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Of Book Bans, Journalism and Shortnose Stout

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

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

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

A red slurry enters the Connecticut at the Rock Dam

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

The sturgeon book authored by Kynard et al

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

A Connecticut River return to the bad old days?

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

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

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

                        A Connecticut River return to the bad old days?

Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer All rights reserved

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SPRING: Private Profit; Public Loss

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

THIS GREAT AND BROKEN RIVER VI

Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

SPRING: Private Profit; Public Loss

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Honoring Peskeomscut

Posted by on 18 May 2020 | Tagged as: American shad, blueback herring, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Deerfield River, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, FERC, FERC licensing process, FirstLight, FirstLight Power, fish passage, Holyoke Dam, Narragansett, Nipmuck, Norwottuck, Peskeomscut, Pocumtuck, Relicensing, Riverside, sea lamprey, shad, The Dead Reach, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls Massacre, Uncategorized

THIS GREAT AND BROKEN RIVER IV

Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Issue # 4: Honoring Peskeomscut


Peskeomscut, Island?
Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer(Click X 3 to enlarge; back arrow to return to text)

At a glance, this could be a photo of a quiet pond in New England. It is not. This is the mid-May, midstream view of an island in the Connecticut River, just 250 yards below the Turners Falls Dam in Massachusetts. With a quick look you might be wondering: where’s the river—and, what island?? This is a chasm and landscape robbed of its water, life and dignity. On any mid-spring day for ages past, thousands of American shad would’ve been pulsing through the rolling froth on both sides of what is a now-erased and bereft island. Today, shad here are not even offered a decent puddle to flop in.

Glancing quickly, you might not have made note of an island. But a closer look reveals a small, tree festooned bump in the center-right background. That site was identified by FirstLight Power as PesKeomscut Island in their initial 2012 application for a new federal hydro license to operate Turners Fall Dam—which is just out of view to the right of this photo. Unfortunately, Turners Falls Dam has been the place where New England’s Great River has died for well over two centuries now.

As far as any real river here?—there’s a just-visible bridge in the upper right, beneath which the mouth of the Fall River is adding a little flow and a tiny bit of froth to the barely-running current in the background. What should be the strong, rolling pulse of the spring Connecticut here should to be pushing downstream from left to right across the entire foreground of this photo. Instead, there’s just a stilled pond. And, yes, that island has been virtually erased. To be an island, you must have water.

On this May 14, 2020, FirstLight has subtracted that main ingredient. At mid-afternoon the Connecticut has been turned off in its own 200 million year-old chasm, robbed of all but a riverlet of dribbling flow. They do that most months out of the year. This spring day all but a tiny percentage of its life-giving current is diverted into FL’s adjacent power canal. The Connecticut is broken here at a place once called Peskeomscut–broken since the first dam stretched across this ancient chasm from Turners Falls to Gill in 1798. That began the 2-1/2 mile reach just downstream that robbed the river of life and flow. It gave rise to a landlocked “island” without a watery moat.

Further out and to the left in the photo, two more humans engage in a leisurely stroll over exposed sand—mid-river at mid-spring, padding over a dry shoal that should be teeming with river life at this season. But not here; not in northern Massachusetts. The place is a desert.

Instead of a life-giving, roaring spring cataract–encircling an inaccessible island, just a salutary wash of water is spilling from the dam above. Peskeomscut Island has been reduced to an abandoned, rocky spit in a parching, emptied chasm.

Looking closely, lower left of center you can make out an angler at the quiet, current-less shore. He might as well be on a pond—migrating American shad won’t find an upstream current deep or strong enough to follow their ancient migratory path toward the lost waterfalls here this day. While downstream, Holyoke Dam had reported 10,000 shad passing there through May 8, Turners Falls Dam had a whopping 38 passing here…

Peskeomscut is an approximate spelling of an Algonquian term used to denote the place where an ancient waterfall, cataract and island anchored the landscape. That place, which teemed with life throughout its annual seasonal cycles back into the mists of time, is today robbed of its soul–deprived of dignity. What, in 2020, should be a restored, thriving, May Connecticut River–full of shad, herring, lamprey eels and frothing currents, is today a drying, emptied bed. Its “island” is simply a rocky spit, easily accessible across the barren, bedrock ledge.


