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ENDGAME LOOMS FOR NEW ENGLAND’S GREAT RIVER

Posted by on 10 Sep 2020 | Tagged as: American shad, Anadromous Fish Conservation Act, Atlantic salmon, blueback herring, climate-destroying, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Conte National Fish & Wildlife Refuge, endangerd shortnose sturgeon, Endangered Species Act, ESA, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, FERC, FERC licensing process, FirstLight, FirstLight Power Resources, Fish and Aquatics Study Team, GHG, Massachusetts Division of Fish & Wildlife, National Marine Fisheries Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, New Hampshire, NMFS, Northfield Mountain, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, pumped storage, right-to-know, Rock Dam, shad, shortnose sturgeon, Silvio O. Conte Connecticut River National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, The Revelator, The Society of Environmental Journalists, Turners Falls, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, Uncategorized, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS, Vermont

Endgame Looms for England’s Great River Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer


The impoverished Connecticut River looking downstream to Turners Falls Dam. The run stops here. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer All Rights Reserved. (CLICK x 3 to enlarge)

NOTE: The following piece first appeared as an Op-Ed in The Revelator, an initiative of the Center for Biological Diversity on August 26, 2020. www.therevelator.org

FURTHER NOTE: * On September 1, 2020, after this piece first appeared, FirstLight petitioned FERC for an open-ended date to extend the filing of their Final License Applications citing a need for new test data to respond to the USF&WS. If FERC agrees, that would add another 4 months and possibly another full year, to this endless process–without any long-awaited relief for a flow starved Connecticut River. It’s time for FERC to wrap this up.

After a half-century of failures, the recovery of the Connecticut River ecosystem hangs in the balance. Will authorities finally act to save it?

Rivers should not die in the dark.

On Aug. 31 FirstLight Power Resources is expected to file its final license applications with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to continue operating three hydro facilities profiting off massive water diversions from the Connecticut River in Massachusetts. The conditions written into FERC licenses can last up to 50 years.

These applications signal the beginning of the final chapter in determining the future of the four-state river at the heart of the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, founded to protect a 7.2-million-acre watershed. Their rendering will decide the future of migratory fish, river flows and a host of embattled ecosystem conditions on New England’s longest river, some running counter to laws in place since 1872.

When decisions affecting a river for decades are being made, the public has a right to know of the stakes, the players and the key decision makers. In this case the public knows little of issues potentially affecting 2.4 million people in a sprawling watershed.

One of the failed fish ladders sending all spring migrants into the Turners Falls power canal maize. Across 45 years just 5 shad in 100 have succeeded in passing the Turners Falls Dam–leaving 50 miles of spawning habitat in 3 states largely empty. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer All Rights Reserved.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service and Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife have been at the table in this FERC license-determining process since 2012. But three years back, all parties signed nondisclosure agreements with FirstLight — ostensibly to facilitate settlement discussions on flows, habitat, dismal fish passage and endless mortality cycles at these Massachusetts hydro sites. Those NDAs have kept these issues largely out of the media, even as initial settlement talks broke off a year and a half ago.

*Since 2012 I’ve been a FERC-recognized intervener in the relicensing process. I chose not to sign the company’s confidentiality agreement in order to preserve the right to address and highlight the critical, long-term decisions being made about the Connecticut River in a process that remains largely out of public view.

FirstLight is part of the giant Canadian investment outfit PSP Investments, which arrived in Massachusetts four years back to buy up these facilities from GDF Suez. In 2018 it quickly reregistered the facilities as limited liability tax shelters in Delaware. Regardless of their state of incorporation, the licenses they now vie for will each be subject to current federal and state environmental laws, under terms mandated by the fish agencies and FERC.

Entranceway to the “Great Falls Discovery Center” where, most days out of the year, there are literally no great falls running here at all… The sprawling rocky riverbed is an emptied bowl. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer.

Of more than 500 U.S. refuges, Conte is one of just three with “fish” in its name. Today hopes for the long-term protections of its fish and the river comprising its central artery rest heavily in the hands of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service and Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. They have “conditioning authority” in these relicensings — mandates to protect the life in this river system. FERC, the ultimate relicensing umpire here, is also mandated to ensure compliance with environmental laws. For the fish agencies this is their one chance to redeem some far-reaching mistakes made by their predecessors.

