Connecticut River

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

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

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

Copyright © 2017 by Karl Meyer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

End

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

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

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

Rolling over on a River: the real cost of pumped storage energy

Posted by on 26 Oct 2016 | Tagged as: American shad, climate change, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River Watershed Council, Daily Hampshire Gazette, ecosystem, Entrainment, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeion, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FERC, fossil fuels, Greenfield Recorder, ISO New England, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, National Marine Fisheries Service, NMFS, NOAA, Northfield Mountain, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Reservoir, nuclear power, Public Comment period, public trust, pumped storage, Relicensing, shad, shortnose sturgeon, Society of Environmental Journalists, The Recorder, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS, Vermont, Vermont Digger, Vermont Yankee

Copyright © 2016 by Karl Meyer

(Note: this essay appeared in September and October in these MA and VT media and newspaper outlets: Vermont Digger, www.vtdigger.org ; The Daily Hampshire Gazette; and The Recorder.)

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The de-watered CT below Turners Falls Dam that few people see. (Click, then click again to enlarge.)

Rolling over on a river

Since time began rivers have been the Earth’s arteries—the foundation of its ecosystems. Here in New England it’s “last chance” time for our Great River. On April 30, 2018 the fate of the long-foundered Connecticut River migratory fisheries restoration—and the survival of a four-state river ecosystem, will be decided for what’s essentially forever. New Federal Energy Regulatory Commission hydro licenses are expected to be signed then by government agencies and the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board–latest purchaser of the Turners Falls and Northfield Mountain projects. That company’s stated investor mandate is “to maximize investment returns without undue risk of loss.”

Over two generations ago public-trust mistakes were made favoring power companies, fish hatcheries, and high-end salmon-fishing interests that rendered eight miles of the Connecticut in Massachusetts a massively-suctioned, partially-dewatered flush sink. Sanctioned by fisheries agencies and non-profits, those decisions, severed an ecosystem in two. They forced all migrating fish into a deadly power canal, leaving three emptied miles of riverbed below Turners Falls Dam, while four turbines at the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station five miles upstream consumed massive amounts of nuclear energy to suck a river backward and uphill to a mountaintop reservoir.

Those turbines were built to run on the promised endless supply of overproduced juice generated nightly at the local, now-closed, Vermont Yankee nuke, 15 miles away. Today, running on giant slugs of imported fossil fuel, they continue to spin, sucking the river up in endless gulps into a 4 billion gallon pool a mile up Northfield Mountain. That daily suctioning creates riverbank eroding “tides” higher than those at Hyannisport, MA—with some rivaling the ten-foot fluctuations of Fundy Bay.

Back then, predecessors of today’s National Marine Fisheries Service, the US Fish & Wildlife Service, Massachusetts’ Fish & Wildlife and the Connecticut River Watershed Council signed off on an agreement with the Federal Power Commission and Western Massachusetts Electric that strangled the river in northern Massachusetts. It resulted in the failure of migratory fish passage and a promised renewal of the river’s ancient seafood resources upstream to Vermont, New Hampshire, and northern Mass. Few American shad emerged alive after diversion into that canal. It also failed the shortnose sturgeon—this river’s only federally endangered migratory fish, leaving it without flow or monitoring at its only documented natural spawning site.

Upstream at Northfield the destruction was yet more complete. The suck and gush appetite of that nuclear-charged contraption virtually disassembled the river. It gulped flow at a rate of 15,000 cubic feet per second, often for hours at a time—drawing on the river pool above Turners Falls Dam where, 70% of the time, the Connecticut’s natural routed flow is less than 15,000 cfs. Boaters a mile downstream could find themselves drifting upriver via Northfield’s unearthly pull. All fish and organisms drawn up through the sphere of that suction were deemed “functionally extirpated”–dead to the ecosystem by virtue of being sieved twice through the turbines. It was evolution in reverse, a river ripped away from its eternal run to the sea.

Today, climate-blind FERC labels Northfield as a source of “renewable clean” energy—but there’s nothing clean, renewable or sustainable about its imported, twice-produced, peak-priced electricity crippling this river. ISO New England, FERC’s Northfield-cheering, ever-energy-hungry cousin, also ignores climate and its environmental dismemberment. “Pumped storage” is not hydropower—not even by the industry’s own technical terminology. Northfield-produced power in fact represents the heavy planetary burden of fossil fuel used to push a mountain of water uphill, merely as a weight to produce high-cost, second hand electricity. It cares nothing of rivers, fish or ecosystems.

