Bellows Falls

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“Clean, renewable” labels don’t apply

Posted by on 01 Oct 2018 | Tagged as: Ashuelot River, Bellows Falls, blueback herring, canal shad, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River migratory fisheries restoration, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, crippled ecosystem, Dead Reach, ecosystem, endangerd shortnose sturgeon, Endangered Species Act, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federal trust fish, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FERC, FERC Commissioner Neil Chatterjee, FERC license, FirstLight, Fish and Aquatics Study Team, fish counts, fish kill, fish kill on the Connecticut, fish passage, fishway windows, Holyoke Fish Lift, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, MA Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, National Marine Fisheries Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, New Hampshire, NMFS, Northfield Mountain, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Reservoir, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, nuclear power, PSP Investments, Public Law 98-138, pumped storage, Relicensing, resident river fish, Saxtons River, Scott Pruitt, shad, shortnose sturgeon, Society of Environmental Journalists, Turners Falls, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS, Vermont, Vermont Digger, Vermont Yankee

Copyright © 2018 by Karl Meyer All Rights Reserved.

NOTE: the following piece appeared in VTDigger, www.vtdigger.org in September under the heading “Clean, renewable” labels don’t apply when crippling an ecosystem.”

TERMS OF ENTRAINMENT: a Connecticut River History


NOTE:in this photo are over 170 juvenile shad, among the many thousands killed in the recent de-watering of the Turners Falls Power Canal. The power canal is where the bulk of the Connecticut River is diverted into for most months of the year. So, when they drain it, they are killing the river. However, if you look at this photo and multiply that death toll by 10,000 you begin to get some idea of the mortality counts for young-of-the-year shad entrained annually–and un-tallied across nearly five decades, at the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station. (CLICK, then CLICK twice more to enlarge photos.)

At 2:41 p.m. on May 20, 2018, a lone blueback herring appeared in the windows at Turners Falls Dam among a school of larger American shad. It was a small miracle. Barely a foot long, it was the first blueback here since 2005, and there would not be another this spring. Like those shad, its life had already spanned four springs, swimming thousands of ocean miles in shimmering schools. It re-crossed bays and estuaries of seven states and two provinces before reaching this Connecticut River juncture. In doing so it had survived sprawling drift nets and repeated attacks from sharks, bluefish, spiny dogfish, cormorants, seals and striped bass.

All these fish were seeking to spawn and give their young a head start as far upriver as currents, time and temperature would allow. Unfortunately, five miles upstream sat the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, a river vacuuming machine capable of out-killing all their natural predators. For the next 20 miles they’d be vulnerable to its impacts.

NMPS has inhaled river fish of all species and sizes daily for nearly half a century. Results from a river sampling study Juvenile Shad Assessment in the Connecticut River, were released in June by the US Fish & Wildlife Service and MA Division of Fisheries & Wildlife. They estimated NMPS’s 2017 operations resulted in losses of some 15 million shad eggs and larvae, plus the deaths of between 1 and 2-1/2 million juvenile shad. That’s for just one species.

On April 20, 1967, years before Northfield was built, federal agencies and four states signed the Statement of Intent for a Cooperative Fishery Restoration Program for the Connecticut River, agreeing to restore runs of American shad, salmon and blueback herring upstream to Bellows Falls, Vermont and beyond. The migratory shortnose sturgeon had already been listed as endangered. Continuing today under Public Law 98-138, its mandate requires utilization of “the full potential of the fishery resources of the Connecticut River including both anadromous and resident species,” providing “high quality sport fishing,” and meeting “the long term needs of the population for seafood.”

American shad are still commercially fished today just 60 miles downriver. They’ve provided seafood to this valley for ages, yet most people in Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts don’t know they were promised a “just share of the fishery harvest” back in 1967. All remain without, while shad continue to grace dinner and restaurant tables in Connecticut every spring.

Running on imported power via the buy-low/sell-high model, Northfield can suck the river into reverse for up to a mile downstream. It devours everything captured in that vortex at 15,000 cubic feet per second. Think 15,000 milk crates, for hours, to fill a 5 billion gallon mountain reservoir. The result is 100% mortality for all fish entrained. During peak-use and/or peak-price times—or both, it sends the deadened water back through its turbines as twice-produced electricity.

