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Of Book Bans, Journalism and Shortnose Stout

Posted by on 06 Mar 2021 | Tagged as: Alden Booth, Andrew Fisk, Barnaby Watten, Bob Flaherty, Clean Water Act, Congressman John Olver, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Conservancy, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, critical habitat, Dr. Boyd Kynard, Endangered Species Act, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeion, FERC, FirstLight Power, Fish and Aquatics Study Team, journalism, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, Monte Belmonte, National Marine Fisheries Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project, Rock Dam, Rock Dam Pool, Shortnose Stout, Silvio O. Conte Connecticut River National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, The People's Pint, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, Uncategorized, US Fish & Wildlife Service, US Geological Survey's Conte Fish Lab, WHMP, WRSI

Of Book Bans, Journalism and Shortnose Stout: a brief history of science, censorship and the short, noble life of a beer created to help stop corporate abuse on the Connecticut River Copyright © 2021 by Karl Meyer

(NOTE: for a WHMP podcast with Host Bob Flaherty related to this story go here: https://whmp.com/morning-news/sturgeon-stout-has-come-gone-but-the-harm-to-the-sturgeons-spawning-ground-continues/ )

A red slurry enters the Connecticut at the Rock Dam

Nearly a decade back retired federal fisheries biologist Dr. Boyd Kynard was putting the finishing touches on a book entitled Life History and Behaviour of Connecticut River Shortnose and Other Sturgeons. It was a compilation of sturgeon research conducted by federal biologists and university researchers—largely based locally on the Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon. Its findings described the shortnose sturgeon’s life history and habitat needs on the river from below Holyoke Dam, all the way to a spawning site known as the Rock Dam. The ancient Rock Dam site is just a few hundred yards from the USGS Conte Lab in Turners Falls where Kynard had spent a chunk of his career.

The sturgeon book authored by Kynard et al

Just as Kynard’s book was going to print in Germany, published by the World Sturgeon Conservation Society, Boyd Kynard and Harold Rosenthal, its editors, received word from the US Geological Service that two chapters of the book were being “recalled” for “editorial” reasons, and all publication would need to be halted in the United States and abroad. The reasons given were rather murky at the time—some were vague stylistic preferences. Kynard immediately smelled a rat. He believed that the two chapters thrown into question were being stymied because they used the term “river regulation” as a key factor in the spawning failure of the shortnose sturgeon here—the only federally endangered migratory fish in the Connecticut River system and one that spawned on the doorstep of the USGS Conte Lab.

The term river regulation was accurate, precise and descriptive. It referred to conditions created when the power company, just upstream, either inundated or starved the bed of the Connecticut River via operation of its Turners Falls Dam. The dam is operated in response to the massive river disruption created when the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, a giant, net-loss energy contraption just upstream, either suctioned or spewed huge pulses of water in and out of the riverbed. This grim industrial model literally cripples the ancient flows of this ecosystem, killing millions of fish outright, while creating spawning conditions for shortnose sturgeon that cause spawning failure most years at Rock Dam. The Rock Dam, confirmed by Kynard’s research, is the only documented natural spawning site on the river. It appeared the USGS did not want something put in print that directly stated those facts—one that led straight back to the actions of a corporation.

As a journalist I’d already spent many hours with Boyd Kynard, asking questions about sturgeon, shad, and river conditions. We’d had many a fine discussion over breakfast and coffee, often lasting two hours and more. The idea that the book’s information was being embargoed, censored, really hit a sour note about free speech, freedom of information and interfering with the facts and data of research science. Along with Dr. Kynard, several of the ten co-authors of the book’s chapters from various labs and universities cried foul.

The US Geological Service actually caused the book’s publication to be banned for a brief time in Europe, but the publishers ultimately decided they would not be bowed by the politics of a foreign federal agency. They resumed printing and selling the book. Here in the United State, USGS held tight to their recall and vague objections to the book’s science. Compiled and written by Kynard and fellow researchers, The Life History and Behaviour of Connecticut River Shortnose and Other Sturgeons was essentially banned—with no schedule for those USGS’s loose objections to be resolved. Months passed as the silencing of federal and state research science and the work of those authors, continued.

What ultimately broke the ban was journalism. I interviewed Kynard. Then I attempted to interview his long-time assistant and fellow researcher Micah Kieffer, who still worked at the USGS Conte Lab. Kieffer was not allowed to speak with me. In fact, that spring he was unceremoniously taken off sturgeon research altogether, and sent upriver to work on studies of trout—far from his area of expertise. Ultimately, I was able to get Barnaby Watten, Branch Chief at Conte Lab on the record. Not surprisingly, he could provide no clear reason why USGS was recalling and withholding Kynard and Kieffer’s Chapters 1 and 3. After that I tracked down the USGS editor, who it turned out, had no experience in shortnose sturgeon biology. It all went into my developing story for the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

But what ultimately broke the embargo was my chat with an aide to Congressman John Olver—noting to him that a group of federal and university researchers had all signed a letter to his boss, decrying the silencing of federal and university research. In short, they claimed censorship by USGS. Free speech protections, university science and the public’s right to know were being thwarted by a federal agency. Once this was brought to the attention of John Olver’s office I was quickly informed that Dr. Olver, a former UMass professor, fully intended to “look into the matter.”

The next day I brought that bit of information back to Barnaby Watten at USGS, asking for a reaction. This was a Friday. And, with just that bit of inquiry on behalf of the public’s right to know, the federal embargo on the government and university science contained in Life History and Behaviour of Connecticut River Shortnose and Other Sturgeons, quickly evaporated. By the weekend, Dr. Kynard was signing and delivering copies of a book that was the product of his nearly 20 years of federal sturgeon research. My Gazette article appeared sometime the following week.

What made it so creepy—the recall and ban, was that it was coming on the heels of the beginning of the relicensing process for the Turners Falls Dam and Turners Falls Power Canal, and the giant Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, 7 miles upriver. The corporate owners of that spawning-crippling “river regulation” lived right nearby. The land USGS Conte Lab sat on was owned by the power company. Hard not to contemplate a corporate connection.

