federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon

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ENDGAME LOOMS FOR NEW ENGLAND’S GREAT RIVER

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

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


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

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

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

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

Rivers should not die in the dark.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Tale of Two Salmon, a River Without Fish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A River Run in Reverse

What’s ultimately at issue here is flow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Run Stops in Massachusetts.

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

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

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

Why the Restoration Failed

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

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

The Prescription

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IS IT CLEAN? Connecticut River at its most Critical Habitat

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

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


Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

Issue # 3: The River Emptied at Spring

Posted by on 13 May 2020 | Tagged as: American shad, Bellows Falls VT, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Endangered Species Act, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeion, FERC, FERC license, FirstLight, Greenfield Recorder, Holyoke Dam, Holyoke Fish Lift, migratory fish, Narragansett, Nipmuck, Northfield Mountain, Norwottuck, Pocumtuck, Rock Dam, Rock Dam Pool, shad, Silvio O. Conte Connecticut River National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, Turner Falls Massacre, Turners Falls, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, US Geological Survey's Conte Fish Lab, USFWS, Vermont, Walpole

THIS GREAT AND BROKEN RIVER III

Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Issue # 3: The River Emptied at Spring

Dismal Mother’s Day flow at Turner’s Falls Dam and Fishway Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer (Click X 3 for closeup, click back arrow to return to text)

It was a grim Mother’s Day weekend for the Connecticut River in Massachusetts. The only current left in the riverbed below Turners Falls Dam amounted to little more than a thin, spreading soup winding a shallow path around successive ridges of drying ledge as it threaded together a downstream path along it’s ancient, impoverished bed. Anyone with a pair of rubber boots could’ve easily walked across the Connecticut just a few hundred feet below that dam without much risk of getting wet to the knees–smack in the middle of fish migration and spawning season in the heart of the Silvio O. Conte Connecticut River National Fish and Wildlife Refuge.

There’s something soulless in starving a river of its flow—particularly in the spring when the shadbush is in bloom, the columbine have sprouted, and the fish are in the river. This year, with the corona virus draining spirits and sapping energy during March and April, the presence of a living river in Western New England’s back yard was something to anticipate come May. The light returned, the trees were in flower, birds were making music, and energy use was in its usual seasonal retreat—demand being down ever since a warmer than normal winter.


Days Earlier Flow over Turners Falls Dam May 5, 2020 Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer (Click X 3, back arrow to return to text)

This should have been a promising early May on New England’s Great River. But no–not here in northern Massachusetts–not this Mother’s Day weekend. For migrating American shad seeking a route upstream here, the river was literally a road to nowhere. As of Monday, May 11th, though some 18,000 shad had passed upstream at the Holyoke Fishway, 36 river miles to the south, not a single shad had been tallied managing to pass beyond the grim maze of a power canal and several ladders to emerge above Turners Falls Dam. By Monday not a single migrant from the ocean had been tallied passing that dam–thus none were present moving upstream to open Vermont, New Hampshire and northern Massachusetts habitats. The public has no access to the fishway this year, and FirstLight has not provided a simple video feed for people to see their fish. At Turners Falls, the power company alone, is left to monitor itself and report on the public’s fish.


Shad Anglers below Holyoke Dam May 7, 2020 Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer

But, most grimly again this May, river conditions on Mother’s Day were altogether devastating for federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon attempting to spawn and nurture young in the currents at their ancient Rock Dam spawning pool–a mile and a half downstream of the dam. Vital river flows at a natural basalt, in-stream formation known as Rock Dam–which had been accommodating for spawning sturgeon just a week before, were shut down to the point where the cobble shoals that shelter eggs and developing young were now visible along a receded shoreline.

Hopeful shad anglers from the adjacent USGS Conte Lab and nearby US Fish & Wildlife Service in Sunderland were present to witness the impacts. This year’s potential progeny–at the sturgeon’s only documented natural spawning site in the ecosystem, were once more left to desiccate–starved of life-giving, oxygenating water as the sun warmed the prematurely exposed, rocky shallows. Though not fishing on this Mother’s Day morning, one of the leaders of the local Nolumbeka Project stopped to inquired of me if the sturgeon had been able to successfully spawn this year. I had to tell him no.

For the second year running FirstLight Power had squeezed the bascule gates closed at Turners Fall Dam, leaving just a curtain of a few hundred cubic feet per second (cfs) of flow entering the starved riverbed below Turners Falls Dam. The Federal Energy Regulatory license for FL’s Turners Falls and Northfield Mountain operations expired two years back on April 30, 2018. . Conditions in a new license would have hopefully increased that dribbling flow at the dam by a factor of 20. Grimly, the starving of this Great River is occurring at the exact site where women, children and elders of the Nipmuck, Pocumtuck, Norwottuck and Narragensett People were set upon and slaughtered in their pre-dawn sleep in the Turners Falls Massacre on May 19, 1676.

But FERC stepped in on FirstLight’s behalf, and has now offered two years of license extensions to this Canadian-owned, Delaware-registered company, allowing these grim impacts to continue. In doing so it has now green-lighted these conditions for three consecutive spawning seasons–allowing crippling industrial practices put in place 52 years back to choke the life out of four-state migratory fish runs, and crushing the spawning prospects for those sturgeon–literally the Connecticut’s only federally endangered migratory fish species. This, in an ecosystem that should have had connected and sustaining flows and fish passage upstream to Bellows Falls VT and Walpole NH long ago.

The flows present in the river on Mother’s Day are flows that force endangered sturgeon to default downstream to attempt spawning in the pulsing industrial flows churning out of the Cabot Station powerhouse a half mile downstream. There, any spawned and developing young-of-the-year will have no defense against the scouring-out hydro surges pulsing canal water back into the riverbed below once fertilized young are dispersed in the flows to shelter in rocky shallows .

Those tamped-down Mother’s Day flows from the dam also create conditions that keep American shad in an endless Groundhog Day cycling at Rock Dam–circling and re-circling in the depleted currents at a pool where depths become too shallow to find a flow offering a negotiable upstream path. Anglers sometimes do quite well at this migratory cull-de-sac where agitated, circling shad snap at darts while wasting hours and energy in this suspended-migration.