Midstream Peskeomscut 1-1-2018 (Click X 3 to enlarge)
Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer

There is more than a little irony to this site being referenced today in Massachusetts as Turners Falls or the Great Falls. Any visitor here would more than likely find this curving, ancient chasm hollowed out at nearly any month of the year. There rarely are falls to see here. This is a broken place, a starved place. There is something raw and enduring about the injuries perpetrated here year in and year out. The once abundant life of this place is merely an afterthought here, if considered at all.

From Turners Falls Dam downstream to just above the river’s confluence with the Deerfield River, these 2-1/2 miles of the Connecticut are best described as its “Dead Reach.” There is no river in this stretch, just a parching/choking series of on-off flows that alternately starve and inundate what was once a life-filled artery.

In the spring of 2020, this should not be. It should all be the past history of the Great River. The current 52 year-old Federal Energy Regulatory Commission license to operate Turners Falls Dam expired in 2018. But FERC has allowed repeated extensions of that license, in a so-called “5-year” relicensing process that began in 2012. This stilted, corporate-skewed federal process has seen virtually no forward movement for over a year–and will soon be celebrating its 8th birthday. That stale status quo seems to suit FERC and FirstLight–as well as their shareholders, quite nicely. It’s just another abuse in the ongoing nightmare for the central artery of Western New England’s largest ecosystem.

On May 19, 2004, I witnessed a reconciliation ceremony at a park in Montague adjacent to the Connecticut, just above Turners Falls Dam. Local officials, citizens, and representatives from several of the region’s Native American tribes were present. All were there to honor, and attempt to heal the lingering injuries and moldering legacy of a grim injustice committed here in the pre-dawn dark on the morning of May 19, 1676.


Turners Falls Dam and Riverside Massacre Site
Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer(Click X 3 to enlarge, back arrow to return to text)

Just across the river in the Riverside flats of Gill, 160 colonial troops swept down a hillside, firing muskets and stabbing bayonets into the tents of sleeping elders, women, and children of the Narragansett, Nipmuck and Pocumtuck and other peoples—encamped there in a hungry and desperate attempt to harvest fish and plant sustaining corn in their ongoing attempt to defend and keep the territories of their ancient homelands. For the colonists, it was a grim and successful slaughter of hundreds of defenseless Indians. For the indigenous tribes, though their surprise counter attack quickly sent the blood-bathed attackers into a chaotic, F-Troop rout, the loss of life ultimately proved a spirit and soul crushing disaster.

On this May 19th, 2020, much of the signaled healing and reconciliation of 16 years back seems to remain orphaned on the 344th anniversary of the Turners Falls Massacre. The wounds of that day are yet present. And, the later and ongoing theft of a river’s life-giving current–begun with that 1798 dam, still remains in place. The Connecticut here is–most days, an emptied and soulless place. It is long past time for the life and lives lost at Peskeomscut–and some of what is still missing as well, to see the beginning of a long overdue restoration. The river belongs to the people. Some of that healing must begin with water. Water is where life begins…

FISH CAM: Let the People See Their FISH!

Posted by on 05 May 2020 | Tagged as: American shad, blueback herring, Connecticut River, FirstLight, FirstLight Power, FISH CAM, Great River Hydro, Holyoke Dam, Holyoke Fish Lift, migratory fish, Northfield Mountain, sea lamprey, shad, shortnose sturgeon, Turners Falls, Vermont, Vernon Dam Fishway

THIS GREAT AND BROKEN RIVER II

Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Issue # 2, FISH CAM: Let the People See Their FISH!

Covid-19 shouldn’t be an excuse to cancel everything–especially when you owe something to an isolated and deserving public. If you’re a power company profiting from a resource like the Connecticut River, isn’t it just the minimum of responsibility and common courtesy when things are taken away, to offer something in its place? I’m not seeing that on New England’s Great River. But I am certain all will be seeing new electricity bills this month–the companies seeking payment while so many are out of work.

Holyoke Fishway w/Shad Debry sign. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.Click X 3.(NOTE: then hit the BACK BUTTON)

Yet there will be no spring family trips to the River to see the great fish migration through Holyoke Gas & Electric’s viewing windows at the South Hadley Falls. No moms will be receiving a little public relations carnation for visiting there this Mother’s Day. And scores of anglers will go wanting there too. The company-sponsored annual Shad Derby won’t be held on successive weekends this spring either. The Fishway lot at Holyoke Dam will be gated and locked.


TF Fishway Gate Locked. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Click X 3.