Anyway, that fall, 2012, I began taking part as a participating stakeholder and member of the Fish and Aquatics Studies Team in the Federal Energy Regulatory Relicensing process for those facilities. I had a lot of science and writing experience pertaining to fish, dam, and river issues, and also had worked for both the power company and the watershed council previously. It was a pretty thorough bit of starter knowledge that I could make use of. I knew where the bodies were buried, where culpability for the abuse and failures in habitat protection lay.

Funny thing though, when the state and federal fish agencies, assorted stakeholders and the power company, FirstLight, sat down to discuss river studies and information needed to create new river conditions in a new license, very little mention was being made of shortnose sturgeon, the sole endangered species trying to spawn right in the heart of these relicense settings.

Frustrated, as deadlines loomed for the outlines of that spring’s fish migration studies were being discussed—all largely without anyone talking “sturgeon”, I phoned Dr. Kynard. In light of the seeming “third rail” absence of discussion about needed flows for sturgeon spawning, I asked him to release permission for me to use and enter Chapters 1 and 3 into the federal record of the relicensing. Boyd complied, and I quickly put all that science into the record so it would have standing. I also intervened later that spring when some test flows into the riverbed suggested by the power company were so low that they were guaranteed to interfere with sturgeon spawning. I won a change in the spring study flows–they didn’t get to low-ball the river’s only endangered migrants that year.

Shortnose Stout: a noble public information idea that ultimately went sideways; then belly up

Still, as time went on there just seemed to be only a smattering of lip service at the company/stakeholder meeting tables involving river flows and fish studies that mentioned shortnose sturgeon. It was remarkably, eerily quiet on that count. One day over a coffee meeting where I was downloading more long-term fisheries knowledge from Dr. Kynard, I told him that I had an idea for a beer, Shortnose Stout. I promised him I would find a producer for it, to help get the word out about sturgeon flows to the public. That effort would take many more months, but when out cycling one warm day I bumped into Alden Booth, owner of The People’s Pint in Greenfield. I told him I had this great idea for a beer name and marketing concept to help create change for an amazing–and amazingly ignored fish. He came on board pretty quick.

Over the winter things began to brewing. The Pint came up with a fine label, a Shortnose sturgeon backlit by a full sturgeon moon. I came up with the text, describing both the beer and the biological plight of the sturgeon at its spawning site, the Rock Dam—while pointing the public to the science featured on Kynard’s website. This was all volunteer work for me, done in the name of giving a voice to the river and this embattled fish.

The brand I created; my text, and Dr. Kynard’s website link.

The beer debuted on St. Patrick’s Day at The People’s Pint, and created quite a buzz. Meanwhile, Alden Booth had asked me whether there wasn’t a group that could be targeted to benefit from the sale of Shortnose Stout. I told him that I really didn’t see anyone doing any worthy river protection in light of this endangered fish’s plight. Nobody had taken up that fight. There was no one that deserved either praise or reward in the sturgeon’s name. So, it was let go at that.

The following spring, despite the Endangered Species Act, the published book, the science, and a year of Shortnose Stout, no one was standing up to the sturgeon miseries STILL occurring at the Rock Dam spawning site in the midst of federal negotiations. There was no action, nothing stated from Mass. Fish and Wildlife, US Fish and Wildlife Service, or National Marine Fisheries about stepping in at this critical time, and no USGS work to track spawning success at Rock Dam.

I did learn from The Pint’s Booth that the popular stout was going to be brewed again in March. But where I again would’ve noted that none were worthy of having stood up for sturgeon, I was informed that the Connecticut River Watershed Council was stepping up to collect funds in the name of the Shortnose sturgeon. With that I simply declined the invitation to be at that spring’s St. Patrick’s Day debut of a new batch of Shortnose Stout. Dr. Kynard did attend, and on the invitee list was also Dr. Andy Fisk, newly arrived director of the Connecticut River Watershed Council–happy to step in front of a camera.

Fisk had recently been pictured in The Greenfield Recorder, holding a bottle of Shortnose Stout on a bridge above the Connecticut. Any self-respecting shortnose sturgeon would tell you that the only site worthy of getting a photograph taken for your hard, hard work protecting this species would have required you to pose at the Rock Dam–the grimly embattled site that remains this river’s ugliest, most pointedly-ignored and undefended critical biological habitat on the entire river. The Watershed Council collected the profits and accolades in the name of the shortnose, while the actual fish remained undefended and under siege for yet another spawning season at Rock Dam. It’s great PR associating with an endangered species though.

I believe that was the final year Shortnose Stout was brewed. It was a shame such an opportunity for action was squandered. The miseries for this river’s federal and state endangered shortnose sturgeon remain today exactly as they were nearly a decade back, when a federal agency quickly stepped in and placed an embargo on a book written by researchers doing public research in the public’s interest, conducted at their own federal facilities.

The watershed council has since changed its name to “conservancy,” but in all its 69 years has never brought on board any legal staff, or adopted a mission to investigate, enforce, and prosecute—the basic things necessary to lay claim to protecting a river and endangered species.

The Connecticut River Shortnose sturgeon will arrive back at its ancient Rock Dam spawning site in just five weeks. There the riverbanks have been collapsing and failing, oozing a grim orange puss that feeds directly into their cobbled spawning pool home. The Rock Dam’s critical habitat becomes more debased, embattled and ignored with each passing season. Year after year, decade upon decade, there is no more disgraceful biological habitat—on this river, at the heart of the Connecticut River National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, on the doorstep of the USGS Conte Lab, just across the river from Greenfield, home to the Connecticut River Conservancy, than the ancient Rock Dam pool on New England’s Great River.


The Connecticut River’s Rock Dam spawning pool today. Shortnose sturgeon will be returning to this grim and undefended spawning habitat 5 weeks from today.

In the end, nobody walked the walk. No one stepped up; no one deserved to profit from the sale of a beer named to honor and protect a river and a magnificent and embattled ancient fish.

Here in Massachusetts on the Connecticut River during a critical and endless FERC relicensing process the only apparent player playing for keeps is FirstLight Power–the Canadian-owned, Delaware-registered, recently-arrived operators of these river-crippling facilities. Their shareholders are delighted, I’m sure.

What will our grandchildren have to say about what we failed to do here?.

