Holyoke Fish Lift

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“Clean, renewable” labels don’t apply

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

Copyright © 2018 by Karl Meyer All Rights Reserved.

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

TERMS OF ENTRAINMENT: a Connecticut River History


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

END

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

Fish Futures on a Broken River

Posted by on 04 Nov 2017 | Tagged as: 5-year FERC licensing process, American shad, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Connecticut River Watershed Council, Daily Hampshire Gazette, Dr. Boyd Kynard, Endangere Species Act, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, fish passage, Holyoke Fish Lift, National Marine Fisheries Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, Northfield Mountain, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, PSP Investments, Rock Dam Pool, Rutland Herald, shad, Shortnose Stout, shortnose sturgeon, US Fish & Wildlife Service, US Geological Survey's Conte Fish Lab, USFWS, Vermont, Vermont Digger

Copyright © 2017 by Karl Meyer, All RIGHTS RESERVED

FISH FUTURES ON A BROKEN RIVER

(NOTE: the following appeared in The Rutland Herald, wwww.rutlandherald.com, and on the pages of Vermont Digger, www.vtdigger.org in October)

It’s been decades since migratory fish on New England’s Great River got a break–bleak since deregulation came to federally-licensed electricity plants on the Connecticut beginning in 1998.

Deregulation turned a regional market into a venture capital free-for-all, opening the door to speculators and foreign interests controlling public resources. In less than 20 years the Vernon hydro station changed hands three times. The Vermont Yankee nuclear plant next door is currently courting a third owner. Downstream the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station and Turners Falls hydro complex flipped four times between investors. Further south, the Holyoke hydro station sold only once in 2002.

None of this proved healthy for an ecosystem.

The post-deregulation decade saw a steep slide in American shad passing Holyoke Dam. After two decades of averages well above 300,000 fish, yearly numbers plunged to near half that—a far cry from the 720,000 passed in 1992. Things were even more desperate at Turners Falls Dam. There, impacted by the massive water appetite and violent, peaking flows sent downstream by the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, passage dropped below 1% some years. For a decade, just 3 or 4 migrating shad in 100 were tallied emerging alive upstream. Today’s numbers languish near 1980s levels.

The federal license signed by Holyoke Gas & Electric in 2002 required they complete lift improvements at Holyoke by 2008 to pass endangered shortnose sturgeon upriver. Sturgeon were literally unable to spawn–blocked at that dam from reaching their only documented natural spawning site, a fail-safe refuge known as the Rock Dam Pool at Turners Falls. Year-in, year-out, that mandate went unenforced. It was finally met last year.

(Note: below, the flow-starved CT in Turners Falls looking downstream toward Rock Dam.CLICK, THEN CLICK AGAIN TO ENLARGE)

In 2004 federal fish biologist Dr. Boyd Kynard handed results of 15 years of Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon research to the National Marine Fisheries Service. He and colleagues had documented that that Rock Dam spawning site for the only federally-endangered migratory fish on the river was being decimated by industrial practices. Yearly gatherings failed for the few dozen spawning-ready sturgeon surviving upstream of Holyoke—as they attempted to continue a tenuous 200 million year-old genetic line. But NMFS didn’t come to their aid; no watchdog intervened.

Ultimately, decades of research by Kynard and company was compiled into Life History and Behaviour of Connecticut River Shortnose and other Sturgeons, published by the World Sturgeon Conservation Society. After experts at the Europe-based WSCS published the book in early 2012, the US Geological Service (where Kynard retired as a federal fish scientist) began making belated objections, halting all publication for a time. Their objections caused a de facto embargo of its sale in the U.S through that spring.

USGS cited editorial and style concerns in “recalling” three chapters on sturgeon biology and spawning—including the data and text showing industrial flows caused spawning failure at Turners Falls. Nearly a dozen state, federal, and university contributors to the book cried foul, citing censorship and the public’s right to government information. In June, concurrent with press inquiries and a letter from Congressman John Olver questioning the withholding of public science, USGS suddenly withdrew all its objections—days before an article highlighting the issues appeared in The Daily Hampshire Gazette. Federal agencies now had the facts. Yet despite the Endangered Species Act, none took action.

In spring of 2014 a popular beer, Shortnose Stout, debuted in the region. Its label displayed Kynard’s website and highlighted spawning conditions at Turners Falls. The Connecticut River Watershed Council soon stepped up to collect donated profits from its sale, yet those sturgeon were left hanging once more. Today conditions at Rock Dam remain as ruinous as when the first 2004 findings were released.

