monson. One displaced citizen had returned to string up holiday lights on their darkened, uninhabitable home.

In late February I took another walk in that great scar where–just minutes later that June day, that tornado barreled down the ridge into Monson Center. Snap, snap—snap, snap, snap!–like twigs, whole trees were crowned; stems jackknifed just 20 feet from the ground. It then roared off to the east.

And I did the same, later that spring—on a Sturbridge Village trip. It’s just a ten minute walk out the back of that museum to where that EF-3 twister roared in, devouring an entire wooded swamp. It snapped and scattering trunks in astonishing blow-down jumbles; then crossed Rt. 131 into Southbridge.

On a return trip to Wilbraham two April’s ago, I again backtracked into that storm’s path once more. After dropping off my team I followed a hunch into the landscape. Peepers and warblers called along a winding cross country trail leading through lowland woods. But then a new slant of light from a little bluff to the north caught my eye. That detour—just a few yards off the trail, brought me dead center into the storm. Helter-skelter before me lay the remnants of a once-broad, upland forest–mature pine, oak and maple, leveled, upended; dead. Hundreds of trees, rank-on-rank—tossed or tumbled, sucked up; then mowed down. Like bowling pins.

The devastation was stark and powerful, yet bits of the place were now returning to life. A few trees, pitched and leaning, struggled on. Flickers and nuthatches darted about the edges, feasting on a buggy decay. The trail wound back down, and widened to a swampy marsh–also raked by the storm. Here too were the crowned, scattered trees of a wetland—shorn of branches and left as lifeless hulks. But in the crook of one was a fat jumble of sticks. And there, in profile, sat an erect, great blue heron. I quickly counted four more nests and attending sentinels–occupying four more of those hulks. Astonishing.

And my storm-walk in Wilbraham continued this last spring. In mid-April there was but one active heron nest remaining. Wood frogs had arisen from the ground just the day before, but they were quiet. The females had yet to join the gathering. Yet still I understood that this was a place becoming—a landscape evolving to something new. And that’s part of the reason I’ll likely take this same walk again, if it happens to turn up on my assignment list.

But beyond that, there’s one particular walk I’m absolutely certain I’ll be taking. Every fall, randomly and unannounced, blue sky and a hint of early October chill takes hold of me. Then, for a brief few minutes, I’ll joyously drag my clumsy feet through a pile of autumn leaves–relishing the decay they stir into the air; and savoring a papery sound that says home.

End

Rolling over on a River: the real cost of pumped storage energy

Posted by on 26 Oct 2016 | Tagged as: American shad, climate change, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River Watershed Council, Daily Hampshire Gazette, ecosystem, Entrainment, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeion, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FERC, fossil fuels, Greenfield Recorder, ISO New England, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, National Marine Fisheries Service, NMFS, NOAA, Northfield Mountain, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Reservoir, nuclear power, Public Comment period, public trust, pumped storage, Relicensing, shad, shortnose sturgeon, Society of Environmental Journalists, The Recorder, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS, Vermont, Vermont Digger, Vermont Yankee

Copyright © 2016 by Karl Meyer

(Note: this essay appeared in September and October in these MA and VT media and newspaper outlets: Vermont Digger, www.vtdigger.org ; The Daily Hampshire Gazette; and The Recorder.)

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The de-watered CT below Turners Falls Dam that few people see. (Click, then click again to enlarge.)

Rolling over on a river

Since time began rivers have been the Earth’s arteries—the foundation of its ecosystems. Here in New England it’s “last chance” time for our Great River. On April 30, 2018 the fate of the long-foundered Connecticut River migratory fisheries restoration—and the survival of a four-state river ecosystem, will be decided for what’s essentially forever. New Federal Energy Regulatory Commission hydro licenses are expected to be signed then by government agencies and the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board–latest purchaser of the Turners Falls and Northfield Mountain projects. That company’s stated investor mandate is “to maximize investment returns without undue risk of loss.”

Over two generations ago public-trust mistakes were made favoring power companies, fish hatcheries, and high-end salmon-fishing interests that rendered eight miles of the Connecticut in Massachusetts a massively-suctioned, partially-dewatered flush sink. Sanctioned by fisheries agencies and non-profits, those decisions, severed an ecosystem in two. They forced all migrating fish into a deadly power canal, leaving three emptied miles of riverbed below Turners Falls Dam, while four turbines at the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station five miles upstream consumed massive amounts of nuclear energy to suck a river backward and uphill to a mountaintop reservoir.