(**NOTE: for further information related to this story listen to the following podcast with Host Monte Belmonte from WRSI, The River. https://wrsi.com/monte/saving-rock-dam-from-damnation/

CONNECTICUT RIVER IMPEACHMENT DAY

Posted by on 15 Feb 2021 | Tagged as: Clean Water Act, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, conservancy, critical habitat, defense, Endangered Species Act, EPA, ESA, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FERC, FirstLight, impeachment, IS IT CLEAN?, Monte Belmonte, Northfield Mountain, podcast, Rock Dam, Rock Dam Pool, The River, Turners Falls, Uncategorized, water lab, WRSI

CONNECTICUT RIVER IMPEACHMENT DAY: FEB.13,2021
Copyright © 2021 by Karl Meyer

The Connecticut River and the effluent entering it at the Rock Dam in Turners Falls on February 13, 2021. Photo Copyright © 2021 by Karl Meyer

Rock Dam. Ancient fishing place at Peskeomscutt. Critical habitat, gathering and spawning place for the Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon–federally endangered fish with genetics as old as the ancient basalt that defines their habitat. Rock Dam, ancient cultural site where the riverbanks fail in yards-wide gashes, bleeding an oozy orange puss that flows in a constant ribbon into the age-old riverbed there.

(FOR A PODCAST< related to this post go to: https://wrsi.com/monte/saving-rock-dam-from-damnation/. It is from WRSI/The River radio, with host Monte Belmonte)

This is how ecosystems die, how a planet dies, bit by little bit–day after day. Sixteen months ago I submitted documents and pictures of this degradation to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. All parties, stakeholders, and federal and state fisheries agencies were apprised of my FERC report and intervention. All have long staked claims as this great river’s protectors.

Ever-so-slowly FERC responded to my report of critical habitat degradation by absurdly requiring FirstLight do its own investigation of their bank failures and discharge running to the only documented natural spawning site of the only federally endangered migratory fish in the river. FirstLight, in representing itself, found itself exonerated of responsibility. Blame for the constant red tide was somehow placed at the feet of the public.

Day by day, by day, by day, by day–this is how a river rots, while so many sit on the sidelines. Day by day, in the midst of an endless legal relicensing process addressing environmental conditions in New England’s River, the assault continues, the banks fail–the orange sludge enters. A simple act of courage would have sufficed: just scoop some bank sludge, have it analyzed. Take a beaker’s worth of water to your lab; run a test.

If you brag about your water quality lab and–yet week after week, month upon month, season after season, ignore the grim juice invading critical river habitat right on your Greenfield doorstep, you are a failed entity. You have no valid claim as a solution, you are this river’s problem. If riverbanks fail in the most critical reach of the main stem river in the midst of relicensing on your watch and you don’t sue, your erosion committee is just window dressing.

Today two conservancies lay claim to championing New England’s Great River. But there is no conservancy in evidence here–no rescue, no enforcement, no prosecution. There’s been no sampling, even as little fish promo rescues were videoed in the muck-filled power canal just 100 yards away. Upstream in the actual riverbed, more happy-time swimming podcasts were filmed, while not a single lens was pointed at the Rock Dam pool’s grim debasement, a quarter mile distant. Sixteen months, and a deafening silence here–while congratulatory broadcasts are run celebrating how the Connecticut was cleaned-up and saved… Really. Really? Cleaned up, saved???


The Rock Dam spawning pool, the most critically endangered habitat on the entire Connecticut River. Photo Copyright © 2021 by Karl Meyer

Here, at the most critical habitat in the entire river ecosystem, it might as well be 1940. It appears the Clean Water Act applies only to other rivers; the Endangered Species Act–that’s a law for somewhere else. To protect the life force of a river requires diving in like an ER doctor, protecting the core at all costs. Any ancillary PR busy work around the tributary edges can happen sometime down the road. The victim must be stabilized, first, lest there’s nothing left to save.

If you lay claim to a river, you have a duty to preserve, protect and defend. Not when its easy; not just where it won’t ruffle any feathers. Today, there is no defense for what is here, on this river–central artery of a fish and wildlife refuge. Truth is, there is NO DEFENSE ON THE CONNECTICUT RIVER, no entity posting-up against corporate abuse. None exercising the courage or integrity to prosecute a real defense.

Conservancy here, appears to equate with comfort zone. Its a safe place, in a refuge where the by-word seems to be simply–go along to get along. Podcasts are no substitute for intervention and prosecution; filing endless pages of testimony is merely more talking-the-talk.

Enforcement is what’s been missing on New England’s river these last 70 years. In its absence the life force of an ecosystem has teetered on the edge of viability for generations in the Connecticut’s critical reaches at Turners Falls and Northfield Mountain. Today the grim faltering can be easily witnessed daily at the Rock Dam in Turners Falls, where hour upon hour, day after day, critical habitat is bathed in failure; a great river remains undefended.

On other Northeast rivers–ones smaller, and with much younger organizations formed for their defense, things are handled differently, directly. They take defense as an obligation; they employ staff lawyers, investigate, and take action. Instead of remaining silent and sidelined for generations while tethered to the cash handouts of the corporate chow-line–when they witness crimes they take the bastards to court.

Here, with no watchdog to fear, they are playing for keeps.

END NOTE: generations of Canadian shareholders at PSP Investments, FirstLight’s parent owner, are very much looking forward to enjoying the profits from a river and ecosystem shredded by the daily net-loss operation of Northfield Mountain. What will our great grandkids think of what we failed to do here?

NEW ENGLAND’S GREAT RIVER AND THE RIGHTS OF NATURE

Posted by on 25 Jan 2021 | Tagged as: Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River pollution, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FERC, FirstLight, IS IT CLEAN?, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project, The Greenfield Recorder, Turners Falls power canal

NEW ENGLAND’S GREAT RIVER AND THE RIGHTS OF NATURE

NOTE: Grim red soup entering the Connecticut at the Rock Dam from FirstLight’s failing riverbanks December 22, 2020. This is the most biologically important endangered species site in the entire ecosystem, as well as one of longstanding cultural and historic import. Photo Copyright © 2021 by Karl Meyer

NEW ENGLAND’S GREAT RIVER AND THE RIGHTS OF NATURE from The Greenfield Recorder January 4, 2021

NOTE: Randy Kehler was kind enough to honor my work with several mentions in the essay below. More importantly, he makes his own eloquent statements about the inherent dignity and right to life of New England’s river–as well as highlighting the decades of abject failures to act from river groups who’ve long-claimed public trust ownership for the river’s safeguarding and have miserably failed to act in its behalf. Please see Randy Kehler’s text below, followed by my Recorder essay it refers to from December 12, 2020.

