Dead Reach

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“Clean, renewable” labels don’t apply

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

Copyright © 2018 by Karl Meyer All Rights Reserved.

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

TERMS OF ENTRAINMENT: a Connecticut River History


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

END

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

PROTECTING AN EMBATTLED HERITAGE

Posted by on 19 Aug 2017 | Tagged as: American Whitewater, Appalachian Mountain Club, Dead Reach, New England FLOW, Uncategorized

NOTES: If you go to the home page of this website www.karlmeyerwriting.com and scroll down through a few of the photos you’ll come to a picture of a smiling young guy. That’s a young Charlie Read from a decade ago, on a bicycle ride around the Quabbin Reservoir. Charlie had grown into a remarkable young man when he unexpectedly passed away just over a year ago from a relatively little known complication of epilepsy. It was a devastating blow to his parents Clif and Arleen, and sister Susan.

Charlie is missed and remembered as a smart, caring, playful, tenacious, friend, son, student, teammate, and companion to all the many whose lives he touched. Parents Clif and Arleen Read, and friends, undertook a cross country cycling tour in Charlie’s honor this summer, helping raise funds for the Epilepsy Foundation along the way. Completed earlier this month, you can learn about their efforts and adventures at c2c4charlie.org and still donate. Going forward, we will all keep Charlie in our hearts.

The following piece appeared in the Daily Hampshire Gazette (gazettenet.com) and in edited form in The Greenfield Recorder (recorder.com) earlier this month. (Note the Connecticut River Watershed Council recently changed its name to the Connecticut River Conservancy).

Copyright © 2017 by Karl Meyer, All Rights Reserved

PROTECTING AN EMBATTLED HERITAGE

A fragile legacy clings to life in the Connecticut River at Turners Falls just downstream of where the Great Falls Discovery Center perches above an ancient cataract once known as Peskeomscut. It includes a dozen state-endangered and threatened plants and insects, a rare freshwater clam, plus several culturally and archeologically sensitive islands and the only known natural spawning site for the federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon. Currently no part of that legacy is safeguarded in any meaningful way by the handful of responsible government agencies.

The view downstream from the Turners Falls Bridge consists largely of a dewatered riverbed, parching stream banks, and islands bereft of anything that might offer life-giving nourishment. It’s a reach depauperized by seesawing flows diverted at the adjacent dam and greatly influenced by the huge suck-and-surge water appetite of the PSP Investments’s Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, five miles upstream.

All rarities here have been documented within the past quarter century. The beleaguered islands speak for themselves. All remain subject to industrial abuse and human encroachment. Two federal, and a handful state agencies are responsible for safeguarding that legacy. Sadly even the US Geological Survey’s Conte Anadromous Fish Research Lab abandoned monitoring the few dozen spawning-ready shortnose sturgeon attempting reproduction in an ancient pool there a decade ago. That “Rock Dam pool,” below a tiny waterfall, sits just beyond the Lab’s west windows.

If the National Marine Fisheries Service, MA Fish & Wildlife’s Natural Heritage Program, the MA Historical Commission, the USGS and the US Fish & Wildlife Service are serious about protecting a river’s legacy, it’s time to act. In 2007 the Connecticut River Watershed Council produced its 3rd edition of the Connecticut River Boating Guide. On March 13, 2017, the Council convened a meeting of its recreational constituents in Brattleboro VT. There it was clear commercial and recreational whitewater interests are keen to begin rides in that fragile Turners Falls reach. They want new put-ins and spring flows to accommodate bulky, seven-person rafts and personal watercraft. They’d already showed up in force there in May 2016 to joyride atop the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s mandated test flows, flows meant to enhance the survival of sturgeon and other migrants.

If new flows are mandated by FERC’s 2018 new hydro licenses there, American Whitewater, the Appalachian Mountain Club and New England Flow will again be looking to make two-second passes over those tiny Rock Dam falls. A little watery pool there is where spring sturgeon gather and spawn, and where embryos and young develop through June. But American Whitewater’s representative that day contended there would be no ill impacts from rides over that low escarpment into the sturgeon’s spawning pool. One commercial interest even suggested a path should be cut across the adjoining island, so rafts could be carried back upstream for repeat runs.