Those turbines were built to run on the promised endless supply of overproduced juice generated nightly at the local, now-closed, Vermont Yankee nuke, 15 miles away. Today, running on giant slugs of imported fossil fuel, they continue to spin, sucking the river up in endless gulps into a 4 billion gallon pool a mile up Northfield Mountain. That daily suctioning creates riverbank eroding “tides” higher than those at Hyannisport, MA—with some rivaling the ten-foot fluctuations of Fundy Bay.

Back then, predecessors of today’s National Marine Fisheries Service, the US Fish & Wildlife Service, Massachusetts’ Fish & Wildlife and the Connecticut River Watershed Council signed off on an agreement with the Federal Power Commission and Western Massachusetts Electric that strangled the river in northern Massachusetts. It resulted in the failure of migratory fish passage and a promised renewal of the river’s ancient seafood resources upstream to Vermont, New Hampshire, and northern Mass. Few American shad emerged alive after diversion into that canal. It also failed the shortnose sturgeon—this river’s only federally endangered migratory fish, leaving it without flow or monitoring at its only documented natural spawning site.

Upstream at Northfield the destruction was yet more complete. The suck and gush appetite of that nuclear-charged contraption virtually disassembled the river. It gulped flow at a rate of 15,000 cubic feet per second, often for hours at a time—drawing on the river pool above Turners Falls Dam where, 70% of the time, the Connecticut’s natural routed flow is less than 15,000 cfs. Boaters a mile downstream could find themselves drifting upriver via Northfield’s unearthly pull. All fish and organisms drawn up through the sphere of that suction were deemed “functionally extirpated”–dead to the ecosystem by virtue of being sieved twice through the turbines. It was evolution in reverse, a river ripped away from its eternal run to the sea.

Today, climate-blind FERC labels Northfield as a source of “renewable clean” energy—but there’s nothing clean, renewable or sustainable about its imported, twice-produced, peak-priced electricity crippling this river. ISO New England, FERC’s Northfield-cheering, ever-energy-hungry cousin, also ignores climate and its environmental dismemberment. “Pumped storage” is not hydropower—not even by the industry’s own technical terminology. Northfield-produced power in fact represents the heavy planetary burden of fossil fuel used to push a mountain of water uphill, merely as a weight to produce high-cost, second hand electricity. It cares nothing of rivers, fish or ecosystems.

If bureaucrats again fail the public trust and don’t demand critical habitat protections, flows, and the day-to-day monitoring needed to fulfill U.S. environmental statutes, Canadian pension speculators will be left as the de facto controlling interests on our river. The new owners have asked FERC to merge two separate licenses for Northfield and Turners Falls into a single new license dubbed the “Northfield Project.” What’s represented as mere bureaucratic streamlining would actually enshrine, by precedent–next time and forever, river-killing pumped storage.

Any responsible environmental agency should deny this single-license merger, and seek to have Northfield kept in use as emergency infrastructure only—with the ultimate remedy it’s dismantling in tandem with a move to a decentralized, far less vulnerable system than today’s expanding mega-grid. Massachusetts legislators are currently signing onto backroom energy deals for a glut of future hydropower from Quebec. Some 1,200 megawatts of those penciled-in imports could easily replace the few hours of daily juice Northfield puts out–while keeping it available for rare emergencies. Though the new Canadian power imports largely ignore conservation and innovation, they could be employed to end the river carnage here and begin restoring a future for a critical New England ecosystem.

(Note: timely public comment on licensing issues is carefully considered by FERC. Go to: http://ferc.gov/docs-filing/ecomment.asp and use “E-Comment.” Check “Hydro” and address to Secretary Kimberly D. Bose, using the required identifiers “P-2485” and “P-1889” for Northfield and Turners Falls.)

Karl Meyer lives in Greenfield MA. He is participating in the FERC relicensing process and is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

VERNON UPDATE: A peek into the public-trust’s black hole

Posted by on 26 Jun 2016 | Tagged as: American shad, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Coordinator, FirstLight, fish counts, fish passage, Fish passage results, GDF-Suez FirstLight, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, public trust, TransCanada, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS, Vermont Fish & Game, Vernon Dam Fishway

VERNON, VT Connecticut River Fish Passage Update: June 24, 2016

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Vernon Dam Fishway, and TransCanada’s Vernon Station(CLICK TO ENLARGE)

As of Friday, June 24, 2016, the best information US Fish & Wildlife Service was able to provide on Turners Falls and Vernon fish passage was a FULL THREE WEEKS OLD.

The last report CT River Coordinator Ken Sprankle had for Vernon shad passage was from June 3, 2016: 29,155 American shad passing there.