The weekend Recorder of Dec. 12 featured yet another passionate, well-documented“My Turn” essay by Karl Meyer (“The selling of New England’s River”) about the ongoing destructive impact on the Connecticut River’s animals (especially fish) and plants —and on the river itself —of the Turners Falls and Northfield Mountain hydro-electric facilities owned and operated by the Canada-based First Light Corporation, a “Canadian-owned, subsidiary of venture capital giant PSP Investments.”

Prompted by Karl’s essay, I ask myself why little or nothing (certainly nothing effective) continues to be done to protect “New England’s River” — surely the most prominent and precious natural feature of this region —and stop this ongoing desecration that Karl describes. Where are the citizen lobby efforts, the educational campaigns, the petitions,the protests, the acts of nonviolent civil disobedience that have successfully challenged other corporate assaults on our local and regional environment (e.g., local tri-state opposition to the Entergy Corporation’s radioactive Vermont Yankee “nuke” and, more recently, Western Massachusetts towns’ united opposition to the Kinder Morgan Corporation’s natural gas pipeline project)? In short, why are we putting up with the continuing abuse of “New England’s River”?

Perhaps we need to join the growing movement called the “Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature (GARN)” that’s taking hold in countries around the world and in various communities here in the U.S., a movement that recognizes that our ecosystem—including animals, forests, oceans, rivers, mountains, etc. —have god-given rights just as human beings have god-given rights. Both Ecuador and Bolivia, at the initiative of their indigenous populations, have recently amended their constitutions to include the “Rights of Nature,” thus guaranteeing legal protections for rain forests and other natural features under assault from corporate exploitation.

Similar efforts are underway in other parts of the globe, and in a growing number of communities here in the U.S. The “Rights of Nature” concept doesn’t deny the rights of humans; it’s about balancing what is good for human beings with what is good for other species, and what is good for the earth as a whole. It’s based on the holistic recognition that all life forms on our planet, human and non-human, are deeply intertwined and dependent on each other —a recognition the lack (or denial) of which has clearly given rise to the escalating global climate crisis bearing down on us today with increasingly destructive force.

According to the “Rights of Nature” website (www.theRightsOfNature.org): “Rather than treating nature as property under the law, Rights of Nature acknowledges that nature in all its life forms has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles. And we —the people —have the legal authority and responsibility to enforce these rights on behalf of ecosystems. The ecosystem itself can be named as the injured party, with its own ‘legal standing’ rights, in cases alleging rights violations. “By recognizing rights of nature in its constitution, Ecuador—and a growing number of communities in the United States —are basing their environmental protection systems on the premise that nature has inalienable rights, just as humans do.

This premise is a radical but natural departure from the assumption that nature is ‘property ’ under the law.”
For indigenous cultures around the world, recognizing the rights of nature is simply recognizing reality, a reality consistent with their traditions of living in harmony with nature. All life, including human life, is deeply connected. Decisions and values are based on what is good for the whole.
Nonetheless, for millennia legal systems around the world have treated land and nature as “property. ” Laws and contracts are written to protect the property rights of individuals, corporations and other legal entities. As such environmental protection laws actually legalize environmental harm by regulating how much pollution or destruction of nature can occur within the law. Under such law, nature and all of its non-human elements have no standing.”

Passing far-reaching new laws, let alone amending constitutions at the state or federal levels, is bound to be a time-consuming effort. But there’s no reason why in the meantime we can’t start practicing the “Rights of Nature” as a “community ethic” right now —focusing first and foremost on the right of “New England’s River” to be respected and protected. Our planet Earth is rightfully regarded as our “mother ” —“Mother Earth.” By the same token, the Connecticut River should rightfully be regarded as New England’s “Mother River”—and thus honored and protected. Thank you, Karl Meyer, for repeatedly sounding the alarm and awakening us to this reality.

Randy Kehler and his wife Betsy Corner, after 40-plus years in Colrain, have recently moved to Shelburne Falls.

THE SELLING OF NEW ENGLAND’S RIVER

NOTE: Part of the failing riverbank leakage of the grim pollution entering the shortnose sturgeon spawning pool at Rock Dam and the Connecticut at the FirstLight site on January 10, 2021. Photo Copyright © 2021 by Karl Meyer

THE SELLING OF NEW ENGLAND’S RIVER from The Greenfield Recorder 12/12/2020

By KARL MEYER

On Nov. 12 FirstLight and broker Energy New England sent out a paid press release with a Twitter link on Businesswire: “21 New England Municipal Electric Utilities Commit to Historic Purchase of Clean Power From First-Light Through ENE.” Formatted like news, it hyped agreements —overwhelmingly to eastern Massachusetts towns, for future electricity exports. It boasted big complex numbers, long-term megawatts and clean, renewable hydropower sales to towns 100 miles from the source. Factually, if all that hyped power was directed to the coastal town of Hingham (pop. circa 23,000) on that list, all 20 others, including tiny outliers in Vermont and Rhode Island, would be left in the dark.

FirstLight never mentioned it hadn’t secured a long-term license for diverting flows from the public’s Connecticut River to produce future electricity. That remains many months in the future. On Nov. 12 it hadn’t even submitted a final application to the Federal Energy Regulatory
Commission (FERC) requesting the privilege. The AP picked up that release, though it flagged it as paid content. It spiraled all over the web looking like reporting. What further blurred the perception line between the public press and private interests was state Rep. Tom Golden, chair of the Commonwealth’s Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy. He’s quoted in that paid release touting FirstLight’s export deal as representing the “significant
expansion of their procurement of renewable and carbon-free electricity, produced right here in Massachusetts.” This was odd corporate coziness amidst a FERC relicensing. Was a fix in?

