Copyright © 2013, by Karl Meyer

NOTE: the following piece appeared recently in Daily Hampshire Gazette, www.gazettenet.com; The Recorder, www.recorder.com; the Montague Reporter, and the Shelburne Falls and West County Independent.

                    DUE DILIGENCE: looking beneath the surface

New England’s Great River is at a critical juncture in the closing days of 2013.  An ecosystem door was slammed shut at Turners Falls 215 years ago when private investors built a dam across the river.  After 1798, migrating fish no longer reached northern Massachusetts, Vermont or New Hampshire.  In a landmark 1872 decision the US Supreme Court reopened the door to an ecosystem restoration via “Holyoke Company vs. Lyman.”  It upheld a Massachusetts law requiring dam owners to provide fish passage as part of the public interest of stakeholders upstream and down. Yet today there’s still no working fish passage at Turners Falls. 

As a stakeholder wishing to see the Connecticut River’s fisheries restoration succeed after decades of failure, I’m participating in the current 5-year Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s hydro relicensing process.  It will determine conditions in the river for the next 30-40 years.  If you go to www.northfieldrelicensing.com and click on “2013 Documents,” you’ll find FERC’s “Study Plan Determination Letter” dated 9/13/2013.  It’s a 74-page catalogue of studies FERC has determined necessary to protect the public interests as they move to issue new long-range hydro licenses on the river in 2018.  Curiously, if you open that letter and scroll to the last word on the last page (74) you’ll find “Karl Meyer,” listed as “Recommending Entity” for Study 4.2.3, “Hydraulic Study of the Turners Falls Power Canal.”

I was surprised to find my name there, given that each of the 18 studies above it lists Firstlight, owners of the Turners Falls Power Canal, as Recommending Entity.  But this was no accident on FERC’s part.  They’d originally included the canal study as part of Study 3.2.2 in their preliminary judgments on the science needed to define the impacts of FirstLight’s hydro operations on river environments.  I’d agreed with them.  But FirstLight, in all subsequent filings, seemed determined to exclude it.  They simply excised “power canal” from 3.2.2: “Hydraulic Study of Turners Falls Impoundment, Bypassed Reach, power canal and the Connecticut River below Cabot Station.”  Their main argument was that the water surface level in the canal remains relatively stable through the year.  But given that what happens below the surface is what’s critical to the needs of migrating fish, I argued a canal study was a critical consideration. 

Two generations back a chance to restore fish runs beyond Turners Falls was squandered when the US Fish & Wildlife Service and four state fisheries agencies agreed to steer migratory fish into the chaos of the privately-owned Turners Falls power canal.  A singular New England opportunity to recoup and expand the river’s biodiversity was lost.  Just as in 1980, at best one-fish-in-ten emerges alive upstream there today.  Some years it’s 1-in-100.  That mistake stemmed from a failed quest to create a hatchery-strain of extinct Atlantic salmon here.  As a result, due diligence wasn’t applied to the needs of growing populations of herring, shad and sea lamprey, who would now have to survive a trip through an industrial canal on their spawning runs.  It also scuttled the only natural spawning grounds of the endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon. 

Merriam-Webster defines due diligence as “the care that a reasonable person exercises to avoid harm to other persons or their property.”  Today, after 14 years of power company-subsidized canal studies that remain unpublished, we know scant little about conditions fish encounter throughout that canal.  Save for a few dozen yards at its entrances and exits, two full miles of watery terra incognita lay in between.  That missing knowledge comprises this ecosystem’s black hole. 

Yet with just tidbits of canal study information leaking into the public sphere, there is evidence that canal conditions–and the weeks-long migratory delays fish experience there, are proving lethal.  “Shad are dying in droves in the canal and we don’t know why,” is how one federal Conte Lab researcher responded to a question about mortality in the canal they’ve repeatedly studied using FirstLight funds.  Since dead fish don’t head back to sea to return as repeat spawners, the canal impoverishes a full 172 miles of river ecosystem up to Bellows Falls, VT. 

Thus, I’m proud to have my name listed next to canal hydraulics study 4.2.3.  I believe it represents FERC’s effort to exercise due diligence in getting the information needed to make the best choices in these proceedings.  It certainly represents my own.  FERC’s Ken Hogan has stated that thorough studies and reliable data are what FERC is aiming for as they decide on conditions hydropower interests will have to adhere to as they operate on our river for generations to come.  Anything less would constitute a failure of their public mandate.

 FERC’s Public Comment Period on any of the 39 studies they may require for the relicensing of Turners Falls and Northfield Mountain projects ends December 31, 2013.  Go to www.ferc.gov , and “filing e-comments.”  P-1889 is the Project # required for Turners Falls dam and canal; P-2485 is for Northfield Mountain.

 Karl Meyer is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.