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INSIDE A FERC LICENSING PROCESS: the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the State of the Connecticut River in Massachusetts

Posted by on 31 Jul 2019 | Tagged as: climate-heating, Connecticut River, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Dr. John Waldman, Endangered Species Act, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, FERC Commissioner Neil Chatterjee, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, National Freshwater Marine Sanctuary, National Marine Fisheries Service, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project, Riverkeeper, Scott Pruitt, Silvio O. Conte Connecticut River National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, Turners Falls dam, US Environmental Protection Agency, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS

Inside a FERC Licensing Process: The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the State of the Connecticut River in Massachusetts

Copyright © 2019 by Karl Meyer All rights reserved.


The Connecticut River below Turners Falls Dam. Photo Copyright © 2019 by Karl Meyer All rights reserved. (NOTE: Click, then click twice more to enlarge.)

“River conditions miserable; relicensing progress, negligible. No end in sight.”

Note: the following is a long-form letter to Dr. John Waldman, CUNY Queens College professor of biology. John dropped a friendly note inquiring as to the state of affairs on the Connecticut River. I replied I would like get back to him in some detail, with a view toward publishing those extended thoughts. Besides his teaching, John is an award-winning author of several books. He has been a long-time advocate for the restoration of the Hudson River and its environs. We met some years back when I took him on a tour of the Connecticut River reaches I write about here. John was in the process of completing, RUNNING SILVER: Restoring Atlantic Rivers and Their Great Fish Migrations, published by Lyons Press (2013). He is an avid angler and a fierce defender of rivers.

Karl Meyer
Greenfield MA 01301 July 31, 2019

John Waldman, Professor of Biology
Queens College, CUNY
Queens, NY 11367

Hi John,

You asked me sometime back how things were going on the “mighty Connecticut?” Sorry it’s taken a while to get back to you.

As you know, the real news—as it were, is all bound up in the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s 5-year relicensing process for Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project, P-2485, and Turners Falls/Cabot Hydro Project, P-1889. That ponderous process for these tandemly-operated, peaking electric facilities, began way back in August of 2012. All the while some 10 miles of the Connecticut have been essentially strangled and broken here since 1972, when the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station came on-line in concert with the now-shuttered Vermont Yankee Nuclear Plant, just upstream in Vermont. Overall, NMPS’s massive pump-and-purge water appetite impacts flows and habitat across 50 river miles in three New England states.

VY closed permanently in 2014. Instead of being pulled from daily service at that time and kept on as a reserve emergency power source for summer and winter grid-stress days, NMPS somehow has been allowed to soldier-on by importing giant surges of electricity from distant power sources, battering an ecosystem with deadly, pumped storage suction and creating artificial tides here daily, some 70 miles above the nearest reach of Long Island Sound tidal impacts at Hartford.

Of course NMPS has never produced, and will never produce, a single watt of its own virgin power. This is not renewable energy, and Northfield is not “hydro” power, as people think. It is recycled nuclear, natural gas, oil, coal, etc., power taken directly off the grid to do the unseemly work of suctioning a river backward. Pumped storage is the only category that shows up on regional power grids as turning in a negative percentage of power production. It’s a river-killing technology–a bulk power relay switch ferrying the climate-heating juice of a disastrously warming planet.

If I were to put into the fewest possible words how things are going on the mighty Connecticut it would read something like: “River conditions miserable; relicensing progress, negligible. No end in sight.”

It all seems to work in favor of the corporation—which, if you try and look beneath all the legal paperwork permutations still is ultimately parent-owned by Canada–the country, to the detriment of a four-state US river and ecosystem, and dozens of communities in Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire. The biological losers, besides the citizenry, include—among others, the federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, and federal trust species including American shad and blueback herring.

Further below you’ll find part of the asset transfer paperwork entered into this FERC relicensing record on Wednesday, July 17th, via the company’s Washington law firm, a limited legal partnership. They’ve essentially split these intimately-integrated components—Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage and Turners Falls power canal/Cabot Station, into a handful of separate limited liability companies, all now registered as corporations in the state of Delaware.

As you know, these peaking/re-peaking projects have proven major stumbling blocks to river connectivity and real anadromous/diadromous fish restoration above Holyoke Dam into wide open Vermont and New Hampshire habitats. There has long-existed fifty-miles of essentially empty and infinitely-restorable river spawning and rearing habitat for shad, lamprey, bluebacks, etc., in those New England states.

But the Connecticut is sucked into reverse for up to a mile downstream via NMPS’s monstrous water appetite. Chewing through 15,000 cubic feet per second of CT River flow for hours when pumping, it extirpates virtually all the river life it inhales—fish, eels, eggs, etc. And, in grim concert, the riverbed below Turners Falls Dam is left all but an empty bedrock relic many months out of the year—as the flow from Northfield is re-peaked into their three-mile long power canal below that dam.

Today as I write, there are three miles of exposed rocky riverbed baking in the sun in 93F degree heat. The company is actually required to only dribble 125 cubic feet per second of water into this Dead Reach from a point just below the dam. The rest is corralled for Northfield’s huge appetite and for shunting into that canal. Thus, the Connecticut River itself is essentially broken at this point. And, no nourishing, connecting flow to make it a viable river and waterway will be required again until NEXT April, at the earliest. It just sits—baking, starved of water.

During this spring’s migration season just over 7% of the 315,000 shad that passed Holyoke Dam were tallied passing Turners Falls. Those numbers do not even approach the passage numbers achieved here mid-1980s. That’s absurd.

Plus, during peak shortnose sturgeon spawning season operators inside Northfield Mountain pinched off spawning flows at the key site known as Rock Dam during a period when investigations by USGS fish biologists had demonstrated that 4 dozen of members of that federally-endangered species were present. The ancient pool at the Rock Dam site is their only documented natural spawning site in the entire river ecosystem.

This occurred during a time when the power company was conducting their own test flows to potentially move tagged American shad upstream through that water-starved Dead Reach which includes Rock Dam. I witnessed and documented the flow cuts one morning, and another federal fisheries biologist witnessed the same brutal draw-down two days later.

An email confirmed those grim impacts on those spawning sturgeon were caused by the operators 7 miles upstream inside the Northfield Mountain Mountain Pumped Storage Station, who control the Turners Falls Dam. The company has long been fully apprized during this federal relicensing process that shortnose sturgeon spawn here from mid-April past the third week of May, yet they pinched the flows shut and egg-sheltering banks were dewatered. That’s deadly. It’s what’s known as a taking under the Endangered Species Act.

Days later, a commercial rafting company was documented making repeat runs over that single, tiny rapid at the Rock Dam, while repeatedly entering onto sensitive wetland habitats on the island adjacent in rerunning those very brief joy rides.

As you know, a single instance of interference with a federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon is subject to a fine of $49,000 and possible jail time. If this was an individual citizen destroying spawning habitat and crippling reproduction–rather than a “corporate” citizen, I’m sure they would’ve ended up in court, fined, and answering to the law. I think if there was a worthy watchdog on the Connecticut, the company would have been sued, and a judgment sought. If the judgement of a taking of say 20 endangered shortnose sturgeon was rendered, at $49k per fish, we are talking serious river protection money! Here? Nada. Due diligence? Any diligence??

Alas, we really have no enforcing non-profit watchdog here on the Connecticut like you have with Riverkeeper and its battery of lawyers on the Hudson. There’s no enforcement or taking the corporations to court here on our 4-state Connecticut. That’s certainly why conditions are so miserable, despite the presence of long-settled law, the ESA and CWA statutes. No NGO teeth.

Our resident NGO did change its name a year or so back, but not its mission and mandate. And what’s always been needed here is that promise to prosecute corporations and take government agencies to court when they fail to enforce environmental mandates and do their jobs. The one we have submits lots of “comments.”

OK, they also hold a big river clean-up—offering high PR visibility for questionable corporate sponsors who have a legacy of nuclear waste left in their wake here, and they do some water quality testing. They also plant trees with grant money, and pull aquatic weeds. But, since producing several guides for boaters on the Connecticut, some of their key constituencies are the promoters of recreational and commercial paddle sports here—kayakers, rafters, canoeists.

They are pushing to get these interests portage and river access to the long-abused, critical habitats immediately below Turners Falls Dam. I have stated publicly any number of times that in a just world this tiny reach would be designated a National Freshwater Marine Sanctuary, so critical is it to this ecosystem—upstream and down.

