Connecticut River ecosystem

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AN INSENSITIVITY OF PLACE

Posted by on 29 May 2016 | Tagged as: 5-year FERC licensing process, AMC, American Whitewater, Appalachian Mountain Club, By Pass Reach, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Connecticut River Watershed Council, CRWC, Dead Reach, ecosystem, endangerd shortnose sturgeon, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FERC Comments, Gary Sanderson, Greenfield Recorder, New England FLOW, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, Rock Dam, Rock Dam Pool, Station 1, The Recorder, Turners Falls, Turners Falls dam, whitewater boating

An Insensitivity of Place

Copyright © 2016 by Karl Meyer (CLICK on any photo to ENLARGE)

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There’s a big difference between theory and practice. So too is there often a huge divide between what is said and what is done—and a giant gap between how you portray your intentions in writing, and how you actually carry yourself in the real world. The difference between those things is what most often turns out to be true.

At the Rock Dam, the endlessly-beleaguered and sole natural spawning site for the state- and federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon in the entire Connecticut River system, that difference came into high resolution last week. While I looked on four people in helmets and safety gear lumbered in a huge blue raft over the tiny, watered notch leading into that self-same shortnose sturgeon spawning pool. Four other decked-out compadres looked on admiringly from atop the low ledge that helped form this little ancient pool thousands of years back.

The “drop” for this joyride might have been a total of 4 feet at best, perhaps a third of the length of the giant boat. For any shortnose sturgeon that might have been using this unique ecological site to accomplish the most basic act of survival—spawning, it would’ve been the equivalent of the Starship Enterprise plopping down atop your kiddy pool party. Basically, party over. But hey, those fish are only the sole federally-endangered migratory species in the entire river. Hope you enjoyed the ridiculously short, half-second rush… Yahoo!

And the real kicker is, they were doing this within the known documented time-window at Rock Dam for shortnose sturgeon to be present and attempting to spawn successfully. This was a Sunday, but the previous Wednesday I’d seen rafts being trailered away from the site in the “Patch” section of Turners Falls. I didn’t quite put it together until Gary Sanderson’s column came out in The Recorder the next day, noting the obtuseness of rafters and kayakers he’d seen repeatedly making the same disrespectful maneuvers at Rock Dam earlier in the week.

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But here’s the theory and practice divide. During the current 5-year Federal Energy Regulatory Commission relicensing hearings for the Turners Falls and Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage projects, these whitewater groups have been at the table advocating for increased flows and access for the public on this short section of river. Chief among these have been American Whitewater and New England FLOW, with the Appalachian Mountain Club partnered with the Connecticut River Watershed Council submitting formal testimony in favor of whitewater boating interests here.

AMC and the Watershed Council in submitted testimony are advocating opening up this most-biologically-damaged stretch of the river for the last half century to increased access at three sites over a tiny reach that is just 2.7 miles long: “Improvements would need to be made to a put-in at the upstream end of the run downstream of Turners Falls dam, the take-out at Poplar Street, and access at No. 1 station and at the Rock Dam.” I wonder how many boats, rafts and cars per mile of river that constitutes.

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All groups in their statements and submitted testimony made reference to their concerns for the protection of aquatic habitats here, as well as adherence to the Clean Water Act in this Dead Reach stretch of the Connecticut that includes the extremely critical spawning habitat of the shortnose sturgeon—which consists solely of the small, semi-circular pool that forms below Rock Dam–along with its tiny little 4 foot drop. Shortnose congregate at Rock Dam for spawning from early April through the end of May. Let’s run giant rafts over them and invite crowds of kayakers to overwhelm the river and rocks here to demonstrate respect and concern for a river struggling for life here these last 50 years.

This is self-interested behavior only a little removed from that of the power companies, and, like the power companies, there is cash waiting in the wings for using the river in this most self-considered way. So, well done, whitewater boating interests! We at least now have a tiny picture of what your practice, rather than theory, might constitute. And, hey, did it ever cross your minds that some people actually consider the Rock Dam a sacred place..?