If bureaucrats again fail the public trust and don’t demand critical habitat protections, flows, and the day-to-day monitoring needed to fulfill U.S. environmental statutes, Canadian pension speculators will be left as the de facto controlling interests on our river. The new owners have asked FERC to merge two separate licenses for Northfield and Turners Falls into a single new license dubbed the “Northfield Project.” What’s represented as mere bureaucratic streamlining would actually enshrine, by precedent–next time and forever, river-killing pumped storage.

Any responsible environmental agency should deny this single-license merger, and seek to have Northfield kept in use as emergency infrastructure only—with the ultimate remedy it’s dismantling in tandem with a move to a decentralized, far less vulnerable system than today’s expanding mega-grid. Massachusetts legislators are currently signing onto backroom energy deals for a glut of future hydropower from Quebec. Some 1,200 megawatts of those penciled-in imports could easily replace the few hours of daily juice Northfield puts out–while keeping it available for rare emergencies. Though the new Canadian power imports largely ignore conservation and innovation, they could be employed to end the river carnage here and begin restoring a future for a critical New England ecosystem.

(Note: timely public comment on licensing issues is carefully considered by FERC. Go to: http://ferc.gov/docs-filing/ecomment.asp and use “E-Comment.” Check “Hydro” and address to Secretary Kimberly D. Bose, using the required identifiers “P-2485” and “P-1889” for Northfield and Turners Falls.)

Karl Meyer lives in Greenfield MA. He is participating in the FERC relicensing process and is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

Sampling of dying fish in the Turners Falls Power Canal

Posted by on 20 Sep 2016 | Tagged as: Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, fish kill on the Connecticut, fish passage, resident river fish, Turner Falls Canal annual draining, Turners Falls power canal, Uncategorized

Below are some examples of the fish found dying in the Turners Falls Power Canal as it underwent its annual draining by FirstLight on September 19, 2016. These were taken in the rain between 7:15 and 7:45 a.m., in one quarter mile reach of the 2.1 mile long conduit. There were thousands of struggling aquatic animals laying prone on the draining sand, from crayfish and freshwater mussels, to chain pickerel. CLICK, then CLICK AGAIN on any photo to enlarge. (Note: all photos Copyright 2016, by Karl Meyer)
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Citizens win: back science and re-water CT’s Dead Reach

Posted by on 25 Jul 2016 | Tagged as: 5-year FERC licensing process, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Dead Reach, endangerd shortnose sturgeon, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chairman, FERC, FERC Chairman Norman C. Bay, fish passage, New Hampshire, Senator Bernie Sanders, shortnose sturgeon, Test flows, Turners Falls, Turners Falls dam, Vermont

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Flow through the DEAD REACH at Rock Dam, (click to enlarge).

**2016-07-19BERNIE SANDERS-FERC CHAIR BAY**

If you have a moment, CLICK and read the document **highlighted** immediately above and read carefully. NOTE: you’ll have to click, then click again in new window.

If you do, you will see a significant victory for the Connecticut River ecosystem. The Dead Reach of the river has been strangled by power company flows diverted out of the riverbed here for generations. Essentially, with just 400 cubic feet per second of flow mandated in the river below Turners Falls Dam for the last 44 years, the Connecticut has been left for dead when it comes to upstream migrants and endangered shortnose sturgeon each spring. Its been the great ugly secret of New England’s Great River for generations, kept quiet by fisheries agencies and watchdog groups alike.

But this year, when FERC relicensing study flows were proposed that would potentially destroy any chance of spawning success in the Dead Reach for the endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon at Rock Dam, citizens stood up for published state and federal science, while fish agencies and NGOs stood on the sidelines.

The result: 40% more water was ultimately reintroduced into that desperately de-pauperized Dead Reach habitat throughout May and into early June–water that should have been demanded for fisheries protection decades ago. Instead of releasing just 1500 cfs into that reach, citizen input caused that number to be raised to 2,500 cfs as the minimum amount FirstLight would have to let flow through the ancient channel.