Given the fragile biological, historical and cultural nature of those three river-miles—recreational and commercial watercraft pursuits are the absolute last pursuits that should be allowed there. But, guess what? That little NGO just entered their for-the-record “comments” into this FERC relicensing for their vision of new recreation access in that fragile reach—where over a dozen state- and federally- listed species are struggling for survival. It reads more like a marketing and development plan: new parking spaces, a trail cut onto an island for repeat runs over the tiny Rock Dam and habitat of endangered sturgeon and what may be the last place in the reach where state-endangered yellow lampmussels were documented.

I really have no idea whether they have ever looked up the definition of conservancy.

They want three or four new accesses designed for this tiny reach, as well as a road cut for emergency vehicles and a ramp-slide for watercraft. Makes you wonder who is donating to them. This is a mostly-forgotten, fragile biological gem, adjacent to a tiny backwater neighborhood of old factory double-decker homes—and you can just see it being turned into something commercialized and soulless…

It’s a damned good thing they have no actual conditioning authority in this relicensing. I think USFWS, National Marine Fisheries, MA Natural Heritage, MA Historical Commission, and several federal- and state recognized Native American tribes will be looking at this with some shock. At the very least, that NGO’s director should step down as vice chair and MA public-sector representative on the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission. It’s been two years now, but it’s more like a sycophant position for the NGO–since they get channeled grant monies through the fed and state agencies that they should be watch-dogging over. So, it’s like a cheerleading slot. Before that, the MA public sector slot on CRASC sat empty for seven years, but at least it was a do-no-harm arrangement.

They really need to look up the definition of conservancy.

Unfortunately John, that’s the state of affairs in this critical section of the Connecticut, tottering on the brink between resurrection and conservation protections, and their vision of the river as an attraction for tide of tourist-joyriders with little regard for place, or species, or the intrinsic right for a river to just live and heal; as a life giving entity in its own right. It’s merely a fun-time commodity. Sad, that we have no legal team or NGO operating under the watchdog/enforcement mode here. Lacking that bedrock necessity, a Connecticut River with monitored–and enforced, protections and life-giving flows in the future seems a highly unlikely prospect, no matter what gets written into a new license.

Unless, another organization steps into the breach–bringing consistent enforcement and a willingness to drag crimes against this ecosystem into the courtroom every time they occur. We need an every-day enforcement presence like you have on the Hudson.

Howsoever, I will say that the US Fish & Wildlife Service’s goal for Turners Falls Dam in these proceedings–after gathering research from long-range studies and examining decades of passage data, is: 75% of all the fish that pass Holyoke will be required to pass TF safely. After four decades of failed fish passage here, they appear solid on that goal being met through this relicensing. That passage, upstream and down, is required via the 1872 landmark Supreme Court decision in Holyoke Company vs. Lyman, as you know—decided exactly a century before NMPS began swallowing the Connecticut River and all manner of its migratory and resident fish. Its full impacts have never been calculated nor compensated–to even the smallest measure.

There’s one other ember of good news here: for the second year in a row a SINGLE blueback herring passed Turners Falls Dam. They hadn’t been seen here in most of a decade, though thousands used to pass back in the 1980s. It’s a federal trust species with its back against the wall. Good to see even the tiniest biological thread holding on.

The other test the power company is currently conducting–of its own volition vis-à-vis this relicensing: little swaths of mesh net have been placed in front of the massive sucking mouth of Northfield Mountain—purportedly to prevent that gaping maw from feasting on millions of tiny, young-of-year shad each spring, as well as adult American eels on their way downstream. Early YOY study results from fish agencies hinting that the reach at Northfield is the least productive of this river’s dammed sections. Wonder why??

The absolute brilliance of this “trial”, is they are going to project how effective a 1,000-plus foot net across the intake might be for decades into the future—by staking out several test panels that are about the size of high school flags in front of that giant pipe, during various sucking flows. I’m sure that’s gonna prove an effective snapshot of how a ponderous mega-net might perform for decades to come! Ludington Pumped Storage and lake trout should be the cautionary tale…

Of course, as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission let’s this bloated process go on, ad infinitum, we may all be dead before Vermont and New Hampshire get their long-deserved shad runs, and those shortnose sturgeon–which you assisted as a reviewer in their Federal Recovery Plan, receive flows that guarantee they actually can spawn and are able to begin the slow slog toward viable species-status.

Ok, just to give you a flavor of what rights and privileges a ten dollar (yes $10.00) tax shelter sale in this key reach in a 4-state ecosystem that is part-and-parcel of the Silvio O. Conte Connecticut River National Fish & Wildlife Refuge can offer, please see the included clauses below. THEY ARE HEART-BREAKING in the midst of a 5-year FERC relicensing process that is now set to begin its 8th year, if my math is correct. We began meeting in August 2012.

And, John, the company and its consultants do not seem in any hurry to bring this process to a close. The last negotiation with conditioning federal and state fisheries agencies took place in mid-winter. Basically, the parties all stated their positions; then walked away with no further meetings scheduled. This was, of course, after they made their surprise December 20, 2018 filing to break the company up into little, Delaware-registered, llc tax silos… Some ten agencies and stakeholder interests have filed protests with FERC and been granted Intervener status, myself included.

Here is an excerpt from that conveyance document:

“In consideration of the covenants and agreements contained herein and the payment of $10.00 and other good and valuable consideration, the receipt of which is hereby acknowledged by the Grantor, the Grantor and the Grantee hereby agree as follows:

The Grantor hereby grants, bargains, sells, and conveys to the Grantee, and its
successors and assigns, with Quitclaim Covenants, a perpetual nonexclusive right and easement for the purposes set forth below in, on, over, under, across and through the Property identified on Exhibit “A” attached hereto.

The rights and easements conferred hereby shall include, but not be limited to, the right, at any time and from time to time and without payment of damages or further consideration to:

1. Alter the level of the Connecticut River and of its tributaries to any extent by
withdrawing water from said River and returning the same water in whole or in part by
the use of structures now or hereafter forming part of the Northfield Mountain Pumped
Storage Project, FERC No. 2485;

2. Retard, accelerate, reverse, or divert the flow of said river and of said tributaries,thereby causing an increase or decrease in the percolation, seepage, or flowage of waterupon, over, and under or from the Premises described and identified in Exhibit A notwithstanding that by such percolation, seepage, or flowage damage may be caused directly or indirectly to the said Premises or to any one of them or to structures, personal property or trees or vegetation thereon;

3. To erect and maintain upon the Premises so subject suitable gauges to measure and
record the flow and level of the said river and said tributaries;

4. To enter upon said Premises for the aforesaid purposes and for the purpose of removing any trees or other vegetation which may be injured or destroyed by the flowage
aforesaid; and

5. As an incident of the foregoing, cause an increase or decrease in the flowage of water orice upon, over, or from said Premises, notwithstanding that portions thereof subject tothe aforesaid rights and easements may be washed away or added to by the action ofwater or ice and that damage may be caused thereto and to structures or vegetation thereon or adjacent thereto by flowage, seepage, percolation, erosion, accretion,interference with drainage, or otherwise.”

Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage remains today the same ecosystem killer it was when it came on line in 1972. Absent in any of these proceedings has been its grim impacts on resident fish species across 4-1/2 decades. It is both an engine and enabler of climate change, as it sucks in 34% more natural gas- and nuclear-produced juice from the grid than it ever sends back as 2nd hand, peak-priced electricity.

FYI: the weakest partner with conditioning authority in all these years has been MA Division of Fish & Wildlife—the sole agency that has had authority to reopen the current license across all these decades concerning failed fish passage. They sat on their hands, mum, while anadromous fish passage nearly disappeared above Turners Falls Dam in the first decade of this century—dropping at times to 1% or less. It all adds up to what a massive taking has occurred here in Massachusetts across the decades via the operations of Northfield Mountain and Turners Falls. Vermont and New Hampshire have been hereby impoverished as well During these relicensing hearings MA Fish & Wildlife has shown little in the way of leadership. It’s an embarrassment for this Commonwealth.

I will, however, recognize that the MA Natural Heritage people and the Dept. of Environmental Protection have shown up and been active partners in environmental safeguarding during these proceedings.

Otherwise, the federal fish and environmental agencies—the people I sit with on the Fish and Aquatics Study Team, have ultimately shown great expertise and resolve in enforcing US statutory law and long-standing environmental mandates respecting a new license. I think the US Fish & Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service recognize their responsibilities to get it right this time—and to protect this four-state New England River for the citizens of the United States as the heart of the US Silvio O. Conte Connecticut River Fish & Wildlife Refuge. They are proving forthright and honest brokers on behalf of the citizens they work for.