NOTE: more of the TF Canal kill here in another location–including mostly juvenile shad, but also a bluegill, several mud-puppies, and a young sea lamprey. Again, this is just a whisper of the year round fish kill occurring upstream at Northfield Mountain.

Northfield was built to run off Vermont Yankee’s excess nuclear megawatts. But even after VY closed in 2014, its carnage continued, unchallenged, rather than being relegated to emergency use. Having never produced a watt of its own power, its 46 years of accumulating carnage are yet to be tallied. That herring might have been heading for New Hampshire’s Ashuelot or Vermont’s Saxtons River, and those shad were perhaps steering for the Great Eddy at Bellows Falls. Regardless, any progeny would later face Northfield’s net-loss-power impacts heading downriver come fall.

Currently it pumps mostly at night when Canadian owners PSP Investments can purchase cheap electricity to suction the river uphill. Later it’s released as second-hand juice at peak-of-the-day profits. Promoters claim the benefits of dispersed solar and wind power can’t be realized without first relaying their renewable energy across the region to this lethal storage machine for later resale in markets far beyond the Connecticut Valley. “Clean, renewable” labels don’t apply when crippling an ecosystem.

NMPS boosters include (now-former) EPA Director Scott Pruitt, who made a sweetheart visit there last Valentine’s Day along with Federal Energy Regulatory Commissioner Neil Chatterjee. That occurred as PSP was requesting to suction yet more water from the Connecticut and applying for a new long-term FERC license. The next day FERC announced a major policy shift, potentially increasing both Northfield’s daytime use and its profits.

Since an 1872 landmark Supreme Court ruling indemnifying Holyoke Dam, all hydro facilities have been required to safely pass the public’s fish, upstream and down. But that 1967 agreement had this warning: “Based on the present fragmentary data available on the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project, it appears that this project poses definite limitations to an anadromous fish restoration program. These limitations involve the physical loss of eggs, larvae and young fish of both resident and anadromous species, and an orientation problem for both upstream and downstream migrants attributed to pumping large volumes of water.” Today the 20 mile reach hosting Northfield remains a migration minefield—while some 30 miles of open Vermont/New Hampshire spawning habitat above Vernon Dam sits essentially empty.

Holyoke Dam has annually lifted hundreds of thousands of shad and herring upstream since the 1970s. In 2017 it recorded its second highest shad numbers ever, 537,000 fish. Each spring, half or more of those shad attempt to pass Turners Falls. Less than 10-in-100 will succeed. Of those, some 50% drop from tallies and are never re-counted at Vernon Dam after entering the 20 miles impacted by Northfield. The blueback herring record at Turners Falls was 9,600 in 1986, out of the 517,000 counted 36 miles downstream at Holyoke that year. Of those 9,600 Turners herrings, just 94 reached Vernon Dam. Turners Falls saw another 7,500 blueback herring in 1991; just 383 reappeared upstream at Vernon.

Any new long-term FERC license must comply with federal and state law protecting endangered and public-trust fish. In seeking a new license, PSP’s main proposal for limiting Northfield’s massive carnage has been the test-anchoring of a few yards of Kevlar netting in the riverbed in front of the plant’s suction-and-surge tunnel. Those flag-sized yards of mesh, after a few months deployment, are supposed to effectively model how a 1,000 foot-long “exclusion net”–deployed seasonally in the river over the next decades, might halt the entrainment deaths of out-migrating adult–and millions of juvenile young-of-the year fish, heading back to the sea. Presumably, Northfield’s mouth would remain wide open to the ecosystem’s fish throughout the rest of the year.

In light of longstanding research the US Fish & Wildlife Service, Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission have set shad passage goals requiring that a minimum of 397,000 pass Turners Falls; and a minimum of 226,000 pass Vernon Dam. It’s a certainty that a new fish lift will be required at Turners Falls under any new license, modeled on the long-term success of Holyoke’s lifts. But the ultimate question is this: can Northfield comply with federal and state law protecting the four-state ecosystem’s fish in order to be granted a new FERC license?