The last report coming from FirstLight at Turners Falls was yet a day older, from June 2, 2016: 45,330 American shad.

This is not a case of the USFWS’s Connecticut River Coordinator neglecting to gather the information and reproduce it in a timely manner. This falls squarely on the shoulders of the MA Division of Fisheries and Wildlife failing to ensure that this time-sensitive and important information is provided to Commonwealth citizens as part of their public trust. They have allowed GDF-Suez to maintain sole control and access to the fate of a public resource at Turners Falls, the river’s most critical and failed fish passage site.

Further, it must of course be stated that Vermont Fish & Game is in the same camp this year. As they are failing to provide this information–just a quick 20 mile, one-day scoot for a shad upstream to Vernon Dam, where TransCanada is calling the shots on providing info.

These state agencies are failing constituents they say they represent.

BUT here’s a tiny fish passage update for Vernon Dam. It’s just TWO DAYS OLD. I stopped by Vernon on my bicycle on Friday, June 24th at 10:30 a.m., just hours after that “best” stale information had been released.

Given low river flows I was happily surprised to see shad moving upstream in the Vernon windows at a good clip. Singly, and in twos and threes, and fives, I watched 20 American shad flash by and shoot upstream through bubbly, yellow currents there in just under six minutes. That fishway is a fish passage site that actually passes fish–with a nearly 70% passage rate last year.

Of course, Turners Falls fish passage remains a disaster, with all fish shunted out of the river and into the 2.7 mile power canal there: average annual passage rate is less than one fish-in-ten. And, unfortunately, Turners Falls viewing opportunities have been severely curtailed over the years. Whereas they used to be open through the week following Father’s Day, this year they closed on June 12. Thus, there is literally no on-site public access or real-time information provided on fish passage success at Turners Falls–while this year’s run is obviously still underway, given Friday’s eye-witness access at Vernon.

At Turners Falls flows have been reduced to 1500 cubic feet per second over the past weeks, and with FirstLight’s downstream Station 1 dumping attraction flow into the Connecticut, its unlikely many fish are moving upstream and able to by-pass that alien power canal habitat.

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The Connecticut below Turners Falls Dam (CLICK TO ENLARGE)

Station 1 is a source of “false” upstream flow “attraction”–which can keep shad treading water for days at a time without finding any real route upstream.

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Station 1 attraction flow (CLICK TO ENLARGE)

HOLYOKE HOISTS RECORD SHAD NOS; TURNERS FALLS FOUNDERING ON ALL FRONTS

Posted by on 13 May 2016 | Tagged as: American shad, Connecticut River, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, GDF-Suez FirstLight, Greenfield Community College, Holyoke Fish Lift, National Marine Fisheries Service, New Hampshire, NOAA, Rock Dam, salmon, shad, shad fishing, shortnose sturgeon, Test flows, Turners Falls, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS, Vermont

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Copyright © 2016 by Karl Meyer

According to USFWS Connecticut River Coordinator Ken Sprankle on Thursday, May 12, 2016, the Holyoke Fishway lifted more fish—specifically 54,006 American shad, than on any single day in the fish lift’s 61 years of operation. In 1955, something simple and sensible came into being on the Connecticut. It was a fish passage set-up that brought shad directly upstream in the riverbed via upstream attraction flows, and drew them into an elevator that gave them a lift directly above South Hadley Falls. Once there they could head upstream toward open spawning habitat in Vermont and New Hampshire. For three generations, Holyoke has been the single largest fish passage success site and story for American shad on the entire East Coast.

Sadly, just 36 miles upstream, those shad met with the fish passage restoration boondoggle-disaster of all-time—a three-ladder fish passage puzzle that forced all fish into a 2.7 mile long power canal at Turners Falls. Steered out of the river, and forced to negotiate a turbine lined canal in order to make it upstream beyond the Turners Falls Dam, the average annual success rate was 4 fish out of 100. To focus in a bit more on the present, what Holyoke passed yesterday was nearly the equivalent of all the shad that made it past Turners Falls Dam last year: 58,000.

The Turners Falls Power Canal remains the dead end, adjacent to the Connecticut River’s Dead Reach, where the federal/state Connecticut River migratory fisheries program has lingered in a comatose—nearly frozen state, since those ladders were built in 1980.

Given the brief nature of spring spawning conditions, it’s likely—at minimum, 25,000 of yesterday’s shad from Holyoke will be attempting that torturous labyrinth in Turners Falls by midday today (Friday). Most won’t make it past, and most will expend over a week of their precious spawning energies in the attempt. A high, though poorly studied or documented percentage, will ultimately be cut up in the turbines of the Turners Falls Power Canal.