This was a victory for the river–and not one engineered by Senator Sanders(though his letter of inquiry was a welcome addition), who didn’t send his query to FERC until mid-June. FERC commenters were concerned folks from around the region. A close look at the files shows most were local Bay Staters simply looking out for their home river. They understood what you do when there is key information available: you don’t play politics; you stand up for good science.

This represents a victory for the implementation of long-range, public research findings taking precedence in the decision-making process on river flows. And it occurred despite any agency or NGO backing, or input.

Any increase in flows in this broken stretch of the Connecticut is a victory. However, 40% of very little, is simply not enough. That 2,500 cfs represents the ABSOLUTE bare minimum amount of water necessary just to have migratory fish move upstream upstream here, and allow sturgeon the possibility of remaining on their only documented natural spawning ground in this ecosystem to attempt reproduction. Much more flow is needed to restore this habitat, nourish passage of spring migrants to Vermont and New Hampshire, and allow shortnose sturgeon to successfully spawn and raise young, beginning their long road to recovery.

Politics and wimpy advocacy here, rather than solid science and public input, have been allowing the Connecticut to be run into the ground for generations now. This spring was a little different.

A midnight massacre at Massachusetts Audubon

Posted by on 20 Jul 2016 | Tagged as: Connecticut River, Dead Reach, hatchery, John Hanson Mitchell, Massachusetts Audubon Society, salmon, Sanctuary, Sanctuary Magazine, Sanctuary: The Journal of the Massachusetts Audubon Society, WHMP

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The Dead Reach of the Connecticut at Turners Falls (click to enlarge)

(For an audio take on this story, paste the following link from WHMP into your browser: http://whmp.com/morning-news/whmp-river-report-the-end-of-sanctuary-magazine/ )

Copyright © 2016 by Karl Meyer

Sanctuary, the Journal of the Massachusetts Audubon Society, was discontinued in 2014. It left a gaping hole in the fast-shrinking array of New England publications dedicated to ground-based and literate environmental writing. For over three decades Sanctuary was a smart, unpretentious voice telling stories, explaining ecosystems and issues–and extolling the wonders of wildlife in natural habitats to tens of thousands of readers. Its passing appeared to signal a shift away from the shared universe of open ideas, values and continuity of leadership, to a more corporatized environmental model.

Dollars, cents, and data crunching appear to have won out over the ideas and ideals that made Sanctuary the vehicle that defined Massachusetts Audubon as a ground force and voice for environmental sustainability. At the time it was discontinued noted-author John Hanson Mitchell, Sanctuary’s long-time editor, was assured the journal’s legacy was to be continued: its staff of editor/writers would be dedicating their efforts to a new publication—an annual paperback comprised of essays, articles, poetry and ideas mailed to Society members each spring. The 2015 edition, Stray Leaves, was a compilation of John Mitchell’s essays across the decades at Mass. Audubon.

Curiously, this spring, that publication’s second edition, The Quiet Earth, arrived late and without fanfare to members. The whole business seemed odd. It was particularly curious to those of us whose work was slated to appear there. No one knew what was going on.

It wasn’t until a late-May that a phone message helped decipher what had taken place. A little investigating uncovered that John and his long-time staff had been unceremoniously let go—down-sized without warning in a corporate-like midnight massacre. They were literally escorted from their desks—their keys taken; not allowed even to keep the names, numbers and emails of their long-term writers, business associates and colleagues. Further, in order to receive severance benefits the signing of a non-disclosure agreement was required—thus keeping the organization’s secret actions, secret.

It was a wholly dishonorable ending, from an organization that has perhaps lost its center. As a long-time contributor to John Mitchell’s legacy journal it’s important to say that I believe Sanctuary helped change thinking about key river restoration issues out here in the Connecticut Valley. The endlessly wasteful and failed 43-year old hatchery program to manufacture a new salmon strain for this river system–where natural runs withered to extirpation in 1809, was finally abandoned in 2013. I’m not sure the ideas and arguments about a broken Connecticut River here in northern Massachusetts would’ve ever received proper airing had not John Mitchell and his staff been open to new ways of thinking.

My writing was just one voice appearing among many fine contributions from Mitchell and staff, alongside a host of smart, dedicated free-lancers who worked on Sanctuary’s pages across the decades. Many of us were deeply disheartened upon learning of its ultimate passing—and dumbfounded by the shabby treatment that signified its final hours.

New England’s universe of environmental thought, ideas, poetry and natural beauty will surely be the poorer for it.