No “Springtime for Sturgeon in Holyoke…”

Posted by on 06 May 2016 | Tagged as: Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Endangered Species Act, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federal trust fish, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FERC, Holyoke Fish Lift, Holyoke Gas & Electric, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, National Marine Fisheries Service, NMFS, NOAA, Rock Dam, Rock Dam Pool, shortnose sturgeon, Turners Falls, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS

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HG&E’s Holyoke Dam with Mt. Tom in background(click to enlarge)

No “Springtime for Sturgeon in Holyoke…” Unenforced FERC License continues the woes for the Connecticut’s only federally endangered migratory fish

Copyright © 2016 by Karl Meyer

For endangered shortnose sturgeon on the Connecticut River this year has been the best thing and the worst thing to happen to them since 1849. In an infinitely promising development over a dozen sturgeon(13 thus far)have found their way into the retooled Holyoke Fish Lift this spring—and all were lifted 30 feet toward upstream spawning habitats at the facility. However, in a most ugly turn of events for a creature listed under the Endangered Species Act since 1967, every one of those sturgeon was subsequently dropped back downstream by humans working there. They literally gained ten yards… after 167 years. Sorry kids, wait ‘til next year–or maybe the one after that.

In 2002 Holyoke Gas and Electric was issued a FERC license under which they were required to complete construction of a fish lift providing up- and downstream access for endangered sturgeon by 2008. FERC, responsible for enforcing those license requirements as well as the tenets of the ESA, failed to enforce their requirements, leaving those improvements unconstructed, year after year. The National Marine Fisheries Service, US Fish & Wildlife Service, and MA Division of Fisheries & Wildlife sat on their hands respecting their responsibilities to act. Nor did any so-called “watchdog” group fulfill their role–to make the enforcers enforce.

This was just the latest failure in a foundering Connecticut River ecosystem steered by money and politics rather than legal obligations, science, and enforcement of the public trust. Just consider that one of the Connecticut River Watershed Council’s Board Members has worked for Holyoke Gas & Electric at their fish lift for a decade… Then consider the resounding silence on enforcement.

This year–a full 9 springs beyond their license obligations, HG&E finally completed that mandated construction at the Holyoke Fish Lift. That says a mouthful about FERC, their licensing process, private industry, and whether anyone is actually protecting the public’s fish and river.

Grimly this spring, when the most sturgeon embarking on upstream spawning runs since the building of the railroads made it to the top of those South Hadley Falls, all were captured and “released downstream” of Holyoke Dam. This bit of brilliance comes via the orders—or lack thereof, of NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service. Their failure to act again denies any new genetic input into the tiny upstream population keeping this species’ flickering spark alive across the centuries up at their sole natural spawning site, the Rock Dam in Turners Falls.

Below Holyoke, generation after generation of these long-lived fish have been relegated to simply growing to maturity, repeatedly attempting to return upstream, and ultimately expiring without ever having the chance to pass on their genes. That goes back to the time of President Zachery Taylor.

In one very cruel act of fate, any shortnose sturgeon finding themselves downstream of the newly constructed Holyoke Dam in 1849, were forever barred from reaching their sole natural spawning site in the river system—that ancient Rock Dam pool in Turners Falls. What that has meant is that hundreds upon hundreds of these fabulously evolved fish–across more than a century and a half, have been relegated to the status of “reproductive nulls,” unable to spawn in their natal river system.

Pick your favorite bad actor in this failed scenario–there are a half-dozen choices.

Missing camera in missing river

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Redeem the promise at Great Falls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Karl Meyer
Greenfield

Greening Greenfield’s “Green Hero” for September

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

Greening Greenfield’s “Green Hero” for September

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

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

A special thanks from me to Susan and Dorothy.

Text of The Recorder piece follows:

A Passion for the Connecticut River

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sucking out the river’s life

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

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

Sucking out the river’s life

Copyright © 2015 by Karl Meyer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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)

On “false attraction” at Turners Falls

Posted by on 24 May 2015 | Tagged as: American shad, canal shad, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, False attraction, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, FERC, FERC licensing process, FirstLight, Fish passage results, Holyoke Fish Lift, New Hampshire, Relicensing, Rock Dam, Rock Dam Pool, shad, shad fishing, Station 1, Test flows, Turners Falls, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, Vermont

On “false attraction” at Turners Falls

No, this is not about sex—well OK, maybe a little. But it’s different than how you might see someone 200 yards up the trail and think, “Wow, looking good!”—only to discover on a closer pass that they are a different sex than the one that drives you, or they are decades older or younger than the person you were expecting to see. This is about spawning though—about squashing the spawning efforts of migratory fish.