But those same tamped down flows diverted at TF Dam also cause just-arriving American shad from Holyoke to be led directly to the false upstream currents exiting the power canal at Cabot Station. Sensing that upstream attraction flow, those unlucky fish get drawn into a ponderous and exhausting fish ladder there. There they are diverted entirely out of the riverbed and into a concrete chute where they must attempt to better an impossible series of steps, twists, and turns that will ultimately dump them into the alien and un-river-like environs of the Turners Falls power canal. Once they enter that industrial habitat, many end their upstream migrations altogether, spending weeks in the labyrinth of that walled corridor without finding a way out and upstream.

Grimly, this year was nearly a carbon copy of the brutal conditions visited below Turners Falls the week of Mother’s Day 2019. Last year at this time researchers tallied the largest-ever catch of spawning-run endangered sturgeon gathered at their Rock Dam nursery pool, corralling 48 fish in a morning survey of a biologist’s net. Days later, at the height of shortnose spawning season, FirstLight abruptly cut off life giving flows to the site. Those same banks and cobbles were exposed, and the spawning run sturgeon were sent packing—forced to abandon the site, with any embryos and young that might have proved viable left withering in the shallows.


FL’s Locked Entrance at Cabot Woods & Rock Dam mid-afternoon May 5, 2020 Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer

You might have expected more from FirstLight this year. This is a Canadian shareholder company seeking a new federal license to operate these facilities on the Connecticut River in Massachusetts after recently re-registering them in Delaware as tax shelters. But, now that FERC continues to allow them to profit off the grim and antiquated tenets of a license written under the Federal Power Commission 52 years ago, they seem in no particular hurry to become relicensed neighbors operating for profit on a four-state US river that is the centerpiece of a National Fish and Wildlife Refuge.

These ongoing grim flow regimes fly in the face of mandates long-ago included in the Endangered Species Act and the Anadramous Fish Conservation Act, here, in the most biologically important and critical habitat in the entire Connecticut River ecosystem. They also feel like a thumbing of the nose at Massachusetts taxpayers—as well as all the deserving citizens in the three states from Montague MA to Walpole NH, who also pay taxes and are certainly entitled to a living river. It is a form of public theft.

As the Connecticut River is left starved, its ancient fish runs foundering, there is no movement to bring to a close the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s “5-year” relicensing process—begun here in 2012 and lingering on, laughably unfinished. The power company continues to pocket profits, while the FERC is led by a stilted and hand-picked majority happy to feed the corporations what they want, to the benefit of foreign shareholders far from New England. Sadly, there is no state or federal environmental agency that appears willing to challenge this endless delay. And, as noted here before—this four-state river lacks a true NGO watchdog with a mission-mandate and staff lawyers protecting it. See The Greenfield Recorder: https://www.recorder.com/New-England-s-great-river-without-a-watchdog-33291778

THIS GREAT AND BROKEN RIVER

Posted by on 28 Apr 2020 | Tagged as: 5-year FERC licensing process, American shad, Bellows Falls VT, blueback herring, Canada, climate-heating, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River migratory fisheries restoration, ecosystem, Endangered Species Act, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FERC, FirstLight, FirstLight Power, Holyoke Dam, Holyoke Fish Lift, Holyoke Gas & Electric, Massachusetts Division of Fish & Wildlife, Micah Kieffer, migratory fish, National Marine Fisheries Service, New Hampshire, Northfield Mountain, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project, pumped storage, Rock Dam, Rock Dam Pool, shad, shortnose sturgeon, State of Delaware, The Great Eddy, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, US Geological Survey's Conte Fish Lab, Vermont, Vermont Yankee

THIS GREAT AND BROKEN RIVER

Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Issue # 1, First Daylight for an Embattled Run

The tiniest spark of life reentered New England’s Great River on Tuesday, April 21, 2020. According to Ken Sprankle, Connecticut River Project Leader for the US Fish & Wildlife Service, the fish lifts began operating that morning at the Holyoke Dam, 82 miles from the sea. And on that day the first two migrating American shad of the spawning season were lifted upstream.


Holyoke Dam. Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Click x3.

I got that fragile bit of good news on Earth Day, and it was truly a bright spot in what seems a very distant and fragile time for people, ecosystems, and our beleaguered planet. And during this Covid pandemic, while our warming atmosphere is experiencing a brief respite from the particulate pummeling of jets and cars, the Connecticut is being brutalized as catch basin for all the chemicals, chlorine and antibiotics that are currently being flushing out into–and right through, our sewage treatment plants to the River… As such, the Connecticut had little to celebrate on the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day.

Nonetheless those two fish meant there would at least be some vestige of the spring run that once fed river communities for hundreds of miles along this central artery for untold centuries into the past.

It’s the public’s river, and these are the public’s fish. Those are the facts that I always keep in mind whenever I write or speak about the Connecticut. But there’s also this basic tenet for me: a river is a living system; it exists of its own right and its right to survive and thrive should thus be an unquestioned part of its existence. We humans have a moral obligation to protect the life of rivers, just as they have nourished, protected and supported the very ecosystems we’ve relied on for time immemorial.

For me, to kill a river is an immoral act. To flaunt any part of the legal framework that federal and state law has put in place protecting them is both criminal and repugnant. But maybe that’s just me…

Holyoke Dam looking toward Fish Lifts. Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Click x3.

Now two shad aren’t much in many minds, I’ll admit. But what those two shad—likely early males meant, was that the Connecticut had actually become a living river once more. At least a part of it. That tenuous little reconnection was completed when one fat, industrial bucket of river water was pulled from the downstream side of Holyoke Dam and dumped on the upstream side. Two living, blue-green American shad swam out into 35 miles of upstream river that all downstream fish are denied access to for some six months out of every year. That’s way less than a half-living river.

But what that tiny spark meant, more than symbolically was that—on the most basic level, the Connecticut was reopened along a tiny stretch as a true river–a TWO-WAY highway where migrating and resident fish can move both upstream and down as part of this ancient ecosystem highway.