But that tiny drop and pool is adjacent to an island of historic importance owned by Western Massachusetts Electric. It’s a place of cultural and archeological significance to Native Americans whose ancestors were attacked in the Turners Falls Massacre. The site is geographically and physically the likely fishing refuge occupied by Native groups who counter attacked and routed Turner’s army on May 19, 1676. Current archeological investigations are in progress relating to that attack and the area’s ancient battle paths. Historian Sylvester Judd’s 1863 posthumous History of Hadley notes a scouting expedition undertaken by colonial troops in 1676, six weeks after that bloodbath: “On the 28th of June, about 30 men went up towards the falls, and espied no Indians. They burnt a hundred wigwams upon an island, ruined an Indian fort, spoiled an abundance of fish which they found in Indian barns underground, and destroyed 30 canoes.”

Considering fragile wetland banks, safety concerns, and its cultural and historic importance, that island should remain off limits. It should not suffer the indignity of becoming a landing pad for river joyriders. Endangered shortnose sturgeon need shielding from slamming, overtopping and landing watercraft when they begin gathering there in early April. From that time on, throughout June, spawning sturgeon and developing embryos and young need protection from paddles, rafts, beaching crowds–and their attendant turbidity. Other fragile species would benefit. Those spring weeks would be a great time for a Turners Falls Sturgeon Revival Festival.

Just over a quarter century ago two state- and federally-endangered bald eagles began nesting on an unnamed Connecticut River island just upstream at Barton Cove. A host of boaters, birders and photographers were soon vying for close-ups of the birds in 1991. To safeguard that biological heritage the island was made off-limits to ensure the eagles’ life cycle–courtship, nest-building, hatching, brooding and rearing, could proceed unimpeded. A perimeter barred approach by water and signs warned trespassers of fines and jail time under federal and state law. Environmental policed patrolled the area. Until that nest tree toppled in 2008, nearly three dozen bald eagles fledged from the site. That’s how it’s done.

# # #

Karl Meyer of Greenfield serves on the Fish and Aquatics Study Team in the current FERC relicensing process for Connecticut River generating sites in Massachusetts. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

PROTECTING AN EMBATTLED HERITAGE

Posted by on 19 Aug 2017 | Tagged as: American Whitewater, Appalachian Mountain Club, Dead Reach, Federal Conte Anadromous Fish Research Center, New England FLOW

NOTES: If you go to the banner page of this website and scroll down through a few photos you will come to one of a smiling young guy named Charlie Read. It was taken a decade back on one of his many Memorial Day bicycle rides around the Quabbin Reservoir. Charlie had become a remarkable young man, beloved by his parents Clif and Arleen and sister Susan, when he unexpectedly passed away from a relatively unknown complication from epilepsy just over a year ago.

Charlie will remain in the hearts of all who knew him as a smart, caring, playful, tenacious, friend, son, brother, athlete, student and teammate by the many people whose lives he touched. Clif and Arleen Read, and friends, undertook a cross country cycling trip this summer in honor of their son, raising money along the way for the Epilepsy Foundation. You can follow their journey, completed earlier this month–and still donate, by going to c2c4charlie.org. A fitting tribute to a fine young man, missed by all.

The following piece appeared this month in the Daily Hampshire Gazette (gazettenet.com), and in slightly edited version of The Greenfield Recorder (recorder.com). (Note that the Connecticut River Watershed Council has changed its name to the Connecticut River Conservancy).

Copyright © 2017 by Karl Meyer

PROTECTING AN EMBATTLED HERITAGE

A fragile legacy clings to life in the Connecticut River at Turners Falls just downstream of where the Great Falls Discovery Center perches above an ancient cataract once known as Peskeomscut. It includes a dozen state-endangered and threatened plants and insects, a rare freshwater clam, plus several culturally and archeologically sensitive islands and the only known natural spawning site for the federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon. Currently no part of that legacy is safeguarded in any meaningful way by the handful of responsible government agencies.

The view downstream from the Turners Falls Bridge consists largely of a dewatered riverbed, parching stream banks, and islands bereft of anything that might offer life-giving nourishment. It’s a reach depauperized by seesawing flows diverted at the adjacent dam and greatly influenced by the huge suck-and-surge water appetite of the PSP Investments’s Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, five miles upstream.

