Rock Dam Pool

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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 shortnose sturgeon: Mother’s Day miseries at Rock Dam

Posted by on 13 May 2018 | Tagged as: Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, ecosystem, endangerd shortnose sturgeon, FirstLight, Rock Dam, Rock Dam Pool, shortnose sturgeon, Turners Falls, Turners Falls dam

Copyright © 2018 by Karl Meyer. All rights reserved.

MOTHER’S DAY MISERIES AT ROCK DAM

The federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon has just a single, documented natural spawning site in the four-state river ecosystem: the Rock Dam in Turners Falls, MA.

Given the unique structure, depth, and flow characteristics of this ancient rock formation and spawning pool, shortnose have likely returned here for millenia, using it as a fail-safe nursery where they can choose depth, flow, and areas above sand, pebble-and-cobble substrate for spawning that will ultimately come to protect and nurture their young.


(Click, then Click again, THEN AGAIN, to enlarge)
MOTHER’S DAY MISERY AT ROCK DAM: listless flows and exposed cobble shoals where young would develop in safety.

However, this Rock Dam site is assailed annually during sturgeon spawning periods with ramping, see-sawing, and de-pauperizing flows that cause spawning failure for these embattled fish. This year was no different. On Mother’s Day, May 13, 2018, in what is virtually their peak spawning time, flow manipulations just upstream at FirstLight’s Turners Falls dam left the river roaring at Rock Dam one day, and bereft of nourishing flows and watered nursery habitat the next. No mercy on Mother’s Day here…

Fish Futures on a Broken River

Posted by on 04 Nov 2017 | Tagged as: 5-year FERC licensing process, American shad, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Connecticut River Watershed Council, Daily Hampshire Gazette, Dr. Boyd Kynard, Endangere Species Act, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, fish passage, Holyoke Fish Lift, National Marine Fisheries Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, Northfield Mountain, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, PSP Investments, Rock Dam Pool, Rutland Herald, shad, Shortnose Stout, shortnose sturgeon, US Fish & Wildlife Service, US Geological Survey's Conte Fish Lab, USFWS, Vermont, Vermont Digger

Copyright © 2017 by Karl Meyer, All RIGHTS RESERVED

FISH FUTURES ON A BROKEN RIVER

(NOTE: the following appeared in The Rutland Herald, wwww.rutlandherald.com, and on the pages of Vermont Digger, www.vtdigger.org in October)

It’s been decades since migratory fish on New England’s Great River got a break–bleak since deregulation came to federally-licensed electricity plants on the Connecticut beginning in 1998.

Deregulation turned a regional market into a venture capital free-for-all, opening the door to speculators and foreign interests controlling public resources. In less than 20 years the Vernon hydro station changed hands three times. The Vermont Yankee nuclear plant next door is currently courting a third owner. Downstream the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station and Turners Falls hydro complex flipped four times between investors. Further south, the Holyoke hydro station sold only once in 2002.

None of this proved healthy for an ecosystem.

The post-deregulation decade saw a steep slide in American shad passing Holyoke Dam. After two decades of averages well above 300,000 fish, yearly numbers plunged to near half that—a far cry from the 720,000 passed in 1992. Things were even more desperate at Turners Falls Dam. There, impacted by the massive water appetite and violent, peaking flows sent downstream by the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, passage dropped below 1% some years. For a decade, just 3 or 4 migrating shad in 100 were tallied emerging alive upstream. Today’s numbers languish near 1980s levels.

The federal license signed by Holyoke Gas & Electric in 2002 required they complete lift improvements at Holyoke by 2008 to pass endangered shortnose sturgeon upriver. Sturgeon were literally unable to spawn–blocked at that dam from reaching their only documented natural spawning site, a fail-safe refuge known as the Rock Dam Pool at Turners Falls. Year-in, year-out, that mandate went unenforced. It was finally met last year.

(Note: below, the flow-starved CT in Turners Falls looking downstream toward Rock Dam.CLICK, THEN CLICK AGAIN TO ENLARGE)

In 2004 federal fish biologist Dr. Boyd Kynard handed results of 15 years of Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon research to the National Marine Fisheries Service. He and colleagues had documented that that Rock Dam spawning site for the only federally-endangered migratory fish on the river was being decimated by industrial practices. Yearly gatherings failed for the few dozen spawning-ready sturgeon surviving upstream of Holyoke—as they attempted to continue a tenuous 200 million year-old genetic line. But NMFS didn’t come to their aid; no watchdog intervened.

