Connecticut River migratory fisheries restoration

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“Clean, renewable” labels don’t apply

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

Copyright © 2018 by Karl Meyer All Rights Reserved.

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

TERMS OF ENTRAINMENT: a Connecticut River History


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

END

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

VALID LICENSE REQUIRED

Posted by on 14 Jun 2018 | Tagged as: 5-year FERC licensing process, American shad, Connecticut River, Connecticut River migratory fisheries restoration, federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeion, FERC, Fish and Aquatics Study Team, National Marine Fisheries Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, New Hampshire, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, shortnose sturgeon, Society of Environmental Journalists, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS, Vermont

Copyright © 2018 by Karl Meyer

(Note: the following piece appeared under “News Analysis” on the front page of The Montague Reporter‘s May 24, 2018 issue. www.montaguereporter.org)

VALID LICENSE REQUIRED

Is FirstLight Power Resources attempting an end run around the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission relicensing process for its Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage station on the Connecticut River? FirstLight’s parent owner, Canada’s Public Sector Pension Investments, is now offering up use of the giant power re-generation and transfer machine in a bidding process that won’t begin delivering electricity until 2023. The actual bidder is Deepwater Wind, in a partnership with British energy giant National Grid. One option included in their proposal is to relay clean, renewable wind power generated off Martha’s Vineyard, 125 miles across New England to be stored for peak-price regeneration back into the grid at Northfield. This offer is being floated despite the fact that NMPS won’t have a new FERC license requiring long-overdue river protections under federal and state environmental law until at least mid-2019.


Above: surface boom on the Connecticut at the intake of the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station which inhales the river at 15,000 cubic feet per second for hours on end. Results are the “functional extirpation” of all aquatic life pulled in–ultimately shot twice through the turbines on a Northfield Mountain sleighride. It’s sucking vortex reaches over halfway across the Connecticut. (Click, click again, and AGAIN to enlarge).

For 46 years Northfield Mountain has lived off the Connecticut River, its operations subsidized at public expense by the host of deadened aquatic life it chokes from a four-state ecosystem. Just days from now Massachusetts officials are expected to choose among a handful of proposals for the future delivery of up to 1600 future megawatts of “clean, renewable” wind power. But would an agreement including NMPS be legal and binding without a full vetting and understanding of those future license requirements for coming decades? Wouldn’t it be subject litigation by the state and federal agencies now working on studies and agreements for that license? Is there any connection to this proposal with the all-but-secret Valentine’s Day visit by embattled EPA chief Scott Pruitt and FERC Commissioner Neil Chatterjee with NMPS officials?

There’s great irony in this proposed “clean energy” marriage-of-convenience, given that NMPS virtually kills all life it encounters by sucking the Connecticut backward, aside and uphill at the ponderous rate of 15,000 cubic feet per second. Think 15,000 milk crates each second for hours at a time. Everything from tiny fish eggs to adult resident and migratory fish get sent on a two mile-long Northfield Mountain sleigh ride, twice through the turbines. The accepted term for everything drawn into that suction cone is “functionally extirpated.” Dead.

In 2010, Northfield sat stilled and broken for over half a year–sanctioned by the EPA for gross violation of the Clean Water Act and its FERC operating license. The region’s electric grid held together just fine, while American shad passage success skyrocketed at Turners Falls dam toward Vermont and New Hampshire. That migration run, profoundly impacted by NMPS operations, soared to 700 percent above the decade’s yearly averages.

Northfield’s extreme environmental downsides should render it an ineligible option for long-term, wind power storage at this time. A half decade from now, new distributed electricity generation and state-of-the-art micro-grid storage options will be standard configurations for combating the security risks of bulk grid power storage and climate disruption in energy delivery. Unlike pumped storage, these options will feature the instantaneous, millisecond reaction and response times necessary to balance computer-age power glitches.

Northfield, a one-trick pony, is a bulk system designed long ago to profit from a buy-low/sell-high scheme by running off the cheap, overproduced megawatts cranked out by the now-closed Vermont Yankee nuclear plant. In 2016, in the midst of relicensing, Canada’s PSP Investments became NMPS’s third venture capital purchaser in just over a decade. Today it runs on fossil fuel-produced electricity as it sucks massive gulps of the Connecticut into its 5 billion gallon reservoir. A hike to that reservoir will illustrate what the stilled-water sound of a silent spring is.