As you may know, I am the only recognized stakeholder/intervener in these proceedings who has not signed one of those grim non-disclosure agreements with the company. I have thus become a conduit for nearly all the relicensing information reaching the public on several platforms in this largely unseen process.

But as I write this I begin to wonder: since these intimately intertwined projects have now become a series of new LLC outfits–are all those agencies and towns still bound by non-disclosure agreements they signed years ago with a different company? The company’s behavior in that regard has been so snake-like that it hardly seems relevant or appropriate to hold back information from the public about their river at this time. It’s been like an in-your-face demonstration of the rootlessness and stark profit motives of the new “corporate citizenship.”

And, nowhere have I heard any hint that these newly-configured, on-paper companies are interested in coming to settlement terms any time soon.

With those actions driving the parties apart, why not just move it in front of FERC rather than watching and waiting for these venture capitalists’ next power move? Every year these proceedings drag on the Connecticut River ecosystem continues to fray and fracture along these miserable miles of broken river basin. And every year the company continues to profit from FERC’s extension of the current license. In the interim they’ve participated in helping change operational parameters for pumped storage payments and participation in ISO markets. The power companies sculpt the laws that FERC imposes.

And, of course, every year they do not have to put a shovel in the ground to construct mandatory fish passage is more money in the bank for them and their venture capital investors. The bulk power grid, FERC and ISO New England are some of the key engines of our climate crisis. Only distributed generation and micro-grid reorganization—stopping us from blithely consuming the glut of imported power that fuels our massive over-consumption, will offer us a way out of this emergency. Those new, localized power configurations would also guarantee routes around the looming threat of massive cyber attacks on this behemoth of a power grid.

Something called NEPOOL, a consortium of New England corporate power producers, really wags the dog that is ISO New England. And FERC generally rubber stamps their positions. And, FERC won’t even consider ruling on any given projects’ climate impacts or GHG emission contributions to an overheating planet. Not once. Seems they’ve never met a power project they didn’t embrace.

Hell, both NEPOOL and ISO ban the media outright from their meetings. They do not provide or disclose critical information needed for the public to understand and trust the decisions made about the grid, power production, energy sources, distribution and its import in the current climate crisis. It’s all backroom stuff. One of this company’s own executives testified in Washington hearings in support of continuing to ban the media from these critical, precedent-setting, energy meetings. As stakeholders we are denied data and information on what this power company pays for the glut of grid power it imports while it sells an ecosystem down the river, offering it back in deadened, second-hand, peak-priced juice.

There is speculation from folks I know who design and install solar projects and metering that this company may not actually be paying ANYTHING at times when the power grid is so bloated with excess juice at certain times and seasons. Bulk power producers pay to have it taken off their hands in what’s called “negative pricing”. How much money are they making? How much of a free ride is this boondoggle getting? Just a year and a half back the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s current chair Neil Chatterjee and now-disgraced former EPA chief Scott Pruitt made an all-but-secret visit to Northfield Mountain. No media; no witnesses. What does that tell you?

But then it’s always been pretty much at free ride at Northfield, having never paid for nearly a half century of unmeasured annual fisheries carnage. That’s been a taking on a massive scale: federal-trust migratory—and, resident fish, both.

The public really has no idea that this contraption can really only regenerate a few HOURS of dense, second hand juice, after which it is literally and completely dead in the water—and has to start hoovering-up endless juice from the grid once more, while sucking all manner of aquatic life through its deadly turbines. Its profits–and purchase price mechanisms are all shielded from the public in this FERC/ISO/NEPOOL process. It’s is an abomination of democracy.

Reregulating the energy market here presents the only open path to realigning our energy production, distribution and use with societal needs in the face of a climate crisis reaching a critical precipice. However, our governor here seems quite happy to farm-out our climate responsibilities and import-in massive amounts of what are termed green megawatts. Huge build-outs going on in Boston and elsewhere–casinos, luxury high-rise condos, giant, energy- sucking marijuana grow-houses. It’s all sleight of hand. Robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Rivers are the cooling arteries of this planet, and the Connecticut is the heart of an ecosystem stretching from the Quebec border to the estuary at Long Island Sound.

History will remember the inaction and misrepresentation of these corporate rogues and complicit bureaucrats in our time of climate crisis. Seems obvious that none of them have granddaughters or grandsons they worry for, in the draconian future they are helping engineer…

Well John, that’s plenty enough cheer from here.

BTW, how are things over on the mighty Hudson??

All best,
Karl

Why no FISH?, STILL???

Posted by on 30 Apr 2019 | Tagged as: American shad, Atlantic salmon, Bellows Falls Fishway, blueback herring, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Connecticut River migratory fisheries restoration, Connecticut River Watershed Council, CRASC, Daily Hampshire Gazette, Dr. Boyd Kynard, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federal trust fish, FERC, FirstLight, Gary Sanderson, Greenfield Recorder, Holyoke Fish Lift, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, Montague Reporter, National Marine Fisheries Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, NOAA, Northfield Mountain, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, Public Law 98-138, Rock Dam, shad, shortnose sturgeon, The Greenfield Recorder, The Recorder, Turners Falls, Turners Falls power canal, Uncategorized, US Fish & Wildlife Service, US Geological Survey's Conte Fish Lab, Vernon Dam Fishway

The disastrously-emptied Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Reservoir, June 27, 2010. (CLICK, then Click several times more for FULLEST VIEW) Copyright © 2019 by Karl Meyer. All Rights Reserved.

WHY no FISH…
All photos and text Copyright © 2019 by Karl Meyer. All Rights Reserved.

By clicking on the blue link WHY no FISH… above, and then clicking it again on the following page, you will open an old PowerPoint presentation that I gave to the Pioneer Valley Chapter of Trout Unlimited in Holyoke in December 2010. It will take several minutes to load, but is then largely self-explanatory, with text available below photos, or by clicking the text tab.

On April 30, 2010 I embarked on a journey to the mouth of the Connecticut River by bicycle, to document the grim crippling of the river and its shad runs due to the lack of enforcement and engagement of fisheries agencies and river organizations. At the time, they were all still cheerleaders for a failed salmon program, ignoring the stark facts of the impacts of the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project on American shad and federally endangered shortnose sturgeon.

At the time I was doing part-time work at the Connecticut River Watershed Council, but quit out of frustration and disappointment just a few months after.

Notably, just a year later, the US Fish & Wildlife Service cancelled its long-failed salmon hatchery and “restoration” program on the Connecticut. A year after that, the river conversation became about the impacts of flows in the Dead Reach of the Connecticut, and Dr. Boyd Kynard’s groundbreaking book focusing on federally endangered shortnose sturgeon at the Rock Dam was released–though only following an unconscionable 3-month embargo of his research data by the US Geological Service.

Nearly a decade later, Northfield Mountain remains the Connecticut River ecosystem’s deadliest machine, directly impacting riverine life and migratory fish abundance in three states.

The Connecticut River now has TWO “conservancies”, but not a single NGO that makes any claims for ENFORCEMENT being a chief (or really ANY) component of their mandate. And ENFORCEMENT is a requisite for any true ecosystem restoration and river protection outfit that means to carry out its mission. This is a four-state ecosystem without a legal team. The Connecticut remains a river unprotected.

Justice for New England’s Embattled River

Posted by on 22 Mar 2019 | Tagged as: American shad, Anadromous Fish Conservation Act, Bellows Falls, Bellows Falls VT, Cabot Station, Canada, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Conte National Fish & Wildlife Refuge, Endangered Species Act, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, FERC, First Light Hydro Generating Company, FirstLight, Greenfield Recorder, Holyoke Dam, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, National Marine Fisheries Service, New Hampshire, Northfield Mountain, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, PSP Investments, Public Sector Pension Investments, shad, shad fishing, Society of Environmental Journalists, Treasury Board of Canada, Turners Falls, Turners Falls dam, United State Supreme Court, US Fish & Wildlife Service, US Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act, Vermont


Above: FirstLight’s sign along Greenfield Road in Turners Falls MA highlighting their historically combined operations with the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station. Photo Copyright © 2019 by Karl Meyer. All Rights Reserved. (CLICK, then click again to enlarge).

NOTE: an edited version of this piece appeared in The Greenfield Recorder on March 20, 2019, www.recorder.com .