This Dec. 5, a headline under “Staff Report” ran in the Recorder: “Public power entities in three states commit to clean energy purchase from FirstLight.” As reporting, it appeared much like a recycling of that paid press release —but now with quotes from First-Light’s website. For federal and state agencies working within the FERC licensing process these last eight years on flows to restore a river massively exploited by Turners Falls and Northfield Mountain facilities for half a century that deal was a slap in the face. Over 18 months ago FirstLight exited settlement negotiations with those agencies over flows —yet here was FirstLight cutting eastern Massachusetts deals for over 40% of the generating capacity of their river-gorging diversions.

It echoed a grim 1970s plan to plunder more of the river’s aquatic life. The Metropolitan District Commission and NU-WMECO planned to use the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage project as a spigot to supplement over consumption of local water supplies and freshwater tables in eastern Massachusetts towns —even as their municipal systems were leaking like sieves.
Billions of gallons the Connecticut’s flow would be sucked into NMPS’s giant, fish-killing apparatus and piped east to the Quabbin Reservoir, then to metro Boston. But the Conservation Law Foundation’s Alexandra Dawson, Massachusetts Audubon’s Robie Hubley and conservationist Terry Blunt organized public meetings and spoke to reporters. They thwarted that scheme —in work that ultimately morphed into the MA Interbasin Transfer Act of 1983. It prevents exporting flows out of one river basin to service distant towns in another—until overuse, leaks and local supply measures are all implemented. It lets rivers live.

FirstLight is the latest exploiter of New England’s river here. Since2001 that’s included NU-WMECO, Northeast Generation Services, Energy Capital Partners, GDF-Suez, Engie, PSP Investments, and First-Light. Rep. Golden didn’t mention FirstLight is a Canadian-owned subsidiary of venture capital giant PSP Investments, who arrived four years ago to buy up the grimmest, ecosystem crippling machinery on the entire 410-mile river. Their investment scheme now twists 350 miles south before heading back to Canada. In December 2018 they pulled their facilities from commonwealth rolls and registered them as Delaware LLC tax shelters.

FirstLight’s deals occurred while the U.S. Fish & Wildlife, National Marine Fisheries Service, and Massachusetts Fish & Wildlife were all kept in the dark. Today they remain muzzled from accessing the media about relicensing specifics —due to confidentiality agreements First-Light demanded years back to allow participation in now long-stalled settlement talks. FirstLight’s facilities are key factors in spawning failure for the federally endangered shortnose sturgeon. Its failing river banks, just 100 yards from the power canal, continue eroding into critical river habitat today.

FirstLight Vice President Thomas Kaslow testified in Washington to continue banning media access to the meetings of NEPOOL—the monopoly-dominated New England Power Producers association that steers ISO —New England. They’re no friend of a free press. New Englanders are due facts about how FirstLight’s diversions and massive fish-devouring pumped storage machine stunt and obliterate the life of a four-state ecosystem and how they’ll end that year-round carnage before any FERC licenses get issued.

Karl Meyer, a Greenfield resident, has served on the Fish and Aquatics Studies Team in the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s relicensing process for river facilities here since 2012. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

A Connecticut River return to the bad old days?

Posted by on 18 Oct 2020 | Tagged as: American shad, Cabot Woods, Clean Water Act, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Conservancy, Connecticut River riverbank failure, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Endangered Species Act, Eversource, Farmington River, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FirstLight, FirstLight Power, Greenfield Community College, Northeast Utilities, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project, pumped storage, Relicensing, Rock Dam, Rock Dam Pool, Society of Environmental Journalists, Source to Sea Cleanup, The Recorder, The Revelator, Turners Falls, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, Uncategorized, US Geological Survey's Conte Fish Lab, Vermont Digger, Vernon Dam Fishway

The riverbanks at Rock Dam
Photo
Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer

Note: the following piece appeared recently in VTDigger, www.vtdigger.org, https://vtdigger.org/2020/10/18/karl-meyer-a-connecticut-river-return-to-the-bad-old-days/ and in the The Recorder, www.recorder.com, (no story link posted)

                        A Connecticut River return to the bad old days?

Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer All rights reserved

On September 1st, FirstLight Power petitioned the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for a 3rd delay in submitting final license applications to run Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station and their Turners Falls hydro sites in Massachusetts. In a process now in its 9th year, the Canadian-owned company wants 4 more months to restudy NMPS’s water release impacts on endangered tiger beetles 30 miles downstream. It was bad news capping a dismal year for a Connecticut River that’s not seen any semblance of natural flows in the Bay State for half a century.

Despite recent on-air, print and social media stories of cleanup heroism, secret swimming holes, baby lamprey rescue and adult lamprey barbecues, our river seems headed back toward its time as “the nation’s best landscaped sewer.”

In August hundreds of thousands of gallons of raw sewage overflows enter its main stem, fouling it from Springfield to Middletown CT. In June, for the second time in a year, toxic PFAS entered waterways at Bradley Airport triggering fish consumption warnings and menacing water supplies on the Farmington all the way to its meeting with the Connecticut. A year ago–almost exactly 19 years after a factory spill killed thousands of North River fish, that grizzly Colrain kill was replicated when sulfuric acid again flowed from that site into that same tributary. 

In Vermont this year structural problems at Vernon Dam likely led to the big downturn in American shad reaching central New England. At Vernon this spring structural problems at that fishway likely led to the big downturn in American shad passing upstream there to central New England. The partial blockage might have been caught–and repaired, had two students downriver at Greenfield Community College fulfilled their weekly fish counting obligations. Important tallying, via downloaded video, just didn’t happen–leaving the problem at Vernon Dam undetected for a full migration season.

Meanwhile in Turners Falls riverbanks were collapsing—some oozing grim puss that’s leaching to the most endangered habitat in the ecosystem. The Rock Dam is an in-river ledge that’s provided refuge to federally endangered shortnose sturgeon for centuries. It’s their sole documented natural spawning site. Pink-orange slurry has been flushing from the banks there for a year–running into the river’s cobble bed where early life stage sturgeon shelter and develop.

A red slurry enters the Connecticut at the Rock Dam
Photo
Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer

Visitors to the river at Rock Dam off “Migratory Way” in Cabot Woods will see a 30 foot hemlock and saplings being eaten by a sinkhole now big enough for a Mini-Cooper. Banks there slump to a series of nasty, yards-wide, gashes—one with a dumped tire in its center. Slime squeezing from them sloughs in weeping riverlets that flow the final few yards to the river’s sturgeon nursery as a rusty precipitate of oxidizing iron, manganese and other unknown agents. In a drought year, the adjacent muck-choked canal is clearly the destabilizing water source.