In 2015 the controversial chapters from Kynard’s book got entered into the public record in the current Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s relicensing process for Northfield Mountain and Turners Falls. With that science on the record, things changed at federal proceedings. Sturgeon spawning became a key factor in flow discussions for future FERC licenses there mandating river conditions. This June, new restoration targets to meet failed 50 year-old federal Anadramous Fish Conservation Act requirements were released by the US Fish & Wildlife Service. With passage failed for half a century at Turners Falls, new shad targets mandate 397,000 fish passing annually. New owner, Canada Public Pension Investments, will be on the hook to build lifts and safeguard sturgeon spawning.

In August a fisherman near Vernon landed an endangered shortnose sturgeon–a fish thought not to exist above Turners Falls. He took a photo and released the fish, sending the picture to officials who confirmed it; then forwarded it to the National Marine Fisheries Service. There is reason to believe that landing may not be an isolated occurrence. NMFS is taking the confirmed capture seriously. Is a remnant shortnose population clinging to life in Vermont and New Hampshire waters? Did someone release them there? Either way, federal law requires owners at Vernon Dam, VT Yankee and Northfield Mountain to protect the migratory fish of the United States as a public trust. After decades of speculation, it’s high time our fish had their day.

NOTE: author Karl Meyer was the idea-creator and author of the beer brand Shortnose Stout. He neither requested or received any compensation or recognition for his work, which was solely aimed at getting important information to the public.

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

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

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Copyright © 2016 by Karl Meyer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DEAD REACH REPORT: the BLACK HOLE continues…

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

DEAD REACH REPORT: the BLACK HOLE continues…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No “Springtime for Sturgeon in Holyoke…”

Posted by on 06 May 2016 | Tagged as: Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Endangered Species Act, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federal trust fish, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FERC, Holyoke Fish Lift, Holyoke Gas & Electric, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, National Marine Fisheries Service, NMFS, NOAA, Rock Dam, Rock Dam Pool, shortnose sturgeon, Turners Falls, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS

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HG&E’s Holyoke Dam with Mt. Tom in background(click to enlarge)

No “Springtime for Sturgeon in Holyoke…” Unenforced FERC License continues the woes for the Connecticut’s only federally endangered migratory fish

Copyright © 2016 by Karl Meyer

For endangered shortnose sturgeon on the Connecticut River this year has been the best thing and the worst thing to happen to them since 1849. In an infinitely promising development over a dozen sturgeon(13 thus far)have found their way into the retooled Holyoke Fish Lift this spring—and all were lifted 30 feet toward upstream spawning habitats at the facility. However, in a most ugly turn of events for a creature listed under the Endangered Species Act since 1967, every one of those sturgeon was subsequently dropped back downstream by humans working there. They literally gained ten yards… after 167 years. Sorry kids, wait ‘til next year–or maybe the one after that.

In 2002 Holyoke Gas and Electric was issued a FERC license under which they were required to complete construction of a fish lift providing up- and downstream access for endangered sturgeon by 2008. FERC, responsible for enforcing those license requirements as well as the tenets of the ESA, failed to enforce their requirements, leaving those improvements unconstructed, year after year. The National Marine Fisheries Service, US Fish & Wildlife Service, and MA Division of Fisheries & Wildlife sat on their hands respecting their responsibilities to act. Nor did any so-called “watchdog” group fulfill their role–to make the enforcers enforce.

This was just the latest failure in a foundering Connecticut River ecosystem steered by money and politics rather than legal obligations, science, and enforcement of the public trust. Just consider that one of the Connecticut River Watershed Council’s Board Members has worked for Holyoke Gas & Electric at their fish lift for a decade… Then consider the resounding silence on enforcement.

This year–a full 9 springs beyond their license obligations, HG&E finally completed that mandated construction at the Holyoke Fish Lift. That says a mouthful about FERC, their licensing process, private industry, and whether anyone is actually protecting the public’s fish and river.

Grimly this spring, when the most sturgeon embarking on upstream spawning runs since the building of the railroads made it to the top of those South Hadley Falls, all were captured and “released downstream” of Holyoke Dam. This bit of brilliance comes via the orders—or lack thereof, of NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service. Their failure to act again denies any new genetic input into the tiny upstream population keeping this species’ flickering spark alive across the centuries up at their sole natural spawning site, the Rock Dam in Turners Falls.