Copyright © 2019 by Karl Meyer. All Rights Reserved.

Justice for New England’s Embattled River

In a shockingly-belated move on December 20, 2018, Canada’s FirstLight Hydro Generating Company petitioned the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for “expedited consideration” of their last minute request to transfer the licenses of its Northfield Mountain and Turners Falls Projects on the Connecticut River into separate LLC holding companies. They further requested the just-minted corporations be substituted as the new license applicants in the ongoing federal hydro relicensing process, begun here in September 2012. FirstLight is wholly owned under the Treasury Board of Canada as Public Sector Pension Investments, a venture capital corporation.

For over half a decade stakeholders including the US Fish & Wildlife Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service, MA Division of Fish & Wildlife, and nearly a dozen assorted stakeholders and town governments have been meeting and negotiating with a single entity, FirstLight Hydro. All have been working toward a FL-requested single new license—one mandating river protections for the synchronized generating operations of Northfield Mountain and Turners Falls/Cabot Station along 10 miles of the Connecticut.

FL’s petition arrived just eight days after they’d quietly reregistered their conjoined operations in the State of Delaware as two separate, new, “limited liability” corporations—asking FERC to substitute their new LLCs as applicants for separate licenses.

FirstLight’s “expedited” request came just two days before stakeholders including the USFWS and National Marine Fisheries Service–agencies with “conditioning authority” in this relicensing, were sidelined by the government shutdown. FL wanted a decision no later than February 28th. Fortunately FERC extended the deadline. A decision is now expected by March 28th.

Turners Falls Dam crippled this ecosystem the day it was completed way back in 1798. Controlled for decades from a room inside the Northfield Mountain, it continues enabling crushing impacts on this four-state ecosystem artery, namesake of the Silvio O. Conte Connecticut River National Fish & Wildlife Refuge. New Englanders have long-awaited their rights to their River. Yet Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire all remain essentially without upstream and downstream fish passage and protections at Northfield and Turners Falls—required of owners of all federally-licensed dams in the United States since the landmark Supreme Court decision in Holyoke Company vs. Lyman since 1872.

That landmark ruling should have dramatically changed conditions here beginning on April 30, 2018, when the current license for the NMPS—controller of Turners Falls dam, expired. But a new license has yet to be signed; and FERC has since extended the current license. Still, any corporation–foreign or domestic, must comply-with protections under the Anadromous Fish Conservation Act, the Endangered Species Act, the US Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act and Clean Water Act, among others.

Results from a Connecticut River study released last June by the US Fish & Wildlife Service and MA Fisheries & Wildlife estimated that 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.

NMPS sucks the river’s aquatic life into its turbines for hours at a time at 15,000 cubic feet per second–killing virtually everything it inhales. For two years running, NMPS consumed 33% more virgin power from the grid than it later returned in peak-priced, second-hand bursts. Though it can regenerate pulses of up to 1,100 megawatts for 6-8 hours—once emptied of its deadened reservoir waters, Northfield is virtually dead itself, and must begin sucking new virgin power from the grid, shredding more life.

Recent studies find that 80% percent of the shad tagged in the lower river and later recorded passing Holyoke Dam were again recorded reaching the Turners Falls project, some 35 miles upriver. They were still heading upstream. Holyoke has passed an average of 316,000 shad upstream annually since 1976. During that time, just 1-in-10 shad ever swam beyond the miseries created via Turners Falls Dam. Over 250,000 of this ecosystem’s shad are likely turned away annually on the doorstep to Greenfield, Montague, Gill, Millers Falls, Erving and Northfield—barred from the rest of New England all the way Bellows Falls VT as well.

In 2017, the 2nd biggest shad run ever passed Holyoke Dam: 537,000 edible, catchable fish. Fewer than 49,000 passed Turners Falls.

So perhaps it’s time to remind our Canadian-FirstLight guests—recently reregistered in Delaware, that when they purchased some hardware and hydro assets in Massachusetts nearly three years back, they didn’t purchase New England’s great river. They merely bought rights to lease some of our river’s water until the current federal license expired on April 30, 2018. After that time, how much, how often–and at what cost they might continue to operate via a new leased portion of some our river’s flow would be subject to all the laws and regulations of the United States and those of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

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.

NOTE: the piece below appeared at www.vtdigger.org in January.

Karl Meyer: Connecticut River dam owners pulling a fast one

CONNECTICUT RIVER ALERT: FERC deadline looms

Posted by on 24 Jan 2019 | Tagged as: Canada, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River Refuge, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Conservation Law Foundation, Endangere Species Act, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Federal Recovery Plan, federal trust fish, FERC, FERC Commissioner Neil Chatterjee, FERC licensing process, First Light Hydro Generating Company, FirstLight, Greenfield Community Television, ISO New England, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, Maura Healey, Natalie Blais, National Marine Fisheries Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, NMFS, Northfield Mountain, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project, Paul Mark, Public Comment period, public trust, Rock Dam, shad, Treasury Board of Canada, Turners Falls dam, USFWS, Vermont, Vermont Yankee, Yankee Rowe Nuclear Plant

While federal fisheries stakeholders from the US Fish & Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service are shut out of the FERC relicensing process by the government shutdown, Canada-owned FirstLight Hydro Generating Company has maneuvered to split its assets on the Connecticut River. This is a slick move, and a punch in the gut to all that have been working in good faith on the understanding throughout–since 2012,that these long-co-run plants were to be covered by a single new license: per the power company’s standing, 5 year-old request.

Copy and paste link directly below to see a half hour on this suspect 12th hour maneuver, filmed for later airing on Greenfield Community Television.

NOTE: FERC has extended the COMMENT, PROTEST, and INTERVENTION deadline for Stakeholder to file Motions with them until February 8, 2019. Go back to www.karlmeyerwriting.com/blog and see second blog post following this on this one on how to submit at FERC.gov on Ecomments.

“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.

ONE LAST CHANCE FOR THE CONNECTICUT RIVER

Posted by on 03 Sep 2018 | Tagged as: American shad, blueback herring, Clean Water Act, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Endangered Species Act, ESA, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, FERC, FERC licensing process, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, MA Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, National Marine Fisheries Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, NMFS, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, PSP Investments, Rock Dam Pool, shad, Society of Environmental Journalists, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS, Vermont, Vermont Yankee, Vernon Dam Fishway, Walpole

ONE LAST CHANCE FOR THE CONNECTICUT RIVER

Copyright © 2018, by Karl Meyer. All Rights Reserved.

Empty CT River bed below Turners Falls Dam on September 2, 2018 (CLICK, then CLICK AGAIN, to ENLARGE)

Northfield MA. On Wednesday, September 5, 2018, New England gets one final chance for a restored Connecticut River ecosystem, promised by federal and state fisheries agencies way back in 1967. That’s the day when the National Marine Fisheries Service, US Fish & Wildlife Service and MA Division of Fisheries & Wildlife meet at the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project for precedent-setting, backroom settlement negotiations to decide the ultimate fate of this ecosystem–long-crippled by the impacts of Northfield’s river-suctioning, power re-generation. They will be representing the public on behalf of New England’s Great River against the interests of FirstLight/PSP Investments of Canada, latest venture capital owners of NMPS. Future generations deserve the living river system promised here long ago.

Closed river gates at Turners Falls Dam, September 2, 2018. (CLICK, the CLICK AGAIN to ENLARGE)

The last time similar negotiations took place was in the 1970s when the agencies misplaced their priorities and Northfield’s nuclear-powered (NMPS was built to run off the excess megawatts produced by the now-closed Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, 15 miles upstream) assault on the river was ignored, scuttling prospects for a river restoration in Vermont, New Hampshire, and northern Massachusetts. Those negotiations led to federal fish hatcheries and ladders for an extinct salmon strain, leaving miles of the Connecticut emptied of flow in Massachusetts, while all migratory shad, blueback herring and lamprey were forced into the industrial labyrinth of the Turners Falls power canal. That also succeeded in leaving the federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon with no protections at all on its critical spawning ground.

Worst of all back then, the agencies failed to protect migratory and resident fish from the year-round deadly assault of NMPS, which sucks the river backward and uphill at 15,000 cubic feet per second. Its vortex can actually yank the Connecticut’s flow into reverse for up to a mile downstream, pulling everything from tiny shad eggs to juvenile fish and adult eels into its turbines on a certain-death Northfield Mountain Sleigh Ride. A USFWS study found that Northfield killed up to 15 million American shad eggs and swallowed between 1 – 2-1/2 million juvenile shad in 2017.