Forty-five years ago these agencies — operating on limited information and pursuing dreams of reprising a salmon not seen on this river since 1809 — signed agreements with different owners of these facilities. That hobbled, for generations, a four-state migratory fisheries restoration for American shad and river herring and a recovery for federally endangered shortnose sturgeon. They sanctioned the daily use of the massive river-reversing pumped storage facility still chewing through generations of migratory and resident fish today. Concurrently they left two miles of the river emptied downstream, its flow diverted into a turbine-lined power canal that all migrants must negotiate in order to access the next 50 miles of open spawning habitat. Just 5 shad in 100 have ever succeeded. Perhaps worse, the river’s only documented natural spawning habitat for the endangered shortnose sturgeon was left without life-sustaining flow.

A Tale of Two Salmon, a River Without Fish

The last wild salmon run on the Connecticut River was recorded in 1809.

Science later revealed the salmons’ end was likely a combination of warming temperatures following the unusually cold period known as the Little Ice Age coupled with modern dam building.

For 165 years there were no salmon. Then, in 1974, a single fish arrived at Holyoke Dam. Far from being a native of the Connecticut River, this was a new hybrid — a returning fish produced at one of several federal hatcheries completed five years prior. This salmon’s genes, like the genes of all the fish that would return in subsequent years, were cobbled together using salmon from several still-surviving runs in northern New England.

This past June 30 marked a different milestone on the river. It ended the first season in 46 years when not a single hatchery-derived Atlantic salmon returned past Massachusetts’ Holyoke Dam.

That unnatural history event passed with little fanfare. Its silent-spring absence marked the end of a half-century-old program that consumed hundreds of millions of dollars and ate up far too much room in a badly broken ecosystem. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service abandoned its hatchery program at the end of the 2012 migration season, but across its 43 years — which saw the annual release of millions of fry and smolts to tributaries in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire — so few adults returned that no one was ever allowed to catch one.

This second salmon ending highlights the fish agencies’ last shot at returning ancient ocean connections to the river’s still-viable, age-old runs of American shad, blueback herring and federally endangered shortnose sturgeon in three states.

All these species have been guaranteed safe passage on U.S. rivers, going back to the landmark Supreme Court decision in Holyoke Company v. Lyman in 1872. That finding centered on the dam in Holyoke, Massachusetts and held that private dam owners operating on U.S. rivers must provide for the free movement, upstream and down, of migratory fish past their facilities.

Looking west across the CT to the Holyoke Dam fish lift complex. Since 1955 it is one of the East Coast’s few fish passage successes. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer All Rights Reserved.

Its implementation on New England’s river is now 148 years overdue.

A River Run in Reverse

What’s ultimately at issue here is flow.

Having taken a back seat for generations, wild runs of shad, herring and sturgeon remain in desperate need of passage and consistent, exponentially increased river flow in FirstLight’s hydro-complex dominated reach. It’s literally the weight of water that matters most to FirstLight. It’s money in the bank. And where flow diversion is concerned, it’s been pretty much a free ride for companies here for the past 50 years.

The 20 miles of river backed up into Vermont and New Hampshire behind Turners Falls Dam are massively suctioned for hours at up to 15,000 cubic feet per second to fill the 4-billion-gallon reservoir above the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station.

Northfield’s suction is so violent it literally reverses the Connecticut’s current for up to a mile downstream at times, erasing the essence of a living river system. The station kills everything it sucks in, from tiny fish eggs to full-size eels. In pumping mode it suctions the equivalent of 3,600 seven-bedroom mansions, each filled with the aquatic life of a river, vaporized every hour, for hours on end. Agency studies on America shad show tens of millions of eggs and larvae extinguished at Northfield annually, plus the deaths of over 2 million juvenile shad sucked in on migrations back to the sea. Five migrant species are subjected to Northfield. In all 24 species live here, most unstudied.