Below Holyoke, generation after generation of these long-lived fish have been relegated to simply growing to maturity, repeatedly attempting to return upstream, and ultimately expiring without ever having the chance to pass on their genes. That goes back to the time of President Zachery Taylor.

In one very cruel act of fate, any shortnose sturgeon finding themselves downstream of the newly constructed Holyoke Dam in 1849, were forever barred from reaching their sole natural spawning site in the river system—that ancient Rock Dam pool in Turners Falls. What that has meant is that hundreds upon hundreds of these fabulously evolved fish–across more than a century and a half, have been relegated to the status of “reproductive nulls,” unable to spawn in their natal river system.

Pick your favorite bad actor in this failed scenario–there are a half-dozen choices.

INFORMATION BLACK HOLE on the Connecticut

Posted by on 05 May 2016 | Tagged as: American shad, Connecticut River, federal trust fish, FirstLight, GDF-Suez FirstLight, Greenfield Community College, Holyoke Community College, Holyoke Fish Lift, Jack Buckley, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, New Hampshire, Northfield Mountain, shad, shad fishing, Station 1, teachers, Turners Falls, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS, Vermont, Walpole, Wendi Weber

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INFORMATION BLACK HOLE

Copyright © 2016 by Karl Meyer

On this May 5th, 2016, they have no idea in Sunderland–or in Deerfield for that matter. Nor do they know anything in Greenfield, Turners Falls, Gill, Northfield or Millers Falls. Upstream, Vermont folks in Vernon, Guilford, Brattleboro and Putney don’t have a clue. Across the river, New Hampshire people in Hinsdale, Chesterfield, Walpole and Charlestown remain in the dark.

What these towns all have in common is that nobody can tell them anything of the whereabouts of their share of the spring American shad run. The fish have been in the river and upstream of Holyoke for a full five weeks now, and there hasn’t been a single fish count provided from the Greenfield Community College students hired by GDF-Suez FirstLight to monitor fish passage at Turners Falls. An accounting of the public’s fish remains in the hands of a private company—and, as I’ve said before, many or most are likely struggling to survive a trip through their private power canal.

For a migrating shad, the 36 mile swim from Holyoke to Turners Falls is a walk in the park. It’s a day—maybe a day-and-a-half trip, ostensibly on the way to spawning habitats in Vermont and New Hampshire. But thousands of the public’s fish have gone missing on the Connecticut River this spring. And it seems no one can say exactly where they are. If you had to make an educated guess, you could surmise many are somewhere between Greenfield and Turners Falls, with many not in the actual river at all.

A significant number are fighting currents in the debased habitats of the Turners Falls power canal, where murky flows delay most by over a week before they even approach the site that could route them past the dam. Others are in the river, trying to find a path to the base of a fish ladder whose construction back in 1980 was based on Pacific salmon. And still others are sidetracked and stalled in the riverbed like sardines, expending precious migratory and spawning energy in front of the ramping outflows at a mini overflow power site known as Station 1. Wherever those fish may be, we do know that, on average over time, just 4% of those shad ever make it beyond Turners Falls Dam toward Vermont and New Hampshire. In the very few “good” years, one fish in ten wriggles upstream.

We also know that the first two American shad were lifted past Holyoke Dam five weeks ago. As of May 4, 2016, some 25,000 had been passed upstream at the Holyoke Fish Lift. What happened to them next is anyone’s guess. Once they pass Holyoke, accounting for them is left in the hands of a private power company—currently GDF-Suez FirstLight Hydro, now going under the corporate aegis Engie. These are the folks responsible for passing the public’s fish at Turners Falls Dam, and giving public accounts of fish passage for anglers, teachers, the general public, and the state and federal fish agencies.

It’s been documented that at least half of all the shad passing Holyoke will attempt to pass Turners Falls. It’s wholly possible the actual number is significantly higher. It matters little though, as all fish get diverted into the Turners Falls Power Canal once they attain this easy upstream reach, and only that average of 4% make it past the TF Dam. The rest simply go unaccounted for once they arrive and are tempted into that turbine-lined pit.