Northfield’s Canadian owners are seeking a new, generations-long operating license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The relicensing process has now completed its 6th year, with the serious work of safeguarding New England’s largest ecosystem just now coming into focus. This plant is an energy consumer, and has never produced a single watt of its own energy. It’s a bulk-grid power storage and transfer station that can only run for about 6 hours full tilt before it is completely spent and dead in the water. Then, it must go out and suck new virgin power from the bulk grid to begin refilling its reservoir with deadened river water. Its regenerated power is marketed and resold to entities far beyond the borders of the Connecticut River Valley.

New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts have a lot a stake here. Way back in 1967 they were promised a just share of a restored seafood harvest of American shad, all the way upstream to Bellows Falls VT and Walpole NH. Safe passage of fish, upstream and down, has been mandated on US rivers since a 1872 Supreme Court case. But no meaningful runs of shad and blueback herring ever materialized upstream of the brutal industrial impacts and flows created at Northfield Mountain and Turners Falls Dam. In 1967 when these agencies signed that Cooperative Fisheries Restoration agreement, 750,000 American shad was the target for passage above Vernon Dam to wide-open Vermont and New Hampshire habitats. The best year, 1991, saw just 37,000 fish.

Northfield’s giant Intake and Entrainment Tunnel (CLICK, then CLICK AGAIN to ENLARGE)

As for those shortnose sturgeon? Well, investigations continue to see if there is a remnant of this river’s population surviving upstream near Vernon. But, in Massachusetts their protection from interference and guaranteed spawning access and flows should have been enforced decades back in the 2-1/2 miles below PSP’s Turners Falls dam. But none of the federal and state agencies took action.

And here, the only non-profit river groups on the Connecticut have long been power-company-friendly and connected–and still accepting their corporate money. Other major river systems have watchdogs without ties to the corporations that cripple them–putting staff lawyers and their enforcement commitments and responsibilities front and center. These go to court repeatedly–the only method leading to lasting, meaningful results. Here, no one takes corporations to court for license violations or requirements under the Endangered Species Act or Clean Water Act. Others might have led a campaign to shut down an ecosystem killing plant the day the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant shut down forever in December 2014.

4-barrel floats above a few yards of experimental test netting that’s supposed to emulate how a 1000 foot-long net might be deployed seasonally over the coming decades to keep millions of baby fish from going on a Northfield Mountain Sleigh Ride. (CLICK, then CLICK AGAIN to ENLARGE)

Thus, it is really is now-or-never time on for a living Connecticut River ecosystem. So, the big question is: are the key agencies going to stand firm under federal and state environmental statute and law, and fulfill their mandate on behalf of future generations?

Here are some of the key questions to be decided at the table that will ultimately tell the four-state Connecticut River ecosystem’s future:

Can Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station—which literally kills millions of fish annually, be operated in such a way that it complies with long-standing federal and state environmental law in order to receive a new FERC license?

Will the US Fish & Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries require PSP’s operations to cease during critical times in the spawning cycles of the river’s fish—and only operate as an emergency power source at those times, rather than as a net-power loss, buy-low/sell high profit machine? (This happens on other river systems.)

Will National Marine Fisheries require the necessary 6,500 cubic feet per second flows now absent below Turners Falls Dam—from April through June, to protect the federally endangered shortnose sturgeon in its critical spawning ground?

Will the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife at last stand up for river protections in that same 2-1/2 miles of beleaguered river to safeguard over a dozen threatened and endangered plant, fish and aquatic species?

Will the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts protect the full spawning cycle of the shortnose sturgeon by barring all rafts and watercraft from landing on any of the islands in this stretch—and banning all disembarking in the critical Rock Dam Pool spawning area to safeguard young fish, rare plants and freshwater clams?

In deference to recognized New England Native American Peoples, will Massachusetts’s Natural Heritage Program leaders, the Massachusetts Historical Commission and the US Fish & Wildlife ban access to the Connecticut River islands in that embattled 2-1/2 mile reach, where several Tribes have a documented presence and ancient connection to these extremely sensitive sites?

Ultimately, the questions that will soon be answered are these:

Does the river belong to the corporation, or to the people?
Do endangered species matter?
Do ecosystems matter?
Do federal and state environmental laws matter?
And, finally: DO RIVERS MATTER?

Coming generations may soon have their answers on the Connecticut River.

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. Due to the non-disclosure agreements requested to take part in these private meetings with PSP Investments, he is not participating in these closed-door settlement discussions. The public is entitled to know.

CONNECTICUT RIVER pumped storage: assault and battery on an ecosystem at a tipping point

Posted by on 19 Apr 2018 | Tagged as: 5-year FERC licensing process, CommonWealth Magazine, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Conte National Fish & Wildlife Refuge, Drew Huthchison, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chairman, federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeion, FERC, FirstLight, Local Bias, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, National Marine Fisheries Service, Northfield Mountain, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, pumped storage, Turners Falls, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, wildlife refuge

Connecticut River Pumped Storage: assault and battery on an ecosystem at a tipping point

Copyright © 2018 by Karl Meyer. All rights reserved.

Downstream end of the starved and brutalized 10 mile reach of the Connecticut, looking upstream from just above the Deerfield River confluence. (Click, then click again to enlarge).

The following links offer the most up-to-date understanding of current and future conditions in the most embattled, crippled reach of the entire Connecticut River. It consists of the Massachusetts river corridor from Greenfield/Turners Falls above the Connecticut’s confluence with the Deerfield, to some 10 miles further upstream to beyond the immediate and deadly impacts of the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station.

Most stakeholders in the ongoing 5-year (now into it’s 6th year) FERC licensing process for the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage and Turners Falls hydro projects have signed confidentiality agreements with FirstLight. Though relicensing studies on the impacts of these facilities on fish and aquatic life will continue through this fall, signed-on stakeholders have now been participating in closed-door settlement discussions out of the public eye with FirstLight for nearly a year. Any negotiated–or FERC-mandated, river conditions under a new license will be permanently in place for decades on this key US ecosystem that is part and parcel of the watershed-wide Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge. They must comply with federal and state environmental law. FirstLight is a MA-registered, Canadian-owned subsidiary of PSP Investments–a 100% Canadian Crown-owned corporation.

Thus, the National Marine Fisheries Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, MA Division of Fisheries & Wildlife, and state agency representatives from four New England states are charged with ensuring the Connecticut River ecosystem gets the long-awaited critical environmental protections for its US public trust fish and efforts to restore both the federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, and the foundered half-century old mandate to bring migratory fish back to Vermont and New Hampshire–as both abundant resources for sport fishing, and seafood. That is their actual federal mandate, in place since 1967.

Given the embargo on public information in these closed-door settlement talks, people interested in the survival of the Connecticut River ecosystem and a viable four-state river for generations to come may find information contained in the following links helpful.

The first link is a piece published by CommonWealth Magazine in March. https://commonwealthmagazine.org/opinion/this-energy-storage-is-tough-on-connecticut-river/

The second is an interview by Drew Hutchison, creator of Local Bias, at Greenfield Community Television, also from March. Public participation information is included along with the credits at the end of the video. This is Local Bias production # 172.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ivbXCGAwKWw

Last chance for a Great River

Posted by on 10 Jul 2017 | Tagged as: 5-year FERC licensing process, American shad, Bellows Falls, Connecticut River, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Daily Hampshire Gazette, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, FERC, FirstLight, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, National Marine Fisheries Service, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, PSP Investments, Rock Dam, The Greenfield Recorder, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS, Vermont Digger, Vernon Dam Fishway


The DEAD REACH of the Connecticut River just bellow Turners Falls Dam, 7/9/2017. (Click; then click again to enlarge)

NOTE: The following piece appeared in the Vermont Digger (www.vtdigger.org), The Daily Hampshire Gazette (www.gazettenet.com), and the Greenfield Recorder (www.recorder.com), in June.

Copyright © 2017 by Karl Meyer, All Rights Reserved

Last chance for a great river

It’s sink-or-swim time on the Connecticut River at Turners Falls for the National Marine Fisheries Service, the US Fish & Wildlife Service and the MA Division of Fish & Wildlife. Fifty years ago they signed the 1967 Cooperative Fishery Restoration Agreement for the Connecticut. It’s “Statement of Intent” was to pass “one million fish at Holyoke, 850,000 at Turners Falls, and 750,000 at Vernon,” restoring American shad to 86 miles of their spawning habitat upstream to Bellows Falls, VT. Back then a simple elevator at Holyoke Dam, 36 miles downstream, had already proven effective at passing shad upriver since 1955. Instead, the agencies opted for complexity.

