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REIMAGINING A RIVER: The Year without Northfield Mountain

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

THIS GREAT AND BROKEN RIVER VII

Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

An Upstream Invitation: COME VISIT; THEN PLEASE SUE US!

Posted by on 21 May 2020 | Tagged as: American shad, bascule gates, Bellows Falls VT, blueback herring, Connecticut River, Connecticut River migratory fisheries restoration, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Dead Reach, Deerfield River, Dr. Boyd Kynard, endangerd shortnose sturgeon, False attraction, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, FERC, FERC license, fish passage, Greenfield, Holyoke Fish Lift, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, Massachusetts Division of Fish & Wildlife, migratory delay, New Hampshire, Rock Dam, shad fishing, The Dead Reach, Turners Falls, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Geological Survey's Conte Fish Lab

THIS GREAT AND BROKEN RIVER V

Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Issue # 5, An Upstream Invitation: COME VISIT; THEN PLEASE SUE US!

Dear Vermont and New Hampshire (and northern MA):

Our Connecticut River–as grimly battered by diversions and reversing industrial currents as it is down here in Massachusetts, is way better than yours upstream. That’s not very neighborly to say, but it’s true. Your states probably should’ve sued our Commonwealth years back for depriving you of a living river. It’s what’s been owed you. Down here we have a spring river with at least a credible ocean connection stretching all the way from Long Island Sound to just past the mouth of the Deerfield River. It really isn’t fair you don’t…


Just a single bascule gate open with thin spill at Turners Falls Dam, May 20, 2020. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. (Click X 3 to enlarge, back arrow to return to text)

Case in point: as of May 20, 2020, Holyoke Dam had passed some 130,000 American shad upstream. Enough federal and state fisheries data from studies has been produced to safely estimate that as many as 100,000 may have arrived at Turners Falls, just 36 miles distant, still heading upstream. The only data from Turners Falls Dam was reported as of May 8, 2020, showing a total of 38 shad successfully passing that site…

In the interest of good relations, I’d like to invite you downstream to experience what you’re missing. After all, everyone has a right to a living Connecticut River. Some of us just have a little more right, while others—living upstream, have forever had almost none at all. Ironically, that none even includes Bay State residents living in the towns of Greenfield, Gill, Turners Falls, Erving, and Northfield. An ocean connection for them is barely perceptible as well.

But for the rest of you far northerners, whether you live in Vernon, Brattleboro, Dummerston, Putney, Westminster or Bellows Falls VT–or Walpole, Westmoreland, Chesterfield, or Hinsdale NH, please come visit your river where it at least still remains partly tethered to its ancient ocean connection. It’s worth the trip.

And, why not bring along fishing pole?—because, truth is, we’ve been hanging on to your fish here for decades. Most of the hundreds of thousands of migrating shad, blueback herring and sea lamprey here annually never get past the Turners Falls Dam—becoming mired in the 2-1/2 mile long Dead Reach and canal diversion leading up to that ponderous obstruction. Turners Falls is where your living river connection with the ocean, ends. Thus, including all three states, 15 towns have been robbed.

Really, come down and experience what us “haves”, have. Meet us at the cull de sac of the Connecticut here, and we’ll show you where your thousands of fish are foundering. They were promised you way back in 1967, but you never received them. This is a peek at the river your kids should be experiencing at up at home today, and the one that’s the birth right of their grand kids decades into the future. Somebody should’ve stood up long ago. There should have been a lawsuit.

BTW: there’s even a free fishing weekend down here on June 6 and 7, where you don’t even need a license to toss in a line. Come! There should still be good numbers of shad and lamprey fighting the good fight upstream–right up to the dead end dam in this largely impassible reach. You need not come far; your ocean connection ends abruptly here in Turners Falls.


The ponderous–difficult for shad to find and access, fish ladder below Turners Falls Dam, May 20, 2020. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. (Click X 3 to enlarge)

If you don’t feel like waiting, and want to catch the peak of the run here in the next week or so, just grab a short term fishing license at the MA Wildlife website. Honestly though, I’m not sure they deserve your business. Massachusetts Division of Fish & Wildlife was the only entity with specific rights to intervene over the last 50 years in the federal (FERC) license governing fish passage conditions at Turners Falls if conditions changed. In the first decade of this century, the long-paltry (6-7%) fish passage success beyond that dam evaporated down to less than 1% percent in some years. That plunge began right after Massachusetts deregulated its electricity generating markets. Those were your fish! That was your last remaining thread of an ocean connection. MDFW did nothing. Like I said, there should’ve been a lawsuit. They sat on their hands. We let you down.

For that reason alone, please come and visit. Come fish. Pop on a shad dart. We’ll be happy to social distance with you.Try your luck where your fish are stuck!

And if you don’t happen to be an angler–but just want to experience what the remains of an ocean- connected ecosystem look like, bring a folding chair and just enjoy the spectacle. A living river can be quite inspiring. And witnessing sleek, healthy fish that have travelled thousands of ocean-going miles and then 120 miles upstream here to their ancient spawning grounds, might just encourage you to take action. You deserve this. And, we know exactly where your lost fish are trapped today—the same places they’ve been spinning their upstream migratory wheels and energies for decades.

The best way to locate the nearest ocean connection on the Connecticut here is to go where the currents are—go where there is still flow in the riverbed. That’s where the agitated shad will be, trying to discover and fight their way through promising upstream currents. They want to go into the flow, but that’s the bit tricky down here–as the power company is constantly jacking the currents up, down, and all around. That’s why its the river’s dead-end. Those see-saw currents and flow diversions are tricking the shad into alien industrial flows producing endless streams of what’s called “false attraction.”