Warning floats on the CT at the entranceway to Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station’s massive subsurface suctioning site. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer All Rights Reserved.

Northfield’s operations are nothing like classic hydro, operating to produce virgin electricity via a dam in or adjacent to a river. It’s actually an electric appliance, built to take advantage of excess, unused megawatts produced nightly at the nearby Vermont Yankee nuclear station. Northfield burns electricity to pump water from the river a mile uphill to into its reservoir tank, which was created by blasting off the top of a mountain. The company’s original owners would buy up Vermont Yankee’s cheap electricity to power its giant, reversible turbines. Later, during peak energy times, that now-lifeless river water would get sent back through the turbines to generate hours-long pulses of energy at peak market prices.

It’s a buy-low, sell-high operation, still running at the expense of a river system six years after Vermont Yankee shut down.

Idle bulldozers sit in the emptied bed of the giant NMPS reservoir on June 27, 2010–the year they broke their giant appliance by fouling the pumps with muck and silt. Sanctioned by the EPA for a cover-up and massively dumping the muck from their mile-long intake tunnel directly into the river, Northfield didn’t operate for over half a year. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer. All Rights Reserved. (Click x3 to enlarge.)

Northfield is a net-loss energy machine — a giant underground appliance consuming massive amounts of grid electricity, half of it now generated by the climate-scorching natural gas that dominates New England’s power grid today. The station consumes 25% to 33% more juice than the secondhand megawatts it sends back by dumping deadened river water back through its turbines. It and a smaller pumped storage station in Connecticut are responsible for gobbling up 1.4% percent of the region’s energy in order to reproduce the few hours of secondhand juice they regenerate. According to grid operator ISO-New England, they are the only facilities whose operations flush out as negative input in the regional power mix.

Northfield has never generated a single watt of its own electricity. And though it may be fine as blunt instrument for use during the occasional power grid slump or rare emergency blackout, its endless, river-crippling, pump-and-purge cycle of regenerated megawatts is unnecessary for the daily operation of the New England grid. While its owners brag of being able to power a million homes for a few hours, they never mention having already burned through the energy of 1.25 million homes to do so. After its daily flush, Northfield is virtually dead in the water and must begin pulling from the grid and sucking life from the river all over.

Past mistakes not only allowed for this massive upstream disruption, they sanctioned diversion of nearly all flow, as well as all migrating fish, into a downstream power canal that on average just 5% of shad have ever successfully negotiated. That left another two miles of New England’s river dysfunctional, with the company providing just a dribble flow of 400 cubic feet per second in the riverbed in spring, when fish are moving upriver. That riverbed remains emptied of all flow more than half the other days of the year.

The most critical time for sustaining flows and the river’s migrants is April through June, when New England’s energy consumption is at its low annual ebb. But federal and state studies and in-river findings show that spring flows will need to be increased by a factor of 20, supplying 8,000 cfs rather than the current brook-like drizzle of 400 cfs. That’s what it will take to guide shad and blueback herring upstream in the river past Turners Falls Dam. That will also provide this river’s only endangered migrant the consistent flows required to successfully allow the shortnose sturgeon to spawn and ensure its larvae can develop in the cobbles at an ancient river pool in that impoverished reach.

Flow starved Connecticut River at the Rock Dam–critical shortnose sturgeon spawning and rearing site, May 13, 2018. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer All Rights Reserved.

Back in 1967, when four New England states and these agencies signed the “Statement of Intent for the Cooperative Fishery Restoration Program for the Connecticut River Basin,” they projected some 38,000 salmon would return annually to this four-state ecosystem. For salmon, a pinnacle of sorts was reached in 1981, when 592 were tallied passing Holyoke. But for a hybrid fish whose wild prototype disappeared 160 years prior, it was downhill from there. Most years fewer than 100 salmon returned to the river.

That 1967 agreement also set annual run targets of one million American shad heading upstream, with 850,000 shad passing Turners Falls and 750,000 entering Vermont and New Hampshire habitats above Vernon Dam. The highest shad return saw 720,000 passing Holyoke in 1992. Sadly, they’ve never made it much farther.