Within a decade they decided to have three fish ladders built at Turners Falls, forcing all fish out of the river and into a 2.1 mile, turbine-lined power canal. That complex solution failed spectacularly. Deprived of a river route upstream, the runs withered while power company profits accrued. Instead of the 10,000 cubic feet per second flows needed for river habitats, they only required the power company to dribble 400 cfs over that dam. That also wrecked recovery prospects for federally endangered shortnose sturgeon at the Rock Dam, their ancient, natural spawning site just downstream.

Today these agencies are again on the hook to safeguard the river, and fish passage. They’re now taking part in potential backroom settlement negotiations at the invitation of PSP Investments, a Canadian venture capital outfit. PSP is the latest owner of the Turners Falls dam and canal. They also bought the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, now powered on imported, fossil-fueled megawatts that suck the Connecticut into reverse at Northfield, yank it up a mountain, and send it back down as peak-priced, secondhand electricity.

PSP, operating here as FirstLight Power, is bidding for a new Federal Energy Regulatory license for their new pension investments, where profits—and the river itself at times, will all flow north. PSP is bidding to withdraw 30% more water at Northfield for a third of the year, and get paid handsomely by ratepayers for the practice—whether they regenerate electricity with it or not. Positions taken by federal and state reps in these mandated non-disclosure, negotiations, will define this four-state ecosystem for decades to come.

On May 19th, an influx of ocean life not seen in 170 years occurred at the 1848 Holyoke Dam. In a three-day span, two elevators at its base lifted nearly two hundred thousand silver-green American shad toward spawning habitat in Vermont, New Hampshire and northern Massachusetts. Previous records were shattered. As the East Coast’s most successful passage, Holyoke has lifted as many as 720,000 shad in a season. Turners Falls has never passed more than 60,000 fish. For a full decade success there dropped to around 1-fish-in-100.

Two days after that burst of sea life through Holyoke, half those fish would’ve reached the brutal Turners Falls reach. There, confused industrial flows charge the river at all angles, and just a thin curtain of water is required to spill from the dam. Ultimately, every migrant was forced into the canal. Just a few would emerge upstream. For the rest, migration had ended abruptly—far short of rich upstream spawning grounds.

The run past Holyoke is this region’s last great migration–a pulse of planetary life, magical to witness. Each sleek, agitated shad is hell-bent on spawning as far upstream as time, energy, and luck allows. The few that found a way beyond Turners would have had little trouble following the river to the Vernon Dam. There, most could easily swim directly up a short ladder–passing the last hurdle toward that historic Great Eddy between Bellows Falls and Walpole, NH, 172 miles from the sea. Young spawned there would fatten on river-rich nutrients. Surviving adults could turn back toward the sea.

But Turners Falls has slammed the door on hundreds of thousands of others. Industrial currents, dead-end flows, and slack water offer no real path forward. The canal is their dead end. Ken Sprankle, the USFWS’s Connecticut River Coordinator, posts Holyoke fish passage numbers three times a week. Holyoke personnel happily provide them. Sadly, the MA Division of Fish & Wildlife long ago abandoned a daily presence at Turner Falls, leaving the power company in charge to pass along woefully outdated fish count numbers. By the time they reach the public its weeks past when any flow adjustments might have helped exhausted fish attempting to pass there.

Turner Falls is a black hole. There’s really no river there at all. New England’s Great River has long been owed its water–and the habitat and fish passage protections mandated by federal acts and a landmark 1872 Supreme Court ruling centered on the Holyoke Dam. Let’s hope fisheries representatives in backroom PSP talks don’t sell an ecosystem short again. Keep it simple. Fish need water and a river, and a direct route upstream–like at Holyoke and Vernon. This is the public’s river, not a cash cow. If the price gets too high, walk away. Future generations will know.

Karl Meyer of Greenfield is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists. He remains a participating stakeholder in FERC relicensing proceedings for these sites. He is not attending these side-talks on settlements due to PSP’s mandatory non-disclosure requirements.

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

Posted by on 17 Mar 2017 | Tagged as: Alex Haro, American Whitewater, Andrew Fisk, Bob Nasdor, Caleb Slater, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River migratory fisheries restoration, Connecticut River Watershed Council, CRWC, Dr. Boyd Kynard, ecosystem, Endangered Species Act, ESA, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FERC, FERC licensing process, FirstLight, Holyoke Gas & Electric, John Warner, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, National Marine Fisheries Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, NMFS, NOAA, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, PSP Investments, public trust, Relicensing, Sean McDermott, Society of Environmental Journalists, The Nature Conservancy, Turners Falls, Turners Falls dam, US Fish & Wildlife Service, US Geological Survey

(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.)

END

On Walking

Posted by on 15 Nov 2016 | Tagged as: American shad, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River migratory fisheries restoration, Henry David Thoreau, John Hanson Mitchell, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, National Marine Fisheries Service, Northfield Mountain, Society of Environmental Journalists, The Great Eddy, Turners Falls dam, US Fish & Wildlife Service, Walking

NOTE: the following essay first appeared in edited form in Spring 2016 in a book of essays published by the Massachusetts Audubon Society entitled The Quiet Earth. That publication represented the final work of the Society’s Sanctuary Magazine staff, including founder and long-time writer/editor and author John Hanson Mitchell; writer-editor Ann Prince, Rose Murphy, and others. For decades, Sanctuary was the flagship publication that helped define MA Audubon in the public square, offering insights into the heart and soul of a caring and engaged organization.

dead-reach-ladder-and-canal

ABOVE: In the foreground the disastrous fish ladder built at Turners Falls in 1980; leading all migratory fish into the deadly Turners Falls Power Canal–in upper background with bridge, here looking downstream.(CLICK; then click again to enlarge.)

Copyright © 2016 by Karl Meyer

ON WALKING

“I like walking because it is slow, and I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour. If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, or thoughtfulness.” Rebecca Solnit, from Wanderlust: A History of Walking.

I was deep in thought when the SUV pulled up. “Would you like a ride?” This was Herb, who’d repaired my computer a few times when I lived up this way. I’d just crossed into Shelburne Falls on a walk along the Deerfield from East Charlemont through parts of Buckland. “No thanks” I said, “but thanks for asking.” “But you’re limping,” he noted, a bit concerned. “Actually” I said, “I’ve been limping since I was twenty. If I stop limping, I’ll stop limping.”

There’s some truth to that last statement. My right hip is an inch higher than the left one—not by design. Some people notice the hitch in my gate, but most don’t. Still, I’m always grateful to be moving about the landscape under my own power. But I almost blew all that once—in one of those course-altering moments that occur in each life. Though some take time and reflection to recognize, this one was different.

This one transpired under a blistering August sun on the desert prairie of north Texas. For several minutes, broken and bleeding, I wasn’t sure I’d walk again. I’d just failed to vault over a looming guardrail from the back of a speeding motorcycle—my ragged skeleton cart-wheeling several times before coming to a halt. And there I lay like crumpled paper, an unspeakable pain hammered my extremities.

Someone finally came to help me out of a fogging helmet. An ambulance had been summoned. “Hang on, I’ll be back” he said, running off to locate the motorbike’s injured driver. It was then that I finally looked down at ripped jeans and some oddly turned legs that didn’t seem my own. I turned away, wanting to disappear into the Texas hardpan. But beyond that pain, there was also a profound numbness separating me from those odd-angled legs. They no longer felt part of me. Under assault, my mind and body seemed to have parted ways, perhaps forever.

At 50 miles an hour I’d made hash of all the strongest bones in the body. I knew then something more was required. I was 20 years old and had to know “Will I walk again?” Summoning all my courage I turned to face the moment. Against electrifying pain–and observing from what seemed a great distance, I gasped as my right knee twitched; then nudged up half an inch. “I’ll live,” I told myself, crumbling back in shock. That dodgy self-assessment likely helped save me.

Two months and five days later I left Wichita Falls General Hospital, rail-thin and barely able to take a few steps. I wasn’t well enough to travel home, but, I was in love. I’d continue recuperating at the apartment of one of the nurse’s aides who’d held my hand through weeks of surgeries and traction. It was absurdly romantic. My angel’s name was Karin.