The Holyoke Dam is historic for two reasons: First, it is the barrier at the center of the 1872 landmark US Supreme Court decision in Holyoke Company v. Lyman that established that dam owners and operators must provide passage for migratory fish—both upstream, and downstream, of their barriers. Second, though imperfect and of the simplest most basic design—i.e. upstream, in-river attraction flows leading migrating fish to be corralled in a closeable, industrial bucket and lifted over the dam–those Holyoke Fish lifts have remained the most successful fish passage on the entire East Coast since 1955.

For the next few months Holyoke’s industrial buckets will facilitate a stuttering recreation of the former Connecticut as a living, 2-way river while American shad, sea lamprey, shortnose sturgeon and blueback herring attempt to access ancient spawning grounds. For many that open habitat reaches all the way to the dam between Bellows Falls VT and Walpole NH–nearly 90 miles upriver. That ancient destination, however, remains a cruel impossibility for all but a fortunate few migrants…

The Great Eddy at Bellows Falls Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Click x 3.

Once again this spring the vast majority of those hundreds of thousands of fish passing upstream at Holyoke will be thwarted from reaching the wide open spawning habitat anywhere above the Turners Falls Dam. That dam sits just 35 miles upstream of the Holyoke lifts. It’s an easy swim for most– just a day, maybe two.

But once they approach that river reach and barrier there won’t be accommodating riverbed flows or any lifts offering suitable passage upstream. They’ll encounter vacillating, confused flows and a series of obstacle-filled fish ladders that funnel all migrants into the grim habitats of the Turners Falls power canal before any get an outside chance to squeeze past the dam itself. Most never do. Perhaps one fish in ten will succeed–leaving the next 68 miles of Connecticut River habitat impoverished and all but empty of its ancient migrants.

And for shortnose sturgeon, one of this river’s most ancient species and the only federally-endangered migrant in this ecosystem, prospects are yet more dire. With the actual riverbed in the 2 miles below Turners Falls Dam sporadically deluged and emptied of suitable natural current, these fish are all vulnerable to being again robbed of what should be an annual, slam-dunk spawning aggregation at their only documented natural spawning site in the ecosystem–the Rock Dam in Turners Falls. Another season will go by without life-giving mandated flows to this critical habitat due an absence of enforcement protection and license requirements.

Of course, that was to have changed two years back.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission licenses for operation of the Turners Falls/Cabot Station hydro sites and the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project expired two years back on April 30, 2018. New flows and fish passage requirements should have been re-nourishing the endlessly pummeled and impoverished river in the beleaguered miles above and below Turners Falls Dam since that time. However, for the crippled run here, there is literally nothing new. Fish at Turners Falls today are almost as effectively blocked from moving upstream into Vermont, New Hampshire and northern Massachusetts waters as they were when the first dam across the Connecticut there blocked these runs beginning in 1798.

Today, the crushing suck-and-surge impacts of Northfield Mountain’s net-energy-loss, peak-price/peak-demand operations continue brutalizing the grimmest 10 miles in the entire ecosystem–cannibalizing the river’s fish runs and chewing through young-of-the-year. Pumped storage is not renewable energy, nor is it anything like the conventional river hydropower much of the public thinks it generates. Northfield Mountain consume vast amounts of virgin electricity from the grid here—most if it generated through imported natural gas, to pump the Connecticut backwards and a mile uphill. NMPS is in reality an energy consumer. It’s massive pull off the grid gets tallied in negative megawatts.

Today, the revival and protection of those long-ago, lawfully mandated runs remains stuck at Turners Falls and Northfield Mountain. The so-called FERC 5-year Integrated Licensing Process(ILP) that should have given them their two basic necessities for survival—water, and a safe, timely route upstream and down, actually began in the fall of 2012. It drags on to this day.

The day after FirstLight at long-last submits its final license application for examination to FERC–and the federal fisheries agencies with conditioning authority on the Connecticut, it will be September. September signals the beginning of the 9th year this supposed stream-lined FERC ILP has been malingering on this river system. FirstLight left off negotiations over a year ago with the US Fish & Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, and the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife for required new river conditions and construction of fish lifts. There has been no movement since that time.

Any delay in the construction of a fish lift at Turners Falls, and the requirement for real, life-sustaining flows in the riverbed, benefits this recently-arrived power company. Their interest is in stakeholder and corporate profit—and this is a Canadian-owned outfit that re-registered all of these assets out of Massachusetts, chopping them into a series of tax sheltered Delaware LLCs in late-2018. FERC continues to allow FL “extensions of time” to make their license-required filings, delaying what have long-been federally required mandates for river and migratory fish protections.


The de-watered Rock Dam Pool where shortnose sturgeon attempt to spawn, just after 6:00 a.m., May 17, 2019. Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Click x 3.

FL is now citing that restructuring as another reason for delay in submitting their “final license application” until August 31, 2020—that’s two years and four months of operating and profiting from a destructive and river de- pauperizing extended license. The current extension still requires only 400 cubic feet per second to be released into the Connecticut River bed in the spring migration season through which shad attempt to move upstream in—and embattled,federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon attempt to spawn in. That’s the equivalent of substituting a small brook for a river. Sturgeon spawning fails at the Rock Dam site most years, often caused by the abrupt ratcheting of those spring flows down to little more than that trickle.

Studies and investigations by the federal fish agencies show that a massive increase in sustained spring flows are baseline requirements for a living river here. Last year n the first week of May spring flows of some 10,000 cubit feet per second were coursing down the Connecticut’s “dead reach” here–and right through the Rock Dam pool. Shad anglers were landing fish by the dozen. On May 10, 2019, USGS Conte Lab researcher Micah Kieffer put out a research net overnight in that pool. Then next morning he found 48 federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon weighing it down—the largest aggregation ever recorded there. Kieffer continued his successful sturgeon netting through the following week, until coming up empty on Friday, May 17, 2019. He got “skunked” that day after flows through the Rock Dam reach were abruptly cut by FL to a relative trickle, exposing the cobble-lined shores of that pool where embryos and young develop.

Clearly, those 10,000 cfs flows are what are necessary to restore life to this river. They are required and long overdue—at a season when electricity demand is at some of its lowest points in the year.

The first year license extension by FERC was allowed because of the shuttering of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant upstream. VY’s excessive, night nuclear megawatts were the grim, 40 year engine that enabled Northfield Mountain to suck the river into reverse and pump it up into a 4 billion gallon reservoir to later re-create second-hand electricity at high prices.