VERNON UPDATE: A peek into the public-trust’s black hole

Posted by on 26 Jun 2016 | Tagged as: American shad, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Coordinator, FirstLight, fish counts, fish passage, Fish passage results, GDF-Suez FirstLight, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, public trust, TransCanada, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS, Vermont Fish & Game, Vernon Dam Fishway

VERNON, VT Connecticut River Fish Passage Update: June 24, 2016

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Vernon Dam Fishway, and TransCanada’s Vernon Station(CLICK TO ENLARGE)

As of Friday, June 24, 2016, the best information US Fish & Wildlife Service was able to provide on Turners Falls and Vernon fish passage was a FULL THREE WEEKS OLD.

The last report CT River Coordinator Ken Sprankle had for Vernon shad passage was from June 3, 2016: 29,155 American shad passing there.

The last report coming from FirstLight at Turners Falls was yet a day older, from June 2, 2016: 45,330 American shad.

This is not a case of the USFWS’s Connecticut River Coordinator neglecting to gather the information and reproduce it in a timely manner. This falls squarely on the shoulders of the MA Division of Fisheries and Wildlife failing to ensure that this time-sensitive and important information is provided to Commonwealth citizens as part of their public trust. They have allowed GDF-Suez to maintain sole control and access to the fate of a public resource at Turners Falls, the river’s most critical and failed fish passage site.

Further, it must of course be stated that Vermont Fish & Game is in the same camp this year. As they are failing to provide this information–just a quick 20 mile, one-day scoot for a shad upstream to Vernon Dam, where TransCanada is calling the shots on providing info.

These state agencies are failing constituents they say they represent.

BUT here’s a tiny fish passage update for Vernon Dam. It’s just TWO DAYS OLD. I stopped by Vernon on my bicycle on Friday, June 24th at 10:30 a.m., just hours after that “best” stale information had been released.

Given low river flows I was happily surprised to see shad moving upstream in the Vernon windows at a good clip. Singly, and in twos and threes, and fives, I watched 20 American shad flash by and shoot upstream through bubbly, yellow currents there in just under six minutes. That fishway is a fish passage site that actually passes fish–with a nearly 70% passage rate last year.

Of course, Turners Falls fish passage remains a disaster, with all fish shunted out of the river and into the 2.7 mile power canal there: average annual passage rate is less than one fish-in-ten. And, unfortunately, Turners Falls viewing opportunities have been severely curtailed over the years. Whereas they used to be open through the week following Father’s Day, this year they closed on June 12. Thus, there is literally no on-site public access or real-time information provided on fish passage success at Turners Falls–while this year’s run is obviously still underway, given Friday’s eye-witness access at Vernon.

At Turners Falls flows have been reduced to 1500 cubic feet per second over the past weeks, and with FirstLight’s downstream Station 1 dumping attraction flow into the Connecticut, its unlikely many fish are moving upstream and able to by-pass that alien power canal habitat.

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The Connecticut below Turners Falls Dam (CLICK TO ENLARGE)

Station 1 is a source of “false” upstream flow “attraction”–which can keep shad treading water for days at a time without finding any real route upstream.

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Station 1 attraction flow (CLICK TO ENLARGE)

FISHY MISSING INFO

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

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

Fishy Missing Info Copyright © 2016 by Karl Meyer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AN INSENSITIVITY OF PLACE

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

An Insensitivity of Place

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HOLYOKE HOISTS RECORD SHAD NOS; TURNERS FALLS FOUNDERING ON ALL FRONTS

Posted by on 13 May 2016 | Tagged as: American shad, Connecticut River, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, GDF-Suez FirstLight, Greenfield Community College, Holyoke Fish Lift, National Marine Fisheries Service, New Hampshire, NOAA, Rock Dam, salmon, shad, shad fishing, shortnose sturgeon, Test flows, Turners Falls, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS, Vermont

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Copyright © 2016 by Karl Meyer

According to USFWS Connecticut River Coordinator Ken Sprankle on Thursday, May 12, 2016, the Holyoke Fishway lifted more fish—specifically 54,006 American shad, than on any single day in the fish lift’s 61 years of operation. In 1955, something simple and sensible came into being on the Connecticut. It was a fish passage set-up that brought shad directly upstream in the riverbed via upstream attraction flows, and drew them into an elevator that gave them a lift directly above South Hadley Falls. Once there they could head upstream toward open spawning habitat in Vermont and New Hampshire. For three generations, Holyoke has been the single largest fish passage success site and story for American shad on the entire East Coast.