False Attraction Flow is a phenomenon where migratory fish follow flows upstream that lead them to impassable barriers. These flows are created by flood and head gate releases at dam and canal sites, and they keep wild fish expending precious energy that would otherwise be used to swim to upstream river reaches to spawn.

5/24/2015 Today, FERC Relicensing Study test flow releases to the riverbed at Turners Falls Dam are set at 2,500 cubic feet per second. The weather is clear, warm.
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At 1p.m. I visit the ancient Rock Dam site on the Connecticut, where three people are fishing—a woman and two young men. The woman has just landed a shad. She has not been here long.

One young guy is just upstream. He says he’s been getting some hits, but nothing landed. He notes that he’s also a recent arrival.

I clamber up the cliff that looks down on the Rock Dam Pool. Shad are looping by in a constant stream, visible just to the outer edge of the bubbly rip. The light is so good I can see them almost straight down beneath me, as they are only five feet out from the cliff face at times. What is also apparent is that some turn back after making the approach to the whitewater that would take them through notches they must best to pass this natural falls. I see many turn in the current–cutting back against the school, then milling for a bit in the current.
(Below, is the flow downstream, away from Rock Dam–two people with fish poles are in kayaks)
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All the while, the stream of shad beneath me trying to find a way upstream is constant. Always a run of more fish—ten, twenty–hard to get a count as they spurt along. The spectacle is reminiscent of the old medieval representation of the ocean’s fish in constant circulation around the globe. Here, they simply keep appearing in an endless line. There is no telling if the 2,500 cfs is just too low for them to risk the rough, rocky edges of the Rock Dam’s clefts to move ahead. They get lost from view in the bubbly current. What it appears like, overall, is that these fish are stuck—streaming in, agitated to move upstream, but not finding a clear path forward at this flow.

I toss a question over to the furthest guy upstream near the headwaters over this basalt rock face. He says he’s seeing plenty of fish, but hasn’t brought in one yet.

On the way out I ask the woman if she’s going to cook up the good-sized shad she has laid out in the shallows. “Will you slow cook it?” I ask, “Or do you know how to dress them?” She is going to cook it up, but describes a method of cutting through center, just to get out some of those hundreds of delicate bones, and then toasting it up. “After it’s done, you can just get in there and get at the meat with a spoon.”

She asks me where my rod and reel are, and I tell her I’m really here to document flows—so that maybe someday we can all count on fish being here. I continue up the beach. “I’m hoping when I open this one there are some eggs in there,” she says, motioning over at her catch. She’d be delighted to fry up some roe. “Yea, that’s a pretty big fish,” I say, “I’m guessing it’s a female.” I bid her good luck for the day.

I get back on my bike and follow the Turners Falls Power Canal all the way upstream through The Patch section of Turners, and then down past Station 1–FirstLight’s small hydro generating site located on a dog-leg off the main canal. There’s a lone car down the paved drive that leads to the fishing access. When I scoot down to look over, the tailrace at Station 1 is charged with current. FirstLight is generating at this site, despite the test flow requirement that water only be released from the Turners Falls Dam at the 2,500 cfs level today. This will corrupt and skew fish passage study results.
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I walk down and meet the young guy fishing just off the edge of Station 1’s frothy spillway. James is from Greenfield, and “yup,” he fishes the site pretty regular. He’s just finished landing one. It’s unceremoniously laid out in the sandy silt. Smallish. “When there’s water here there are always fish,” he notes. I ask him if he wouldn’t mind my snapping a few photos and he’s fine with it, “You’re not in my way.” He points to the water, not a few feet out from where he is, “You see them all there?” I look, but don’t see much but shadowy, sun-dappled water. I stare a bit more, then start snapping pictures of the flows.
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When I come back down from near the tailrace I look again in the current. This time my angle to the sun is better. There are the shad. Dozens of them, stacked up in the current facing upstream into an endless, impassable sheet of water. “Now I see them,” I say, “Too bad they aren’t going anywhere.” “Yea,” James notes, “they are just stuck here.” I snap a photo of his dusty catch and wish him luck for the day.
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As I come up to the road from Station 1 there are two young boys, maybe eleven or twelve years old, walking along with poles and fishing tackle. They appear to be headed further on, to try their luck in the canal dog-leg. “Hey, what are you guys going after, shad?” “Anything!” they both say in concert. “If you head just down there,” I say, pointing, “There’s a guy just caught one. There’s dozens of fish waiting in the current—you can look right down and see them.” A quick glimmer passes between them, and they say thanks, heading down the driveway. “There’s a bit of poison ivy on the path. Watch for it.” I call, riding away.