Now restructured, FL appears in no hurry to move ahead with new licenses. Their study results have often been delayed in being handed over to the federal fisheries agencies and study teams in this relicensing–or handed in on the very last day the process requires. They seem happy to tread water and realize profits–while NMPS’s fish-eating, net-energy loss operations continue running along, largely fueled via the imported, climate-scorching, natural gas generated electricity now bloating the grid.

The longer you don’t have to put a shovel in the ground or give this US River its flows for federally-required fish passage, the more money you keep. It’s time FERC stopped letting them off the hook. Stop stringing this process along. It’s time this river was brought into compliance with 1872’s Holyoke Company v. Lyman; it’s time to comply with the federal Endangered Species Act of 1973. It is the public’s river; these are the public’s fish.

Addendum: on Friday, April 24th, USFWS’s Ken Sprankle sent a note that the Holyoke Gas & Electric had shut down its fish lifts due to accumulating debris in its assembly. They would not operate through the weekend, and a fix would be attempted on Monday. Thus, the Connecticut became a one-way stream again anywhere above South Hadley Falls, leaving the next 88 empty miles of river still in midst of an endless vigil–awaiting the migratory runs guaranteed by the Supreme Court 148 years ago. Hopefully, for those migrating shad—and perhaps other early migrants wasting another week’s precious spawning-energy reserves while knocking on Holyoke’s door, those lifts are again operating and in full motion today.

Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon: a spectacular failure to protect

Posted by on 26 Mar 2020 | Tagged as: Christopher Chaney, Christopher Cheney, Clean Water Act, Connecticut River, Connecticut River pollution, Connecticut River riverbank failure, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Dr. Boyd Kynard, Endangered Species Act, EnviroSho, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FERC, FirstLight, FirstLight Power Resources, Kimberly D. Bose, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, manganese pollution, Massachusetts Division of Fish & Wildlife, National Marine Fisheries Service, NMFS, P-1889, Rock Dam, Secretary Kimberly Bose, Turners Falls, Turners Falls power canal, Uncategorized, US Fish & Wildlife Service, www.whmp.com

Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon: a spectacular failure to protect
Copyright © 2020, by Karl Meyer. All rights reserved.

Photo Copyright © 2020, by Karl Meyer (click X3 to enlarge)
Well over 4 months since I registered my October 9, 2019 Comments describing critical erosion and polluting impacts on the Connecticut River at fragile habitat at the Rock Dam in Turners Falls–the sole documented natural spawning site for the federally endangered shortnose sturgeon in this river FirstLight Power Resources received instructions from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s Christopher Cheney at the Office of Hydro Compliance. On February 21, 2020, they included the following:

“Dear Mr. Traester:

On October 9, 2019, we received a complaint regarding erosion in the bypassed reach of the Turners Falls Project No. 1889. According to the complaint, releases from the dam caused erosion in the area known as the Rock Dam in the project’s bypassedreach. For us to complete our review of the of the complaint, please file the followinginformation within 30 days of the date of this letter:

1. Photographs and the location(s) and an estimate of the extent(s) (e.g., height, width, depth) of the erosion in the bypassed reach identified in the October 9, 2019complaint.”

Here are some key points, verbatim, from my October 9, 2019 letter, including impacts on this fragile endangered-species spawning site and habitat—and addressing as well, federal and state laws and license conditions:

“In recent weeks I have noted increasingly steady water leakage in the riverbanks above the Rock Dam site, leading to constant water flow intrusions along these banks. Less than 400 feet away sits the downstream, outer-right banking curve of the Turners Falls power canal, which is the apparent source of these increasing water intrusions.
Photo Copyright © 2020, by Karl Meyer.

In a visit to the Rock Dam site on October 8, 2019, I noted the dramatic collapses of a long section of riverbank adjacent to the Rock Dam. This collapse, of some 25 feet in width and dropping down between 5 – 10 feet toward the river, is apparent in my attached photo. Please note that the draped yellow jacket in the foreground is approximately 3-1/2 feet across. This new bank collapse is just south, by perhaps 30 feet, from an earlier recent collapse of a smaller scale of some 6 feet across, occurring at approximately the same bank level. At both of these sites there has been a serious leaching of manganese, the red colored flow toward the river and the sand and cobbles that constitute the shortnose sturgeon spawning site and egg/embryo nursery unique to this reach. Photo Copyright © 2020, by Karl Meyer. (click X3 to enlarge)

Please take action requiring immediate remedy to this situation, which appears to concern license and statute infractions that run afoul of the federal Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, and Article 17 concerning erosion; Article 19, concerning construction and maintenance; Article 18 concerning fishing access; and Article 35 concerning State Historic Preservation under the current license for P-1889.”
Photo Copyright © 2020, by Karl Meyer (click x3 to enlarge)

FirstLight responded on March 20, 2020. They included an all-but-useless satellite shot for a federal agency that has exact information on this site, and pictures of boulder-rubble that connect directly to their dumped rubble that is currently tumbling from their ancient attempts to shore up the failing Connecticut River banks above and adjacent to the TF power canal.
This is evidence of the power company’s failure in decades past. They now attempt infer that the tumbled rocks here are the work of the public and fishermen, not the failed detritus of their ongoing neglect.

FirstLight also failed to address the requested measurements from FERC. And, as to my original complaint, they leave out any mention of manganese, the intrusions and water—and it’s leaching and crumbling connections to the Turners Falls power canal; as well as failure to protect and maintain critical shortnose sturgeon spawning habitat. Nor does FL address the ESA, Clean Water Act, and current FERC license conditions required at this site. Below are excerpts from FL’s response, and below that is a link that you may be able to use to access FirstLight’s full response to FERC:

“FirstLight cannot provide dimensions of the extent of the erosion because there is no evidence of any recent erosion in this natural river channel.”
Above photo taken March 25, 2020 w/sturgeon expert Dr. Boyd Kynard at right, on the failed banks adjacent to Rock Dam. (click X3 to enlarge) Photo Copyright © 2020, by Karl Meyer.