Little was known about Northfield’s deadly future when its construction began in 1967, in tandem with Vermont’s only nuclear plant. Despite that black hole, this plant that can literally suck the Connecticut into reverse for a mile downstream under low flow conditions began operating just 10 miles from the Vermont/New Hampshire border in 1972. The Federal Power Commission granted it what became a license to kill at public expense—without a basic knowledge of its crippling impacts on shad and blueback herring under the 1965 Anadromous Fish Conservation Act, or its role in imperiling the spawning success of the federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon under the Endangered Species Act.

When demand and prices are high, NMPS sends its deadened river water back downhill through the turbines again, cranking out a few hours of peak-priced, secondhand electricity in a final juicing of all it’s inhaled. That net-energy-loss process is wholly subsidized by mining the life from critical reaches of a four-state ecosystem. Once its reservoir is emptied, NMPS itself is literally dead in the water, and must import new, virgin electricity to begin the process again. Northfield is an energy consumer and will never produce a single watt of its own power. The more often it runs the more river life it will kill into the future.

FirstLight/PSP Investments would do well to understand their giant electric appliance cannot be relicensed without stakeholders–from federal and state fisheries agencies to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, ensuring a new license adheres to all federal and state environmental laws of the United States. Without a signed license, Bay State officials should leave this proposal on the table. There are other fish in the sea.

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

DON’T SHORT-SELL NEW ENGLAND’S GREAT RIVER

Posted by on 17 Mar 2017 | Tagged as: Alex Haro, American Whitewater, Andrew Fisk, Bob Nasdor, Caleb Slater, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River migratory fisheries restoration, Connecticut River Watershed Council, CRWC, Dr. Boyd Kynard, ecosystem, Endangered Species Act, ESA, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FERC, FERC licensing process, FirstLight, Holyoke Gas & Electric, John Warner, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, National Marine Fisheries Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, NMFS, NOAA, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, PSP Investments, public trust, Relicensing, Sean McDermott, Society of Environmental Journalists, The Nature Conservancy, Turners Falls, Turners Falls dam, US Fish & Wildlife Service, US Geological Survey

(Note: the following piece appeared in The Recorder, www.recorder.com, on March 11, 2017 under the heading: “Who will protect Connecticut River?”)

DON’T SHORT-SELL NEW ENGLAND’S GREAT RIVER

Copyright © 2017 by Karl Meyer

Canadian investors are looking to purchase the Connecticut River for a few decades, cheap and quick. Canada’s Public Sector Pension Investment Board bought up the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station and Turners Falls hydro complex last year as part of PSP Investments. Their New England power play comes in the middle of the 5-year relicensing process for both facilities. That Federal Energy Regulatory Commission process will decide future conditions impacting this four-state ecosystem for decades.

The long-failed Cabot Station Fish Ladder on the Connecticut and competing flows flushing down the Turners Falls Power Canal’s Emergency Spillway. (Note:CLICK, THEN CLICK AGAIN TO ENLARGE.)

Thus, PSP may soon hold sway over what’s long been the most desolate 10-mile stretch of the entire Connecticut. It includes 2.1 miles of riverbed sitting empty for months at a time below Turners Falls Dam. It also includes the reach where, nearly 20 years back, federal fisheries expert Dr. Boyd Kynard found his boat being yanked backward—the Connecticut pulled into reverse by the suction of the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station while he was drifting for bass a mile downstream near the French King Bridge. Looked at fully, it encompasses the entire reach where a 50 year federal migratory fisheries restoration program has long foundered.

On March 7th, after four years of meetings, thousands of pages of reports–and with volumes of study information incomplete and disputed, owners of these FirstLight-branded facilities are hoping select interests agree to take licensing talks underground. They’ll be fishing for backroom deals at a Boston area hotel well before this process has had a full public vetting. FL wants to take this little party private, fast. They’re asking invitees to agree to an embargo on public information about settlement talks, positions and decisions.

The key phrase in their invitation reads: “Because this meeting is intended to initiate confidential settlement discussions, it will not be open to the press or general public.” That’s FirstLight’s Director of Massachusetts Hydro Gus Bakas. His selected invitees include the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration(Sean McDermott), US Fish & Wildlife Service(John Warner), US Geological Survey(Alex Haro), MA Fish & Wildlife(Caleb Slater), towns including Erving, Gill, Northfield, Montague, the Franklin Regional Council of Governments, The Nature Conservancy(Katie Kennedy), the Connecticut River Watershed Council(Andrew Fisk), and American Whitewater(Bob Nasdor).

