Connecticut River blog: portage parade a quagmire of mixed motives.

Copyright © 2021 by Karl Meyer


It was a little four-boat affair at Turners Falls on July 10, 2021. Photo Copyright © 2021 by Karl Meyer

On Saturday, July 10, 2021, Dr. Andy Fisk, Chair of the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission (CRASC), stood alongside a lawyer on the banks of the Connecticut River in the Village of Turners Falls in Montague MA. That lawyer was not an employee of the Connecticut River Conservancy, which Fisk also directs (that 69 year old organization has never had a staff lawyer), and this was not a gathering about salmon (the last natural run of salmon occurred on the Connecticut in 1809), or any of the endangered or federal trust fish in this tiny, embattled ecosystem reach they were here to highlight. The Connecticut River Watershed Council (today d.b.a. The Connecticut River Conservancy) had brought along Bob Nasdor of American Whitewater. That recreation organization’s crash-helmet-attired attorney and legal advocate was here as part of a CRC press conference and their touted public “portage parade.”

This, just upstream of the Turners Falls Dam, was an event aimed at getting scheduled flow releases from Canada-own FirstLight, and more water, plus an easy access path past the dam for joy-riding paddlers and rafters seeking a chance to dive into the most impoverished, endangered, historic and biologically sensitive 2-1/2 miles in the entire Connecticut River ecosystem.

As parades go, it hardly made a splash. Ultimately around two dozen people assembled, though fully half were CRC staff, family members, and CRC’s handful of invited speakers. The other speakers included Walter Ramsey, planner and conservation agent for the Town of Montague, as well as representatives of the Appalachian Mountain Club, American Whitewater and All Out Adventures. Three CRC staff were recording the event for further promotion. In reality about a dozen members of the public showed up to the “parade”, plus two journalists.


Revving up the “crowd” at Turners. Photo Copyright © 2021 by Karl Meyer

Funny thing–to prioritize commerce and recreation at a site that has been a half century without healing water, one that represents the epitome of historically fragile and endangered habitat. Strange bedfellows, these. Montague’s conservation agent was one more case in point. He noted that the town gets 20% of its tax revenue from Canada-owned, Delaware-registered FirstLight Power, so he wouldn’t want to see more water being returned to the impoverished Connecticut because that would mean less water diverted down the Turners Falls power canal–and less returned tax cash from their Delaware tax-sheltered, FirstLight LLC corporate absentee landlords/neighbors.

On the other hand, Ramsey noted, he is desirous of the economic bump a tourist town gets by drawing-in traffic for water sports. Those big, partying, river-running crowds so often filling the channels and pull-offs on the Deerfield mean big tourist dollars. What could be better?

In that vein though, there was no mixed message or hesitation at all on the part of the paddle-packing Bob Nasdor. He told those assembled that he sees access to this short river stretch that features one single, tiny rapid (incidentally it’s at precisely the shortnose sturgeon’s fragile and crumbling habitat and nursery) as a “tremendous opportunity”–naming the big commercial rafting outfits over on the Deerfield as well as people arriving for “tubing” as parties that have an eager interest in accessing the river here. This despite expert commentary from shortnose sturgeon biologist Dr. Boyd Kynard already in the FERC record stating that watercraft pose a danger to spawning and developing sturgeon here at their Rock Dam habitat.

As a journalist I thought this publicized press event would be a real opportunity to ask about why CRC had taken no action concerning the clearly dissolving Connecticut riverbanks just downstream in the critical and sole documented natural spawning site of the shortnose sturgeon. Its fragile nursery environs are at a tiny place in the river called the Rock Dam. Those failing Connecticut River banks are owned by FirstLight Power, and adjacent to their power canal.

So it seemed a good question to get an answer to with the public present: was it because CRC has no lawyer?–or because they accept money from the MA Department of Environmental Protection?—that they’ve wholly avoided the site and taken no action, never sought an injunction or tested water or intervened as members of the Connecticut River Streambank Erosion Committee?


Here are the dissolving, slumping–sink-hole deepening Connecticut River banks at the Rock Dam site on the day of the “portage parade,” July 10, 2021. Photo Copyright © 2021 by Karl Meyer

Ironically, this line of questioning was in nearly the exact same vein as the questions I’d put to Andy Fisk a half decade ago. That was when they decided to hold a discussion in Brattleboro, Vermont about river recreation access–including the all-but-asphyxiated Dead Reach of this Rock Dam river section, where shortnose sturgeon have been annually crippled in successful spawning in their ancient, critical habitat and fragile nursery site for a half century. My questions were not welcome back then either.

This day Director Fisk simply claimed that CRC was taking action. He clearly did not wish to go into any particulars answering in front of the handful of public paraders. He seemed quite rushed, all of a sudden. When I pressed him on several areas of exactly where that action was, and a long timeline where no action whatsoever has been taken, he ended my queries and put the mike down. Unbeknownst to me, a live-feed was being streamed by CRC and it was abruptly shut down when I began my questioning. I heard about this later.

Once the crowd moved away he walked up to reengage–but my questions remained the same, and his responses revealed no on-the-ground action at this critical site. Actually, CRC has filmed and promoted themselves everywhere in this little 2-1/2 mile reach BUT at the dissolving riverbanks and dewatered critical sturgeon habitat on this river. There are videos of a sea lamprey cookout and a swimming hole celebration nearby—plus a big celebration of baby lamprey rescues in the power canal. Now there’s some low hanging fruit protecting a fish that will likely survive Armageddon. But never have they ever brought a parade of people down to that fragile Rock Dam site and filmed them with a backdrop of dissolving Connecticut River banks and baking cobbles where young-of-the-year endangered shortnose sturgeon should be developing.

It’s not hard to find CRC OPINIONS delivered to federal and state entities on a whole host of river issues. They send in all sorts of formal comments. But please, don’t call them a watchdog. Watchdogs inspire fear in companies and public agencies when they break laws or fail to enforce them. They take action. They have hungry, day-to-day staff lawyers–and their missions state clearly: we investigate, we enforce; we go to court–we sue corporations.

CRC gets lots of grant funding from the very agencies they should be forcing to do their jobs. So, don’t look for action there. And, of course, they have an endless legacy going back to their beginnings as close friends and recipients of monies from WMECO/Northeast Utilities, (d.b.a. Eversource) who built the crippling facilities that today dominate this miserable stretch of river. Join the annually major-sponsored Eversource-to-sea clean-up…!

Eversource remains massively—commercially, wired into today’s FirstLight river-crippling facilities at both Northfield and Turners Falls, both parent-owned by PSP Investments of Canada. These facilities trample the key ecosystem functions of New England’s Great River in the heart of the Silvio O. Conte Connecticut River National Fish & Wildlife Refuge all the way from Greenfield and Turners Falls MA to Bellows Falls VT and Walpole NH. Both facilities remain in violation of the landmark environmental 1872 decision of the US Supreme Court—based just downstream on this river in Holyoke Company v. Lyman. It ruled that migratory fish must be provided safe upstream and downstream passage on this and all US rivers. Here, that means all the way up to central Vermont and New Hampshire–and back.

Canadian venture capital outfit PSP/FirstLight Power is playing for keeps. They arrived here to run the giant river and energy-sucking, net-power-loss operations at Northfield Mountain and the smaller Turners Falls ops for long-term cash a full 144 years after the Supreme Court made those critical protections the law of this land . But, judging by priorities here, it seems those foreign venture capitalists have come to the right US river system…

This was an extremely small parade.

Living rivers come first.

Be careful what you wish for…