Ultimately, decades of research by Kynard and company was compiled into Life History and Behaviour of Connecticut River Shortnose and other Sturgeons, published by the World Sturgeon Conservation Society. After experts at the Europe-based WSCS published the book in early 2012, the US Geological Service (where Kynard retired as a federal fish scientist) began making belated objections, halting all publication for a time. Their objections caused a de facto embargo of its sale in the U.S through that spring.

USGS cited editorial and style concerns in “recalling” three chapters on sturgeon biology and spawning—including the data and text showing industrial flows caused spawning failure at Turners Falls. Nearly a dozen state, federal, and university contributors to the book cried foul, citing censorship and the public’s right to government information. In June, concurrent with press inquiries and a letter from Congressman John Olver questioning the withholding of public science, USGS suddenly withdrew all its objections—days before an article highlighting the issues appeared in The Daily Hampshire Gazette. Federal agencies now had the facts. Yet despite the Endangered Species Act, none took action.

In spring of 2014 a popular beer, Shortnose Stout, debuted in the region. Its label displayed Kynard’s website and highlighted spawning conditions at Turners Falls. The Connecticut River Watershed Council soon stepped up to collect donated profits from its sale, yet those sturgeon were left hanging once more. Today conditions at Rock Dam remain as ruinous as when the first 2004 findings were released.

In 2015 the controversial chapters from Kynard’s book got entered into the public record in the current Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s relicensing process for Northfield Mountain and Turners Falls. With that science on the record, things changed at federal proceedings. Sturgeon spawning became a key factor in flow discussions for future FERC licenses there mandating river conditions. This June, new restoration targets to meet failed 50 year-old federal Anadramous Fish Conservation Act requirements were released by the US Fish & Wildlife Service. With passage failed for half a century at Turners Falls, new shad targets mandate 397,000 fish passing annually. New owner, Canada Public Pension Investments, will be on the hook to build lifts and safeguard sturgeon spawning.

In August a fisherman near Vernon landed an endangered shortnose sturgeon–a fish thought not to exist above Turners Falls. He took a photo and released the fish, sending the picture to officials who confirmed it; then forwarded it to the National Marine Fisheries Service. There is reason to believe that landing may not be an isolated occurrence. NMFS is taking the confirmed capture seriously. Is a remnant shortnose population clinging to life in Vermont and New Hampshire waters? Did someone release them there? Either way, federal law requires owners at Vernon Dam, VT Yankee and Northfield Mountain to protect the migratory fish of the United States as a public trust. After decades of speculation, it’s high time our fish had their day.

NOTE: author Karl Meyer was the idea-creator and author of the beer brand Shortnose Stout. He neither requested or received any compensation or recognition for his work, which was solely aimed at getting important information to the public.

Shortnose Sturgeon Revival Celebration

Posted by on 20 Apr 2017 | Tagged as: Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Dr. Boyd Kynard, endangerd shortnose sturgeon, Endangered Species Act, Rock Dam, Rock Dam Pool, Shortnose Stout, shortnose sturgeon, Turners Falls, Turners Falls power canal

Shortnose Sturgeon Revival Celebration, Sunday, April 23, 10:30 am – 12:30 pm
(Click, then click again to enlarge.)

Spring 2017 marks this species’ first free-swimming access from below the 1849 Holyoke Dam to its ancient, upstream Rock Dam spawning site in Turners Falls in 168 years! Join Amherst sturgeon expert and author Dr. Boyd Kynard and environmental journalist Karl Meyer for a visit to the Rock Dam in Turners Falls. The Rock Dam is the only documented natural spawning site for the federally-endangered shortnose in the Connecticut River ecosystem. Kynard covers this ancient creature’s life history and biology. Meyer covers the human and natural history of the spectacular Rock Dam site. Involves a short walk; steep dirt paths. Wear sturdy shoes.

Sunday, April 23rd, 10:30 a.m.–12:30 p.m. Rain or shine; no pre-registration required.
Directions: Cross the 11th St. Bridge in Turners Falls; at first stop sign turn left down G Street. Meet at public lot at end of G Street, just before the entrance sign for the US Conte Fish Lab.

