© Copyright 2012 by Karl Meyer   All Rights Reserved

The following Opinion piece appeared in publications and media sites in CT, MA, VT, and NH.  It is a reply to writing in support of the status quo on the Connecticut River fisheries restoration, emphasizing extinct salmon.  The writer, Mr. Deen, is a river steward, flyfishing guide, and VT representative.  This piece appeared mainly in a shorter, Letter to the Editor format.  Here it appears in an expanded OpEd, this version from The Vermont Digger.  Find them at www.vtdigger.org. 

                        It’s about the river, AND the fish…

The Connecticut River Watershed Council’s Vermont River Steward David Dean asks the public not to judge the 45 year-old Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission’s fisheries restoration by numbers of returning fish, while 74 salmon reached the CT’s first dam at Holyoke, MA in 2011.  As someone advocating rededicating funds away from an extinct salmon strain, I found the piece well-intentioned but short on fact.

After decades and hundreds of millions spent on the science, genetics, and hatcheries dedicated to a centuries-extinct, cold-water salmon on the southern-most river it ever briefly colonized, the public has a right to a return on investment in this time of demonstrated climate warming.  I agree that that return should be an improving river ecosystem.  Useless dams should be eliminated; hydro operations damaging rivers and skirting regulations protecting fish should be prosecuted.

But Mr. Deen cites as salmon-program benefits “growing populations of other anadromous fish,” specifically shad and lamprey.  Science is, and should be, about measurable results.  Yet in results coming back from a hatchery program dedicated to elite angling, salmon represented less than three-hundredths of 1% of this year’s fish returns, while devouring 90% of funding for all migrants.  As to the 244,000 American shad and 19,000 sea lamprey he touted as reaching Holyoke–that’s a 66% plunge from the 720,000 shad counted there two decades back; and 19,000 lamprey?—only 4 years have seen lower numbers since tallies began.  Personally, I’d note 138 blueback herring–a might shy of the 410,000 Holyoke counted in 1992.

It is time for an ecosystem restoration.  Turn this upside-down species pyramid back on its base–rededicate funds to bedrock species of this ecosystem.  River groups could contribute greatly by opening public discussion about desperate river conditions just below Turners Falls, the second dam on the CT.  Migratory fish there are funneled into an ecosystem death trap: Turners Falls power canal.  Meanwhile the adjacent Connecticut is strangled in its own bed by pummeling and parching flows–deeply impacted by pumping operations at Northfield Mountain just upstream.

Today, the only shad regularly reaching VT/NH waters are a few hundred sometimes trucked there from Holyoke.  However, in 2010 Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station choked on its own silt.  Its mile-long intake tunnel and turbines became massively clogged.  From May 1st to November, it did not add a single watt of energy to the grid.  Few noticed.  There was no energy interruption—even while Vermont Yankee was down for refueling in early May.

Yet something amazing happened: shad numbers passing Turners Falls skyrocketed over 600% to levels not seen in 15 years.  Without Northfield pumping–and with river levels kept steady and artificially high at TF dam as FirstLight Power tried to conceal a 65,000 ton mountain of silt it was dumping in the river, the miserable conditions in the riverbed below the dam actually improved.  With May and June rains arriving, artificially brimming river levels behind the dam meant more steady flows were released directly downstream to the oft-parched and pummeled “dead reach” of river below the falls.  Shad got their ancient migration route back—swimming upriver, rather than being deflected into the punishing currents and turbines of the Turners Falls power canal.

Even with suspect tallies and FirstLight’s counting equipment inoperable for parts of 37 days, 16,768 shad were counted passing toward VT–the most since 1995.  Vermont salmon expert Jay McMenemy expressed surprise when all eight free-swimming salmon also used the ancient riverbed to shoot directly upstream to the ladder at the dam.  Since 1967 over 11 million shad have passed Holyoke.  All but a whisper of them ever made it to the Green Mountain State, while they once spawned to Bellows Falls and Walpole, NH.  Ironically, federal studies show 17,000 shad is a shadow of the run that should be passing: at least half of all shad passing Holyoke eventually attempt to pass Turners Falls–95% get deflected into the meat-grinder of currents and turbines of the Turners Falls power canal, never to emerge.

The main reason for no Vermont fish runs: no regulated flows in the riverbed; no easy-access fish lift built upstream at TF dam.   The ecosystem dies in the 2 miles of river directly below Turners Falls—due in large part to floodgate manipulations to accommodating Northfield’s pumping.  There is no working fish passage at Turners Falls.  It is legally required and should have been in place over a decade back.

Northfield Mountain is a reserve energy source that can produce a large amount of energy, 1,000 megawatts, in a very short time.  But it can only run for 10 hours, and then its reservoir is depleted.  It is dead in the water.  Owners must then go out on the market and buy electricity to divert the Connecticut’s flows uphill to its 5.6 billion gallon reservoir again.  Then, they sell our river back to us as expensive energy.  Northfield’s efficiency is just 67%.  Add in its profound river impacts and you have to question: Why is no one talking publicly about this ecosystem-killing elephant in the room?

Karl Meyer is an environmental journalist and award-winning non-fiction children’s author who writes frequently about Connecticut River issues from along its shores at Greenfield, MA.