END

Karl Meyer has been a stakeholder and member of the Fish and Aquatics Study Team in the current FERC relicensing process for the Northfield Mountain and Turners Falls projects since 2012. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

Last chance for a Great River

Posted by on 10 Jul 2017 | Tagged as: 5-year FERC licensing process, American shad, Bellows Falls, Connecticut River, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Daily Hampshire Gazette, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, FERC, FirstLight, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, National Marine Fisheries Service, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, PSP Investments, Rock Dam, The Greenfield Recorder, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS, Vermont Digger, Vernon Dam Fishway


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

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

Copyright © 2017 by Karl Meyer, All Rights Reserved

Last chance for a great river

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

The Great Eddy at Bellows Falls

Posted by on 27 May 2015 | Tagged as: American shad, Bellows Falls, Bellows Falls Fishway, Cabot Station, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Dead Reach, GDF-Suez FirstLight, migratory delay, New Hampshire, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, power canal studies, Rock Dam, Rock Dam Pool, shad, shad fishing, Station 1, The Great Eddy, Turners Falls, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS, Vermont, Walpole

BFallsdam
May, 27, 2015. I happened to be at Bellows Falls High School yesterday, and I took a walk into town and over to the Connecticut River at the now-closed Vilas Bridge. Just downstream of here and pictured above is a place formerly known as the Great Eddy. Here, prior to the completion of the Turners Falls Dam in 1798–the first dam to span the entire Connecticut, historic accounts recall 1,200 shad being pulled from the river at a single haul of the net. This picture was taken a few years ago, my batteries proved exhausted as I stood looking downstream yesterday.

There were two young guys far below, fishing in the shadow of the bridge, just downstream of the Bellows Falls Dam. When I hollered down they said yes, the fishing was good, “A rainbow and some bass.” Thus, today, it is rare for a single shad to reach Bellows Falls, the upstream limit of their historic reach. It is harder still to imagine that this place was once a key part of an ecosystem connected to the OCEAN.

I got a note from John Howard, GDF-Suez FirstLight’s Director of Hydro Compliance on Monday. He assured me that those scores of American shad stalled by false attraction flows roaring down from Station 1 had been worked out and agreed to by the USFWS as part of a flexible test flow grid due to an absence of rain. He’d neglected to forward the new test flow schedule to the Fish and Aquatics Studies Team. I imagine those shad burning up their energies would’ve liked to have had a heads-up as well. Their destination–as is the professed destination of the Connecticut River anadromous fisheries restoration these last 48 years, has been to REACH Bellows Falls, VT, and Walpole, NH.

Head gate flow at the TF Dam today, Wednesday, was again lamb-gentle. Of all the years I’ve witnessed flows pouring out of those head gates in the midst of fish passage season, this is the quietest I’ve ever seen them. Canal head gate flow and power generation from the canal at Station 1 and Cabot Station will all need to be looked at carefully in these studies to tease out any biases. (Click to enlarge photo).P1000457

Meanwhile, there were still shad being taken at The Rock Dam Pool this afternoon. I was headed down the path about 3:30 pm and a guy was walking out with a pole and his two energetic labs. He cautioned the wet dogs to give me a wide birth and I asked how it had been. “Not bad,” he said, “Better this morning.” I took a second look at the gentlemen and said, “Hi Jake, how are you?” “Doing OK, how about you?” Jake was part of the maintenance and grounds crew up at Northfield Mountain under Northeast Utilities when I was working at the Visitor Center some dozen years back.

“You still writing letters?” he asked. “I’m doing what I can.” “Good,” Jake replied, “Give it to ’em. Good luck!” Funny, but I bump into many folks who used to work there and there seems to be little sympathy for the company–or lingering loyalty.

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When I get down to the Rock Dam Pool three people are angling. The guy here has a shad on the line. Another guy, just a bit upstream toward the dam hooks one two or three minutes later. I head out, continuing downstream by bike. (Click to enlarge)
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Looking upstream from the deck of the General Pierce Bridge in Montague City, much of the riverbed is exposed due to the low flows. At top, far right, is the outfall and attraction flow at Cabot Station, which is likely to be attracting and capturing a good slug of the migrating fish–steering them out of the river to the ladder that will dump them into the power canal. (Click to enlarge)

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

P1000388
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.
P1000401
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.
P1000407
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.