All rarities here have been documented within the past quarter century. The beleaguered islands speak for themselves. All remain subject to industrial abuse and human encroachment. Two federal, and a handful state agencies are responsible for safeguarding that legacy. Sadly even the US Geological Survey’s Conte Anadromous Fish Research Lab abandoned monitoring the few dozen spawning-ready shortnose sturgeon attempting reproduction in an ancient pool there a decade ago. That “Rock Dam pool,” below a tiny waterfall, sits just beyond the Lab’s west windows.

If the National Marine Fisheries Service, MA Fish & Wildlife’s Natural Heritage Program, the MA Historical Commission, the USGS and the US Fish & Wildlife Service are serious about protecting a river’s legacy, it’s time to act. In 2007 the Connecticut River Watershed Council produced its 3rd edition of the Connecticut River Boating Guide. On March 13, 2017, the Council convened a meeting of its recreational constituents in Brattleboro VT. There it was clear commercial and recreational whitewater interests are keen to begin rides in that fragile Turners Falls reach. They want new put-ins and spring flows to accommodate bulky, seven-person rafts and personal watercraft. They’d already showed up in force there in May 2016 to joyride atop the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s mandated test flows, flows meant to enhance the survival of sturgeon and other migrants.

If new flows are mandated by FERC’s 2018 new hydro licenses there, American Whitewater, the Appalachian Mountain Club and New England Flow will again be looking to make two-second passes over those tiny Rock Dam falls. A little watery pool there is where spring sturgeon gather and spawn, and where embryos and young develop through June. But American Whitewater’s representative that day contended there would be no ill impacts from rides over that low escarpment into the sturgeon’s spawning pool. One commercial interest even suggested a path should be cut across the adjoining island, so rafts could be carried back upstream for repeat runs.

But that tiny drop and pool is adjacent to an island of historic importance owned by Western Massachusetts Electric. It’s a place of cultural and archeological significance to Native Americans whose ancestors were attacked in the Turners Falls Massacre. The site is geographically and physically the likely fishing refuge occupied by Native groups who counter attacked and routed Turner’s army on May 19, 1676. Current archeological investigations are in progress relating to that attack and the area’s ancient battle paths. Historian Sylvester Judd’s 1863 posthumous History of Hadley notes a scouting expedition undertaken by colonial troops in 1676, six weeks after that bloodbath: “On the 28th of June, about 30 men went up towards the falls, and espied no Indians. They burnt a hundred wigwams upon an island, ruined an Indian fort, spoiled an abundance of fish which they found in Indian barns underground, and destroyed 30 canoes.”

Considering fragile wetland banks, safety concerns, and its cultural and historic importance, that island should remain off limits. It should not suffer the indignity of becoming a landing pad for river joyriders. Endangered shortnose sturgeon need shielding from slamming, overtopping and landing watercraft when they begin gathering there in early April. From that time on, throughout June, spawning sturgeon and developing embryos and young need protection from paddles, rafts, beaching crowds–and their attendant turbidity. Other fragile species would benefit. Those spring weeks would be a great time for a Turners Falls Sturgeon Revival Festival.

Just over a quarter century ago two state- and federally-endangered bald eagles began nesting on an unnamed Connecticut River island just upstream at Barton Cove. A host of boaters, birders and photographers were soon vying for close-ups of the birds in 1991. To safeguard that biological heritage the island was made off-limits to ensure the eagles’ life cycle–courtship, nest-building, hatching, brooding and rearing, could proceed unimpeded. A perimeter barred approach by water and signs warned trespassers of fines and jail time under federal and state law. Environmental policed patrolled the area. Until that nest tree toppled in 2008, nearly three dozen bald eagles fledged from the site. That’s how it’s done.

# # #

Karl Meyer of Greenfield serves on the Fish and Aquatics Study Team in the current FERC relicensing process for Connecticut River generating sites in Massachusetts. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

ONE WILDLY ILL-ADVISED RIDE

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

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

Copyright © 2016 by Karl Meyer

ONE WILDLY ILL-ADVISED RIDE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Secretary Beaton needs better advice.

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

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

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

P1000358
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

P1000467

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.

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..?

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.