I continue up to the Turners Falls Dam, where the flow is still at 2,500 cfs, the lowest test flow setting. There were not supposed to be any other intervening flows confounding these tests all the way downstream to the end of the power canal. The only time Station 1 is supposed to be operating during test flows is when dam releases ramp up to 6,300 cfs. The Fisheries and Aquatics Studies Team had worked out the schedule with FERC, and FirstLight agreed to it. This appears to be a clear violation of study protocols, and it throws into question fish passage results here.
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I cross the road on the Turners Falls Bridge, and peer over the side just downstream of the dam. A few people are fishing in the flow next to the Spillway Fish Ladder. I yell down to the closest angler. He’s fairly close to where Bascule Gate 1 is pouring down those 2,500 cfs. He doesn’t hear me over the rush of water. I yell again; he looks all around—then, on the third time, he looks up. I’m maybe 80 feet above him and we can’t really converse. “How is it?” yell, mimicking with the thumbs up/thumbs down gesture. At first he doesn’t pick it up, but when I do it again, he gives the thumbs down.

I’m not surprised. With all the false attraction flow at the Rock Dam Pool from the added water released by FirstLight at Station 1, there is little flow here in the broad reach of the Connecticut that would temp fish away from treading water at those sites into these thin upstream currents. The fish are basically being tricked; they are expending precious energy that could be used to get upstream to Vermont and New Hampshire just running down their batteries downstream. Imagine treading water on an aquatic, industrial treadmill that’s trying to lure them into a power canal. If you are a Vermont or New Hampshire angler, just understand that these swam their little fins off trying to spawn up on your stretch of river. The lure of false attraction just got the better of them.
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When I take a look at the head gates at the head of the Turners Falls Canal they appear all but quiet, save for the bubbling attraction currents that help lead fish into the Gatehouse Fishway —the place where the public will see them passing. The main and only place where these fish are getting a substantial upstream current that leads to this site is…yup!—2-1/2 miles downstream at the tail end of the power canal at Cabot Station. That’s likely where these fish are really being attracted–and tallied, as some that are actually radio-tagged for these studies are being registered. Humn! That would certainly skew study results toward fish “preferring” the canal…

There’s a long tradition among American shad themselves–and the fisheries biologists that have studied fish passage at Turners Falls over the decades. Study results sometimes show a remarkable uptick in fish passage at the Turners Falls Fishway on holiday weekends when the public is most likely to visit. The fish just seem to just know exactly when it’s Memorial Day Weekend. Even in those years when passage is poor for most of the month of May, those shad seem to just love to appear in the fishway windows at the holiday weekend. It’s uncanny how the fish know. Ironic, really. Not like they are being manipulated…

What would also be uncanny would be if FirstLight had their “most successful canal passage year” ever–right at the time when the studies that impact relicensing flows are taking place. Last year, when 370,000 shad were lifted past Holyoke Dam, just 39,914 made it out of the canal and upstream past Turners Falls Dam. Not a great number. In 2013, when 381,436 shad were passed upstream at Holyoke, just 35,124 made it out of the canal and upstream past Turners Falls. A slightly worse number.

For the last 15 years the canal route for migratory fish has been studied and “improved” for fish passage. Today’s numbers are still pretty much junk.

As a final testament to the lack of progress let’s go back almost a quarter century: in 1991 the Holyoke Fish Lift passed 520,000 American shad upstream. Of those, 54,656 shad managed to emerge, alive, upstream of the Turners Falls Canal and dam, to swim toward Vermont and New Hampshire spawning site.

Thus, a quarter-century later, migrating American shad here are still “partying like its 1991.” False attraction–and false solutions, are very closely related here at Turners Falls. Study results are compromised.

Vermont, New Hampshire, sorry but as an ecosystem, we are still broken up. Just know this: “It’s not you, it’s US!”