Such is the legacy of non-intervention on behalf of the public’s fish, and the 45 year focus on creating a hatchery strain of salmon on a river system where the species had been extinct since 1809. So, again, Vermont, New Hampshire, and northern Massachusetts—sorry, but your fish are stuck down here in the miseries of a power canal and the Connecticut’s Dead Reach lacking suitable flows and fish passage.

On that note: it’s now six weeks since we had the first fish passage numbers reported from Holyoke Dam. Here at Turners Falls, we have nothing from GDF-Suez FirstLight and the Greenfield Community College students hired to tally them. The public’s fish, and the information as to their whereabouts, remains in private hands—most of it in the murky environs of a private power canal.

I’ll give you an on-the-ground update from my visits. At Rock Dam, just after midday on Tuesday, three anglers were working the site for shad. Curiously, there was a very clear “tide” line in the sand at the site—which is also the natural spawning ground for endangered shortnose sturgeon. The very recent high water mark was between 10 and 25 feet wide leading down to the water’s edge. It indicated a recent and significant change in flow there. One of the gentlemen said the drop came quickly, and had only happened “fifteen minutes ago.” Such “ramping” up and down of flows by the power company has huge implications for migrating and spawning fish. In fact, ramping at this site is one of the key reasons for spawning failure for endangered sturgeon. But, who’s watching?

Anyway, the three anglers reported that the shad were running here before the flow drop—there were several in two buckets, but they had disappeared once flow conditions changed.

I returned to Rock Dam on Wednesday, and there was just a lone guy and his dog present. His name was Shawn, and he’s lived nearby for the past year, but this was his first outing for shad. He looked to be in his early 20s.

There must’ve been plenty of shad trying to pass upstream at Rock Dam—with extra “test” flow water being released at the dam for federal relicensing studies. It wasn’t a minute after I clambered up the rocks to speak with him that he hooked his first fish. I obliged and took his photo with it. While there, I also took a minute to explain that shad don’t survive handling well, and they do best if handled very gently and while right in the water at the shore line.

I only tarried only for five more minutes–in which time Shawn landed two more fish, and four new anglers had scrambled down to join the shad run at the Rock Dam.

The latest Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon count at Holyoke Dam: 15 fish—ostensibly on spawning runs to that self-same Rock Dam spawning haven, have been lifted in the fish ladder this spring–and stopped abruptly once reaching the top floor. Every one of them has been slapped on the nose with a newspaper, told “NO!” and been dropped back in the drink below the dam. “Wait till next year..!” Hey, National Marine Fisheries Service: that is award-worthy endangered species protection through genetic deprivation! Kind of makes you miss David Letterman and his Stupid Pet Tricks…

DEAD REACH REPORT: the BLACK HOLE continues…

Posted by on 09 May 2016 | Tagged as: American shad, blueback herring, Connecticut River, Dead Reach, federal trust fish, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FirstLight, GDF-Suez FirstLight, Greenfield Community College, Holyoke Community College, Holyoke Fish Lift, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, National Marine Fisheries Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, New Hampshire, NMFS, Rock Dam, Rock Dam Pool, sea lamprey, shad, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS, Vermont, Vernon Dam Fishway

DEAD REACH REPORT: the BLACK HOLE continues…

Copyright © 2016 by Karl Meyer
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Forty-one days after the first fish were reported being lifted at Holyoke Dam, we still have not a shred of information on fish passage in the Connecticut River’s Dead Reach at Turners Falls. That’s the beleaguered, half-emptied, 2.7 miles of riverbed that all migrating American shad, sea lamprey, and blueback herring must pass in order to make progress toward Vermont and New Hampshire spawning grounds. Within that Dead Reach is the Rock Dam, the only documented natural spawning site for endangered shortnose sturgeon in this river system.

Thus, again, GDF-Suez FirstLight continues in sole control and possession of information on the public’s federal trust migratory fish—every one of which, in trying to reach upstream sites, gets diverted into their turbine-lined power canal. Once corralled and essentially privatized in that miles-long trench, very few ever emerge alive beyond Turners Falls Dam.

Holyoke Fish Lift numbers have been handed off daily to Ken Sprankle, USFWS’s Connecticut River Coordinator, for weeks now. Students from Holyoke Community College are staffing that site, overseen by the MA Division of Fisheries & Wildlife. MA Fish & Wildlife is responsible for those shad, lamprey and herring while they are traversing the Commonwealth’s reach on the Connecticut. They’re responsible for getting the public’s fish counted as well. That role up at Turners Falls is clearly not working or being taken seriously. We have no information from there whatsoever–with the video-counting apparatus controlled by FirstLight, and the review, tallies, and the hand-off of that public information left in the hands of Greenfield Community College students.