Upriver failing FirstLight banks are threatening Millers Falls Road and houses on a buff there. Pipe failure is said to be a culprit. The town made expensive repairs, dumping rubble on that hillside at a sharp river curve called The Narrows. Failures at such nearby sites might merit closer examination. The Narrows is where current pushes against the outer riverbanks–a classic place for surging water to create erosional impact. Northfield Mountain creates big suck-and-surge cycles just 4 miles upstream–sending down powerful pulses that cause daily 3 foot “tides” at Turners Falls Dam. Some can reach 9 feet.

NMPS was completed in 1972 by Northeast Utilities. Rebranded as Eversource and now expanding into natural gas, they are still New England’s grid monopoly and perennial major sponsor of the Source to Sea Cleanup. NMPS is a now 48 year-old FirstLight holding, but still sending its surges down the Narrows to that dam. There, they get shunted into the power canal, ultimately exerting pressure against its massively muck-choked outer bank–adjacent and just 400 feet from those dissolving banks at Rock Dam. Ironically, any flow the canal can’t swallow gets flushed over the dam in channel-ramping surges to the starved, oft-empty riverbed below. That parch-and-flood cycle further impacts Rock Dam’s shores; then heads to endangered Puritan tiger beetle habitat 30 miles away.

The muck-choked outer bank of the drawn-down Turner Falls power canal on Sept. 14, 2020 Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer

The US Geological Survey’s Conte Anadromous Fish Research Center sits 250 yards from Rock Dam. Shortnose sturgeon and their critical Rock Dam pool were extensively studied by their researchers there for decades. Now debased and failing, it is ignored. What about the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act? That lab sits on a bank opposite Greenfield, home to the 68 year-old, recently-rebranded Connecticut River Conservancy. Why isn’t CRC testing that Rock Dam slurry at their water lab? Have they sent any slime samples out for analysis? Where’s their Streambank Erosion Committee? Why would a federal lab abandon the long-term endangered species research site at its door?

As self-described champions of “Science for a Changing World” and “Healthy habitats,” neither has steered a reporter or video crew to that elephant in the room. Perhaps it’s their admission of powerlessness. CRC, dependent on various federal and state fish and environmental agencies for grant monies won’t likely be calling out their failures anytime soon. They have no enforcement mandate and employ no staff lawyers. Thus they never challenge the big dogs, and power companies know it.

If a river could talk I think it would say cleanups look nice, but they won’t save rivers. That requires an unencumbered 21st century organization—one with lawyers and an enforcement mandate corporations can’t ignore.

ENDGAME LOOMS FOR NEW ENGLAND’S GREAT RIVER

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

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


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

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

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

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

Rivers should not die in the dark.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Tale of Two Salmon, a River Without Fish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A River Run in Reverse

What’s ultimately at issue here is flow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Run Stops in Massachusetts.

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

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

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

Why the Restoration Failed

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

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

The Prescription

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IS IT CLEAN? Connecticut River at its most Critical Habitat

Posted by on 27 Jul 2020 | Tagged as: American shad, Cabot Woods, Connecticut River, Connecticut River riverbank failure, critical habitat, Endangered Species Act, federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, FirstLight, FISH and Wildlife Refuge??, manganese pollution, Rock Dam, Rock Dam Pool, Silvio O. Conte Connecticut River National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, Turners Falls power canal

IS IT CLEAN? Connecticut River at its most Critical Habitat
Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

THIS LITTLE PHOTO ESSAY WAS taken in the early morning hours of July 26, 2020, on the Connecticut River at the Rock Dam. This would be another brutal 90 degree day in this fragile site on a largely dewatered river. This is the Connecticut River at the Rock Dam pool, which is the critical spawning site for the endangered shortnose sturgeon. American shad also spawn here. Also, it may well be the last refuge in this river section for the state-endangered yellow lampmussel.

The photos begin by showing the Connecticut River looking upstream at the Rock Dam, and then trace the grim soup entering the site from the failing riverbanks of FirstLight’s Cabot Woods area, adjacent to the Turners Falls Power Canal. Basically, it walk you back along the manganese and iron muck trail heading up the riverbank along FirstLight’s eroded and crumbling access, and then takes you up top–looking back down on the failing sludge slumping down to the river, and then to their scoured-out, wood chipped picnic area, before the added in pictures of the adjacent canal/swamp–the obvious source water for the seeping sludge pollution.

I will let you judge for yourself as to: Is it CLEAN? And, more importantly, IS IT PROTECTED??
(CLICK ANY PHOTO X3 to ENLARGE)

Looking across and upstream on the river at Rock Dam. Endangered species habitat? Really??
Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


A sneaker adds a bit of perspective.
Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


Connecticut River below Rock Dam, with the cobbled area in the background where shortnose sturgeon larvae are supposed to find shelter and protection to develop.
Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


Red pool feeding into base of Rock Dam habitat.
Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


Sludge close-up, going uphill from where the owners simply dumped rubble down the banks in years past. What Clean Water Act?
Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


The grim red soup, looking up the slumping banks from Rock Dam to FirstLight’s Cabot Woods ‘picnic’ area…
Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


The eroded, unmaintained “access” path leading down to Rock Dam, with abandoned stair pilings visible in background.
Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


From above, FirstLight’s failed banks leaching down to the Connecticut from above the Rock Dam.
Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


Looking down to Rock Dam over FirstLights failed riverbanks.
Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


This chipped-tree path of scoured out woods leading to Rock Dam.
Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
What’s the activating source water for these failed Connecticut River banks? Humnnn…Just a few hundred feet away sits the TURNERS FALLS CANAL.
This picture is from 2009, the last time the canal swamp was mucked out.