Upstream at Turners Falls, FirstLight’s little fish-viewing cavern just above the ancient falls will be locked down tight as well. There will be no family or school program visits; no access to the churning river at its most dynamic season. Just further upstream, FirstLight has closed Barton Cove to all camping, kayak rentals, and hiking. Five miles further on they’ve cancelled all riverboat tours, use of the Riverview boat launch, plus all use of the extensive trail system on FirstLight’s sprawling Northfield Mountain recreation property. It’s quite a cancellation laundry list. They want us safe—noting, as others, the state safety guideline for Covid 19.

Turners Falls Dam, May 25, 2019. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Click X 3.

If you were thinking—maybe a bit further upstream in Vermont you might get to witness the great migration of American shad, sea lamprey and blueback herring at Great River Hydro’s Vernon Dam Fishway, well, you’re again out of luck. The padlock remains on the gates there too. Nobody will be entering that bunker where bubble-filled windows sometimes offer a steady stream of passing shad, and close-up looks at the pulsing gills of lamprey—suctioning mouths glued to the glass, resting a minute before continuing upstream. Only the nesting phoebes in the dark corner of that cavern will have free access in that chained-off place.

Vernon Dam March 19, 2020. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Click X 3.

Phoebe’s nest at Vernon Fishway. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Click X 3.

But don’t these for-profit and shareholder-owned companies have a responsibility to the local citizenry as they bill them to benefit stockholders who likely have no physical and intimate connection to the far-off Connecticut River they profit from? The truth is–the activities they won’t be providing for the public this year because of the Covid virus are actually required by law, as part of their federal and state operating licenses.

Conversely, these companies will not be carrying the payroll obligations for all their seasonal employees. There won’t be fishway guides and Shad Derby officials staffing Holyoke; nor will there be seasonal employees hired and staffing the Turners Falls Fishway, Barton Cove Campground, their kayak rentals—nor staffing and running the riverboat, the Visitors Center, nor staff maintaining those mileS of extensive trails and Riverview Picnic area, nor the Munn’s Ferry camp sites. All closed. That’s a considerable Covid-19 savings, and great loss to a cooped-up public…

TF Fishway, Simple Snapshot–its that easy! Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Click X 3.

Can’t something be done to give the public back their river access in this Covid-skewed spring? Is the public owed nothing more than an electric bill?

Well here’s a suggestion—and it’s not even thinking outside the corporate box. It’s time to offer the public FISH CAM, at each of these privatized falls and fish passage sites on the Connecticut. They fish cams in Virginia, Minnesota and elsewhere—heck, we even have a turn-key-ready version of it that could be hooked up in a minute at the Turners Falls Fishway. There, for decades, the company got great public relations for broadcasting Eagle Cam, a simple camera feed trained on the nest of the Barton Cove eagles and offered to an eager and enthusiastic public audience near and far.

It could be again reinstituted in a heartbeat at Turners Falls. And nobody would have to climb up into the nest to secure a camera—just put a video cam in those fish viewing windows and let the public have the delightful and comforting views of the Connecticut’s great spring migrations, right from the confinement of their homes. Just set it, and forget it. This would be great therapy for all those hungry for diversion and a river connection—and, wonderful for kids and student’s alike. It’s at least something they can do–and they have all the wires and electricity anyone could ever want. Local CCTV stations would surely help get it going at all these river sites, and viewers would likely tune in with grateful enthusiasm.

The Connecticut’s great migratory fish migration is just picking up steam now. Typically the runs begin moving toward peak in the several weeks following Mother’s Day, and continue right through June. Let’s give the public–the moms, dads, and kids something back during this greatly deprived spring. Hey Holyoke Gas & Electric; hey FirstLight—hey, Great River Hydro, please—it’s time to honor those obligations to the public on the public’s river. No excuses while shareholders profit. This is the simplest and quickest way to give just one thing back. With today’s technology you wouldn’t imagine this couldn’t be done by just aiming a laptop at the fish-viewing windows at Holyoke and Vernon, where an Eagle Cam never existed. It’s of out-of-the-box technology, to fulfill just one of the many unoffered public obligations this spring. Zoom in on the fish!

Please, no more telling the folks what won’t be offered or done in this bright season—now’s the time—and the place–and the season, for Fish Cam. If Minnesota and Virginia figured this out years ago, we should have it here on the Connecticut. It should be the standard. It’s a small gesture at a tiny cost–giving back a bit of comfort to those isolated at home or unable to get to the river. It’s a win-win, for all involved. Let the people tune in; let the public see their fish!

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.

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.