None of this speaks well for any safeguarding of the public trust.

Nevertheless, USFWS’s Ken Sprankle did provide these updates from Holyoke Dam this morning. Fish counts there as of Sunday, May 8, 2016 are: 32,937 American shad; 239 sea lamprey; and 14 federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon—all of which were brought to the top in the fish elevator, lifted out, and dropped back downstream. Virtually none of them will get an opportunity to spawn yet again this year.

To give you a sense of the miseries, one egg-laden female lifted up there had been tagged in the Dead Reach in Turners Falls 2004, as a female on a spawning site. This year, a dozen years after that tagging—she was apparently full of eggs and attempting to reach the Rock Dam for spawning once more. They plopped her back downstream on orders of the National Marine Fisheries Service. If that aging female dies over the winter, the genetic material in the hundreds of thousands of eggs she was carrying gets lost to eternity, and becomes yet another signpost on extinctions path.

Just what exactly is being accomplished by not letting these endangered fish spawn?

Meanwhile, here’s a tiny Dead Reach report of my own. I stopped by the TF Dam at mid-morning on Mother’s Day. It was drizzly, water was spilling from Bascule Gate 1(Turners Falls side), and no one was fishing at the site.

Downstream at 9:40 I met a lone angler exiting from the Rock Dam pool site at Cabot Woods. He said he’d had a few, earlier, but that it was slowing down. When I went out to the Rock Dam it was fairly quiet, with the water only moderately clear with the recent rain. Still, looking down from the rocks, schooling swirls of shad can sometimes be seen when the light is good. I saw nothing. Nor did I note any lamprey tails slapping the rock faces as they suctioned their way upstream through the notches.

According to this angler who fishes the mouth of the Deerfield as well, Rock Dam fishing on Saturday was pretty decent: “I had a dozen shad,” he noted. Thus, it’s become fairly obvious these last two springs that when flow is left in the riverbed, Rock Dam is one of the finest shad fishing sites on the Connecticut.

So, American shad have been reaching Turners Falls for 5 weeks now, we just don’t know how many are passing upstream—and we have yet to get count information from TransCanada about numbers passing Vernon Fishway. Thus parts of Massachusetts and all of Vermont and New Hampshire remain in the dark as to the whereabouts of their share of the ocean’s spring bounty.

Holyoke Fishway opened last week. You can visit, Weds. – Sunday from 9 – 5. Its on the CT, where Rt. 116 crosses into Holyoke from South Hadley. The public fish viewing facilities at Turners Falls have yet to open.

INFORMATION BLACK HOLE on the Connecticut

Posted by on 05 May 2016 | Tagged as: American shad, Connecticut River, federal trust fish, FirstLight, GDF-Suez FirstLight, Greenfield Community College, Holyoke Community College, Holyoke Fish Lift, Jack Buckley, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, New Hampshire, Northfield Mountain, shad, shad fishing, Station 1, teachers, Turners Falls, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS, Vermont, Walpole, Wendi Weber

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INFORMATION BLACK HOLE

Copyright © 2016 by Karl Meyer

On this May 5th, 2016, they have no idea in Sunderland–or in Deerfield for that matter. Nor do they know anything in Greenfield, Turners Falls, Gill, Northfield or Millers Falls. Upstream, Vermont folks in Vernon, Guilford, Brattleboro and Putney don’t have a clue. Across the river, New Hampshire people in Hinsdale, Chesterfield, Walpole and Charlestown remain in the dark.

What these towns all have in common is that nobody can tell them anything of the whereabouts of their share of the spring American shad run. The fish have been in the river and upstream of Holyoke for a full five weeks now, and there hasn’t been a single fish count provided from the Greenfield Community College students hired by GDF-Suez FirstLight to monitor fish passage at Turners Falls. An accounting of the public’s fish remains in the hands of a private company—and, as I’ve said before, many or most are likely struggling to survive a trip through their private power canal.

For a migrating shad, the 36 mile swim from Holyoke to Turners Falls is a walk in the park. It’s a day—maybe a day-and-a-half trip, ostensibly on the way to spawning habitats in Vermont and New Hampshire. But thousands of the public’s fish have gone missing on the Connecticut River this spring. And it seems no one can say exactly where they are. If you had to make an educated guess, you could surmise many are somewhere between Greenfield and Turners Falls, with many not in the actual river at all.