That FirstLight stipulation is part of the quick-bait to get stakeholders thinking the time is right to cut deals. Sign-up, shut up; then we’ll talk. Cash out with what you can get for your agency, town, non-profit; or your fun-time rafting interests. Promises from this venture capitalist firm–in what’s become an ownership merry-go-round for these facilities, will surely all come true.

Ironically, many of these invitees descend directly from those who failed to step in and step up for the decimated river here decades back. They’re agencies and so-called watchdogs who failed to enforce laws and conditions negotiated when they were signatories to settlement talks for NMPS and Turners Falls nearly 40 years back–and for the 1999 FERC license negotiated for Holyoke Dam as well. At that site, Holyoke Gas & Electric just finally completed required improvements for endangered shortnose sturgeon last spring. Their license had mandated they be completed in 2008. Eight years, nine–no suits, no injunctions; no action.

Maybe that’s because the Watershed Council’s board chair works for HG & E, or because a significant number of board members are retirees from the region’s legacy power companies. Or, might it be because CRWC receives grant monies from National Marine Fisheries, US Fish & Wildlife, and MA Division of Fisheries, that these agencies were never taken to court for the withering spawning conditions and crippling flows experienced by federal trust American shad and federally endangered sturgeon in the reaches from Turners Falls to Northfield?

So who can our river look to for environmental protections under the National Environmental Policy Act, the Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Clean Water Act in the future?

Fourteen months remain in this relicensing. Key reports won’t be available until April, while other critical study information won’t be out until July. Some studies may need repeating. The best future for New England’s River will not be well served by quick-and-dirty agreements made in the shadows. Remember, Dear Stakeholders, it’s your names that will be forever associated with the conditions on a future Connecticut River—the river your grandchildren will be relying on. This is no time to sell the Connecticut short. What’s your price for a river’s soul?

Karl Meyer of Greenfield is on the Fish and Aquatics Study Team in the FERC relicensing for the Northfield Mountain and Turners Falls hydro facilities. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

(Note: Bob Nasdor is former director of the Massachusetts Commission on Open Government.)

END

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

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

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

Copyright © 2017 by Karl Meyer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

End

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

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

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

On Walking

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

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

dead-reach-ladder-and-canal

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

Copyright © 2016 by Karl Meyer

ON WALKING

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PHOTO: The Great Eddy at Bellows Falls today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

End

ONE WILDLY ILL-ADVISED RIDE

Posted by on 31 Jul 2016 | Tagged as: AMC, American Whitewater, Appalachian Mountain Club, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Connecticut River migratory fisheries restoration, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Connecticut River Watershed Council, CRWC, Dead Reach, Dr. Boyd Kynard, EOEEA, Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, Fish and Aquatics Study Team, GDF-Suez FirstLight, Jack Buckley, John Bullard, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, NMFS, NOAA, Regional Director of the National Marine Fisheries Service, Secretary Matthew Beaton, Society of Environmental Journalists, University of Massachusetts, US Fish & Wildlife Service, US Geological Survey's Conte Fish Lab, Wendi Weber

The following piece appeared in The Recorder, www.recorder.com on July 30, 2016, under the heading, “Rafting over prime sturgeon habitat unwise; State officials need to be smarter.”

Copyright © 2016 by Karl Meyer

ONE WILDLY ILL-ADVISED RIDE

A photo from May 25, 2016 posted on American Whitewater’s website shows Massachusetts’ Secretary of the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs Matthew Beaton and his staff lumbering across a small run of Connecticut River whitewater on a large raft. The short rapid they just surfed over is at a place called Rock Dam. It drops directly into a small, crescent-shaped pool–the sole natural spawning and nursery site for the federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon.

That Turners Falls site is the last place you’d want to see the Commonwealth’s highest environmental official rafting in May. Rock Dam is critical habitat for survival of the river’s most endangered migratory fish. There’s no other place like it in the ecosystem. It’s also where the state-endangered yellow lamp mussel was last recorded in this reach. Ecological protection is key to preserving the natural heritage there for future generations.