New Stakeholder Comments filed with FERC re: Northfield Mountain

Posted by on 21 May 2014 | Tagged as: American shad, Bellows Falls, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, ecosystem, Endangered Species Act, EPA, ESA, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federal trust fish, GDF-Suez FirstLight, Ludington Pumped Storage Plant, New Hampshire, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, shad larvae, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS, Vermont

The following Stakeholder Comments were filed today, 5/21/2014, with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission respecting Connecticut River fish mortality investigations at Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage station (NMPS)

Karl Meyer, M.S., Environmental Science

85 School Street, # 3

Greenfield, MA  01301

 

Kimberly D. Bose, Secretary

Federal Energy Regulatory Commission

88 First Street, N.E.

Washington, DC  20426

Stakeholder Comments, RE: FERC P-2485-063, and P-2680-108: relevance of FirstLight Hydro Generating Company’s document submission issued by FERC as “Conference/Meeting Transcript issued in FERC P-2485-063, et al” on May 9, 2014 for Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage project (NMPS).  The inclusion of “Transcript of the April 17, 2014 FERC Scoping Meeting held in Pentwater, Michigan re Consumers Energy Company’s et al Ludington Pumped Storage Project under P-2680-108” offers an incomplete, unsubstantiated and confusing picture of its applicable connection to the relicensing of NMPS on the main stem of a four-state river system in Massachusetts.

Dear Secretary Bose,

Please consider the following comments respecting the relevance of FirstLight Hydro Generating Company’s recent document filing as it seeks a new license for the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage station.  I testified as a Stakeholder in the NMPS Study Dispute Panel Technical Conference along with officials from the USFWS and Trout UnLimited on Tuesday, April 8, 2014.  The Dispute Panel was convened out of concerns that no study of the entrainment of eggs and larvae of migratory American shad was being required as part of a relicensing bid from GDF-Suez FirstLight Power for NMPS.  I find no clear context provided by FirstLight for the inclusion of a transcript for the April 17, 2014 FERC Scoping Meeting for the Ludington Pumped Storage Plant–a lakeside Michigan-based facility, as part of the NMPS relicensing proceedings. 

NMPS’s pumping/generating impacts are known to reach downstream to Holyoke Dam at river-mile 86 and affect spawning-run migratory fish that utilize Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont habitats upstream to Bellows Falls Dam at river-mile 172.  It is critical to the relicensing of any pumped storage generation on this four-state river to have robust studies with measurable outcomes to protect the public’s interest in a balanced and functioning Connecticut River ecosystem. 

NMPS impacts migrating and spawning anadromous fish in a four-state ecosystem that has been the focus of a federal fisheries restoration program begun in 1967, “to provide the public with high quality sport fishing opportunities in a highly urbanized area, as well as provide for the long term needs of the population for seafood.”  NMPS, completed in 1972, has been shown to have direct impacts on migratory fish entrainment and fish passage from northern Massachusetts to central Vermont and New Hampshire.

The US Fish & Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, and fisheries directors in MA, NH, VT, and CT are all charged with protecting these resources for the public.  Federal and state laws, licenses and statutes governing these mandated protections include the federal Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, and federal-trust fish protections beginning with the Anadromous Fish Conservation Act of 1965.  FERC authority also mandates licensee compliance and protections for the public’s fisheries resources and restoration projects.  FERC itself is mandated to comply with federal environmental law. 

The Ludington Pumped Storage Plant is a FERC licensed facility sited and operating within a single state on a lakeshore well over 100 miles from it closest bordering state—and situated with 118 miles of open water at its back.  Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage, situated adjacent to the Connecticut River, operates on the Navigable Waters of the United States in Massachusetts just 10 miles from where the Connecticut River passes out of Vermont and New Hampshire.  NMPS pumps and generates from a narrow ribbon of river that is less than 1,000 feet wide—during warm seasons can draws more water than the river’s natural output. 