AN INSENSITIVITY OF PLACE

Posted by on 29 May 2016 | Tagged as: 5-year FERC licensing process, AMC, American Whitewater, Appalachian Mountain Club, By Pass Reach, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Connecticut River Watershed Council, CRWC, Dead Reach, ecosystem, endangerd shortnose sturgeon, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FERC Comments, Gary Sanderson, Greenfield Recorder, New England FLOW, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, Rock Dam, Rock Dam Pool, Station 1, The Recorder, Turners Falls, Turners Falls dam, whitewater boating

An Insensitivity of Place

Copyright © 2016 by Karl Meyer (CLICK on any photo to ENLARGE)

DSCF8475

There’s a big difference between theory and practice. So too is there often a huge divide between what is said and what is done—and a giant gap between how you portray your intentions in writing, and how you actually carry yourself in the real world. The difference between those things is what most often turns out to be true.

At the Rock Dam, the endlessly-beleaguered and sole natural spawning site for the state- and federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon in the entire Connecticut River system, that difference came into high resolution last week. While I looked on four people in helmets and safety gear lumbered in a huge blue raft over the tiny, watered notch leading into that self-same shortnose sturgeon spawning pool. Four other decked-out compadres looked on admiringly from atop the low ledge that helped form this little ancient pool thousands of years back.

The “drop” for this joyride might have been a total of 4 feet at best, perhaps a third of the length of the giant boat. For any shortnose sturgeon that might have been using this unique ecological site to accomplish the most basic act of survival—spawning, it would’ve been the equivalent of the Starship Enterprise plopping down atop your kiddy pool party. Basically, party over. But hey, those fish are only the sole federally-endangered migratory species in the entire river. Hope you enjoyed the ridiculously short, half-second rush… Yahoo!

And the real kicker is, they were doing this within the known documented time-window at Rock Dam for shortnose sturgeon to be present and attempting to spawn successfully. This was a Sunday, but the previous Wednesday I’d seen rafts being trailered away from the site in the “Patch” section of Turners Falls. I didn’t quite put it together until Gary Sanderson’s column came out in The Recorder the next day, noting the obtuseness of rafters and kayakers he’d seen repeatedly making the same disrespectful maneuvers at Rock Dam earlier in the week.

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But here’s the theory and practice divide. During the current 5-year Federal Energy Regulatory Commission relicensing hearings for the Turners Falls and Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage projects, these whitewater groups have been at the table advocating for increased flows and access for the public on this short section of river. Chief among these have been American Whitewater and New England FLOW, with the Appalachian Mountain Club partnered with the Connecticut River Watershed Council submitting formal testimony in favor of whitewater boating interests here.

AMC and the Watershed Council in submitted testimony are advocating opening up this most-biologically-damaged stretch of the river for the last half century to increased access at three sites over a tiny reach that is just 2.7 miles long: “Improvements would need to be made to a put-in at the upstream end of the run downstream of Turners Falls dam, the take-out at Poplar Street, and access at No. 1 station and at the Rock Dam.” I wonder how many boats, rafts and cars per mile of river that constitutes.

DSCF8476

All groups in their statements and submitted testimony made reference to their concerns for the protection of aquatic habitats here, as well as adherence to the Clean Water Act in this Dead Reach stretch of the Connecticut that includes the extremely critical spawning habitat of the shortnose sturgeon—which consists solely of the small, semi-circular pool that forms below Rock Dam–along with its tiny little 4 foot drop. Shortnose congregate at Rock Dam for spawning from early April through the end of May. Let’s run giant rafts over them and invite crowds of kayakers to overwhelm the river and rocks here to demonstrate respect and concern for a river struggling for life here these last 50 years.

This is self-interested behavior only a little removed from that of the power companies, and, like the power companies, there is cash waiting in the wings for using the river in this most self-considered way. So, well done, whitewater boating interests! We at least now have a tiny picture of what your practice, rather than theory, might constitute. And, hey, did it ever cross your minds that some people actually consider the Rock Dam a sacred place..?