Bald eagles; canal shad and anglers up-close; fishy fishway windows

Posted by on 23 May 2015 | Tagged as: American shad, bald eagle, canal shad, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Conte, CRASC, Dead Reach, Federal Conte Anadromous Fish Research Center, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, fishway windows, National Marine Fisheries Service, New Hampshire, NMFS, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, power canal studies, Rock Dam, Rock Dam Pool, shad, shad fishing, Turners Falls, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, US Geological Service’s Silvio O. Conte Anadromous Fish Lab, USFWS, Vermont

May 23, 2015. Turners Falls, MA. The test flows at Turners Falls Dam are now tamped down to 2,500 cubic feet per second. Thus anglers had given up fishing the riverbed below the dam yesterday(Friday) morning. However, the head gates beside the dam were open, releasing water at a good clip to course down the Turners Falls Power Canal. With little flow moving fish upstream in the actual river, it is commonly accepted knowledge that this forces fish to default to where they will find stronger upstream current to attract them. In this case that means a place 2-1/2 miles back downstream in the Dead Reach–the terminus of the canal at Cabot Station, where the power company dumps the river back into… the river. Thus, the canal becomes the impoverished, default habitat for migratory fish, attracted via privately- controlled flows that can be manipulated by dam operators. Thus, on Friday, just down from those head gates was the place where a few anglers gathered to fish the canal–just down the paved path to the low bridge behind the Great Falls Discovery Center.
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These gents were fishing shad that are part of the US Fish & Wildlife Service and the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission’s 1967 fisheries restoration mandate to move migratory fish upstream into New Hampshire and Vermont–to create a source of “seafood” for the public. These American shad, in Latin Alosa sapidissima–or “most delicious herring” were going to be eaten.
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With the main attraction flow coming from the downstream end of the power canal, it was primarily company flow through that conduit that was affecting upstream fish movements. Friday morning that flow was facilitating good numbers of fish in the viewing windows at Turners Falls Dam. The public’s fish and river should never be left in the private control of a corporation. That situation has resulted in the Black Hole of fish passage all these decades: the fish never reach Vermont and New Hampshire, and no one knows their fate after all upstream migrants are forced to enter the Turners Falls Power Canal.
A mile and a half downstream, there were two other potential anglers–perched in a cottonwood above the partially-flowing Connecticut’s riverbed. At just 2,500 cfs, they may have been licking their lips over fish that were confused or slowed and turning back in the river due to the withering upstream current. Slowed or stalled fish make for good eagle forage.
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Another half mile on down the river fishermen at The Rock Dam Pool were also happy to try and take advantage of a slowed or confused migration at this ancient site. Looking down from the rock ledge at the head of the pool, shad could be seen streaming through the water just 10 feet out. They moved by in tens and fives and dozens, but there was no way to discover whether they were milling through the edges of that frothy pool and simply returning to be seen again in an endless circling, or whether they were trying to shoot through one of the upstream notches in flows that were diminished by reductions at the dam.P1000433P1000432
Lastly, on “Migratory” Way, just down the canal past the USGS Conte Anadromous Fish Research Center, a crew of Conte fisheries people were inside FirstLight’s gates at the Cabot Hydro Station on the canal. USGS and the power company owners of the canal have been very close friends for decades now. Lab staff have worked for years on endless canal studies subsidized by Northeast Utilities, then NGS, and–of late, GDF-Suez FirstLight. Funny, though USGS holds the only National Marine Fisheries Service permit to study federally endangered shortnose sturgeon right here on the Connecticut, no study or tagging of sturgeon was done at all this year at their only documented natural spawning site–the Rock Dam Pool, just yards away from Conte Lab. And this, in a critical year of FEDERAL RE-LICENSING STUDIES.
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The folks in this picture are likely doing studies on migrating American eels. Power companies tend not to mind this type of work–as eels are difficult to study, they don’t spawn in the Connecticut River and thus are not an angler concern, and putting in “eelways”–which are wonderfully inexpensive, is a dirt cheap way to look “environmental” in the marketplace. Just as USGS Conte staff did endless canal studies with corporate study cash for decades on the TF Canal, they may be embarking on yet another cozy partnership, where years of data collection can be corporately subsidized, while true flows and fish passage upstream in the broken Connecticut River ecosystem through the Dead Reach here–and north past the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, gets ignored.
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The Turners Falls Power Canal’s emergency spillway chute and a portion of its failed fishway are pictured here, with a bit of Cabot Power Station in the background.

Shad fishing reported as excellent below Turners Falls

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

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

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

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

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

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