In short, these are two very different animals, operating in very different habitats. 

However, there are similarities in the long-term environmental impacts of these far-flung pumped storage facilities.  They both kill large quantities of the public’s fish.  Unfortunately, those impacts were not cited or included in FirstLight’s submission to FERC in either Dispute Resolution Panel documents or its license application documents.  In 1995 the owners of the Ludinton Plant agreed to a $172 million dollar settlement for its killing o fish during the previous two decades.  The public there at least had the minor benefit of one-time study that showed LPSP “in a single year, killed 440,000 salmon and trout, 85,000 perch and millions of forage fish that served as food for valuable game.” 

Unfortunately, to date, we have no such data from a study of NMPS, nor any compensation for the long-term damage to a public resource and a long-term fisheries restoration project.  In Michigan, a US-based entity was required to pay restitution and undertake remedial action.  Here at NMPS the plant operator is a transnational corporation, based outside the United States, that is “taking” an unknown quantity of a public resource without compensation or required analysis.  If a US Citizen were to do this they would be subject to legal action.  

 

Please see below: Ludington Daily News, August 13, 1987: “Federal agency rules on fish kill, Ludington hydro plant must comply within 60-90 days.” 

The Ludington plant had begun operations in 1973, and had been the subject of legal proceedings from that time forward.  The State of Michigan had filed a suit in Ingham County Circuit Court seeking more than $147 million in damages, and the National Wildlife Federation had won a federal court order that Consumers needed a pollution discharge permit for the plant. 

In summary here are several excerpts from that article defining the impacts at that time including references to a single study that found the plant killed millions of native fish in a single year, species that are today disappearing, or have essentially disappeared, in Lake Michigan waters: 

 “Environmentalists and state officials Wednesday hailed a federal ruling designed to end the fish kills at the Ludington Pumped Storage Facility operated by Consumers Power Co.”  (Co-owned with Detroit Edison Co.) 

“Finally, after 14 years of negotiations and litigation, and the destruction of millions of Lake Michigan sports fish, we’re going to see an end to this needless waste of an important resource,” said Thomas Washington, executive director of the Michigan United Conservation Clubs. 

“The MUCC, National Wildlife Federation and Department of Natural Resources have negotiated fruitlessly for years with Consumers Power to stop the fish kills.”

“The plant, in operation since 1973, pumps Lake Michigan water uphill into a reservoir, and generates electricity during times of high demand by letting it flow back to Lake Michigan through generators.  In the pumping process, it kills millions of fish.” 

“The MUCC said that a study commissioned by Consumers Power showed the plant, in a single year, killed 440,000 salmon and trout, 85,000 perch and millions of forage fish that served as food for valuable game.” 

However, it took another eight years of environmental damage and drawn-out court proceedings before a settlement—totaling $172 million, was finally reached in 1995.  See: Ludington Daily News, March 7, 1995: “Local groups urged to begin working on projects for fish kill settlement plan.” 

“While 12 to 18 months more may pass before the settlement, valued at $172 million, becomes final state officials urged local groups not to wait to prepare proposals for enhancing local fishing.” 

“Many audience questions fielded by the five-person panel concerned the perception the settlement doesn’t do much for Ludington area fishing specifically—the fishing most affected by the fish kill at the plant.” 

It was only after 1995 that some of the large-scale impacts of Ludington Pumped Storage Plant began to be addressed.  Ultimately, a FERC-sanctioned 2-1/2 mile long (12,850 ft) barrier net was deployed across hundreds and hundreds of acres of riverbed and bank. 

Sadly, it seems that net did not mitigate or resolve the loss of local fisheries in the Ludington region.  Its deployment was either ineffective or far too late for a regionally- and culturally-important sustained harvest of local- sourced and eaten native yellow perch and lake trout.  Those perch have now essentially disappeared in the Ludington-Manistee region—which is noted in Stakeholder Testimony supplied for the Ludington Scoping Meeting on April 17, 2014 where Mr. Richard Underwood testified that past Michigan DNR creel surveys had found: “close to a quarter million perch” in Ludington habitats.  “In the last few years, four years, we have had a total of zero count of perch in Ludington, and that’s how it has affected.” 