DEAD REACH REPORT: the BLACK HOLE continues…

Posted by on 09 May 2016 | Tagged as: American shad, blueback herring, Connecticut River, Dead Reach, federal trust fish, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FirstLight, GDF-Suez FirstLight, Greenfield Community College, Holyoke Community College, Holyoke Fish Lift, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, National Marine Fisheries Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, New Hampshire, NMFS, Rock Dam, Rock Dam Pool, sea lamprey, shad, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS, Vermont, Vernon Dam Fishway

DEAD REACH REPORT: the BLACK HOLE continues…

Copyright © 2016 by Karl Meyer
P1000522

Forty-one days after the first fish were reported being lifted at Holyoke Dam, we still have not a shred of information on fish passage in the Connecticut River’s Dead Reach at Turners Falls. That’s the beleaguered, half-emptied, 2.7 miles of riverbed that all migrating American shad, sea lamprey, and blueback herring must pass in order to make progress toward Vermont and New Hampshire spawning grounds. Within that Dead Reach is the Rock Dam, the only documented natural spawning site for endangered shortnose sturgeon in this river system.

Thus, again, GDF-Suez FirstLight continues in sole control and possession of information on the public’s federal trust migratory fish—every one of which, in trying to reach upstream sites, gets diverted into their turbine-lined power canal. Once corralled and essentially privatized in that miles-long trench, very few ever emerge alive beyond Turners Falls Dam.

Holyoke Fish Lift numbers have been handed off daily to Ken Sprankle, USFWS’s Connecticut River Coordinator, for weeks now. Students from Holyoke Community College are staffing that site, overseen by the MA Division of Fisheries & Wildlife. MA Fish & Wildlife is responsible for those shad, lamprey and herring while they are traversing the Commonwealth’s reach on the Connecticut. They’re responsible for getting the public’s fish counted as well. That role up at Turners Falls is clearly not working or being taken seriously. We have no information from there whatsoever–with the video-counting apparatus controlled by FirstLight, and the review, tallies, and the hand-off of that public information left in the hands of Greenfield Community College students.

None of this speaks well for any safeguarding of the public trust.

Nevertheless, USFWS’s Ken Sprankle did provide these updates from Holyoke Dam this morning. Fish counts there as of Sunday, May 8, 2016 are: 32,937 American shad; 239 sea lamprey; and 14 federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon—all of which were brought to the top in the fish elevator, lifted out, and dropped back downstream. Virtually none of them will get an opportunity to spawn yet again this year.

To give you a sense of the miseries, one egg-laden female lifted up there had been tagged in the Dead Reach in Turners Falls 2004, as a female on a spawning site. This year, a dozen years after that tagging—she was apparently full of eggs and attempting to reach the Rock Dam for spawning once more. They plopped her back downstream on orders of the National Marine Fisheries Service. If that aging female dies over the winter, the genetic material in the hundreds of thousands of eggs she was carrying gets lost to eternity, and becomes yet another signpost on extinctions path.

Just what exactly is being accomplished by not letting these endangered fish spawn?

Meanwhile, here’s a tiny Dead Reach report of my own. I stopped by the TF Dam at mid-morning on Mother’s Day. It was drizzly, water was spilling from Bascule Gate 1(Turners Falls side), and no one was fishing at the site.

Downstream at 9:40 I met a lone angler exiting from the Rock Dam pool site at Cabot Woods. He said he’d had a few, earlier, but that it was slowing down. When I went out to the Rock Dam it was fairly quiet, with the water only moderately clear with the recent rain. Still, looking down from the rocks, schooling swirls of shad can sometimes be seen when the light is good. I saw nothing. Nor did I note any lamprey tails slapping the rock faces as they suctioned their way upstream through the notches.

According to this angler who fishes the mouth of the Deerfield as well, Rock Dam fishing on Saturday was pretty decent: “I had a dozen shad,” he noted. Thus, it’s become fairly obvious these last two springs that when flow is left in the riverbed, Rock Dam is one of the finest shad fishing sites on the Connecticut.

So, American shad have been reaching Turners Falls for 5 weeks now, we just don’t know how many are passing upstream—and we have yet to get count information from TransCanada about numbers passing Vernon Fishway. Thus parts of Massachusetts and all of Vermont and New Hampshire remain in the dark as to the whereabouts of their share of the ocean’s spring bounty.

Holyoke Fishway opened last week. You can visit, Weds. – Sunday from 9 – 5. Its on the CT, where Rt. 116 crosses into Holyoke from South Hadley. The public fish viewing facilities at Turners Falls have yet to open.