The Run Stops in Massachusetts.

Just 36 miles upstream of Holyoke, all semblance of a successful restoration ends when the annual shad run reaches Turners Falls Dam. Of the 537,000 shad that passed Holyoke in 2017, just 48,000 — a mere 9% — squeezed back into the river beyond Turners Falls.

Vernon Dam between Vernon VT and Hinsdale NH, March 2020. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer

The annual inversion at the next upstream dam in Vermont illustrates the perils on this broken river. In 2017 29,000 or 59% of the shad that survived the miseries of Turners Falls were subsequently counted passing Vernon Dam, 20 miles upriver. That inverted interstate ratio has been the case since 1975, with few shad managing to break out beyond the brutal ecosystem conditions in Massachusetts.

Why the Restoration Failed

The current restoration, congressionally authorized in 1967 and still operating today under the moniker of the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, made their biggest blunder in 1975 when they signed off on new license requirements for upstream fish passage. They ultimately chose a design based on hydro project fish ladders on Washington State’s giant Columbia River, known for huge Pacific salmon runs. What got built was a three-ladder fish passage that forced all migrants out of their ancient river highway and into the byzantine maze of the company’s power canal, while leaving two miles of riverbed all but emptied of flow.

Scaled down and put in place at Turners Falls, it worked fine for the program’s few successfully returning hybrid salmon but failed immediately for 95% of the hundreds of thousands of migrating shad. No big run has ever passed that site, leaving three states without their promised bounties. Vermont and New Hampshire remain this river’s shad deserts today.

The Prescription

It’s now 2020. At this late date, corporate re-registrations can’t hide what’s legally required and a half-century overdue on New England’s river. The last opportunity to undo those festering mistakes for the Connecticut now rest in the hands of the National Marine Fisheries Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Massachusetts Division of Fish and Wildlife. They are the people’s gatekeepers, mandated to guard the public trust — agencies with the authority to change to the generations-old crippling conditions here in Massachusetts.

Across 45 years of tracking fish runs passing upstream at successive dams on the Connecticut, shad counts have averaged 315,369 at Holyoke, 17,579 at Turners Falls, and just 9,299 at the Vernon Dam in Vermont. But recently long-term federal and state studies on passage and juvenile survival for American shad have led to new minimum benchmarks for fish passage at each dam to ensure the long-term survival of the river’s runs.

Using those findings, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, National Marine Fisheries Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the four states have formally adopted new Connecticut River fish passage goals. They include annual minimums of 687,000 shad passing Holyoke, 297,000 passing Turners Falls, and 227,000 at Vernon Dam annually. Those federal and state targets are now part of the public record in the current FERC relicensings. Their implementation would also ensure the endangered shortnose sturgeon gets the flows needed to begin its recovery here.

It’s time to return flow to the Connecticut River below Turners Falls. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer All Rights Reserved.

The time has come for facilities operating and profiting off the life of New England’s river to come into compliance with the laws of the land, including the Supreme Court’s 1872 finding in Holyoke Company v. Lyman, the Anadromous Fish Conservation Act of 1965, the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and a host of others. For the fisheries agencies charged with protecting a river’s bounty, standing up for their implementation is the sole prescription for success in a four-state restoration undertaken when back Lyndon Johnson was president.

By law, by right and by the public trust, the Connecticut River’s time has come.

Karl Meyer has been a member of the Fish & Aquatics Studies Team and an intervener in the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission relicensing process for three Massachusetts facilities on the Connecticut River since 2012. He lives in Greenfield, Massachusetts. Meyer is a member of The Society of Environmental Journalists.

* * FINAL NOTE from the author: if all this history is new and troubling to you it must be considered that: this is the only river in the Northeast with several federal designations that has remained the only major waterway without an independent and effective watchdog–one with a full legal team on staff, and a mandate to investigate, enforce, and go to court. The generations-long mistakes and brutal conditions that have existed here would’ve long ago been challenged in court had there been an effective organization protecting the integrity of this river system. If the Connecticut River is to have a future as a living ecosystem, a new model will have to come into being.