The giant Ludington barrier net appears to be one key player in the puzzle of the missing perch. It appears to act as a fish trap.  According to Mr. Underwood that net, along with an artificial reef constructed nearby, attracts a giant collection of cormorants that feed on the fish trapped within the confines of the net, “There were so many birds on the reef and inside the barrier net you couldn’t count them.  I estimated there were 3,500.”  

Ironically too, in recent years, federal hatcheries in the Connecticut River basin have been producing lake trout to supplement the now-crippled and dwindling native population of lake trout on Lake Michigan. 

Another similarity in these two relicensing proceedings is that FERC’s Scoping Site Visits at both the NMPS plant and LPSP were scheduled either before the PAD had been given to Stakeholders, as it was NMPS, or—as noted in state fisheries testimony at Ludington, the Site Visits are not scheduled to take place until well after Study Requests and Stakeholder Comments are due. 

Both of these processes deprived the public and officials the ability to visit, witness, and develop an understanding of the complex impacts of these pumped storage plants before submitting testimony, comments, and informed study requests. 

Similarly, both plants have deployed barrier nets as a means of diminishing their fish kills and entrainment/mortality impacts.  And, at both sites the fishing is poor and with stocks deteriorating. 

The difference on the Connecticut River is that migratory fish here are forced to encounter two entrainment opportunities through FirstLight facilities.  The first occurs seven miles downstream, when they are deflected by attraction flows into the Turners Falls Power Canal, with Cabot Station turbines operating on the downstream end.   The small percentage of fish that manage to survive the 2-1/2-mile, 8-day (average) transit to the head of that canal—and the even smaller number that actually exit upstream(1-10%), then get the chance to be culled by NMPS turbines, just five miles further upstream.        

In its filing of the Ludington Scoping Meeting documents, GDF-Suez FirstLight seems to be suggesting some link between the large-scale wind power facilities built by LPSP owners Consumers and DTE, and a key, future role for renewables here in sucking the Connecticut River backward and pulling it uphill into the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage reservoir. 

That connection is tenuous, at best.  Consumers and its partner DTE now own and operate a large-scale wind farm consisting of some 56 turbines.  Its deployment required the purchase or easement rights to 16,000 acres of Michigan property, most of it to trench-out underground power lines to reach back to their grid and pumped-storage plant.  Their large-scale wind operations are due to the presence of 118 miles of open Lake Michigan at their back, as well as a flat, open, prairie landscape to site giant turbines on. 

FirstLight seems to be implying that NMPS will be similarly employed at some future date—its ecosystem impacts ignored because of the huge amount of surplus, cheap, local, renewable energy available to pump a river uphill at night.  But solar doesn’t generate at night; and available local hydro here is modest and run-of-river—it would not constitute a “renewable” source to be tapped to pump water uphill.  And, wind power opportunities here are spotty, small scale, and generally available on isolated ridge tops. 

Clearly the Connecticut River Valley has none of the necessary features that might facilitate the large-scale wind renewables/pumped storage relationship found at LPSP.  Nor, has FirstLight proposed plans for any large-scale wind projects in the region.  No other entity has either.  Cape Wind, whose large scale deployment will be installed miles off the Atlantic shore, is not proposing a pumped storage plant be built above the Truro Cliffs in order for its renewable energy megawatts to be consumed.  Here, there just aren’t flatland mega-farm acres available, and only a few ridge tops here have proven suitable for siting isolated turbines.

GDF-Suez Manager John Howard stated at the Dispute Resolution Panel: “We can manage fluctuations in energy schedules with wind, solar, and imports from Canada and New York, primarily.  And then the ability to respond very quickly to energy and operating reserve needs of the power system, any time of the day or calendar year.”  He states that “We can manage…”  But there is nothing backing up the statement.  Nothing that proves there is a surplus amount of renewable energy reaching NMPS to state clearly that “We do manage…” or “We will be managing…”   The implication is that NMPS is a necessity here in order to implement renewable energy in the region.  Where is the science to back that up?  Solar is not around at night.  And the region is sub-marginal for large-scale wind, as well as lacking in opportunities for securing thousands of acres of right-of-way here. So, where is the implied connection between these two facilities—beyond fisheries destruction? 