Sadly, just 36 miles upstream, those shad met with the fish passage restoration boondoggle-disaster of all-time—a three-ladder fish passage puzzle that forced all fish into a 2.7 mile long power canal at Turners Falls. Steered out of the river, and forced to negotiate a turbine lined canal in order to make it upstream beyond the Turners Falls Dam, the average annual success rate was 4 fish out of 100. To focus in a bit more on the present, what Holyoke passed yesterday was nearly the equivalent of all the shad that made it past Turners Falls Dam last year: 58,000.

The Turners Falls Power Canal remains the dead end, adjacent to the Connecticut River’s Dead Reach, where the federal/state Connecticut River migratory fisheries program has lingered in a comatose—nearly frozen state, since those ladders were built in 1980.

Given the brief nature of spring spawning conditions, it’s likely—at minimum, 25,000 of yesterday’s shad from Holyoke will be attempting that torturous labyrinth in Turners Falls by midday today (Friday). Most won’t make it past, and most will expend over a week of their precious spawning energies in the attempt. A high, though poorly studied or documented percentage, will ultimately be cut up in the turbines of the Turners Falls Power Canal.

Such is the legacy of non-intervention on behalf of the public’s fish, and the 45 year focus on creating a hatchery strain of salmon on a river system where the species had been extinct since 1809. So, again, Vermont, New Hampshire, and northern Massachusetts—sorry, but your fish are stuck down here in the miseries of a power canal and the Connecticut’s Dead Reach lacking suitable flows and fish passage.

On that note: it’s now six weeks since we had the first fish passage numbers reported from Holyoke Dam. Here at Turners Falls, we have nothing from GDF-Suez FirstLight and the Greenfield Community College students hired to tally them. The public’s fish, and the information as to their whereabouts, remains in private hands—most of it in the murky environs of a private power canal.

I’ll give you an on-the-ground update from my visits. At Rock Dam, just after midday on Tuesday, three anglers were working the site for shad. Curiously, there was a very clear “tide” line in the sand at the site—which is also the natural spawning ground for endangered shortnose sturgeon. The very recent high water mark was between 10 and 25 feet wide leading down to the water’s edge. It indicated a recent and significant change in flow there. One of the gentlemen said the drop came quickly, and had only happened “fifteen minutes ago.” Such “ramping” up and down of flows by the power company has huge implications for migrating and spawning fish. In fact, ramping at this site is one of the key reasons for spawning failure for endangered sturgeon. But, who’s watching?

Anyway, the three anglers reported that the shad were running here before the flow drop—there were several in two buckets, but they had disappeared once flow conditions changed.

I returned to Rock Dam on Wednesday, and there was just a lone guy and his dog present. His name was Shawn, and he’s lived nearby for the past year, but this was his first outing for shad. He looked to be in his early 20s.

There must’ve been plenty of shad trying to pass upstream at Rock Dam—with extra “test” flow water being released at the dam for federal relicensing studies. It wasn’t a minute after I clambered up the rocks to speak with him that he hooked his first fish. I obliged and took his photo with it. While there, I also took a minute to explain that shad don’t survive handling well, and they do best if handled very gently and while right in the water at the shore line.

I only tarried only for five more minutes–in which time Shawn landed two more fish, and four new anglers had scrambled down to join the shad run at the Rock Dam.

The latest Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon count at Holyoke Dam: 15 fish—ostensibly on spawning runs to that self-same Rock Dam spawning haven, have been lifted in the fish ladder this spring–and stopped abruptly once reaching the top floor. Every one of them has been slapped on the nose with a newspaper, told “NO!” and been dropped back in the drink below the dam. “Wait till next year..!” Hey, National Marine Fisheries Service: that is award-worthy endangered species protection through genetic deprivation! Kind of makes you miss David Letterman and his Stupid Pet Tricks…

DEAD REACH REPORT: the BLACK HOLE continues…

Posted by on 09 May 2016 | Tagged as: American shad, blueback herring, Connecticut River, Dead Reach, federal trust fish, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FirstLight, GDF-Suez FirstLight, Greenfield Community College, Holyoke Community College, Holyoke Fish Lift, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, National Marine Fisheries Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, New Hampshire, NMFS, Rock Dam, Rock Dam Pool, sea lamprey, shad, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS, Vermont, Vernon Dam Fishway