Why Secretary Beaton was at Rock Dam on the heels of the state’s failure to protect endangered timber rattlesnakes in their remaining habitat is a puzzlement. That site is literally where the Connecticut has long been left for dead. Each spring it is alternately starved and inundated—making spawning and survival of young for shortnose sturgeon nearly impossible. Rapid pumped storage hydro fluctuations also help make successful upstream passage for wild American shad, sea lamprey, and blueback herring a 1-in-10 proposition above Turners Falls.

The EOEEA was joyriding on “test” flows returned there specifically for environmental protection. They were meant to allow wild fish to reenter critical habitats where they might successfully gather; then spawn—in a natural pool that would subsequently nurture developing young in critical weeks lasting through mid-June. Those flows were delineated by John Bullard, Regional Director of the National Marine Fisheries Service, to not drop below minimum thresholds that would drive spawning sturgeon out. NMFS mandated the higher limits through June 3rd to ensure sturgeon had sufficient time there. That meant healing water for the most impoverished 2.7 miles of habitat on the entire 410 mile Connecticut.

The shortnose is a dinosaur-age fish—a yard-long creature with a shark-like tail and toughened leathery “scutes” instead of spindly scales. It’s the second species listed under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act, and the most exhaustively studied endangered migratory fish in the river. It has long had a federal recovery plan, one now including the boatload of science documenting building blocks necessary for its survival. None call for boaters bashing over them during spawning gatherings, or beaching in shallows where developing embryos shelter. If this iconic fish is ever to begin the road back from the brink of extinction, mandated protections and uninterrupted flows are critical at Rock Dam.

Dr. Boyd Kynard, formerly of the US Fish & Wildlife Service, the USGS Conte Lab and UMass, led the 17 years of studies that documented Rock Dam as the species’ sole natural spawning site in the ecosystem. He recently stated, “As to protection of the pre-spawning, spawning, and rearing area at Rock Dam, exclusion dates for boating should be the same as the dates for water flow, 15 March to 15 June.”

A “watered” Rock Dam had long-offered sturgeons a wide choice of depths and flow levels they could selectively adjust, and readjust to, when natural surface flow or river temperatures fluctuated beyond optimal conditions for spawning. And that cobble and sand pool was ideal for dispersing tiny eggs and young. Only when flow is present does Rock Dam regain its function as an ancient species shelter, protecting early life stages in currents circulating through cobbled shoals.

In the current 5-year Federal Energy Regulatory Commission relicensing process that will govern hydro operations and ecological conditions here for decades, the Connecticut River Watershed Council and Appalachian Mountain Club are jointly advocating new access points into this delicate habitat for whitewater interests. Both have sat at FERC hearings where Rock Dam has been delineated as critical habitat. In joint AMC-CRWC testimony to FERC they’ve argued their interests in increased flows stem from aquatic habitat concerns, as well as recreation desires. Yet it was AMC that posted dates of those ecological study flows to their website, urging whitewater enthusiasts to exploit them: “Fish Study to Provide Paddling Opportunities: May – June 2016”

Secretary Beaton needs better advice.

Several expert appointees represent the Commonwealth on the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission. Jack Buckley, Director of MA Fisheries and Wildlife studied Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon at UMass. Mr. Buckley’s Anadromous Fish Project Leader Caleb Slater is also well versed on critical Rock Dam habitat. And the US Fish & Wildlife’s Region 5 Director Wendi Weber also sits at that CRASC table. Dr. Weber studied shortnose sturgeon in Georgia’s rivers. Ultimately, turning a failing Connecticut River migratory fisheries restoration in Massachusetts into a success story will require government leaders embracing solid government science.

Karl Meyer is on the Fish and Aquatics Study Team for FERC hydro-relicensing studies of the Turners Falls and Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage projects. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

FISHY MISSING INFO

Posted by on 22 Jun 2016 | Tagged as: blueback herring, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River migratory fisheries restoration, Daily Hampshire Gazette, FirstLight, fish counts, Fish passage results, GDF-Suez FirstLight, Greenfield Recorder, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, migratory delay, New Hampshire, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Reservoir, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, public trust, right-to-know, salmon, salmon hatchery, sea lamprey, shad, The Recorder, Turners Falls, Turners Falls dam, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS, Vermont, Vernon Dam Fishway

The following OpEd appeared in the Daily Hampshire Gazette (Northampton,MA) and The Recorder (Greenfield, MA) in early June.