Some sites, as you will see at the company’s Station # 1 outflow into the river adjacent to the Turners Falls Power Canal, dump their industrial effluent, back into the river while creating just a few small amount of hydro power.. That false upstream signal to migrating shad essentially traps them there–for hours or days on end, spending energy in that false current as they await an open upstream path that never comes.

For anglers not tied to anything like a natural setting, the Station #1site teems with scores and scores of tricked shad, ripe for the hooking. It’s a supremely ironic dead end for the fish and run—nosing for hours into a nowhere current. But, for fish-in-a-barrel anglers, this sad site can be a slam dunk.

Other sites are rather more “scenic,” but the same waffling, insufficient flows ultimately lead to dead-end routes for the vast majority of the fish run. Less than 1 fish in 10 annually ever make emerge out of the Turners Falls Power Canal–which all must pass through before popping out beyond that dam toward your Vermont and New Hampshire doorsteps. Most just give up.

Anyway, here are some visit/witnessing recommendations from my personal investigations on May 20, 2020:

Ocean Dead End Stop # 1: Turners Falls Dam, Turners Falls. Take I-91 south to Rt. 2 East. Rt. 2 E to the second set of lights, where you turn left over the Turners Falls Bridge. Park just over the bridge near the Great Falls Discover Center and find your way across the little power canal bridge and down to the river. Note that the paltry flow is unlikely to be drawing any shad upstream to the dam and fish ladder.

Lone, disappointed shad angler in low flows below dam: look far left at center, adjacent to the bend in fish ladder. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. (Click X 3 to enlarge and view; then back arrow)

Ocean Dead End Stop # 2: Station # 1, your false attraction fishing hole. Follow the above directions—crossing the bridge into Turners Falls. Make an immediate right after passing the Great Falls Discover Center. Continue straight after the stop sign, and then make the second right, going over the SECOND, one-way bridge there. Continue along until you see the brick outline of Station # 1 on the right, adjacent to the river. If they are dumping good current here, the fish will be stacked up like sardines, nosing into the flow that will not allow them a path upstream. Anglers fish both sides of this outflow. You’ll find the paths. An exhausting dead end, for your share of the shad run. The two gents here landed 3 shad in the 10 minutes I lingered there.

Station # 1, exhausting attraction flow leading…nowhere. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. (Click X 3 to enlarge and view; then back arrow)

Station # 1, fish-in-a-barrel fishing! Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. (Click X 3 to enlarge and view; then back arrow)

Station # 1, bring on the net! Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. (Click X 3 to enlarge and view; then back arrow)

Ocean Dead End Stop # 3: the Rock Dam. Continue with the above directions and go along past Station # 1, winding around until you come to G Street. Go right and continue south on G Street—do not recross the canal, or you’ll be off track. Continue down G Street to the end, where it becomes, rather ironically, “Migratory Way,” beyond the sign for the US Geological Services Silvio O. Conte Anadramous Fish Research Center. Follow this route down to the parking turnouts adjacent to the canal, and walk down the path there leading to Cabot Woods.

At the Cabot Woods site you will find a few picnic tables, but, most importantly, several severely eroded paths down to the Rock Dam. Flows to this site, critically important to endangered shortnose sturgeon, have already been tamped down enough to chase those ancient fish out of their spawning ground here. But, those same tamped-down flows weeks later here are keeping tricked shad into thinking the viable upstream flows through the notches here will somehow magically return, giving them a viable route. Sadly, they are not going anywhere. Again, some pretty good fishing here this day. These 5 anglers grabbed three in the 25 minutes I stayed along shore.

Fishing in the oft cul-de-sac attraction flow at the Rock Dam.
Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. (Click X 3 to enlarge and view; then back arrow)

Note: there are far more shad struggling just downstream–attracted by the outflow of the Cabot Station hydro site. But there’s no good fishing access to these flows, some of which are designed to lead the shad into what’s been described as the “world’s longest ladder for shad,” by fisheries biologist Dr. Boyd Kynard. It’s a brutal exercise–fishladder 66 steps to fight through, which dumps them into the alien flows and environments of the power canal…

So, that’s where your fish are. Down here, where the ocean connection breaks. Come and visit! Then, take us to court to get what you deserve. It’s your river too!

Connecticut River oil spill and fish kills

Posted by on 20 Sep 2018 | Tagged as: cleanup, Connecticut River, environmental cleanup, fish kill, fish kill on the Connecticut, Greenfield, oil spill, Turners Falls, Turners Falls power canal

Copyright © 2018 by Karl Meyer, All Rights Reserved

Greenfield, MA September 20, 2018. A Greenfield fuel oil spill early Thursday morning extended for nearly a half mile from the ridgetop on Turners Falls Road downhill to the bridge over the Connecticut River and beyond the Green Bridge over the Turners Falls Canal into the Village of Turners Falls. Greenfield DPW members had spread absorbent sand and an officer was warning vehicle operators and cyclists to use caution. But as of 9:00 a.m., no environmental cleanup outfit was on site.

Meanwhile, in the Turners Falls Power Canal many thousands of dead fish remained visible four days after the annual de-watering of the canal–which essentially gets substituted for the main channel of the Connecticut River’s Dead Reach most months of the year. Hundreds of fish were still panicked and dying in the remaining pools in the canal bed. Among the carnage were also mud puppies, tiny sea lamprey, and thousands of freshwater clams. (CLICK, then CLICK again, and AGAIN to enlarge photos)