A significant number are fighting currents in the debased habitats of the Turners Falls power canal, where murky flows delay most by over a week before they even approach the site that could route them past the dam. Others are in the river, trying to find a path to the base of a fish ladder whose construction back in 1980 was based on Pacific salmon. And still others are sidetracked and stalled in the riverbed like sardines, expending precious migratory and spawning energy in front of the ramping outflows at a mini overflow power site known as Station 1. Wherever those fish may be, we do know that, on average over time, just 4% of those shad ever make it beyond Turners Falls Dam toward Vermont and New Hampshire. In the very few “good” years, one fish in ten wriggles upstream.

We also know that the first two American shad were lifted past Holyoke Dam five weeks ago. As of May 4, 2016, some 25,000 had been passed upstream at the Holyoke Fish Lift. What happened to them next is anyone’s guess. Once they pass Holyoke, accounting for them is left in the hands of a private power company—currently GDF-Suez FirstLight Hydro, now going under the corporate aegis Engie. These are the folks responsible for passing the public’s fish at Turners Falls Dam, and giving public accounts of fish passage for anglers, teachers, the general public, and the state and federal fish agencies.

It’s been documented that at least half of all the shad passing Holyoke will attempt to pass Turners Falls. It’s wholly possible the actual number is significantly higher. It matters little though, as all fish get diverted into the Turners Falls Power Canal once they attain this easy upstream reach, and only that average of 4% make it past the TF Dam. The rest simply go unaccounted for once they arrive and are tempted into that turbine-lined pit.

Five full weeks since fish have been heading upstream, and that includes sea lamprey as well. Yet we still do not have a single fish passage update at Turners Falls. What’s wrong here? Who is responsible?? Well, obviously FirstLight GDF-Suez is responsible. But, nobody is holding them to it. These fish, while moving through Massachusetts, are the responsibility of the US Fish & Wildlife Service. But, while here, they in large part fall under the responsibility of the MA Division of & Wildlife. Why aren’t they ensuring the public gets daily fish updates—like those that have been available at Holyoke Dam for years? Again, go fish…

At Holyoke Dam there are actually humans on-site that can witness real-time conditions, fish passage, and provide the needed public info in a timely manner. These come via students from Holyoke Community College. Not so at Turners Falls, where the Commonwealth has largely left responsibility for the chicken coop up to the fox. All monitoring is done remotely by video, with equipment provided by FirstLight. Prior years show repeated equipment failures. And then you have to wait—often many WEEKS, before those videos are handed off and analyzed by GCC interns. Its only then that we are treated to weeks-out-of-date info about where our fish are.

This privatization needs to change. Wendi Weber, Region 5 Director at the USFWS might be able to help. Or MA Division of Fish & Wildlife Director Jack Buckley. Or, perhaps, MADFW’s Caleb Slater, Anadramous Fish Passage Project Director. The guy at FirstLight responsible if Bob Stira.

As a side note: many other states have actuarial tables that put specific monetary values on migratory and resident fish. Then, if they are killed in project operations, or fish do not reach their spawning grounds, the public is reimbursed for the ecological damages.

Updated HOLYOKE fish counts can be accessed at:
www.fws.gov/r5crc under Recreation.

Missing camera in missing river

Posted by on 01 May 2016 | Tagged as: American shad, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Dead Reach, endangerd shortnose sturgeon, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, Holyoke Fish Lift, New Hampshire, Rock Dam, Rock Dam Pool, shad, Turners Falls, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, Vermont

I stopped along the Connecticut on the first bridge crossing downstream of Turners Falls Dam on Friday, April 29th. This is, of course, the alternately starved or inundated Dead Reach–the place where shortnose sturgeon can’t spawn, and migrating shad can’t pass upstream because of free-reign hydropower operations that choke off the Connecticut River ecosystem in these 2.7 miles of river. This is literally where the Connecticut River ends.

This day, as it had been for days prior, the riverbed was starved. Two thirds of it’s channel was simply exposed tilted and drying shale, with a shallow riffle of flow filling in the rest. I’d stopped to take a photo of the parching Dead Reach, just to have a record. Sadly, I was a bit rushed and didn’t use the camera strap. When I tried to reframe the picture to get a sweep of the ruined river, it slipped from my hands.

Had there been an actual river below, the camera would’ve splashed-in and sunk. Instead, in a true illustration of how starved this ecosystem has been these last decades, it tumbled end-over-end and banged onto the rocks, bouncing at last into a puddle leftover from when the Connecticut last saw some flow here.