A RIVER in HEATSTROKE: A Photo Portrait on July’s Hottest Day

Posted by on 21 Jul 2020 | Tagged as: Clean Water Act, climate-destroying, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Conte National Fish & Wildlife Refuge, endangerd shortnose sturgeon, Endangered Species Act, FirstLight, Great Falls, Peskeomscutt Island, Rock Dam, Silvio O. Conte Connecticut River National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Geological Survey's Conte Fish Lab, Vermont

A RIVER in HEATSTROKE: A Photo Portrait on July’s Hottest Day
Story and pictures Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

The above photo of the “Great Falls” at Turners Falls was taken at approximately 6:45 am, on July 19, 2020, the hottest day on a boiling-out planet this year. The riverbed below was simply left to bake in this reach until just after 4 pm. (CLICK x 3 to enlarge; BACK ARROW to return)
Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

I continued downstream on this, the most critical and imperiled reach in the entire Silvio O. Conte National Fish & Wildlife Refuge, through the two desperate miles of abused river channal, all the way to the Rock Dam, critical spawning site for the federally endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon.

Locked-down river, starved in front of the “tainter gates” on the Gill side of the river. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


The stilled-water graveyard, just downstream of the TF Dam on the Gill side of the Connecticut. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Starving, de-oxygenated river on the Turner Falls side, looking downstream, with Peskeomscutt Island–now, no longer an island, de-watered and attached by tilted shales to the land. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


The entire flow of the Connecticut (save for a dribble of 125 cubic feet per second mandated to enter from a chute 100 feet downstream of the dam to keep shortnose sturgeon from stranding and dying in the baking pools) is shunted into the muck and sludge accumulating Turners Falls power canal. Pictured here, the canal downstream adjacent to Cabot Woods, back in 2009, the last time it was mucked out by the heavy machinery pictured. (Click x3)
Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


Here is the same area, pictured above, with the shunted Connecticut flow moving listlessly by the sludge-catching silt banks on the morning of July 19, 2020. This is the canal and just part of the grim habitats that ALL migratory fish must must face before emerging upstream of Turners Falls Dam. USGS Conte Fish Lab is visible in the background. Few fish ever manage to survive the puzzled and emerge to spawn in wide open upstream habitats stretching beyond Bellows Falls VT. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Another look from a similar vantage with the Fish Lab in the background and a grim canal substituted for a living river. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


View from the opposite side–from the rail trail, July 19, 2020. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


And, lastly, just some of the Campbell’s Tomato Soup-looking sludge bleeding down FirstLight’s failing riverbanks at Cabot Woods–adjacent to their sludge-choked canal, and into the endangered shortnose sturgeon’s Rock Dam spawning site and nursery for developing young on July 19, 2020. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


A closer look, 07/19/2020. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


And another, 07/19/2020. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


And, just yards away, the slurry connection–where the grim soup enters the most critically endangered site in the entire river ecosystem: the Rock Dam, on July 19, 2020. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

That riverbank soup was already assaulting Rock Dam habitats back in September 2019. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Ten months has passed since this photo was taken. The banks continue to fail, the site continues to be assaulted through pollution, and outright neglect and flaunting a ESA protections.
Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

REIMAGINING A RIVER, Part 2: Not Nearly Hydro Power; Not Renewable Energy

Posted by on 17 Jun 2020 | Tagged as: American shad, B. D. Taubert, Clean Water Act, climate-destroying, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Conservancy, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Connecticut River Watershed Council, Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, FERC, FirstLight, Fracked Gas, GHG, Hudson Riverkeeper, ISO New England, ISO-NEW ENGLAND, Mike Dadswell, Natural Gas, Nepool, Nepool, Phil Glick, Sam Lovejoy, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, Uncategorized, Waterkeeper Alliance

THIS GREAT AND BROKEN RIVER VII

Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Issue # 7, Part 2, REIMAGINING A RIVER: Not Nearly Hydro Power; Not Renewable Energy, Northfield Mountain’s Transition from Nuclear-fueled Net-loss Energy to Natural and Fracked Gas Net-loss Energy.