No “Springtime for Sturgeon in Holyoke…”

Posted by on 06 May 2016 | Tagged as: Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Endangered Species Act, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federal trust fish, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FERC, Holyoke Fish Lift, Holyoke Gas & Electric, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, National Marine Fisheries Service, NMFS, NOAA, Rock Dam, Rock Dam Pool, shortnose sturgeon, Turners Falls, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS

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HG&E’s Holyoke Dam with Mt. Tom in background(click to enlarge)

No “Springtime for Sturgeon in Holyoke…” Unenforced FERC License continues the woes for the Connecticut’s only federally endangered migratory fish

Copyright © 2016 by Karl Meyer

For endangered shortnose sturgeon on the Connecticut River this year has been the best thing and the worst thing to happen to them since 1849. In an infinitely promising development over a dozen sturgeon(13 thus far)have found their way into the retooled Holyoke Fish Lift this spring—and all were lifted 30 feet toward upstream spawning habitats at the facility. However, in a most ugly turn of events for a creature listed under the Endangered Species Act since 1967, every one of those sturgeon was subsequently dropped back downstream by humans working there. They literally gained ten yards… after 167 years. Sorry kids, wait ‘til next year–or maybe the one after that.

In 2002 Holyoke Gas and Electric was issued a FERC license under which they were required to complete construction of a fish lift providing up- and downstream access for endangered sturgeon by 2008. FERC, responsible for enforcing those license requirements as well as the tenets of the ESA, failed to enforce their requirements, leaving those improvements unconstructed, year after year. The National Marine Fisheries Service, US Fish & Wildlife Service, and MA Division of Fisheries & Wildlife sat on their hands respecting their responsibilities to act. Nor did any so-called “watchdog” group fulfill their role–to make the enforcers enforce.

This was just the latest failure in a foundering Connecticut River ecosystem steered by money and politics rather than legal obligations, science, and enforcement of the public trust. Just consider that one of the Connecticut River Watershed Council’s Board Members has worked for Holyoke Gas & Electric at their fish lift for a decade… Then consider the resounding silence on enforcement.

This year–a full 9 springs beyond their license obligations, HG&E finally completed that mandated construction at the Holyoke Fish Lift. That says a mouthful about FERC, their licensing process, private industry, and whether anyone is actually protecting the public’s fish and river.

Grimly this spring, when the most sturgeon embarking on upstream spawning runs since the building of the railroads made it to the top of those South Hadley Falls, all were captured and “released downstream” of Holyoke Dam. This bit of brilliance comes via the orders—or lack thereof, of NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service. Their failure to act again denies any new genetic input into the tiny upstream population keeping this species’ flickering spark alive across the centuries up at their sole natural spawning site, the Rock Dam in Turners Falls.

Below Holyoke, generation after generation of these long-lived fish have been relegated to simply growing to maturity, repeatedly attempting to return upstream, and ultimately expiring without ever having the chance to pass on their genes. That goes back to the time of President Zachery Taylor.

In one very cruel act of fate, any shortnose sturgeon finding themselves downstream of the newly constructed Holyoke Dam in 1849, were forever barred from reaching their sole natural spawning site in the river system—that ancient Rock Dam pool in Turners Falls. What that has meant is that hundreds upon hundreds of these fabulously evolved fish–across more than a century and a half, have been relegated to the status of “reproductive nulls,” unable to spawn in their natal river system.

Pick your favorite bad actor in this failed scenario–there are a half-dozen choices.

Missing camera in missing river

Posted by on 01 May 2016 | Tagged as: American shad, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Dead Reach, endangerd shortnose sturgeon, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, Holyoke Fish Lift, New Hampshire, Rock Dam, Rock Dam Pool, shad, Turners Falls, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, Vermont

I stopped along the Connecticut on the first bridge crossing downstream of Turners Falls Dam on Friday, April 29th. This is, of course, the alternately starved or inundated Dead Reach–the place where shortnose sturgeon can’t spawn, and migrating shad can’t pass upstream because of free-reign hydropower operations that choke off the Connecticut River ecosystem in these 2.7 miles of river. This is literally where the Connecticut River ends.

This day, as it had been for days prior, the riverbed was starved. Two thirds of it’s channel was simply exposed tilted and drying shale, with a shallow riffle of flow filling in the rest. I’d stopped to take a photo of the parching Dead Reach, just to have a record. Sadly, I was a bit rushed and didn’t use the camera strap. When I tried to reframe the picture to get a sweep of the ruined river, it slipped from my hands.