Yet amongst those weeks of developing romance were endless days when no one visited. I’d only been in Texas for weeks before the crash–my people were all in New Jersey. Healing time crept by slowly; sometimes not at all. August drifted to September, which lumbered on into October. Dead center in Tornado Alley, fall settled in heavy and still, its light strange. Billowing storms flashed past hospital windows, yet I couldn’t detect any change in the season.

I daydreamed of home—of friends; familiar sights. But it was more than just a longing for things known. I craved my little corner of earth. My most fervent desire—one still tangibly sharp today, was to simply shuffle, ankle deep, through a pile of October leaves.

It’s been two years since Herb pulled up and offered me that lift. I live in Greenfield and close to town these days–where I often leave my car idle in the driveway for a week or more. I walk almost daily, more purposely in winter for the sun and its helpful shot of Vitamin D. In warmer months I move alternately by foot and bicycle, sometimes both. No matter the means, that quiet travel fulfills a longing to understand landscape and habitat, and to tread lightly across fertile tracts.

And I always go untethered. There isn’t a cell phone or I-Pod along. People today seem indifferent to their surroundings in proportion to the amount of digital armor weighing them down. Out in the world, they’re literally elsewhere–peering at screens telling them when to step left or right. We blithely wrap ourselves in the ever-spreading electric grid that’s now overheating our habitat—while denying any interdependence on what’s literally under our feet. We’ve allowed ourselves to become a pod-race of savants, vulnerable to interruptions of electro-magnetic pulses that can instantly pitch our daily lives all into an apoplectic stupor.

I was a full year recovering from that motorbike accident—three aspirin at a time, four times a day. Left with a tilted axis, I understood the need to keep moving—in order to keep moving. But somehow when I was able, it really wasn’t a burden.

Before Texas, I’d barely been out of New Jersey. Most of my recovery year was ultimately spent there. Immobile and youthfully-poor, I started reading: Melville, Dickens, Emerson, Conrad, Kerouac, Dostoevsky, Faulkner, and, thankfully, Thoreau. My world got a little bigger. When I was at last well enough to support myself, my first purchases were hiking shoes and a bicycle. They’d keep me moving.

That day along the Deerfield I was actually working, being paid something as I walked. These last six years I’ve supported a modest lifestyle by driving a bus–which might seem anomalous to someone who prefers to turn his back on his carbon belching car and hasn’t boarded a plane in two decades. Suffice to say, it’s what’s working for me at the moment.

I mainly drive high-schoolers to sporting events, museums, amusement parks and science fairs. Though there’s little glamour, it is mass transportation—efficient from an environmental standpoint. And though I was once a very disagreeable teen, today I’m pretty sympathetic, and happy to be working around their youthful energy. Is it high paid? No. Are there big benefits? Not so much. But yes—certainly in one way…

In between transport, there is down time. I can linger to watch them play—or root around the museum they’re visiting. Or better yet, I can get my feet moving and poke around the setting we’ve just descended on. Many trips are nearby, but some can be two hours distant—from Massachusetts into Connecticut, Vermont and New Hampshire. To me, walking is my own benefit. I’m paid something for my time, but it’s up to me to enrich that compensation.

So I go exploring, which often informs my writing. And, in doing so, I realize that I’m always treading ancient paths–walking atop other people’s stories. Present and past do literally merge when you wander into a 17th century graveyard huddled in the shadows of Hartford’s downtown towers. I go searching for the seeds of place. Who was here, first? When? Why on this bend of river? On longer trips I might cover 5 or 6 miles tromping a landscape or exploring a riverside–or haunting the frayed edges of 18th century New England towns.

My walks bend quickly toward the past—seeking out the oldest house, the earliest gravestone, an old ferry landing—or a town’s first mill site near an old stone bridge. On rural trips it might be ancient woods or a river crossing bearing an Algonquian name. Faced with the frenzied pace of our techno-consumer society, I’m hunting a language of place. It’s my attempt to recover some essence of earth.

I’ve always had an inescapable awareness that history is much more than the acceptance of dry, scholarly tales. I don’t enter a city or town center without thinking—or knowing, that this place was once home to others—that Deerfield was once Pocumtuck and Springfield was once Agawam. It never slips my mind that there is a Hockanum in Hadley, MA, and another in East Hartford, CT–both sites cradled in the shadow of an ancient Connecticut River oxbow. And it never leaves me that the people who first adopted those names for places they knew as home, did so in a deliberate tongue that connected them to what they understood as the essence of their earth.

Everywhere we tread, no matter how indecipherable a modern landscape has become, once had another name and another language—relayed in sounds that strove to offer its history and significance to its denizens. Those names were a key to an unbroken human connection to earth. Nearly all of that was erased. We are often left with just fragments.

That’s why I was once dumbstruck to discover a young Protestant immigrant and colonial trader named Roger Williams took time in 1643 to write A Key into the Language of America, translating Algonquian phrases for the English tongue. That opened a door for me, just a crack. A white spire may still be a great comfort to a little Massachusetts town, but just three centuries back the raising of that steeple signaled subjugation and conquest to still-living peoples whose ancestors had walked here for thousands of years prior.

“I believe in the forest, and in the meadow, and in the corn that grows in the night,” Thoreau wrote in On Walking–a swipe at rote Yankee preaching that exhorted ultimate dominance of the lands and landscapes so recently annexed. Today we rush across places where seminal cultures were brutally shattered and dispersed–conquests that, in very short order, led to the wholesale devouring of age-old New England’s forests.

So I go in search of a language of land. That may seem quaint in a time when Downtown Crossing is most identified as a collecting point for Boston consumers. Or here, Hadley—a 1659 Connecticut River settlement identified as Norwottuck on early maps, is now most notable for its ever expanding mall-strip near Old Bay Road. That’s part of what motivates me to walk. And I also think that maybe the earth talks to us a little bit through our feet, reveals some of its stories. We just seem to have stopped listening—perhaps when we abandoned walking to race across the earth in the hardened shells of carbon spewing conveyances.

Countless studies tout the benefits of walking: to balance, creativity, emotional and physical health. Walking also offers reconnection, the possibility of discovering new places. But it’s that my footsteps touch upon the stories of others and grounds me on the planet that matters most. I get to see and listen in earth time. And the best days can be charmingly, exotically freeing for a quiet plodder sniffing around old towns and rarely trammeled places. Padding along in a minimal carbon footprint, past and present sometimes merge in moments that are downright exquisite.

There’s a leafy amusement park in North Granby, CT–relatively pleasant and not overly electrified. One could be tempted to just sit by the shaded pool there. Instead I headed out in mid-June heat along a narrow stretch of Rt. 189. After a mile I veered off at Day Street—an intersection flanked by an old farmhouse. That led me up along the ridge overlooking the Salmon Brook Valley. Most of the houses turned out to be newer, with little pasture remaining. But then came a break in that developed tract–an opening where the light appeared different.

What popped out next–monstrously-sprawling, and stubbornly clinging to life, was the Dewey-Granby Oak. It was simply stunning, and all the more so set along this old road—holding ground against a spreading suburban shadow. I recognized its name from some distant reading, but knew nothing more. Here, unannounced and magnificent, was that sun-dappled great oak—a specimen worthy of period films set on old English estates.

But truth be told, there was little in the way of detail to adhere to. Rooted here long ago, the Granby Oak simply remains a presence to this day. Someone must’ve taken a core sample when this patch of earth was preserved by the Granby Land Trust. A plaque from 1997 intoned it had begun life perhaps 450 years earlier. However accurate, that implied it was just a forest ridge seedling at the time of Shakespeare’s birth in 1564. The Tunxis were then travelling this trail–later to become Day Street, passing and re-passing a white oak growing to maturity. Yet little more than a century on Europeans began swarming this little valley, quickly felling the upland tracts to stump pastures. An ancient woodland path disappeared beneath cart ruts and grazing cattle, but one venerable wolf tree was left as witness.

Here then was my day’s clue to understanding a moment in time. Survival, longevity, green leaves sprouted along sprawling, weathered branches–I’m not sure exactly why that satisfied me. Yet unheralded bits of knowledge are often what offer context to the fabric of life. I paused there for a few minutes, breathing in the continuity of a long life. “I have great faith in a seed,” Thoreau wrote. Today my seed was an old oak.

Wilder hikes on bus trips are rare, but there was a recent scramble up Mt. Monadnock– accompanied by that rare fellow bus driver not glued to a seat. We hustled up; then down, to deliver the dozens of prep-schoolers we’d unleashed on that hill. But briefly, in between, there were grand three-state views connecting back to another companion who’d passed this way. Thoreau visited here a handful of times, finding Monadnock a worthy place to “go a-fishin in.”