Further, FL states, “Photographs were taken on October 29, 2019, after the October 9, 2019 complaint letter. Note moss on the rocks located within the side channel in Photos Nos. 1 and 2, indicating the preexistenceof a wet environment. Note also a Photo No. 3 showing ~12” rocks placed across the side channel. This section of the bypass reach is frequented by the public in summer months. The rocks aligned across the side channel appear to have been placed by unknown members of the general public, possibly to form a barrier or walk path across the side channel, suggesting that the channel is frequently wetted.”

You may be able to access FirstLight’s full response to FERC by copying an pasting the link below:https://elibrary.ferc.gov/idmws/file_list.asp?accession_num=20200318-5043

You may also want to Comment directly to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
Here’s how:
Go to www.ferc.gov ; then to file E-Comment; from there to Documents and Filings; then to Hydro; then to Washington DC; then paste-in P-1889 for the Project # (you must have this), then check the little X Box; then address your comments to “Secretary Kimberly D. Bose” and comment away! Make sure to include your own contact information.

AND, from FERC Hydro Compliance: Christopher.Chaney@ferc.gov

Also, you may want to contact your agency representatives negotiating on the public’s behalf in the current FERC relicensing. They will assuredly forward your message to their Department Chiefs who are responsible for the CURRENT license and river conditions and enforcement:

For the National Marine Fisheries Service: julie.crocker@noaa.gov
For US Fish & Wildlife Service: ken_sprankle@fws.gov ; melissa_grader@fws.gov
For MA Div. of Fish & Wildlife: caleb.slater@state.ma.us

There’s also your federal and state/local reps: Warren, McGovern, Comerford, etc., all represent you! And, you can write to the local media—this effects all at the ground level, and into the future.

Also, a few recent radio spots addressing this issue, below, with thanks to Bob, d.o., and Glen!

The Enviro Show

The Shortnose Sturgeon are Coming to Spawn –in THIS?

Intervening for the Connecticut River Ecosystem

Posted by on 13 Nov 2019 | Tagged as: Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Douglas Bennett, Dr. Boyd Kynard, Endangere Species Act, ESA, Federal Conte Anadromous Fish Research Center, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Federal Recovery Plan, federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeion, FirstLight Power Resources, Kleinschmidt Associates, Micah Kieffer, National Marine Fisheries Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, NMFS, Northfield Control Room, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project, P-1889, P-2485, Recovery Plan for the Shortnose Sturgeon (Acipenser brevirostrum), Rock Dam, Secretary, Section 9–Prohibition of Take Section 9(a)(1), Steven Leach, Turners Falls dam, Uncategorized, US Fish & Wildlife Service, US Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act

NOTE: below, find photographic evidence and the text of my Request for Rehearing delivered to Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Secretary Kimberly D. Bose on August 11, 2019. My request was granted. I will update this posting when FERC delivers its decision on whether FirstLight can be approved for several Transfer of License applications while being out of compliance with current license requirements that have impacted the critical habitat and spawning of a federally-endangered migratory fish. Text begins below photos.

ALSO here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WZVyFgoFYyA is a link to Episode 187 of Local Bias that I recorded with host Drew Hutchison at the studios of Greenfield Community Television. It is running throughout November on GCTV, and has been broadcast in Hadley, MA, HQ home of Region 5, US Fish & Wildlife Service.


PHOTO: dewatered shortnose sturgeon spawning pool at the Rock Dam in the early hours of May 17, 2019. (Click x3 to enlarge)
Photo Copyright © 2019 by Karl Meyer All rights reserved.


PHOTO: Closed bascule gates and cut-off flow to the main stem Connecticut River on the morning of May 17, 2019. (Click x3 to enlarge)
Photo Copyright © 2019 by Karl Meyer All rights reserved.

Karl Meyer, M.S. Environmental Science
91 Smith Street
Greenfield, MA, 01301
karlmeyer1809@verizon.net

August 11, 2019

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

Request for a Rehearing of Commission’s July 11, 2019 Order Approving Transfer of License and Substitution of Relicensing Applicant for P-2485-077, FirstLight Hydro Generating Company to Northfield Mountain LLC; and P-1889-088, FirstLight Hydro Generating Company to FirstLightMA Hydro LLC.

Specifically: the FirstLight Hydro Generating Company, Project No. 2485-077 Northfield Mountain LLC) APPLICATION FOR APPROVAL OF TRANSFER OF LICENSE, SUBSTITUTION OF APPLICANT, AND REQUEST FOR EXPEDITED CONSIDERATION; and FirstLight Hydro Generating Company, Project No. 1889-088, FirstLight MA Hydro LLC ) APPLICATION FOR APPROVAL OF TRANSFER OF LICENSE, SUBSTITUTION OF APPLICANT, AND REQUEST FOR EXPEDITED CONSIDERATION

Dear Secretary Bose,

I request that the Commission rehear and review its expedited decision regarding P-2485 and P-1889. This request is being made in part because I believe the Commission erred when it stated in its approvals of the transfers under the Section D headings that “The Transferer is in Compliance with the License.”

FERC’s decision that FirstLight, in its Section 12 Discussion statements, “demonstrated this transfer is in the public Interest,” was made in error—particularly with respect to its Section 16 statements that, “Our review of the compliance history of the project shows that the licensee has been in compliance.” And further, in FERC’s Section 17 Discussion statements that, “In conclusion, we find that Northfield’s transfer application demonstrates that it is qualified to be the licensee for the project. In this case, the transferee has provided documentation showing its fitness to comply with the terms and conditions of the license.”

My request for a rehearing and withdrawal of the Commission’s July 11, 2019 decision granting these license transfers is that FirstLight was not in compliance of the terms and conditions of its license on May 17, 2019 respecting the federal Endangered Species Act, Section 9.(ESA section 9 makes it unlawful to take (harass, harm, kill, etc.) any endangered species.), as well as Article 45: “The operating of Project No. 2485 shall be coordinated with the operation of Project No. 1889.”

Section 9–Prohibition of Take Section 9(a)(1) makes it illegal to take²² an endangered species of fish or wildlife. The take prohibition has been applied to most threatened species by regulation. ²² *: Take–to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or attempt to engage in any such conduct (section 3 of the ESA–definitions). Harm means an act that actually kills or injures wildlife, and may include significant habitat modification or degradation where it actually kills or injures wildlife by significantly impairing essential behavioral patterns, including breeding, feeding, or sheltering (50 CFR § 17.3, § 222.102).