DEAD REACH REPORT: the BLACK HOLE continues…

Copyright © 2016 by Karl Meyer
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Forty-one days after the first fish were reported being lifted at Holyoke Dam, we still have not a shred of information on fish passage in the Connecticut River’s Dead Reach at Turners Falls. That’s the beleaguered, half-emptied, 2.7 miles of riverbed that all migrating American shad, sea lamprey, and blueback herring must pass in order to make progress toward Vermont and New Hampshire spawning grounds. Within that Dead Reach is the Rock Dam, the only documented natural spawning site for endangered shortnose sturgeon in this river system.

Thus, again, GDF-Suez FirstLight continues in sole control and possession of information on the public’s federal trust migratory fish—every one of which, in trying to reach upstream sites, gets diverted into their turbine-lined power canal. Once corralled and essentially privatized in that miles-long trench, very few ever emerge alive beyond Turners Falls Dam.

Holyoke Fish Lift numbers have been handed off daily to Ken Sprankle, USFWS’s Connecticut River Coordinator, for weeks now. Students from Holyoke Community College are staffing that site, overseen by the MA Division of Fisheries & Wildlife. MA Fish & Wildlife is responsible for those shad, lamprey and herring while they are traversing the Commonwealth’s reach on the Connecticut. They’re responsible for getting the public’s fish counted as well. That role up at Turners Falls is clearly not working or being taken seriously. We have no information from there whatsoever–with the video-counting apparatus controlled by FirstLight, and the review, tallies, and the hand-off of that public information left in the hands of Greenfield Community College students.

None of this speaks well for any safeguarding of the public trust.

Nevertheless, USFWS’s Ken Sprankle did provide these updates from Holyoke Dam this morning. Fish counts there as of Sunday, May 8, 2016 are: 32,937 American shad; 239 sea lamprey; and 14 federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon—all of which were brought to the top in the fish elevator, lifted out, and dropped back downstream. Virtually none of them will get an opportunity to spawn yet again this year.

To give you a sense of the miseries, one egg-laden female lifted up there had been tagged in the Dead Reach in Turners Falls 2004, as a female on a spawning site. This year, a dozen years after that tagging—she was apparently full of eggs and attempting to reach the Rock Dam for spawning once more. They plopped her back downstream on orders of the National Marine Fisheries Service. If that aging female dies over the winter, the genetic material in the hundreds of thousands of eggs she was carrying gets lost to eternity, and becomes yet another signpost on extinctions path.

Just what exactly is being accomplished by not letting these endangered fish spawn?

Meanwhile, here’s a tiny Dead Reach report of my own. I stopped by the TF Dam at mid-morning on Mother’s Day. It was drizzly, water was spilling from Bascule Gate 1(Turners Falls side), and no one was fishing at the site.

Downstream at 9:40 I met a lone angler exiting from the Rock Dam pool site at Cabot Woods. He said he’d had a few, earlier, but that it was slowing down. When I went out to the Rock Dam it was fairly quiet, with the water only moderately clear with the recent rain. Still, looking down from the rocks, schooling swirls of shad can sometimes be seen when the light is good. I saw nothing. Nor did I note any lamprey tails slapping the rock faces as they suctioned their way upstream through the notches.

According to this angler who fishes the mouth of the Deerfield as well, Rock Dam fishing on Saturday was pretty decent: “I had a dozen shad,” he noted. Thus, it’s become fairly obvious these last two springs that when flow is left in the riverbed, Rock Dam is one of the finest shad fishing sites on the Connecticut.

So, American shad have been reaching Turners Falls for 5 weeks now, we just don’t know how many are passing upstream—and we have yet to get count information from TransCanada about numbers passing Vernon Fishway. Thus parts of Massachusetts and all of Vermont and New Hampshire remain in the dark as to the whereabouts of their share of the ocean’s spring bounty.

Holyoke Fishway opened last week. You can visit, Weds. – Sunday from 9 – 5. Its on the CT, where Rt. 116 crosses into Holyoke from South Hadley. The public fish viewing facilities at Turners Falls have yet to open.

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