We’d soon meet again on a trip to Bellows Falls High. A walk there brought me to the train stop near the Connecticut River where Thoreau once disembarked. Unbeknownst to me, he’d also once walked to the Great Eddy—an ancient Abenaki fishing site below The Falls. Into the late 1700s Yankee farmers could still pull up 1,200 American shad here in a single haul of the net.

PHOTO: The Great Eddy at Bellows Falls today.

But we’d both found disappointment on the Connecticut. For Thoreau it was that there was hardly any river at all, the lingering result of the navigation canal diversion for riverboats, just upstream. Mine remains that those migrating shad–a half century after Congress authorized the four-state Connecticut River migratory fisheries restoration, still fail to reach Bellows Falls. From day one, shad were the program’s key restoration species. Far from extinct today, most remain blocked and imperiled 50 miles downstream–trapped in the private power canal below Turners Falls Dam at the place once called Peskeomscutt. Though a small portion of the run squeezes upstream toward open Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire habitats—some 200,000 shad or more never make it past a dam where they’ve been blocked since 1798.

Winter 2015 wasn’t easy for ambulation. Still, a mid-February trip to Phillips-Exeter in New Hampshire had its highlights. Though sidewalks were lined in waist deep snow, I tramped Exeter’s centuries-old byways for hours. I bundled down to the Squamscott River and its old bridge and frozen fishway. A turkey vulture swooped in–yards above the snowy street, the surprise of a brief squall. Sculptor Chester French’s birthplace is marked in downtown Exeter—along with the first meeting site of the Republican Party. Historic houses are now festooned with the symbol of an alewife, or smelt–ancient staples of the Pennacook and those who came after.

But my best walk came in mid-April, though dingy snow piles still had plenty of life in them. I’d dropped my kids off in Lowell National Historic Park. The forecast wasn’t great–brooding, with showers expected, but temps perhaps nearing sixty. I had hours to burn, and a rain jacket, so I took to the streets. I’d been here once, briefly in mid-winter. The Merrimack, Pawtucket Falls and Lowell’s ragged bordering neighborhoods grabbed my fancy. I’d wanted more.

This April day, winter seemed finally ready to relent. The rain held off as I steered toward Market Street, where the Olympic Bakery had offered me a great Greek salad and fresh cannoli last time. The sun burst through in a neighborhood of unvarnished factory houses—a Greek-Latino mix. I ordered pizza slices to go and found a quiet doorway to sit in the late morning’s humid air.

Then I headed to the river, dreaming of the Merrimack’s shad runs of old–wondering if endangered shortnose sturgeon had ever spawned this high in its reaches. Landlords chipped away at stubborn ice, and the gates leading to the river walk remained closed, still snowed over. But I followed the Merrimack just the same, heading downstream on Pawtucket Street and crossing at the first opportunity. This landed me at the edge of UMass Lowell’s North Campus, to finish lunch on a wall overlooking the city’s old mill towers and spires. Ruminating on that bank, I reflected that the earth under me was once part and parcel of a Pennacook village here.

The showers remained at bay so I continued seaward beside the water—crossing the river four times at three historic bridge sites. I gained a new sense of Lowell’s Byzantine canal system—branching from, and linking, the Concord and Merrimack. As hydraulics got refined, the rivers and river travel here were quickly eclipsed by giant mills and locomotives. Further on, I stumbled into a tiny urban park honoring Jack Kerouac. Enshrined on a polished slab was one of his poems, a loving, edgy, retelling of his parents’ stark lives here and his own subsequent birth along hard-bit Merrimack shores. It lent a presence to the place.

My best minutes though, came further on, at the merging place of two branching canals not far from Lowell’s rust brick downtown and signature Lowell Sun Building. I’d walked back in time along remnants of the centuries-old navigation system to its convergence with the Concord River, just ahead. Here, some 175 years prior, young Henry Thoreau and his brother John had passed–heading through locks ushering them onto the Merrimack. They steered upriver on that larger stream–north toward New Hampshire towns already felling their last forests to fuel an Industrial Revolution. Under that warming April sun, my day’s walk somehow seemed complete.

But there’s another walking exploration I’ve repeatedly engaged in these last four years–my tornado walk. I’ve literally been walking around inside a tornado. On June 1, 2011, an astonishing EF-3 tornado touched down in West Springfield. It skipped across the Connecticut; then battered the landscape for a full 39 miles east–all the way to Southbridge. I’d been driving kids through West Springfield just the day before it thundered through.

Tornadoes stalked the dreams of my youth since childhood, likely an offshoot of viewing the Wizard of Oz. Though strangely fascinating, I’ve never hankered to experience one in the flesh. In dreams they’d always loomed ominously on the periphery—never quite catching me up. But the absolute destructive power of this one–here in the Northeast, was disturbingly eye-opening. Three people died, hundreds of homes were destroyed. It roared across towns in a traceable, half-mile wide trajectory, just south of Route 20—in places my bus trips often intersect with.

That fall at West Springfield’s Eastern States Expo, I walked out the gate and into the neighborhoods due north. Whole houses still lay in ruins, dozens uninhabitable. Thousands of windows had imploded and were boarded up, or being replaced. What trees remained were hulks, stripped of all lateral branches. At Union Street the devastation across tightly-clustered double and triple-decker apartment homes was withering. A mother died here while shielding her teenage daughter from the storm’s fury. Heading home on I-91, Springfield’s South End was yet a mass of tumble-brick ruins. In the distance, a checkerboard of tarped-roofs led up the ridge toward East Forest Park like it was a staircase painted in blue.

One snowy day the following December, I again walked that tornado’s footprint among the relict trees south of Wilbraham Center. Cars had skittering off the highway, but I got my kids settled in safe. I then bundled up and took off down Main Street, where that unseen power had descended with little warning six months prior. It peeled off roofs, toppled outbuildings and shattered scores of trees–then stalked off up the mountain ridge toward Monson. One displaced citizen had returned to string up holiday lights on their darkened, uninhabitable home.

In late February I took another walk in that great scar where–just minutes later that June day, that tornado barreled down the ridge into Monson Center. Snap, snap—snap, snap, snap!–like twigs, whole trees were crowned; stems jackknifed just 20 feet from the ground. It then roared off to the east.

And I did the same, later that spring—on a Sturbridge Village trip. It’s just a ten minute walk out the back of that museum to where that EF-3 twister roared in, devouring an entire wooded swamp. It snapped and scattering trunks in astonishing blow-down jumbles; then crossed Rt. 131 into Southbridge.

On a return trip to Wilbraham two April’s ago, I again backtracked into that storm’s path once more. After dropping off my team I followed a hunch into the landscape. Peepers and warblers called along a winding cross country trail leading through lowland woods. But then a new slant of light from a little bluff to the north caught my eye. That detour—just a few yards off the trail, brought me dead center into the storm. Helter-skelter before me lay the remnants of a once-broad, upland forest–mature pine, oak and maple, leveled, upended; dead. Hundreds of trees, rank-on-rank—tossed or tumbled, sucked up; then mowed down. Like bowling pins.

The devastation was stark and powerful, yet bits of the place were now returning to life. A few trees, pitched and leaning, struggled on. Flickers and nuthatches darted about the edges, feasting on a buggy decay. The trail wound back down, and widened to a swampy marsh–also raked by the storm. Here too were the crowned, scattered trees of a wetland—shorn of branches and left as lifeless hulks. But in the crook of one was a fat jumble of sticks. And there, in profile, sat an erect, great blue heron. I quickly counted four more nests and attending sentinels–occupying four more of those hulks. Astonishing.

And my storm-walk in Wilbraham continued this last spring. In mid-April there was but one active heron nest remaining. Wood frogs had arisen from the ground just the day before, but they were quiet. The females had yet to join the gathering. Yet still I understood that this was a place becoming—a landscape evolving to something new. And that’s part of the reason I’ll likely take this same walk again, if it happens to turn up on my assignment list.

But beyond that, there’s one particular walk I’m absolutely certain I’ll be taking. Every fall, randomly and unannounced, blue sky and a hint of early October chill takes hold of me. Then, for a brief few minutes, I’ll joyously drag my clumsy feet through a pile of autumn leaves–relishing the decay they stir into the air; and savoring a papery sound that says home.

End

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