Michigan, with its open face to the winds—which do blow at night, apparently ignores the to damage to its Great Lake ecosystem and fish, and tallies the wind-energy driving Lake Michigan waters and uphill to its pumped-storage plant as “renewable.”  We don’t have that wind here, and solar power generation is a whole different animal–not in any way the high-octane source needed to push a river uphill at NMPS.  FirstLight has built a 2 MW solar installation atop the 11 acres of land it was mandated to construct for silt-settling ponds by the EPA in 2010 after being sanctioned for massive infractions of the federal Clean Water Act by dumping up to 45,000 tons of pumped storage reservoir silt and sludge into the Connecticut River , the company has not included any information on how that solar facility connects to, and interacts with, and powers its pumped storage operations.  Unlike large-scale wind, solar does not deliver its energy at night–when NMPS asserts that it will do most of its pumping.

Pumped storage can only be deemed “renewable” energy in a generating environment where ecosystem impacts are not considered.  Pumped-storage itself was a net-loss bargain that was ill-considered even back when there was actually surplus nuclear available in the region.  Now this taking-of-a-river is mostly accomplished at NMPS by climate-warming, non-renewable fossil fuels.  This is a lose-lose situation for renewable energy use–and for an ecosystem. 

GDF-Suez FirstLight’s NMPS plant does feature “black-start” capabilities, and does offer FERC and ISO the ability to accomplish load-leveling at certain critical times.  However, these attributes must be balanced against long-standing federal and state efforts to complete a forty-seven year old migratory fisheries restoration on the Connecticut, and the public’s long-term need to have a sustainable Connecticut River ecosystem.  NMPS operations also need to adhere to federal and state environmental law.

In 1995, Consumers and DTE paid the public $172 million for their past fish kills of the previous decades.  Thus far, the public has not been compensated for the on-going taking of fish at NMPS on the Navigable Waters of the United States, nor have citizens in MA, VT, NH and CT been able to reap the benefits of anything near the stated goals of a four-state fisheries restoration program targeting recreation fishing and harvestable seafood. 

Studies with measurable results are required for a fair relicensing process.  Stated steps in the FERC relicensing process should be followed to allow the public a contextual look at the operations before the need to suggest studies or prepare testimony.  To facilitate a fair process, FERC should require context and full disclosure of all submitted documentation on the part of the applicant, as well as phone conference transcripts to allow an understanding of the ongoing dispute procedure. 

Placing a net in front of LPSP and NMPS has not stopped the fish kills at either plant.  A band-aid should not be applied to a gaping wound.  Complete and proper studies of all life stages of fish mortality are needed for NMPS relicensing.  Regulatory pumping and generating restrictions that protect the public resources of US citizens are overdue and necessary there.  The studies needed to accomplish this should take place before any new license allows this ongoing “take” to continue through 2048.     

                                                End of Formal Comments

Thank you for this opportunity to participate in improving license requirements and protecting the Connecticut River ecosystem for future generations.

Sincerely,

Karl Meyer, M.S.

DUE DILIGENCE: looking beneath the surface

Posted by on 27 Dec 2013 | Tagged as: American shad, Bellows Falls, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Daily Hampshire Gazette, ecosystem, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FERC license, FirstLight, hydraulic study, shad, The Greenfield Recorder, Turners Falls power canal, USFWS

Copyright © 2013, by Karl Meyer

NOTE: the following piece appeared recently in Daily Hampshire Gazette, www.gazettenet.com; The Recorder, www.recorder.com; the Montague Reporter, and the Shelburne Falls and West County Independent.

                    DUE DILIGENCE: looking beneath the surface

New England’s Great River is at a critical juncture in the closing days of 2013.  An ecosystem door was slammed shut at Turners Falls 215 years ago when private investors built a dam across the river.  After 1798, migrating fish no longer reached northern Massachusetts, Vermont or New Hampshire.  In a landmark 1872 decision the US Supreme Court reopened the door to an ecosystem restoration via “Holyoke Company vs. Lyman.”  It upheld a Massachusetts law requiring dam owners to provide fish passage as part of the public interest of stakeholders upstream and down. Yet today there’s still no working fish passage at Turners Falls. 