Five full weeks since fish have been heading upstream, and that includes sea lamprey as well. Yet we still do not have a single fish passage update at Turners Falls. What’s wrong here? Who is responsible?? Well, obviously FirstLight GDF-Suez is responsible. But, nobody is holding them to it. These fish, while moving through Massachusetts, are the responsibility of the US Fish & Wildlife Service. But, while here, they in large part fall under the responsibility of the MA Division of & Wildlife. Why aren’t they ensuring the public gets daily fish updates—like those that have been available at Holyoke Dam for years? Again, go fish…

At Holyoke Dam there are actually humans on-site that can witness real-time conditions, fish passage, and provide the needed public info in a timely manner. These come via students from Holyoke Community College. Not so at Turners Falls, where the Commonwealth has largely left responsibility for the chicken coop up to the fox. All monitoring is done remotely by video, with equipment provided by FirstLight. Prior years show repeated equipment failures. And then you have to wait—often many WEEKS, before those videos are handed off and analyzed by GCC interns. Its only then that we are treated to weeks-out-of-date info about where our fish are.

This privatization needs to change. Wendi Weber, Region 5 Director at the USFWS might be able to help. Or MA Division of Fish & Wildlife Director Jack Buckley. Or, perhaps, MADFW’s Caleb Slater, Anadramous Fish Passage Project Director. The guy at FirstLight responsible if Bob Stira.

As a side note: many other states have actuarial tables that put specific monetary values on migratory and resident fish. Then, if they are killed in project operations, or fish do not reach their spawning grounds, the public is reimbursed for the ecological damages.

Updated HOLYOKE fish counts can be accessed at:
www.fws.gov/r5crc under Recreation.

Missing camera in missing river

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BestTFemptybed

Connecticut River Dead Reach Update: April 29, 2016

Posted by on 29 Apr 2016 | Tagged as: American shad, Connecticut River, federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FirstLight, Holyoke Fish Lift, National Marine Fisheries Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, Turners Falls, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal

Connecticut River Dead Reach Update: April 29, 2016

SHAD PASSAGE UPDATE: Holyoke Fish Lift passed its first American shad upstream on April 1, 2016. Normally, that would signal the opening of the fish ladders upstream at Turners Falls Dam.

Migrating shad take less than 2 days to swim the 36 miles up to Turners Falls Dam, the next barrier on the Connecticut as they attempt to head to northern MA, VT and NH.

Unfortunately there is so little water left in the riverbed when they arrive at the 2.7 mile Dead Reach between Greenfield and Turners Falls, that the vast majority never make it past that dam.

As of April 24, some 7,100 shad had passed Holyoke.

This year, due to lack of maintenance by FirstLight, the fish ladder at Turners Falls Dam was not working until April 22, a full three weeks after shad were arriving at that site. That kept thousands of those shad treading water and wasting their migration energy in the miserable conditions below Turners Falls.

SHORTNOSE STURGEON UPDATE: Shortnose sturgeon begin arriving in the Dead Reach at the Rock Dam site in Turners Falls in mid-April. On April 14th there was virtually no water be released into the riverbed where those sturgeon arrive to spawn, and those shad arrive to continue on to upstream spawning habitats.4-28-16 dribbling Dead Reach Flow

Above: flow dribbling down the DEAD REACH, April 28, 2016.(Click to enlarge)

On April 27th, the day sturgeon studies show that spawning at Rock Dam commences, the flow released into the Dead Reach and running downstream to the Rock Dam spawning site was so withered that spawning at the site would’ve been rendered impossible. Thus chased out by insufficient flows, another year of shortnose sturgeon spawning failure has occurred at its only documented natural spawning site in the entire ecosystem.

FURTHER, despite much touted improvements for moving the hundreds of sturgeon trapped below Holyoke Dam upstream, all FOUR shortnose sturgeon that made have made it into the fish lift there have been unceremoniously plopped back DOWNSTREAM. Call it bureaucratic interuptus… Or, agency failure.

Thus, for yet another year, there will be no improvement for the genetic prospects of the Connecticut River’s only federally endangered migratory fish. The agencies, chief among them the National Marine Fisheries Service have failed this fish and this river once again—as well as the so-called watchdog groups.

Redeem the promise at Great Falls

Posted by on 16 Nov 2015 | Tagged as: 5-year FERC licensing process, American shad, bald eagle, canal shad, Captain William Turner, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River Refuge, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Conte, Conte National Fish & Wildlife Refuge, Daily Hampshire Gazette, endangerd shortnose sturgeon, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federal trust fish, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FERC, FERC license, FERC licensing process, Greenfield Recorder, Holyoke Fish Lift, New Hampshire, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, Relicensing, Rock Dam, Rock Dam Pool, shad, shad fishing, shortnose sturgeon, The Greenfield Recorder, The Recorder, Turners Falls, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, USFWS, Vermont, Vermont Yankee, wildlife refuge

The following piece, with edits, appeared in the Daily Hampshire Gazette and The Recorder on November 12, 2015 as: “Federal wildlife service must preserve the promise at Great Falls,” and “River restoration retreat”

The US Fish & Wildlife Service’s recent abandonment of their flagship Conte National Fish & Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center at Turners Falls defies all logic. In August they abruptly withdrew their on-site interpreter and funding for The Great Falls Discover Center. That center was located above the falls two decades back precisely because of the site’s importance as an ecological refuge—perched at a river crossroads critical to the success of their new “watershed-based” refuge.