This is TF Canal July 24, 2020. It is now more swamp than canal in its location adjacent to the Connecticut at Cabot Woods/Rock Dam
Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


This is TF Canal July 24, 2020. This is a swamp.
Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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

Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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

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

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

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

THIS GREAT AND BROKEN RIVER VII

Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REIMAGINING A RIVER: The Year without Northfield Mountain

Posted by on 01 Jun 2020 | Tagged as: American shad, Clean Water Act, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Connecticut River Coordinator, Connecticut River pollution, Connecticut River Watershed Council, CRASC, Daily Hampshire Gazette, EPA, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, FirstLight, fish passage, Gary Sanderson, Greenfield, hatchery, Holyoke Dam, ISO New England, Larry Parnass, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, migratory fish, Northfield Mountain, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Reservoir, Old Saybrook CT, pumped storage, Riverkeeper, salmon, salmon hatchery, The Daily Hampshire Gazette, The Greenfield Recorder, The Recorder, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Environmental Protection Agency, USFWS

THIS GREAT AND BROKEN RIVER VII

Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Issue # 7, Part 1, REIMAGINING A RIVER: The Year without Northfield Mountain


Sunderland Bridge over the Connecticut. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. (Click X 3 to enlarge, back arrows to return to text)

AUTHOR’S NOTE: I have found it difficult to write these past days. I am heartsick for my country. Are we to be a fair, generous and courageous people, or just a collection of frightened, soulless bystanders? What world do we want our children to grow up into? I have not been without a few tears at times over the past week. But, I know that good work and living rivers benefit all; they do not hate, judge, murder, or discriminate. So, noting that all of us have some heart-work to do, I continue here, with this also…

On May 1, 2010, I began a 5-day cycling trip from Greenfield MA, downstream to Long Island Sound and back again along the Connecticut River. I set out by bike to highlight and blog about the massively wasteful and misplaced emphasis on the forever-failed, hatchery-produced, 40 year-old salmon program for the river. Meanwhile, across the preceding decade, the formerly growing and robust American shad runs had concurrently experienced precipitous declines in fish passage returns at Holyoke Dam. More importantly, the shad run was literally flirting with extinguishment upstream of the Turners Falls Dam.


Miserable shad tally board at TF Fishway, 2007. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. (Click X 3 to enlarge, back arrows to return to text)

The plunge at Turners Falls had taken hold pretty much simultaneously with the implementation of newly-legislated electricity deregulation in Massachusetts. It gave owners of the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station a license to unleash new, lucrative and disruptive flow regimes in the river—just 5 miles upstream of Turners Falls Dam. Ironically, that same May Day when I left for the mouth of the river, was the day that Northfield Mountain was scheduled to shut down to begin mucking out the decade’s worth of silt and muck they’d inhaled up into their 4-billion gallon mountaintop reservoir.


Cyclist’s Shad Dinner, Saybrook CT. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. (Click X 3 to enlarge, back arrows to return to text)

Unbeknownst to me–and to NMPS management, once they shut down and started draining their reservoir that net energy loss contraption would not suction the river again for over half a year. They broke their regenerating plant; their muck half-filling the mile-long tunnels connecting it to the river. FirstLight then tried to hide their plight and the evidence as they turned around and massively polluted the river for months. That came to an abrupt halt when the EPA(remember them?) issued a “Cease and Desist” order against them extensive violations of the Clean Water Act.

But, a great upshot benefit soon came into focus: with the river not suctioned and ramping up-and-down at Northfield, successful fish passage at Turners Falls Dam jumped back to well over 400% over 2009 totals–leaping to 16,422 shad passing in 2010(though likely significantly more, since FirstLight’s fish counting software was curiously ‘inoperable’ on 17 different days that spring), while just 3,813 shad squeezed past Turners Falls in 2009. Overall, that 2010 rise peaked at over 500% above that decade’s previous passage averages there. I returned to Greenfield on May 5, 2010, and learned of NMPS’s disastrous de-watering that same afternoon. It was of great interest, but its significance wouldn’t be understood for weeks until the unusual and increasing shad tallies passing Turners began coming in.

Just 3 years earlier, after spending over half a decade working at the Northfield Mountain Recreation Center (where I’d even for a time been secretary for the Safety Committee up inside the pumped storage power plant), I quit. The dismal shad runs, just downstream, were chewing on my soul.


Lynde Pt. Light at the River’s Mouth, Old Saybrook CT. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. (Click X 3 to enlarge, back arrows to return to text)

By that May of 2010, I’d been doing part-time work for the Connecticut River Watershed Council for a few years. I immediately informed the Council of Northfield’s predicament when I got back. Sadly, I then had to watch their back-seat, kid-gloves handling of an opportunity to prosecute and hold the power company responsible for massive pollution. They stayed quietly in the background, letting the Massachusetts DEP and MA Div. of Fish & Wildlife take charge of holding FirstLight’s feet to the fire. It was a massive opportunity to begin taking on the gross daily river depredations of Northfield Mountain, but it was mostly just squandered here in Massachusetts.

The Commonwealth and MA Fish & Wildlife did little, though some effort by MA DEP and Natural Heritage ultimately bargained for a study of erosion effects on endangered dragonflies as some sort of restitution. I later felt compelled to quit the Watershed Council, which I did five months later. They weren’t players, likely because their board was full of former power company managers and folks still working as consultants, who might see some power company contract work in the future. It was just wrong that–as one of the oldest river organizations on the East Coast, they didn’t have a single lawyer on staff, nor have a mission that mandated enforcement. This was no Riverkeeper.

It wasn’t really until early that June that I began to realize the full ramifications of Northfield’s shutdown. Fish passage numbers just began creeping higher and higher at Turners Falls. I attended a June 22nd meeting of the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission (CRASC)—the Congressionally-authorized fed/state fisheries organization charged with managing and protecting migratory fish on the Connecticut. I asked the agency reps if they’d noticed the numbers and whether they’d been doing any studies on the relationship between the big shad passage at Turners and the turbine disaster upstream at Northfield. “We haven’t looked at it,” said a relatively new USFWS Connecticut River Coordinator Ken Sprankle.


Jilted American shad flashes CRASC attendees at the TF Power Canal. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. (Click X 3 to enlarge, back arrows to return to text)

Even then, I was as yet unaware that NMPS was STILL not operating. But I got a curious look from FirstLight’s Bob Stira, also in attendance, when I posed that question. That look–and the immediate notice of the shutdown of Northfield Mountain’s reservoir trails that same afternoon, is what soon sent me on a recon trip with a camera up to that reservoir. I started crunching numbers and writing. On a Sunday morning one week later I found an unposted back woods trail up to the reservoir, and there was the whole story.

