(Note: the following piece appeared in The Recorder, www.recorder.com, on March 11, 2017 under the heading: “Who will protect Connecticut River?”)

DON’T SHORT-SELL NEW ENGLAND’S GREAT RIVER

Copyright © 2017 by Karl Meyer

Canadian investors are looking to purchase the Connecticut River for a few decades, cheap and quick. Canada’s Public Sector Pension Investment Board bought up the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station and Turners Falls hydro complex last year as part of PSP Investments. Their New England power play comes in the middle of the 5-year relicensing process for both facilities. That Federal Energy Regulatory Commission process will decide future conditions impacting this four-state ecosystem for decades.

The long-failed Cabot Station Fish Ladder on the Connecticut and competing flows flushing down the Turners Falls Power Canal’s Emergency Spillway. (Note:CLICK, THEN CLICK AGAIN TO ENLARGE.)

Thus, PSP may soon hold sway over what’s long been the most desolate 10-mile stretch of the entire Connecticut. It includes 2.1 miles of riverbed sitting empty for months at a time below Turners Falls Dam. It also includes the reach where, nearly 20 years back, federal fisheries expert Dr. Boyd Kynard found his boat being yanked backward—the Connecticut pulled into reverse by the suction of the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station while he was drifting for bass a mile downstream near the French King Bridge. Looked at fully, it encompasses the entire reach where a 50 year federal migratory fisheries restoration program has long foundered.

On March 7th, after four years of meetings, thousands of pages of reports–and with volumes of study information incomplete and disputed, owners of these FirstLight-branded facilities are hoping select interests agree to take licensing talks underground. They’ll be fishing for backroom deals at a Boston area hotel well before this process has had a full public vetting. FL wants to take this little party private, fast. They’re asking invitees to agree to an embargo on public information about settlement talks, positions and decisions.

The key phrase in their invitation reads: “Because this meeting is intended to initiate confidential settlement discussions, it will not be open to the press or general public.” That’s FirstLight’s Director of Massachusetts Hydro Gus Bakas. His selected invitees include the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration(Sean McDermott), US Fish & Wildlife Service(John Warner), US Geological Survey(Alex Haro), MA Fish & Wildlife(Caleb Slater), towns including Erving, Gill, Northfield, Montague, the Franklin Regional Council of Governments, The Nature Conservancy(Katie Kennedy), the Connecticut River Watershed Council(Andrew Fisk), and American Whitewater(Bob Nasdor).

That FirstLight stipulation is part of the quick-bait to get stakeholders thinking the time is right to cut deals. Sign-up, shut up; then we’ll talk. Cash out with what you can get for your agency, town, non-profit; or your fun-time rafting interests. Promises from this venture capitalist firm–in what’s become an ownership merry-go-round for these facilities, will surely all come true.

Ironically, many of these invitees descend directly from those who failed to step in and step up for the decimated river here decades back. They’re agencies and so-called watchdogs who failed to enforce laws and conditions negotiated when they were signatories to settlement talks for NMPS and Turners Falls nearly 40 years back–and for the 1999 FERC license negotiated for Holyoke Dam as well. At that site, Holyoke Gas & Electric just finally completed required improvements for endangered shortnose sturgeon last spring. Their license had mandated they be completed in 2008. Eight years, nine–no suits, no injunctions; no action.

Maybe that’s because the Watershed Council’s board chair works for HG & E, or because a significant number of board members are retirees from the region’s legacy power companies. Or, might it be because CRWC receives grant monies from National Marine Fisheries, US Fish & Wildlife, and MA Division of Fisheries, that these agencies were never taken to court for the withering spawning conditions and crippling flows experienced by federal trust American shad and federally endangered sturgeon in the reaches from Turners Falls to Northfield?

So who can our river look to for environmental protections under the National Environmental Policy Act, the Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Clean Water Act in the future?

Fourteen months remain in this relicensing. Key reports won’t be available until April, while other critical study information won’t be out until July. Some studies may need repeating. The best future for New England’s River will not be well served by quick-and-dirty agreements made in the shadows. Remember, Dear Stakeholders, it’s your names that will be forever associated with the conditions on a future Connecticut River—the river your grandchildren will be relying on. This is no time to sell the Connecticut short. What’s your price for a river’s soul?

Karl Meyer of Greenfield is on the Fish and Aquatics Study Team in the FERC relicensing for the Northfield Mountain and Turners Falls hydro facilities. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

(Note: Bob Nasdor is former director of the Massachusetts Commission on Open Government.)

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