Back then bald eagles had just returned to Turners Falls; it was once again the place that hundreds of thousands of migrating American shad surged to each spring. And just downstream was the sole natural site where the only federally-endangered migratory fish in the watershed–the ancient Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, attempted to spawn each May. Known as the Rock Dam, its an ancient geological formation that remains a premiere retreat for spring shad anglers. For its biological and historic importance alone, Rock Dam should have long ago been offered the Refuge’s first “in-river” sanctuary designation.

Yet today, USFWS seems ready to walk away from its core mission and long history on the river at Turners Falls. Doing so would be no less an historic retreat than that of Captain Turner and his battalion after their pre-dawn attack on hundreds of Native American women, children and old men seeking refuge at that very site nearly 340 years ago. On May 19, 1676–having accomplished their grizzly goal with the loss of just one man, they were sent in reeling retreat when the first counter-attacking Native warriors arrived from a downstream island encampment opposite today’s Rock Dam. They’d been stationed there to intercept the teeming May shad runs to help feed their people. Turner and 37 of his troops died in the ensuing rout.

Today, Turners Falls remains the site of the US Fish & Wildlife’s biggest regional blunder in a mission to protect a nation’s fish and wildlife resources on New England’s Great River. In the late 1970s they signed off on the plan resulting in a series of fish ladders being built there. It forced all migratory fish out of the river and into the Turners Falls Power Canal. That resulted in a half century of failed fisheries and habitat restoration—largely drawing the curtain down on a spring ocean-connection for riverine habitats in Vermont, New Hampshire, and northern Massachusetts. That 1967 USFWS/four-state migratory fisheries restoration compact for the Connecticut River still founders at Turners Falls today.

That is why the recent USFW’s retreat from their ecologically and historically unique flagship perch remains inexplicable. Currently federal hydro-relicensing studies of dam and canal operations at Turners Falls are taking place. Their outcomes will determine environmental conditions governing the Connecticut River in this reach for two generations to come. The USFWS is playing a key role in these studies as the lead agency empowered to define and require changes at Turners respecting the protection and restoration of the public’s federal-trust and federally-endangered fish species there. In short, they’re at a crossroads. They are the key player able to restore past mistakes and make the Conte Connecticut River Watershed National Fish and Wildlife Refuge a true refuge for annual migrants passing from Connecticut to Massachusetts; then Vermont and New Hampshire.

That long-awaited success would occur at the doorstep of the Great Falls Discovery Center–replete with its life-sized displays of watershed fish and wildlife, and its accessible public auditorium. It’s a huge opportunity at a site virtually on the river, easily reachable by visitors from a broad swath of southern New England travelling the I-91/Route 2 Corridor. Great Falls is the only brick and mortar place for the public to regularly interact with USFW staff and a diversity of displays of characterizing watershed habitats for 80 miles in any direction. What’s more it’s the only publicly-funded flagship Refuge site where admission is free.

Without a touchstone site in this populous reach of the watershed, most citizens will remain unaware of the restoration and conservation work of the USFWS. They’ll be left to surmise instead that Conte is more a theoretical Refuge—a concept and an amorphous jumble of disparate parts lacking any true core.

In practice and in theory, Turners Falls and the Discovery Center site represent the best of opportunities for the US Fish & Wildlife Service to succeed in their core missions of conservation, restoration, public access and education. A second retreat at Turners Falls would be an historic failure. This fabulously rich reach of the Connecticut is uniquely situated to showcase the Service’s long-awaited success in river restoration on the public’s behalf. Many mistakes could be redeemed with the right decisions at this time. Don’t abandon the Great River at the Great Falls.