Had there been an actual river below, the camera would’ve splashed-in and sunk. Instead, in a true illustration of how starved this ecosystem has been these last decades, it tumbled end-over-end and banged onto the rocks, bouncing at last into a puddle leftover from when the Connecticut last saw some flow here.

Just downstream and out of view was the Rock Dam, where this same impoverished flow had chased spawning-ready shortnose sturgeon from their only documented natural spawning site over a week earlier. Also denied habitat just downstream were literally thousands of American shad–now many days past their lift upstream at the Holyoke Fishway. They too were being denied a river route upstream toward Vermont and New Hampshire spawning habitat. Instead, all were being tricked by flows at the Cabot Station fish ladder into the deadly power canal just a hundred yards east of where I stood.

Thus, the picture was lost, as was the camera. There was something final in watching it pitch downward. Oddly, I wasn’t devastated to see it go. Staring down, I realized this was the same photo of ecosystem misery I’d shot a half dozen times in a half dozen other years. Its a bit withering to witness it year after year.

Thus, as substitute, I’ll post here another photo, taken later in the season one of these last years. Its the exact same misery–just with a bit more late-season green on the riverbanks. It’s the Dead Reach in the dead Connecticut River at Turners Falls…(click to enlarge)

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Shortnose sturgeon: ignoring published research

Posted by on 04 Apr 2016 | Tagged as: Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Dr. Boyd Kynard, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeion, FERC Comments, Jack Buckley, John Bullard, Julie Crocker, Kimberly D. Bose, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, MA Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, National Marine Fisheries Service, NMFS, NOAA, Rock Dam, Rock Dam Pool, Secretary Kimberly Bose, shortnose sturgeon, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS, Vince E. Yearick, Wendi Weber

KM-Rock Dam program 4-23-16P1000433

TOP: Rock Dam program, 4-23-16 (click to enlarge)

Bottom: The ROCK DAM: shortnose sturgeon spawning site (click to enlarge)

The following testimony was submitted on March 18, 2016, to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on behalf of the biological needs of the federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon at its sole documented natural spawning site in the Connecticut River ecosystem.

Karl Meyer, M.S.

85 School Street # 3

Greenfield, MA  01301                                       March 18, 2016

 

The Honorable Kimberly D. Bose, Secretary

Federal Energy Regulatory Commission

88 First Street, NE

Washington, DC  20426

 

SUPPLEMENTAL INFORMATION: RE: P-1889-081 and P-2485-063, and federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, (Acipenser brevirostrum)

Attach to: PROTEST of FERC-sanctioned Revised Plan for Study 3.3.19, issued to FirstLight Power Resources, Inc, in a February 25, 2016 FERC letter to Mr. James P. Donohue of FirstLight, by Vince E. Yearick, FERC Director, Division of Hydropower Relicensing.

Dear Secretary Bose,

This additional information is being submitted subsequent to my receipt of a March 15, 2016 letter from Mr. Vince Yearick, Director, Division of Hydropower Licensing, restating FERC’s intention to sanction spring 2016 test flows that are documented to result in spawning failure and displacement of federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon(SNS), at their sole natural spawning site in this river system. Those findings come from 20 years of research conducted by government scientists from both the US Fish & Wildlife Service and the US Geological Survey.

I am submitting an index and key chapters from this exhaustive body of shortnose sturgeon research published in LIFE HISTORY AND BEHAVIOUR OF CONNECTICUT RIVER SHORTNOSE AND OTHER STURGEONS, 2012, by Boyd Kynard, Paolo Bronzi et al, World Sturgeon Conservation Society: Special Publication # 4. Chapter 3 directly addresses SNS spawning failure and displacement at the Rock Dam in the Connecticut’s By Passed Reach, and clearly indicates that test flows of 1500 cfs will not be protective of a species listed since 1967 under the federal Endangered Species Act.

From P. 107 (PDF-page numbers and numbers in the actual text are the same), “Spawning failure in unregulated rivers likely occurs, but it should be rare because females have adapted to natural fluctuations in the river discharge. Spawning failure (when fish were present) occurred at MontSR due to river regulation, but spawning did not fail due to peaking operations. Regulation created bottom velocities that were too low or exceeded the preference of females or created a low discharge that either prevented female access to the RockD or failed to attract them.”