Fishy Missing Info Copyright © 2016 by Karl Meyer

DSCF8552
(low flows and byzantine fish ladder at Turners Falls 6/19/16:CLICK TO ENLARGE)

I’d like to change the name of a Commonwealth agency. What would you think about the Massachusetts Division of “Manufactured” Fisheries and Wildlife? I think it would offer a much better picture of the Agency’s focus, particularly here in the Connecticut Valley. Here you can get daily on-line information on where to find truckloads of thousands-upon-thousands of factory-produced rainbow, brown and brook trout before they are dumped into local rivers for hatchery-fish angling pleasure. But I dare you to find anything more than a several-weeks-old tally of the numbers of wild migratory fish streaming north here on the Connecticut anywhere beyond the fish windows at Holyoke Dam. So this would be a “truth-in-labeling” adjustment.

New England’s Great River runs for 69 miles through the Commonwealth. The MA Division of Fisheries & Wildlife is responsible for all migratory fish in that broad reach from the time they enter at Agawam, until they either remain here for spawning, or pass into Vermont and New Hampshire. Those runs are the agency’s “public trust”—to be protected for its citizens, anglers, students and future generations. But the less information the public gets on their whereabouts, the less an agency might be availed upon to actually protect them.

As we enter the final weeks of migration season the only information provided—not just days old, but nearly a month stale, refers solely to fish on the first 16 miles of river from the Connecticut border to the fish lift at Holyoke Dam. That leaves a full 52 miles of river with just a single—now uselessly outdated May 4th report about the truly wild shad, lamprey and herring now moving along New England’s flagship waterway. Salmon are not mentioned here because just three years after the US Fish & Wildlife Service stopped factory production of this hybrid, just a single salmon has been tallied. Hatchery fish production masks the reality of failing wild populations and deteriorating habitats. To date there’s been but one report on fish passage from Turners Falls.

As an interested citizen I’m a bit outraged that it’s June 1st, and I don’t have a clue about what’s going on with the wild, migrating fish coming upriver in what you have to consider as one of New England’s last remaining great migrations. Shad, blueback herring, and sea lamprey have been moving upstream for over two months now, and the only public information offered is of the absurd 54 shad counted at Turners Falls, almost a full month back. Really? This is any agency with an accountability problem.

MA DF&W has scant little to offer the public as to what they’ve been doing on the ground to protect our wild fish runs—and that includes struggling populations of state-listed, endangered shortnose sturgeon, also under their purview. But to not even take responsibility for having on-the-ground personnel monitoring runs at the river’s long-known choke point, Turners Falls, is a flagrant abdication of duty. Here in central and northern Massachusetts we not only don’t see fish because of decimated Connecticut River habitats, we aren’t even offered updated tallies on the ugly mess. But perhaps that’s by design. Connecticut’s state fisheries agency regularly provides more information on Commonwealth fish runs than does the MA DF&W.

When I recently contacted the Commonwealth’s Anadromous Fish Project Leader to inquire about fish passage information at Turners Falls, he tersely emailed back that the state no longer does those fish counts: I should contact FirstLight Power for information. I guess our fish are now fully privatized. And when it has come to the power company requesting larger and more frequent water withdrawals on the Connecticut upstream at the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, it appears the Division has never seen a company proposal it wasn’t just fine with.

This 2016 season has literally been the worst year for Massachusetts fish passage information since 2010, when FirstLight’s Northfield Mountain broke down, fouling its pumping tunnels with 45,000 cubic square yards of reservoir muck. They didn’t operate from May – November and fish passage at Turners Falls–it was subsequently revealed, had jumped 600-800% above yearly averages. We didn’t get that information until late as well. Seem a little fishy to you?

Some of us actually care about wild fish and living rivers. And, frankly, if I were reduced to thinking that following a truckload of factory fish to its dumping site for a day’s angling was a wildlife experience—well, I’d just as soon get one of those wind-up fish carousels you can hold–the ones with the tiny plastic pole and the revolving, yapping fish mouths. The Massachusetts Division of “Manufactured” Fish & Wildlife–sounds about right where wild fish and the Connecticut River is concerned.

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

From the Rutland Herald: Where our fish are trapped

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


The following piece, with edits, appeared in the Rutland Herald on November 12, 2015.

Dear Vermont and New Hampshire:

Sorry, but your fish are down here in Massachusetts. With Vermont Yankee’s heated discharges no longer clouding issues, that’s become clear. We’re talking hundreds of thousands annually. This year a quarter million might’ve reached Vernon and Hinsdale had we not corralled them. A hundred thousand in the Great Eddy at Bellows Falls might’ve been a possibility.