Missing camera in missing river

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Stakeholder PROTEST of FERC Revised Study Plan finding endangering Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon

Posted by on 07 Mar 2016 | Tagged as: Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Dead Reach, Dr. Boyd Kynard, endangerd shortnose sturgeon, Endangered Species Act, ESA, Extinction, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FERC, Fish and Aquatics Study Team, GDF-Suez FirstLight, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, National Marine Fisheries Service, NMFS, NOAA, Rock Dam, Secretary Kimberly Bose, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS

(The following Stakeholder testimony was submitted to FERC on March 4, 2016)

Karl Meyer, M.S.
85 School Street # 3
Greenfield, MA, 01301
413-773-0006 March 4, 2016

The Honorable Kimberly D. Bose, Secretary
Federal Energy Regulatory Commission
88 First Street, NE
Washington, DC 20426

RE: P-1889 and P-2485, and federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, (Acipenser brevirostrum)

PROTEST of FERC-sanctioned Revised Plan for Study 3.3.19, issued to FirstLight Power Resources, Inc, in a February 25, 2016 FERC letter to Mr. James P. Donohue of FirstLight, by Vince E. Yearick, FERC Director, Division of Hydropower Relicensing.

Dear Secretary Bose,

I protest the FERC finding issued on February 25, 2016 for P-2485 and P-1889 specifically because it sanctions test flows that are documented to cause spawning failure for the federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon (Acipenser brevirostrum) at its only documented natural spawning site, the Rock Dam, in the Connecticut River. FirstLight has proposed and FERC has accepted Study Plan test flows of 1500 cubic feet per second in the CT River’s By Pass Reach for April, May and June 2016. That low level of flow will displace and wipe out a full season’s spawning and rearing of Young of Year life stage SNS at their ancient Rock Dam nursery site.

Though my FERC Stakeholder comments of January 28, 2016 specifically addressed this ESA issue, FirstLight did not respond to the endangerment issue in its RSP revisions. Further, I had made this issue clear to FirstLight and its agents, FERC staff, and key stakeholder agencies in an email delivered on January 20, 2016. I again reiterated the endangered species impacts to those same parties in an email delivered on February 24, 2016. Madam Secretary, I again made my concerns about spawning interference and failure to you and for the FERC record in a letter delivered February 26, 2016. All are available for perusal in the FERC record for P-2485 and P-1889.

Shortnose sturgeon gather at this spawning and nursery site annually between April 22 and May 25 for pre-spawning and spawning. Further, the complex of key biological characteristics of flow, varying depths, and cobble/sand habitat provide SNS with protective options that nurture developing Young of the Year throughout June into July.

According to 17 years of published studies at that site documented by Dr. Boyd Kynard and research colleagues, a continuous minimum flow of 2500 cfs is required to protect sturgeon spawning and rearing at this site. Therefore, I PROTEST the findings of the FERC Revised Study Plan determination issued by FERC on February 25, 2016, and request that only continuous protective minimum flows of 2500 cfs be allowed in this study, and throughout the 2016 SNS spawning and rearing season, as well as all ensuing springs.

The following publication has been referenced in the FERC ILP for these projects by both federal and state stakeholder agencies, FERC, as well as FirstLight and their agents.

“LIFE HISTORY AND BEHAVIOUR OF CONNECTICUT RIVER SHORTNOSE AND OTHER STURGEONS, 2012, by Boyd Kynard, Paolo Bronzi et al, World Sturgeon Conservation Society: Special Publication # 4

“Effect of hydroelectric operations on spawning”

Page 101, bottom: “During the 11 yr spawning failed (excluding the failed migration in 2002), when discharge levels were too low for 5 yr and too high for 4 yr. During one yr (2007), discharge during April was both to low and too high. When spawning failed at RockD due to low discharge during 4 yr (1995, 1998, 1999, and 2006)m discharge decreased to <70 m3 s-1 for at least 4 d by 30 April (Fig. 14), the earlier period of low discharge likely marked a threshold making the RockD unattractive to spawning fish.”

Further published data, tables, and required flows necessary in this reach appear on pages 101-102 of LIFE HISTORY AND BEHAVIOUR OF CONNECTICUT RIVER SHORTNOSE AND OTHER STURGEIONS.

I would welcome a FERC hearing on this critical ESA issue and would make myself available for testimony. Thank you for your attention to this pressing matter.

Sincerely,
Karl Meyer
Fish and Aquatics Study Team, P-2485 and P-1889

Cc’d via email to:
Brandon Cherry, FERC
James Donohue, FirstLight
Julie Crocker, NOAA
John Warner, USFWS
Caleb Slater, MA Division of Fisheries & Wildlife

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