Just downstream and out of view was the Rock Dam, where this same impoverished flow had chased spawning-ready shortnose sturgeon from their only documented natural spawning site over a week earlier. Also denied habitat just downstream were literally thousands of American shad–now many days past their lift upstream at the Holyoke Fishway. They too were being denied a river route upstream toward Vermont and New Hampshire spawning habitat. Instead, all were being tricked by flows at the Cabot Station fish ladder into the deadly power canal just a hundred yards east of where I stood.

Thus, the picture was lost, as was the camera. There was something final in watching it pitch downward. Oddly, I wasn’t devastated to see it go. Staring down, I realized this was the same photo of ecosystem misery I’d shot a half dozen times in a half dozen other years. Its a bit withering to witness it year after year.

Thus, as substitute, I’ll post here another photo, taken later in the season one of these last years. Its the exact same misery–just with a bit more late-season green on the riverbanks. It’s the Dead Reach in the dead Connecticut River at Turners Falls…(click to enlarge)

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Connecticut River Dead Reach Update: April 29, 2016

Posted by on 29 Apr 2016 | Tagged as: American shad, Connecticut River, federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FirstLight, Holyoke Fish Lift, National Marine Fisheries Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, Turners Falls, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal

Connecticut River Dead Reach Update: April 29, 2016

SHAD PASSAGE UPDATE: Holyoke Fish Lift passed its first American shad upstream on April 1, 2016. Normally, that would signal the opening of the fish ladders upstream at Turners Falls Dam.

Migrating shad take less than 2 days to swim the 36 miles up to Turners Falls Dam, the next barrier on the Connecticut as they attempt to head to northern MA, VT and NH.

Unfortunately there is so little water left in the riverbed when they arrive at the 2.7 mile Dead Reach between Greenfield and Turners Falls, that the vast majority never make it past that dam.

As of April 24, some 7,100 shad had passed Holyoke.

This year, due to lack of maintenance by FirstLight, the fish ladder at Turners Falls Dam was not working until April 22, a full three weeks after shad were arriving at that site. That kept thousands of those shad treading water and wasting their migration energy in the miserable conditions below Turners Falls.

SHORTNOSE STURGEON UPDATE: Shortnose sturgeon begin arriving in the Dead Reach at the Rock Dam site in Turners Falls in mid-April. On April 14th there was virtually no water be released into the riverbed where those sturgeon arrive to spawn, and those shad arrive to continue on to upstream spawning habitats.4-28-16 dribbling Dead Reach Flow

Above: flow dribbling down the DEAD REACH, April 28, 2016.(Click to enlarge)

On April 27th, the day sturgeon studies show that spawning at Rock Dam commences, the flow released into the Dead Reach and running downstream to the Rock Dam spawning site was so withered that spawning at the site would’ve been rendered impossible. Thus chased out by insufficient flows, another year of shortnose sturgeon spawning failure has occurred at its only documented natural spawning site in the entire ecosystem.

FURTHER, despite much touted improvements for moving the hundreds of sturgeon trapped below Holyoke Dam upstream, all FOUR shortnose sturgeon that made have made it into the fish lift there have been unceremoniously plopped back DOWNSTREAM. Call it bureaucratic interuptus… Or, agency failure.

Thus, for yet another year, there will be no improvement for the genetic prospects of the Connecticut River’s only federally endangered migratory fish. The agencies, chief among them the National Marine Fisheries Service have failed this fish and this river once again—as well as the so-called watchdog groups.

FERC Stakeholder comments: Turner Falls Canal ultrasound study

Posted by on 06 Feb 2016 | Tagged as: American shad, Cabot Station, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Dr. Boyd Kynard, endangerd shortnose sturgeon, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FERC, FirstLight, Fish and Aquatics Study Team, GDF-Suez FirstLight, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, Relicensing, Revised Study Plan, Rock Dam, Rock Dam Pool, Secretary Kimberly Bose, shad, Station 1, Turners Falls, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal

Karl Meyer, M.S.
85 School Street # 3
Greenfield, MA, 01301
January 28, 2016

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

RE: P-1889 and P-2485, ILP for Turners Falls/Cabot Station and the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project

Dear Secretary Bose,

The following comments pertain to an RSP and failures on the part of FirstLight Hydro Generating Company in following FERC’s SDL on Study 3.3.19 and Study 3.3.2. They were shared with FirstLight’s team and FERC’s Brandon Cherry on January 20, 2016:

As one of the requesters for an ultrasound study at Cabot Station, here are my comments, suggestions and observations for ways to gain the best applicable results from Study 3.3.19-Evaluate the Use of an Ultrasound Array to Facilitate Upstream Movement to Turners Falls Dam by Avoiding Cabot Station Tailrace.