Author’s Notes: It is impossible to write at this time without mentioning the obvious. The country is in a moral crisis right now and it is time to stand up for the rights of Black people, and for the survival–and revival, of our democracy. This is a precious opportunity, one that we squander at our peril.

In the river-keeping world, there is also an opportunity for change that must be grasped now. The relicensing of MA CT River hydro and pumped storage projects is quietly moving toward its end game. A new model for protecting the ecosystem for coming generations is imperative. These licenses will govern conditions on the mainstem river for decades to come, and there is not a credible organization on the ground here that’s up to the task. The link below was forwarded to me. This is what’s called for. It will take hard work, money, and organizing. I hope there are those out there ready to contribute for the love of New England’s Great River.

https://waterkeeper.org/news/waterkeeper-alliance-to-appear-in-the-visionaries-series-on-pbs/


9-6-2010: Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station under EPA Sanction for violations of the Clean Water Act forced to dredge the hundreds of tons of muck they dumped into the River over a 3 month span.Photo-Copyright-©-2020-by-Karl-Meyer All Rights Reserved. (Click X3 to enlarge, use back arrows to return to text)

The Connecticut River has been running in reverse in northern Massachusetts for nearly half a century now. Daily at Northfield—125 miles from Long Island Sound, New England’s Great River is strangled away from its ancient gravitational course and literally forced to run counter to its nature. It’s not some bizarre phenomena related to distant tides, nor even some twisted water park trick. It’s caused by the lethal, ecosystem choking mechanisms of the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station.

That river suction and reversal is the by-product of a massive, net-energy-loss, power re-generation scheme begun in the early 1970s. Originally running on the profligate excesses of nuclear power, today NMPS plugs in daily to suck giant streams of climate heating, natural-gas- produced megawatts from a bloated New England power grid. By yanking the river backward, Northfield’s huge energy and water appetite results in damage across parts of three states. Just a fraction of its ecosystem impacts have ever been fully measured and understood.

Since 1972 there’s been just seven months out of one year where those impacts were silenced. Beginning in May of 2010–and for the first time in the decade after Massachusetts implemented electricity deregulation, American shad passage at the Turners Falls Dam showed dramatically, exponentially, renewed signs of life. The big mystery was: why?

EPA-ordered Dredge Spoil Dump Site Mountain on Rt. 63 site after NMPS choked on its own silt and shut down for 7 months. Today that scar is covered by a friendly looking solar array. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer (Click x3 to enlarge, back arrows to return)

By June of that spring, with the abrupt silencing of grim river conditions created by Northfield’s massive sucking and surging, 5 miles upstream of Turners Falls Dam, the rising shad passage results could not be ignored. Fish passage in the river and up through the power canal past that dam was already known to be sorely impacted by the annual deluge-and-dearth flows that Northfield visited on the Connecticut. Without its suck and surge, ecosystem conditions changed immediately. Shad passage at Turners Falls soared to more than 500% above the average for the prior decade. And, no surprise, the New England power grid worked just fine without the daily addition of Northfield’s costly peak inputs.

The Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project was designed as a net-power-loss, buy-low/sell-high, money-making cousin to the now-closed Vermont Yankee nuclear plant. It was built to profit by piggy-backing on VY’s nightly over-bloat of cheap, excess megawatts. With VY as its engine, Northfield started massively twisting the Connecticut into a broken, reversing knot in northern Massachusetts, 125 miles from the sea.

When it came on-line in 1972, NMPS corralled for its use a full 20 miles of river—slowed and stilled behind the Turners Falls Dam all the way into southern Vermont and New Hampshire at Vernon Dam. Since that time it’s been yanking the Connecticut’s currents into reverse and sideways daily, ultimately sucking them a mile uphill into their 4 billion gallon reservoir via net-loss grid megawatts. But with Vermont Yankee closed in 2014, Northfield is today juicing an ecosystem by gorging on climate changing, natural gas produced megawatts–which is what now powers half of all New England’s energy consumption. And, ironically, the bulk of traditional hydropower consumed in this six-state region is actually produced hundreds of miles away in Canada.