As a stakeholder wishing to see the Connecticut River’s fisheries restoration succeed after decades of failure, I’m participating in the current 5-year Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s hydro relicensing process.  It will determine conditions in the river for the next 30-40 years.  If you go to www.northfieldrelicensing.com and click on “2013 Documents,” you’ll find FERC’s “Study Plan Determination Letter” dated 9/13/2013.  It’s a 74-page catalogue of studies FERC has determined necessary to protect the public interests as they move to issue new long-range hydro licenses on the river in 2018.  Curiously, if you open that letter and scroll to the last word on the last page (74) you’ll find “Karl Meyer,” listed as “Recommending Entity” for Study 4.2.3, “Hydraulic Study of the Turners Falls Power Canal.”

I was surprised to find my name there, given that each of the 18 studies above it lists Firstlight, owners of the Turners Falls Power Canal, as Recommending Entity.  But this was no accident on FERC’s part.  They’d originally included the canal study as part of Study 3.2.2 in their preliminary judgments on the science needed to define the impacts of FirstLight’s hydro operations on river environments.  I’d agreed with them.  But FirstLight, in all subsequent filings, seemed determined to exclude it.  They simply excised “power canal” from 3.2.2: “Hydraulic Study of Turners Falls Impoundment, Bypassed Reach, power canal and the Connecticut River below Cabot Station.”  Their main argument was that the water surface level in the canal remains relatively stable through the year.  But given that what happens below the surface is what’s critical to the needs of migrating fish, I argued a canal study was a critical consideration. 

Two generations back a chance to restore fish runs beyond Turners Falls was squandered when the US Fish & Wildlife Service and four state fisheries agencies agreed to steer migratory fish into the chaos of the privately-owned Turners Falls power canal.  A singular New England opportunity to recoup and expand the river’s biodiversity was lost.  Just as in 1980, at best one-fish-in-ten emerges alive upstream there today.  Some years it’s 1-in-100.  That mistake stemmed from a failed quest to create a hatchery-strain of extinct Atlantic salmon here.  As a result, due diligence wasn’t applied to the needs of growing populations of herring, shad and sea lamprey, who would now have to survive a trip through an industrial canal on their spawning runs.  It also scuttled the only natural spawning grounds of the endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon. 

Merriam-Webster defines due diligence as “the care that a reasonable person exercises to avoid harm to other persons or their property.”  Today, after 14 years of power company-subsidized canal studies that remain unpublished, we know scant little about conditions fish encounter throughout that canal.  Save for a few dozen yards at its entrances and exits, two full miles of watery terra incognita lay in between.  That missing knowledge comprises this ecosystem’s black hole. 

Yet with just tidbits of canal study information leaking into the public sphere, there is evidence that canal conditions–and the weeks-long migratory delays fish experience there, are proving lethal.  “Shad are dying in droves in the canal and we don’t know why,” is how one federal Conte Lab researcher responded to a question about mortality in the canal they’ve repeatedly studied using FirstLight funds.  Since dead fish don’t head back to sea to return as repeat spawners, the canal impoverishes a full 172 miles of river ecosystem up to Bellows Falls, VT. 

Thus, I’m proud to have my name listed next to canal hydraulics study 4.2.3.  I believe it represents FERC’s effort to exercise due diligence in getting the information needed to make the best choices in these proceedings.  It certainly represents my own.  FERC’s Ken Hogan has stated that thorough studies and reliable data are what FERC is aiming for as they decide on conditions hydropower interests will have to adhere to as they operate on our river for generations to come.  Anything less would constitute a failure of their public mandate.

 FERC’s Public Comment Period on any of the 39 studies they may require for the relicensing of Turners Falls and Northfield Mountain projects ends December 31, 2013.  Go to www.ferc.gov , and “filing e-comments.”  P-1889 is the Project # required for Turners Falls dam and canal; P-2485 is for Northfield Mountain.

 Karl Meyer is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.