Unfortunately, FirstLight has not provided Stakeholders with any preliminary findings from the telemetry data gathered in Study 3.3.2, which would be a great help in addressing any changes or improvements needed for a successful 3.3.19 Ultrasound Study.

As stated in their Study Determination Letter under Discussion and Staff Recommendations, FERC was very clear that 3.3.2 information on: (1) “delay,” (2) “bypass flows,” and (3) “effects of Station 1 operations on upstream shad migrations,” be brought over and included in the design recommendations for 3.3.19:

“These evaluation data can be used to inform the methods and design of this study (e.g., ultrasound array design, layout, and placement; array testing at appropriate bypass flows) (section 5.9(b)(6)).”

FERC further stated in their SD Letter to FirstLight, “The amended study 3.3.19 should address stakeholder comments and recommendations. If FirstLight does not adopt a recommendation, FirstLight should provide its reasoning based on project-specific circumstances (e.g. Study 3.3.2 results).”

Revised Study Plan 3.3.19 ignores FERC’s guidance on the inclusion and application of “bypass flows” and “effects of Station 1 operations on upstream shad migrations” in its design. Neither key issue is addressed in their proposal. Bypass flows, which are key to any application of acoustic guidance to keep shad moving upstream in the Bypass, are not included at all. Stakeholders originally requested this Study be done for two years, with bypass flows tested throughout.

Further, the only mention of Station 1 is in a footnote, without any reference to testing its effects “on upstream shad migration operations.” FirstLight merely notes that hourly data on discharges at that site will be included—with no insight on how that data would be applicable if fish are not monitored for migratory delay, with and without flows, emanating from that site.

Since the thrust of the Study is aimed at getting fish up through the Bypass, I question why just three monitoring sites are suggested to be deployed upstream of Cabot Station itself.

• Sonic guidance at Cabot should be deployed in such a way that it encourages upstream movement as much as possible—and avoids biasing fish movements toward downstream retreat. It should also be deployed in a way that, when in ON mode, it also ensonnifies the entrance to Cabot Ladder, as the thrust of the study is to have fish avoid the power canal.

• Ensonification should NOT be engaged in two hour increments, as this would likely be a source of stress and disorientation for fish. Employ the tests in 24 hour cyles, one full day on, one full day off.

• Data should also be provided on the hourly operation and number of gates open at the Emergency Spill Gates off the Canal at Cabot.

• I’d suggest removing the monitor upstream of the mouth of the Deerfield and placing it at the Rock Dam pool, a site where shad–and anglers have a historic presence in the Bypass. The agencies, as well as the anglers, are concerned with finding out where fish gather and stall in this reach on their way northern MA, VT, and NH.

• Another monitor needs to be placed at Station 1, another known fishing site. I interviewed a fisherman there last year with Station 1 running. There were scores of fish visible, treading water in the outflow. He flatly said there are “always shad here” when Station 1 is generating.

• Station 1 should be monitored and switched On and Off in tandem with the Cabot ensonification to highlight impacts, false attraction, drop-backs to Rock Dam and elsewhere, and delays.

• Flow data, hours and number of units in operation, and any interruptions in flow at Station 1 should be included in the Study.

• Several more monitors need to be deployed at the Dam and the Spillway entrance to capture the early, freshet aggregation of fish there—as this is what’s at the core of this study.

• Given that this study will only have one sampling season, it is vitally important that it has enough reach to be applicable for informing a hydro-relicensing that may remain in place for two decades. One month testing and data collection is needed at minimum.

• Further, given the “drop out” rate for handled fish, the number of tagged fish included from FirstLight’s consultants should be doubled to 200, in order to have an acceptable sample entering the project reach.

• Test flows from May 15th through mid-June: two weeks at 5,000 CFS; third week at 4,000 CFS. The final week should be at a minimum of 2,500 CFS—which, as FL has indicated in their response to a new Stakeholder Study suggested at the Rock Dam for shortnose sturgeon spawning: 2,500 CFS is the absolute minimum, uninterrupted flow necessary through the Bypass from April 25 – May 22, in order to not interfere with the spawning of a federally endangered species and be subject to court action. In their response, FL cited “Kynard” et al. Minimum flows to keep SNS embryos and eggs motile, watered, and viable are required throughout the month of June.

Thank you,
Karl Meyer, Fish & Aquatics Study Team

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