Plugged-in to run via four giant, reversible turbines, the Federal Power Commission in 1972 sanctioned NMPS to operate as a net-loss emergency back-up and peak demand regeneration appliance. It would do so by consuming 25% percent—or at times over 30% more, electricity than it would ever later re-feed into the power grid as peak-priced megawatts. After Northfield’s dumping in of its 6 hours of peak-priced, net-loss energy, it would then be completely dead-in-the-water and have to begin its daily cycle of gobbling up virgin grid juice to suction the river uphill again. Consumers would pay for Northfield’s privileged permission.

Upon start-up NMPS’s daily net-loss operations became the most disruptive and efficient fish killing machine in a four-state ecosystem. Northfield kills virtually everything it sucks into its turbines for hours at a time, drawing in at up to 15,000 cubic feet per second everything from tiny fish eggs to full-size American eels. That deadly draw is known as entrainment, with the result being all fish disappearing through its pumping turbines termed “functionally extirpated.” The daily carnage continues down to this day.


7-20-2010: Clouds of Silt Plume around a nearly-invisible French King Rock in the Connecticut River from FirstLight’s illegal silt dumping. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer (Click x3 to enlarge)

A 2016 FirstLight consultant’s study estimated NMPS’s operations resulted in the loss of just 2,200 juvenile American shad. Yet study results released in 2018 by the US Fish & Wildlife Service and MA Fisheries & Wildlife estimated the carnage from a year of Northfield’s operations was massively higher. Their study estimated a single year loss of 1,029,865 juvenile shad. And that’s for just one of four migratory fish species subject to its suction annually—the others are American eel, blueback herring and sea lamprey. Consider then, that there are another 20 resident fish species sharing that same Northfield reach of the Connecticut, plus recent findings that federally endangered shortnose sturgeon may also be present. The more NMPS runs, the more life it kills.

As far as Northfield’s massive energy consumption impact goes, here are a few recent statistics: In 2018 FirstLight reported to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that NMPS consumed 1.205 billion Gross Kilowatt Hours pumping the river backward and uphill to its reservoir. After doing so, it later reproducing just 907 million GKH of peak-priced power. In the following year, 2019, NMPS consumed 1.114 billion GKHs, while only actually regenerating just 828 million GKHs to send back through the wires.

The tritium-leaking Vermont Yankee Nuclear Station closed in 2014, putting an end to its 42 year run of heating up the Connecticut River—but leaving in its wake a deadly thousand-year legacy of high-level radioactive waste. Since that time NMPS’s net-loss megawatts have transitioned from running on nuclear to being the ugly by-product of sucking in the climate-changing megawatts from a New England grid largely run via natural gas. Natural and fracked-gas today supply nearly half of all New England’s electric power. And Massachusetts, living far beyond its means, is the grid’s biggest customer.

The bloated power grid all that juice is relayed over is today run, supported and marketed by the likes of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, ISO-New England, Nepool, and a host of private corporate interests. The public is essentially shut out of both ISO-New England and Nepool decision making, as is the media. That is living proof of the failure of energy deregulation here. We’re failing our kids.

In that vein, there is another way to examine the absurdity of NMPS’s benefits vs. ecosystem impacts. FirstLight’s Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station’s annual net-loss-energy consumption largely erases the output of traditional, locally-produced Connecticut River hydropower from FirstLight’s own Turners Falls power canal and Cabot Station just downriver.
FirstLight’s 2018 actual hydropower operations 5 miles downstream at their power canal and Cabot Station reported generating 316 million Gross Kilowatt Hours of electricity. In 2019 FirstLight again reported on those hydro operations, which totaled 357 million GKHs. There was a 398 million GKH deficit produced by Northfield pumping the river uphill in 2018—used to later regenerate second-hand juice. That deficit erased nearly all 316 million GKH of the hydropower FirstLight produced downstream. In 2019, Northfield’s deficit of 286 million GKHs whittled the contribution of all Turners Falls hydro operations down to just 71 million GKH of the 357 it produced. The river and consumers pay dearly.