Public comments are being accepted through November 13th on the USFWS’s plans for Conte Refuge priorities for the next 15 years at: www.fws.gov/refuge/silvio_o_conte/

Karl Meyer
Greenfield

Greening Greenfield’s “Green Hero” for September

Posted by on 11 Sep 2015 | Tagged as: 5-year FERC licensing process, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River migratory fisheries restoration, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FERC licensing process, Fish passage results, Greenfield Recorder, Greening Greenfield, Holyoke Fish Lift, National Marine Fisheries Service, NMFS, Northfield Mountain, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project, Rock Dam, shortnose sturgeon, teachers, The Recorder, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS

Greening Greenfield’s “Green Hero” for September

I’ve had the honor of being selected as Greening Greenfield’s “Green Hero” for September, 2015. The award was announced in the pages of The Recorder on September 9th; the text from that piece is attached below.

Thanks to all the people of Greening Greenfield for extending me that recognition—as well as focusing on the importance of the critical artery in Western New England’s ecosystem, the Connecticut River. Greening Greenfield has been hard at work locally on issues of climate and sustainability for over a decade. Their efforts reach into all aspects of local energy, economy, and quality of life issues. They’ve made great strides in steering Greenfield toward an environmental future that will nourish coming generations. www.greeninggreenfield.org .

A special thanks from me to Susan and Dorothy.

Text of The Recorder piece follows:

A Passion for the Connecticut River

The first thing you notice about Karl Meyer is that his eyes light up when he speaks about the Connecticut River and the fish that live in it. His commitment and enthusiasm shows through in his words and in every action he takes.

In the 1970s’, Karl was interested in the river for its scenic qualities. But in the 1980’s, he visited Holyoke fishway during May spawning season and observed some of the more than a million fish moving through lifts there. One year 720,000 American Shad and 500,000 blueback herring came through the river at Holyoke. That image never left him.

Since that time, Karl has concentrated on the needs of the fish in the river, with a particular concern for American shad and the shortnose sturgeon, an endangered species. Karl believes the Connecticut’s restoration concentrated on the wrong species. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service put a great deal of effort into stocking the river and building fish ladders for Atlantic salmon, a fish extinct here since 1809. That emphasis diverted attention from shortnose sturgeon, shad, and blueback herring, none of which benefit very much from those Turners Falls fish ladders which diverted all migrants into the Turners Falls power canal.

In 2015, 410,000 American shad passed through Holyoke, but because they are diverted out of the river and into the power canal only 60,000, fewer than 15%, made it past Turners Falls to reach open, upstream spawning grounds. This is clearly unsustainable. Today’s US Fish & Wildlife Service passage goal is 60% passing Turners Falls. Their original 1967 target was 75%.

With fewer fish making it to food-rich, open habitats, fewer newborn fish survive. There will be fewer fish for eagles, herons and osprey, and fewer for anglers and the public to consume. Eventually 15% of very little will result in the failure of the restoration to return vibrant shad runs to three target states.

Karl has a simple solution for this problem. Require life-giving flows in the river throughout spawning and migration season. When fish aren’t diverted into a turbine-lined power canal they’ll have a much greater possibility of making it to spawning grounds in MA, VT and NH. It’s a last chance for river restoration.

The other great danger to river health is the Northfield Mountain Pumping Station. It draws on the 20 miles of river backed up behind Turners Falls Dam, pumping it uphill to a 5 billion gallon reservoir. Northfield hugely impacts river flows and migration.

“An original design proposal had Northfield closing during migration and spawning season. Implementing that today would return more natural flows to the river. It would allow fish to migrate directly upriver in natural habitat, and let sturgeon gather and spawn successfully at their ancient Rock Dam spawning site,” stated Karl.

So how do we encourage this change? Easy. Right now the Northfield and Turners Falls/Cabot Station facilities are both up for 30-year relicensing with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). We can all comment on the relicensing of these plants at http://www.ferc.gov/docs-filing/ecomment.asp. The FERC project number for Northfield is P-2485; Cabot Station is P-1889. Advocating that our river run free during spawning and migration season could make a huge difference in improving the health of the Connecticut.

Karl would like to see local high schools adopt the National Marine Fisheries Service’s SCUTES Program and encourage monitoring of tagged, adult shortnose sturgeon at their ONLY documented natural spawning site, The Rock Dam in Turners Falls. By developing an awareness of the numbers and needs of these endangered fish, students will build a new relationship to this river. http://www.greateratlantic.fisheries.noaa.gov/prot_res/scutes/kits.html

For his tireless work to create a healthy Connecticut River and a vibrant fish population within it, Karl Meyer is our Green Hero for the month of September.

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