Findings and data from pages 101 and 102 should provide further guidance to FERC in reexamining this decision. In his response Mr. Yearick argues that the low test flow of 1500 cfs put forth for Study 3.3.19 is somehow key in making correlations to last year’s American shad passage tests from Study 3.3.2. However, that is by no means clear (note–the 3.3.2 results have yet to be made available to Stakeholders) as that study also included tests flows of 1000 cfs and 6300 cfs—flows also not being included in order to make any useful correlation with Study 3.3.19.

Further, in regard to the failure or oversight in the protective responsibilities of the National Marine Fisheries Service to submit objections in this instance (as well as the USFWS and MA Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, who also have federal and state ESA mandates), those failures in no way release the FERC from its own responsibilities under the federal Endangered Species Act. In FERC’s own words, from: Hydropower Relicensing-Get Involved, A GUIDE FOR THE PUBLIC: “Is the Commission subject to other federal laws? Yes. The Commission must comply with a variety of federal laws, such as the Clean Water Act (to protect water quality), the Endangered Species Act (to protect threatened and endangered plant and animal species) and the National Historic Preservation Act (to protect culturally significant places and historic properties).”

Regarding Mr. Yearick’s citing of Article 34 as permitting the harming of protected species in the current license, he fails to note the following tenets included in that self-same Article regarding continuous minimum flows and modifications thereof: “These flows may be modified temporarily: (1) during and to the extent required by operating emergencies beyond the control of the Licensee; and (2) in the interest of recreation and protection of the fisheries resources, upon mutual agreement of the Licensees for Projects 1889 and 2485 and the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.”

Please also note that, with the marked improvements shown in American shad passage at Turners Falls in 2015 which appear to correlate well with the significant increases in flow through the By Passed Reach, it is highly unlikely that any of the Stakeholder Agencies would consider requesting a Licensed flow of 1500 cfs when the biological needs and passage of both federal-trust and federally-endangered migratory fish require significantly more volume to fulfill their spawning requirements.

Lastly, 8 years in arrears of its license agreement signed in 2002 for FERC P-2004–to have completed upstream access for federally endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon by 2008, Holyoke Gas & Electric has completed modifications to its fishway. That should allow SNS their first access and reintroduction to their natural spawning grounds in 168 years. In my mind, it would be patently criminal to greet these endangered fish on their first spawning trip upstream since 1849 with sanctioned flows guaranteed to displace them and cause spawning failure.

Thank you for your careful attention to this critical matter.

Sincerely,

Karl Meyer, Fish and Aquatics Study Team, P-2485 and P-1889

Please see attached chapters in PDF format, as well as included index and book cover.

Cc’d via email to:

Brandon Cherry, FERC

William Connelly, FERC

James Donohue, FirstLight

Julie Crocker, NOAA

Bjorn Lake, NOAA

John Warner, USFWS

Caleb Slater, MA Division of Fisheries & Wildlife

John Bullard, Regional Administrator, NOAA Fisheries Greater Atlantic Region

Wendi Weber, Director, USFWS Region 7

Jack Buckley, Director, Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife

Dr. Boyd Kynard

FERC Stakeholder comments: Turner Falls Canal ultrasound study

Posted by on 06 Feb 2016 | Tagged as: American shad, Cabot Station, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Dr. Boyd Kynard, endangerd shortnose sturgeon, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FERC, FirstLight, Fish and Aquatics Study Team, GDF-Suez FirstLight, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, Relicensing, Revised Study Plan, Rock Dam, Rock Dam Pool, Secretary Kimberly Bose, shad, Station 1, Turners Falls, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal

Karl Meyer, M.S.
85 School Street # 3
Greenfield, MA, 01301
January 28, 2016

The Honorable Kimberly D. Bose, Secretary
Federal Energy Regulatory Commission
88 First Street, NE
Washington, DC 20426

RE: P-1889 and P-2485, ILP for Turners Falls/Cabot Station and the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project

Dear Secretary Bose,

The following comments pertain to an RSP and failures on the part of FirstLight Hydro Generating Company in following FERC’s SDL on Study 3.3.19 and Study 3.3.2. They were shared with FirstLight’s team and FERC’s Brandon Cherry on January 20, 2016:

As one of the requesters for an ultrasound study at Cabot Station, here are my comments, suggestions and observations for ways to gain the best applicable results from Study 3.3.19-Evaluate the Use of an Ultrasound Array to Facilitate Upstream Movement to Turners Falls Dam by Avoiding Cabot Station Tailrace.