On May 9, 2019, US Geological Services Micah Kieffer, Research Fishery Biologist at the LSC Conte Anadromous Fish Laboratory detected a signal from a radio-tagged shortnose sturgeon at the Rock Dam, a documented natural SNS spawning site on the Connecticut River. Kieffer, a sturgeon specialist, set two nets in the river overnight, and returned early on the morning of May 10, 2019, to find 48 federally endangered shortnose sturgeon in those nets.

In turn, on May 13, 2019, Kieffer emailed a report of this finding in his ongoing work to biologists and various interested parties and SNS stakeholders, noting: “This past Thursday evening we dropped two gill-nets in the Rock Dam pool. Expecting to capture only a few fish, on Friday morning we instead landed 48 individuals: four females (two pre-spawning, one running, one spent) and 44 males (all running sperm) (pers. comm.)” Duly apprised of the presence and apparent spawning activity of that federal endangered species were two biologists working for FirstLight Power Resources–Steven Leach, Senior Fishery Biologist, FirstLight Power Resources, Inc., and Chris Tomichek, Senior Manager, Kleinschmidt Associates, working as a FL consultant.

In an updating May 22, 2019 email that again included fishery and agency biologists and stakeholders, including myself and FL’s Steven Leach and Chris Tomichek, Kieffer noted:

“Greetings to all SNS stakeholders:
Here is an update on the monitoring of SNS spawning at Montague for 2019. Following the May 13 report, we set additional nets on three days (May 14, 16, and 17), mostly at Rock Dam, but a few at Cabot and the Deerfield River, all day-sets to avoid excessive captures like that we experienced on 5/10. These efforts resulted in the additional capture of 11 fish on 5/14 and another 11 on 5/16 (we got skunked on the 17th). Within these efforts, we captured an additional female running eggs that received an external tag, and we also internally tagged three males, two that we PIT-tagged 25 years ago!”

Having been apprised of SNS spawning activity having been observed at Rock Dam on May 10, 2019, I found the Rock Dam spawning and rearing site had had its flows cut and its banks dewatered just a week later, on the morning of Friday, May 17, 2019. That is the same morning when Kieffer later recorded getting “skunked” at Rock Dam. Upstream, FL had shut bascule gates 2, 3, and 4, while pinching down Bascule 1 to just a few hundred CFS. See photos attached. Flow at the Rock Dam had been ramped down to a shallow lick of whitewater, while robust flows have been documented as necessities for females to remain on that spawning ground. Further, the cobble banks had been dewatered, habitat where embryos shelter and develop. The practice is lethal.

In short, FL’s actions at the dam, controlled from upstream at the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, directly interfered and imperiled SNS spawning. They did this at a time when they were apprised of SNS presence and should have executed the utmost diligence—FL, of its own volition, was in the process of implementing its own test flows for the By Pass reach.

The presence and spawning activity requirements of shortnose sturgeon in the project areas–and within the influences of P-1889 and P-2485 has been known by the license holders for decades. Indeed, several studies were referenced in the PAD, before the beginning of the current relicensing:

From the Northfield Mountain/Turners Falls Pre-Application Document, October 2012, Section 6:

LITERATURE AND INFORMATION SOURCES CITED IN THE DESCRIPTIONS AND SUMMARIES OF EXISTING RESOURCE DATA (18 C.F.R. § 5.6 (c)(2)), pp. 297. – 301
Fish and Aquatic Resources, Sections 6-3, 6-4, 6-5.

Kieffer, Micah & Boyd Kynard. (2007). Effects of Water Manipulations by Turners Falls Dam Hydroelectric Complex Rearing Conditions for Connecticut River Shortnose Sturgeon Early Life Stages. S.O. Turners Falls. MA: Conte Anadromous Fish Research Center.

National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). (1998). Recovery Plan for the Shortnose Sturgeon (Acipenser brevirostrum). Prepared by the Shortnose Sturgeon Recovery Team for the National Marine Fisheries Service, Silver Spring, Maryland. 104 pages.

In an email to SNS stakeholders from FirstLight Manager Douglas Bennett, responding to an inquiry from US Fish & Wildlife Biologist Melissa Grader about see-sawing flows and bascule gate settings, Bennett noted that the FL settings impacting SNS spawning and habitat in the By Pass at Rock Dam in the P-1889 Project area had been implemented in the control room of NMPS, P-2485:

“On Friday morning at approximate 1000 the flows receded enough so that the 6500 cfs by-pass flows were initiated by discharging 4400 cfs over Bascules 1 and 4 and 2100 cfs at TF #1 Station.

The 6500 cfs by-pass flows were maintained until 2400 on Saturday evening when by-pass flows were dropped to 4400 cfs, discharging 2400over Bascule gate 1 and 2100 at TF #1 Station. This was an error on our part due to misinterpretation of conflicting schedules in the Northfield Control Room. Corrective actions have been taken to prevent this going forward.”

I witnessed the Rock Dam water-starved and bank-exposed at 5:30 a.m., and my photo of the listless spill with ONLY Bascule 1 open, was taken at 7:30 a.m. Mr. Bennett’s note states that flows had not come down enough to implement FL-initiated test flows until 1000 hrs. He did not mention the setting hours earlier that I documented. Thus, apparently, there had been a ramping down of the bascule from within the NMPS control room sometime in the early morning hours, with the result of further impacts on spawning SNS through a jumble of see-sawing gate settings.

The Commission notes in its granting of these Transfers that “Section 8 of the FPA requires “any successor or assign of the rights of such licensee . . . shall be subject to all the conditions of the license under which such rights are held by such licensee and also subject to all the provisions and conditions of [the FPA] to the same extent as though such successor as assign were the original licensee.”24. FirstLight, at a time when it was apprised of the presence of a federally endangered species did not meet its license requirements here—regarding the ESA Section 9, and the only federally-endangered migratory fish in the Connecticut River

The Commission further stated that, “Northfield is affiliated with companies in the operation and maintenance of hydroelectric projects and will have access to their expertise.” Their actions clearly demonstrate there was no expertise shown or relayed between P-2485 and P-1889 at this critical time.