FERC, today, is comprised of just four commissioners, three of them Trump appointees who consistently vote to sanction big, climate-heating GHG extraction and export schemes for giant corporations. The lone Democrat, Phil Glick, is the sole voice calling on the Commission to consider climate impacts. Piggy-backing net-loss, river-killing power on top of imported, climate-destroying GHG generation is a grim business. FERC and ISO-New England have fashioned a huge, consumptive system where the public never has to give a thought to its unseen, climate-killing energy sources. Their scheme has blithely conditioned the public to always having at its fingertips a seemingly-limitless energy supply—deceptively cheap, always on hand, and available at a moment’s notice. By design here’s no thought process involved; no downside visible. That, in itself, is a crime against future generations.

In its current, over-bloated, over-subscribed power configuration, the New England power grid could run just fine without the daily depredations of NMPS’s peak use. Solar proliferation has recently resulted in the addition of 3400 megawatts of locally-produced renewable energy, nearly tripling the imported, 1100 MW of brief, peak, second-hand output from NMPS. Particularly in spring–when energy use is lowest and fish are migrating, spawning and a river is regenerating its life, Northfield’s deadly use should be limited to emergency output only. The carnage needs to stop.


9-3-2010: The Mountain of NMPS Dredged Sludge Growing along Rt. 63 after EPA’s Clean Water Act sanctions. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer (Click X3 to enlarge, back arrow to return)

Ironically, while Northfield Mountain was being proposed and ultimately built, a new coalition of anglers and environmentalists over on the Hudson River fought off plans for a similar pumped storage station proposed by energy giant Consolidated Edison in the late 1960s. That very public and consolidated action by citizens saved both the Hudson River and the top of scenic Storm King Mountain from becoming cogs in a killer machine like the one here. The on-the-ground result was ultimately an organization now known as Hudson Riverkeeper. Sadly, a similar battle wasn’t waged here to save the Connecticut. The top of Northfield Mountain was blasted to oblivion to create a 4 billion gallon reservoir and two massive, mile-long water shafts were sunk through rock to begin sucking up a river.

That failure to thwart Western Mass Electric/Northeast Utilities’ pumped storage scheme occurred even though the Connecticut River Watershed Council would be 20 years old in 1972 when NMPS finally plugged itself in. However, since that battle for the Hudson, the Hudson Riverkeeper and WaterKeeper alliances have blossomed into key organizations in ecosystem protection, proliferating and thriving via a very public investigation, enforcement and litigation model. They are upfront and vocal about consistently taking offending corporations to task and prosecuting them.

The only solace in the River’s history here in Northern Massachusetts is that the public got wise to the environment–and to the unending downsides of nuclear waste and building fleets of reactors and river diversions. In the early 1970s Northeast Utilities proposed another two nuclear plants, twins, both to be built on the Montague Plains. Their hot wastewater would be flushed into the nearby Connecticut River. They never got built.

On February 22, 1974, Sam Lovejoy of Montague Massachusetts set about loosening the bolts and toppling a Northeast Utilities weather testing tower, installed there to monitor winds to inform the planning layout for nuclear emergency evacuations—just in case there might be a little meltdown at the twin nuke site. That act of courage and civil disobedience, undertaken with deliberation and with an understanding of its potential civil consequences, bolstered a gathering opposition to the project. It ultimately helped galvanize a growing opposition to dozens of proposed reactors across the country.

It was a combination of that direct public opposition, Lovejoy’s protest and the subsequent discovery of larval shortnose sturgeon by research biologists Mike Dadswell and B.D.Taubert that ended what would today be yet another sprawling nuclear waste dump sitting above the Connecticut River. Again, a strong leadership role was not played by the Watershed Council. What ultimately made the difference was concise action, public engagement, and legal action in the courts. This was a victory for those who take full responsibility for the public turf they lay claim to.

The Connecticut River Watershed Council just recently became the Connecticut River Conservancy, but it still remains an organization laying claim to protecting the mainstem Connecticut across four states while not employing a single staff lawyer. Nor has it adopted a mission mandate to enforce and prosecute–continuing the model of a CRWC legacy dating back to 1952. The Connecticut River has long deserved better.