Days earlier, I’d independently handed over some initial fish passage numbers and gave a few pointed quotes in an email to Gary Sanderson, sports and outdoors editor at The Recorder. Gary enthusiastically included them in his column along with his own comments. The following week, after FirstLight’s sudden and inexplicable closure of trails leading to the reservoir–plus immediately moving their riverboat tour boarding site from Northfield down to Barton Cove in Gill, I snuck up and took a photo of that emptied reservoir with two fat earth movers sitting silent in the silt-filled bed.


Emptied Northfield Mountain Reservoir. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. (Click X 3 to enlarge, back arrows to return to text)

Their riverboat got moved downriver to hide from the public the chocolate colored river that Northfield’s dumping was creating at intake tunnels next to the Riverview dock site. The silt cloud reached all the way down to the French King Bridge.


Muck-plagued Connecticut River beneath the French King Bridge. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. (Click X 3 to enlarge, back arrows to return to text)

In late June, Daily Hampshire Gazette Editor Larry Parnass ran my rather telling Northfield Reservoir photo above my expository OpEd bringing to light the disaster there–and the surprise fish passage bonanza occurring at Turners Falls Dam. It wasn’t until the first week of August that the EPA finally stepped in to order FirstLight to cease and desist. They’d been dumping the equivalent of 40-50 dump truck loads of reservoir muck directly into the Connecticut for over 90 straight days. That EPA order would keep Northfield shutdown well into November.

Despite Northfield’s claims of the usefullness of its daily input, and the touted critical emergency readiness of their net-energy loss machine to the grid, no one in New England went without electricity in the long months their river-strangling contraption was lifeless. The only mourners during its 7 month coma appeared to be two climate-change cheerleaders: ISO-New England and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Yet even during a long hot summer–one in which Vermont Yankee shut down for a week to refuel, everyone had essential power. The public didn’t miss Northfield, the shad run blossomed, and a river came back to life.

SPRING: Private Profit; Public Loss

Posted by on 26 May 2020 | Tagged as: American shad, Connecticut River, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, FERC, FirstLight, FirstLight Power, FISH CAM, fish passage, Holyoke Dam, Holyoke Fish Lift, Humor, ISO New England, migratory fish, Northfield Mountain, shad fishing, Silvio O. Conte Connecticut River National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, Slim Shad Point, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, USFWS

THIS GREAT AND BROKEN RIVER VI

Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

SPRING: Private Profit; Public Loss

Despite the enormous and longstanding damages the Industrial Age visited upon the Connecticut River—the early clear-cutting of the north woods, the building of the main stem dams and canals, the profligate effluent pollution, the thermal heating from a pair of nuclear reactors, the eviscerating impacts of a massive, river-reversing pumped storage project, it somehow has survived into the 21st century with a relatively robust and still-restorable spring run of American shad in its lower reaches.


Fishing Slim Shad Pt. Holyoke Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. (Click X 3 to enlarge; back arrows to return)

The Connecticut is indeed rare in that respect—as well as for being host to the most successful fishway on the entire East Coast, with a lift first put in place at Holyoke Dam in 1955. That spurred a New England fisheries restoration effort begun here between federal and state fisheries agencies in 1967. It is why the Connecticut ultimately became the central artery of the 4-state Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge in 1997. But by that time the river’s migratory fisheries restoration had already stalled and foundered in Massachusetts just 36 miles upstream of Holyoke, at the foot of the Turners Falls power canal and dam.


Shad Angler Wading at Holyoke Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. (Click X 3 to enlarge; back arrows to return)

The complex of fish ladders and canal routes chosen and installed there in 1980 were largely weighted toward passage of a new, mass-produced hatchery-hybrid salmon strain. They proved an obvious and instant failure for the hundreds of thousands of shad returning to pass that place as soon as all the concrete dried. Vermont, New Hampshire, northern Massachusetts—never received their promised bounty.

And so it is to this day. The Connecticut, still massively overworked and under-protected, remains without any new bona fide restoration success for migrating shad in 3 out of 4 of the states over its 410 mile reach over the last 30 years. Where have the fish successfully passed? You need not go far to identify the break point. Smack in the heart of this spring’s migration peak here’s a quick look at the stats for fish passage success up through Memorial Day weekend. As of May 25, 2020, some 274,370 shad had been lifted past Holyoke Dam according to USFWS Connecticut River Project Leader Ken Sprankle.

And at Turners Falls? Well, the last report offered included a total of 735 shad passing as of May 17, 2020. They don’t report regularly from Turners Falls. If FirstLight had just installed a simple Fish Cam the public would have had something this year—while all their license-required recreational access has been shut down tight this spring, including fish viewing, camping, even hiking trails. But, just to compare: as of that same date, May 17, 2020, Holyoke had already reported passing 51,000 shad upstream. It only takes the 1-1/2 – 2 foot long, blue-green migrants just a day or so to start knocking on the door at Turners Falls. But as the failed restoration numbers have grimly shown for decades, the river’s great run dies in the alternately starved and ramped-up industrial flows set in motion by gatehouse and dam operators at Turners Falls and Northfield Mountain.

Listless Riverbed at Turners Falls, May 14, 2020
Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
. (Click X 3 to enlarge; back arrows to return)

It’s now three migration seasons past the April 30, 2018 expiration date of the current Federal Energy Regulatory Commission license for FirstLight’s Turners Falls Dam, yet no legally-mandated fish passage–upstream and down, has been constructed. Literally nothing has been done. While citizens in three states—including fifteen cities, towns and villages, are yet to see their rightful share of the river’s fish.

As always, FERC and ISO-New England (in Holyoke) have both made sure to requisition and have available a glut of power for the sprawling Northeast power grid here (at public expense, but without public input of course) It’s way more than enough to easily exceed the grip of a summer heat wave. Climate emergency be damned… It does means big corporate profits. Meanwhile, it’s mid-spring. Power use is at a low annual ebb. Yet New England’s Great River here in the United States is currently starved of both its fish and life-giving flows at Turners Falls–while Canada’s shareholder-owned FirstLight Power exports its profits out of the region.

A living river is a public right here. Whose pockets are being lined?

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