The Commission noted, in their decision: “In conclusion, we find that Northfield’s transfer application demonstrates that it is qualified to be the licensee for the project. In this case, the transferee has provided documentation showing its fitness to comply with the terms and conditions of the license.”

Their actions clearly call the company’s fitness to operate these plants into question. Is FERC’s finding that these transfers are “in the public’s interest” valid? FL clearly did not coordinate operations between P-2485 and P-1889 at this critical time, which is clearly spelled out in Article 45 of their license. Those actions should have been updated with the Commission and investigated before a Transfer finding was granted. An investigation and exploration of impacts and penalties under Section 9 of the ESA should be undertaken by the Commission before these transfers are validated.

I therefore request that the Commission undertake a rehearing of these license transfers. The grantor and grantee need to demonstrate they can comply with federal regulations to operate these facilities. Please see attachments.

Thank you for your careful review of these matters.

Sincerely,
Karl Meyer

Who is protecting New England’s Great River??

Posted by on 15 Jul 2019 | Tagged as: Connecticut River migratory fisheries restoration, Conte National Fish & Wildlife Refuge, ecosystem, Endangered Species Act, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federal trust fish, federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeion, FERC, FirstLight Power, Fish and Aquatics Study Team, limited liability corporation, LLC, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, Rock Dam, Rock Dam Pool, shortnose sturgeon, Society of Environmental Journalists, State of Delaware, The Daily Hampshire Gazette, The Greenfield Recorder, Treasury Board of Canada, Turners Falls dam, US Fish & Wildlife Service, US Geological Survey, US Geological Survey's Conte Fish Lab, USFWS

The following piece appeared in The Greenfield Recorder on June 27, 2019, and in the Daily Hampshire Gazette on July 17, 2019. The original title ran as “Sturgeon Revival on the Connecticut.” www.recorder.com, www.gazettenet.com .
Ruined Rock Dam spawning and nursery site on May 17, 2019. At upper left is one of the extremely sensitive island habitats that rafters repeatedly trammeled. NOTE: Click, then click twice more to enlarge. Photo Copyright © 2019 by Karl Meyer, All Rights Reserved.

Story, Copyright © 2019 by Karl Meyer. All Rights Reserved.

Something remarkable occurred below Turners Falls this May: four dozen federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon were discovered at their embattled spawning and nursery site–the largest documented aggregation since long-term research began there in 1992.

In the afternoon of May 8, 2019 when US Geological Services biologist Micah Kieffer walked down to the river near the Silvio O. Conte Anadromous Fish Research Center, he got a surprise “burp” on the receiver he carried. That meant just one thing: a radio-tagged sturgeon was nearby. Since early spring consistent high flows had coursed down the riverbed—a rarity in the oft-emptied, 3-mile reach below the Turners Falls Dam controlled by FirstLight Power. Kieffer hustled back to the USGS Lab, gathering armloads of equipment and securing a boat. By nightfall he’d set out nets, hoping to find a few sturgeon where they’ve likely spawned for thousands of years–a unique, cobble-bottomed pool downstream of the dam.

The big shock came first thing next morning. Weighing down the nets were 48 squirming, 2-3 foot long, endangered sturgeon–one female “running eggs”; the males all running sperm. Kieffer worked quickly to catalogue each fish; returning all to the current. Across a quarter century of intensive federal research started under Amherst’s Dr. Boyd Kynard and continuing under Kieffer, this was a critical discovery near a place called Rock Dam—which hosts a single, tiny rapid. That site is critical to the shortnose’ recovery—it’s a unique biological refuge, and their only documented natural spawning site in the ecosystem.

Life-giving spring flows have been rare below Turners Falls Dam for nearly a half century. Most years currents get violently see-sawed up and down and diverted in and out of the riverbed at that dam via computers operated from inside the 1972 Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, seven miles upstream. Those disruptions help service the massive water and energy appetite of Northfield’s pumped storage electricity regeneration and resale regime. Most years spawning success for this 200 million year-old sturgeon species fails at Rock Dam. That flow chaos has also long-handicapped the stalled, four-state federal Connecticut River Cooperative Fisheries Restoration for shad and herring here.

But this year, nourishing high flow continued through that critical biological reach right into the height of shortnose spawning season—which extends to late May. Operating with minimal staff, Kieffer again managed to anchor “day-set” nets in the river on May 15th and 16th. He got 11sturgeon on each of those days. But when nets were set again on May 17th he suddenly found himself skunked.
Exposed, dewatered shoals in shortnose sturgeon spawning and nursery habitat below Rock Dam.
Photo Copyright © 2019 by Karl Meyer. All Rights Reserved. Click x3 to ENLARGE>

At 7:30 on the morning of May 17th, just a single gate spilled a thin stream of water into the channel below Turners Falls Dam. Though river flows had been slowly subsiding, when FirstLight pinched those gates shut they were pulling the plug on spawning flows. According to Dr. Boyd Kynard in his 2012 book, Life History and Behavior of Connecticut River Shortnose and Other Sturgeons, “Flow reductions that occurred while fish were spawning at RockD caused SNS to leave the area, and after females left, they did not later return to RockD spawning habitat.” What’s worse, that abrupt tamp-down dewatered the cobble bottom and shoals below Rock Dam where spawned eggs and embryos shelter and develop through June. It’s deadly.

Later that morning two gates were opened, re-ramping currents in the river. Over the ensuing days US Fish & Wildlife Service representatives noted gates alternately waffling flows up and down in sturgeon spawning time—from two open, down to one; later up to three. Perhaps encouraged by those settings, on May 29th a rafting company was seen repeatedly sending loaded, lumbering rafts over Rock Dam and walking them up onto sensitive island habitats.

FirstLight and those commercial rafters have long been apprised and legally aware of the presence of endangered sturgeon—federal studies are part of the relicensing record here. Liability is spelled out under the Endangered Species Act. A single act of interference with a federally endangered sturgeon carries a penalty of $49,000 and possible jail time. Those dam settings resulted in grim biological conditions at a time FirstLight should have been exercising utmost care: this was in the midst of their providing experimental flows from the dam to fulfill license requirements for migrating shad while meeting sturgeon spawning needs.