Unfortunately, FirstLight has not provided Stakeholders with any preliminary findings from the telemetry data gathered in Study 3.3.2, which would be a great help in addressing any changes or improvements needed for a successful 3.3.19 Ultrasound Study.

As stated in their Study Determination Letter under Discussion and Staff Recommendations, FERC was very clear that 3.3.2 information on: (1) “delay,” (2) “bypass flows,” and (3) “effects of Station 1 operations on upstream shad migrations,” be brought over and included in the design recommendations for 3.3.19:

“These evaluation data can be used to inform the methods and design of this study (e.g., ultrasound array design, layout, and placement; array testing at appropriate bypass flows) (section 5.9(b)(6)).”

FERC further stated in their SD Letter to FirstLight, “The amended study 3.3.19 should address stakeholder comments and recommendations. If FirstLight does not adopt a recommendation, FirstLight should provide its reasoning based on project-specific circumstances (e.g. Study 3.3.2 results).”

Revised Study Plan 3.3.19 ignores FERC’s guidance on the inclusion and application of “bypass flows” and “effects of Station 1 operations on upstream shad migrations” in its design. Neither key issue is addressed in their proposal. Bypass flows, which are key to any application of acoustic guidance to keep shad moving upstream in the Bypass, are not included at all. Stakeholders originally requested this Study be done for two years, with bypass flows tested throughout.

Further, the only mention of Station 1 is in a footnote, without any reference to testing its effects “on upstream shad migration operations.” FirstLight merely notes that hourly data on discharges at that site will be included—with no insight on how that data would be applicable if fish are not monitored for migratory delay, with and without flows, emanating from that site.

Since the thrust of the Study is aimed at getting fish up through the Bypass, I question why just three monitoring sites are suggested to be deployed upstream of Cabot Station itself.

• Sonic guidance at Cabot should be deployed in such a way that it encourages upstream movement as much as possible—and avoids biasing fish movements toward downstream retreat. It should also be deployed in a way that, when in ON mode, it also ensonnifies the entrance to Cabot Ladder, as the thrust of the study is to have fish avoid the power canal.

• Ensonification should NOT be engaged in two hour increments, as this would likely be a source of stress and disorientation for fish. Employ the tests in 24 hour cyles, one full day on, one full day off.

• Data should also be provided on the hourly operation and number of gates open at the Emergency Spill Gates off the Canal at Cabot.

• I’d suggest removing the monitor upstream of the mouth of the Deerfield and placing it at the Rock Dam pool, a site where shad–and anglers have a historic presence in the Bypass. The agencies, as well as the anglers, are concerned with finding out where fish gather and stall in this reach on their way northern MA, VT, and NH.

• Another monitor needs to be placed at Station 1, another known fishing site. I interviewed a fisherman there last year with Station 1 running. There were scores of fish visible, treading water in the outflow. He flatly said there are “always shad here” when Station 1 is generating.

• Station 1 should be monitored and switched On and Off in tandem with the Cabot ensonification to highlight impacts, false attraction, drop-backs to Rock Dam and elsewhere, and delays.

• Flow data, hours and number of units in operation, and any interruptions in flow at Station 1 should be included in the Study.

• Several more monitors need to be deployed at the Dam and the Spillway entrance to capture the early, freshet aggregation of fish there—as this is what’s at the core of this study.

• Given that this study will only have one sampling season, it is vitally important that it has enough reach to be applicable for informing a hydro-relicensing that may remain in place for two decades. One month testing and data collection is needed at minimum.

• Further, given the “drop out” rate for handled fish, the number of tagged fish included from FirstLight’s consultants should be doubled to 200, in order to have an acceptable sample entering the project reach.

• Test flows from May 15th through mid-June: two weeks at 5,000 CFS; third week at 4,000 CFS. The final week should be at a minimum of 2,500 CFS—which, as FL has indicated in their response to a new Stakeholder Study suggested at the Rock Dam for shortnose sturgeon spawning: 2,500 CFS is the absolute minimum, uninterrupted flow necessary through the Bypass from April 25 – May 22, in order to not interfere with the spawning of a federally endangered species and be subject to court action. In their response, FL cited “Kynard” et al. Minimum flows to keep SNS embryos and eggs motile, watered, and viable are required throughout the month of June.

Thank you,
Karl Meyer, Fish & Aquatics Study Team

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