And these aren’t small fry. These are free-swimming American shad straight from the briny Atlantic—wild fish that snap at lures and offer anglers an honest fight. Fresh caught and sweet, they’re a homegrown harvest for anyone taking the time to debone them or put them in the slow roaster. You could’ve been enjoying all that.

Actually you were promised them by the US Fish & Wildlife Service and state fisheries agencies back in 1967. They’d arrive in the 1980s–when much-touted fish passage facilities got built downstream. Each successive dam would pass 75% of the fish passed by the dam below it. Yet only excuses arrived. You weren’t told your fish got caught in a trap—that the Turners fish ladder diversion was a disaster; that your shad run dies in a muck-filled power canal. That’s where your bounty is still driven from the river today—where fish get diverted into a last-chance canal from which few emerge upstream.

We’ve now had the first spring where VY’s discharge has not intercepted spring runs. It appears the nuke played a smaller role than long-rumored concerning dismal fish passage at Turners. Heated effluent ain’t great for any species–but fish deprived of a river are an unending ecosystem disaster.

The 2-1/2 miles below Turners Falls Dam are that disaster. Down here government agencies don’t require anything approaching sustaining nature-like flows in the Connecticut’s bed. It’s either deluge or desert—much of it produced by the mega-flushing and pumping flows Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station sends downstream. Part of that blistering regime gets re-diverted into the power canal 5 miles south—a trap each upstream migrant is funneled into.

That canal is where a great migration dies—where fish get delayed; fatigued, entrapped and eviscerated. Not one in ten shad have made it beyond Turners Falls across the decades. It’s not rocket science to understand–in fact, the math just got a little simpler.

The years 2013 and 2014 were the final years Vermont Yankee was heating the river. Of the 393,000 American shad passing Holyoke Dam in 2013, just 9% or 35,000 fish made it past Turners. Yet of those 35,000 fish, 18,000 or 51% swam safely past Vernon–20 miles upstream. Similarly in 2014 of the 371,000 shad passing Holyoke, just 40,000 or 11% were able to get through the canal past TF Dam. But of the 40,000 that made it, a full 28,000 or 69%, swam beyond Vernon toward upstream destinations.

Turners’ fishways opened in 1980; Vernon’s in-river fishway in 1981. Across the decades the annual average of shad passing Holyoke that make it past Turners is 4%. In the same span, Vernon averaged passage of 40% of the shad arriving from Turners. Passage at Turners hovered near 1% for the decade beginning in 2000 when deregulation began allowing Northfield Mountain to pump and profit from the river according to price peaks on the electricity “spot market.” Those peaking pulses decimate river habitats below Turners Falls.

Which is why 2015 proved interesting. This spring, with VY silent, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ordered a series of nature-like test flows to be sent through the gates at Turners Falls Dam into the impoverished riverbed–to gauge their impact on the public’s fish runs. It’s part of the 5-year FERC licensing process for Northfield and Turners. At Holyoke 413,000 shad passed upstream, while at Turners just 14% or 58,000 shad passed the dam. Yet 20 miles north, 69% or 40,000 of those fish, swam past Vernon Dam—an all-time record for shad passage there.

So here’s some math: Turners passed 9% in 2013; 11% in 2014, and 14% in 2015. Vernon passed 51% of their shad in 2013, 69% in 2014, and 68% in 2015. The difference between a year with VY’s heated effluent, and one without—was insignificant, a 1% change with shad passage actually dropping a fraction with Yankee silenced. Yet they still set a new shad passage record.

It’s noteworthy the 34 year-old Vernon record was broken the first time more in-river flow was required below Turners Falls Dam, supplying a direct route upstream during FERC’s May-June test flows. It clearly spared some fish the energy costs of industrial entrapment and the dangers of weeks in a turbine-lined canal.

The problem is that canal, and a decimated river at Turners Falls. You’ve been owed fish totaling in the millions across the decades–and an ancient connection to the sea all kids should know. They’re not the power company’s fish, they’re yours. Demand federal and state fisheries directors sue for those fish—and for the Connecticut River refuge your grandkids deserve.

With apologies,
Karl Meyer, Greenfield, MA

Writer Karl Meyer is participating in the FERC hydro relicensing studies for MA facilities on the Connecticut River. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

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.