This December, FirstLight reregistered their Northfield and Turners Falls facilities in a series of tax-sheltered, limited liability corporations in the State of Delaware. As a venture capital firm, parent-owned by the Treasury Board of Canada, they’re seeking a new federal license to operate on this U.S. River in our Commonwealth for decades to come. This critical reach should not become a cash-cow playground for corporate shareholders or joyriding rafters. It’s time to celebrate the shortnose sturgeon, and time to let a river heal.

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.

FISH NEED WATER, BUT NONE MORE THAN THIS SPECIES ON THE BRINK

Posted by on 28 May 2019 | Tagged as: Bob Flaherty, Connecticut River Refuge, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Dead Reach, Endangered Species Act, Federal Recovery Plan, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FERC license, National Marine Fisheries Service, NOAA, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, Turners Falls dam, WHMP

FISH NEED WATER, BUT NONE MORE THAN THIS SPECIES ON THE BRINK
Copyright © 2019 by Karl Meyer

Photo above is of the starved Connecticut River at the Rock Dam on May 13, 2018. Photo Copyright © 2018 by Karl Meyer. All Rights Reserved. (CLICK, THEN CLICK TWICE MORE TO ENLARGE)

Simple recovery Rx for the federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon at its ancient spawning grounds: enforce uninterrupted spring flows (April – June) in the Connecticut River’s 3-mile long Dead Reach in Turners Falls.

Most years, spawning fails for this 100 million year-old fish, as flows are diverted out of the riverbed through manipulations of the flood gates at Turners Falls dam–operated from the control room inside the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, located five miles upstream.

The following links to a podcast from a River Report with Bob Flaherty that originally aired on WHMP in mid-May.

https://whmp.com/morning-news/a-federally-endangered-fish-may-finally-get-justice/

Why no FISH?, STILL???

Posted by on 30 Apr 2019 | Tagged as: American shad, Atlantic salmon, Bellows Falls Fishway, blueback herring, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Connecticut River migratory fisheries restoration, Connecticut River Watershed Council, CRASC, Daily Hampshire Gazette, Dr. Boyd Kynard, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federal trust fish, FERC, FirstLight, Gary Sanderson, Greenfield Recorder, Holyoke Fish Lift, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, Montague Reporter, National Marine Fisheries Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, NOAA, Northfield Mountain, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, Public Law 98-138, Rock Dam, shad, shortnose sturgeon, The Greenfield Recorder, The Recorder, Turners Falls, Turners Falls power canal, Uncategorized, US Fish & Wildlife Service, US Geological Survey's Conte Fish Lab, Vernon Dam Fishway

The disastrously-emptied Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Reservoir, June 27, 2010. (CLICK, then Click several times more for FULLEST VIEW) Copyright © 2019 by Karl Meyer. All Rights Reserved.

WHY no FISH…
All photos and text Copyright © 2019 by Karl Meyer. All Rights Reserved.

By clicking on the blue link WHY no FISH… above, and then clicking it again on the following page, you will open an old PowerPoint presentation that I gave to the Pioneer Valley Chapter of Trout Unlimited in Holyoke in December 2010. It will take several minutes to load, but is then largely self-explanatory, with text available below photos, or by clicking the text tab.

On April 30, 2010 I embarked on a journey to the mouth of the Connecticut River by bicycle, to document the grim crippling of the river and its shad runs due to the lack of enforcement and engagement of fisheries agencies and river organizations. At the time, they were all still cheerleaders for a failed salmon program, ignoring the stark facts of the impacts of the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project on American shad and federally endangered shortnose sturgeon.

At the time I was doing part-time work at the Connecticut River Watershed Council, but quit out of frustration and disappointment just a few months after.

Notably, just a year later, the US Fish & Wildlife Service cancelled its long-failed salmon hatchery and “restoration” program on the Connecticut. A year after that, the river conversation became about the impacts of flows in the Dead Reach of the Connecticut, and Dr. Boyd Kynard’s groundbreaking book focusing on federally endangered shortnose sturgeon at the Rock Dam was released–though only following an unconscionable 3-month embargo of his research data by the US Geological Service.

Nearly a decade later, Northfield Mountain remains the Connecticut River ecosystem’s deadliest machine, directly impacting riverine life and migratory fish abundance in three states.

The Connecticut River now has TWO “conservancies”, but not a single NGO that makes any claims for ENFORCEMENT being a chief (or really ANY) component of their mandate. And ENFORCEMENT is a requisite for any true ecosystem restoration and river protection outfit that means to carry out its mission. This is a four-state ecosystem without a legal team. The Connecticut remains a river unprotected.

CONNECTICUT RIVER ALERT: FERC deadline looms

Posted by on 24 Jan 2019 | Tagged as: Canada, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River Refuge, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Conservation Law Foundation, Endangere Species Act, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Federal Recovery Plan, federal trust fish, FERC, FERC Commissioner Neil Chatterjee, FERC licensing process, First Light Hydro Generating Company, FirstLight, Greenfield Community Television, ISO New England, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, Maura Healey, Natalie Blais, National Marine Fisheries Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, NMFS, Northfield Mountain, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project, Paul Mark, Public Comment period, public trust, Rock Dam, shad, Treasury Board of Canada, Turners Falls dam, USFWS, Vermont, Vermont Yankee, Yankee Rowe Nuclear Plant

While federal fisheries stakeholders from the US Fish & Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service are shut out of the FERC relicensing process by the government shutdown, Canada-owned FirstLight Hydro Generating Company has maneuvered to split its assets on the Connecticut River. This is a slick move, and a punch in the gut to all that have been working in good faith on the understanding throughout–since 2012,that these long-co-run plants were to be covered by a single new license: per the power company’s standing, 5 year-old request.

Copy and paste link directly below to see a half hour on this suspect 12th hour maneuver, filmed for later airing on Greenfield Community Television.

NOTE: FERC has extended the COMMENT, PROTEST, and INTERVENTION deadline for Stakeholder to file Motions with them until February 8, 2019. Go back to www.karlmeyerwriting.com/blog and see second blog post following this on this one on how to submit at FERC.gov on Ecomments.

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