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A midnight massacre at Massachusetts Audubon

Posted by on 20 Jul 2016 | Tagged as: Connecticut River, Dead Reach, hatchery, John Hanson Mitchell, Massachusetts Audubon Society, salmon, Sanctuary, Sanctuary Magazine, Sanctuary: The Journal of the Massachusetts Audubon Society, WHMP

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The Dead Reach of the Connecticut at Turners Falls (click to enlarge)

(For an audio take on this story, paste the following link from WHMP into your browser: http://whmp.com/morning-news/whmp-river-report-the-end-of-sanctuary-magazine/ )

Copyright © 2016 by Karl Meyer

Sanctuary, the Journal of the Massachusetts Audubon Society, was discontinued in 2014. It left a gaping hole in the fast-shrinking array of New England publications dedicated to ground-based and literate environmental writing. For over three decades Sanctuary was a smart, unpretentious voice telling stories, explaining ecosystems and issues–and extolling the wonders of wildlife in natural habitats to tens of thousands of readers. Its passing appeared to signal a shift away from the shared universe of open ideas, values and continuity of leadership, to a more corporatized environmental model.

Dollars, cents, and data crunching appear to have won out over the ideas and ideals that made Sanctuary the vehicle that defined Massachusetts Audubon as a ground force and voice for environmental sustainability. At the time it was discontinued noted-author John Hanson Mitchell, Sanctuary’s long-time editor, was assured the journal’s legacy was to be continued: its staff of editor/writers would be dedicating their efforts to a new publication—an annual paperback comprised of essays, articles, poetry and ideas mailed to Society members each spring. The 2015 edition, Stray Leaves, was a compilation of John Mitchell’s essays across the decades at Mass. Audubon.

Curiously, this spring, that publication’s second edition, The Quiet Earth, arrived late and without fanfare to members. The whole business seemed odd. It was particularly curious to those of us whose work was slated to appear there. No one knew what was going on.

It wasn’t until a late-May that a phone message helped decipher what had taken place. A little investigating uncovered that John and his long-time staff had been unceremoniously let go—down-sized without warning in a corporate-like midnight massacre. They were literally escorted from their desks—their keys taken; not allowed even to keep the names, numbers and emails of their long-term writers, business associates and colleagues. Further, in order to receive severance benefits the signing of a non-disclosure agreement was required—thus keeping the organization’s secret actions, secret.

It was a wholly dishonorable ending, from an organization that has perhaps lost its center. As a long-time contributor to John Mitchell’s legacy journal it’s important to say that I believe Sanctuary helped change thinking about key river restoration issues out here in the Connecticut Valley. The endlessly wasteful and failed 43-year old hatchery program to manufacture a new salmon strain for this river system–where natural runs withered to extirpation in 1809, was finally abandoned in 2013. I’m not sure the ideas and arguments about a broken Connecticut River here in northern Massachusetts would’ve ever received proper airing had not John Mitchell and his staff been open to new ways of thinking.

My writing was just one voice appearing among many fine contributions from Mitchell and staff, alongside a host of smart, dedicated free-lancers who worked on Sanctuary’s pages across the decades. Many of us were deeply disheartened upon learning of its ultimate passing—and dumbfounded by the shabby treatment that signified its final hours.

New England’s universe of environmental thought, ideas, poetry and natural beauty will surely be the poorer for it.

IT’S THE DEAD REACH STUPID: the selling of the Connecticut River ecosystem

Posted by on 24 Jul 2011 | Tagged as: American shad, Atlantic salmon, Bellows Falls Fishway, blueback herring, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Connecticut River ecosystem, Conte, CRASC, Dead Reach, EPA, federal trust fish, FERC license, FirstLight, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, MA Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, New Hampshire, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Reservoir, salmon, salmon hatchery, Sanctuary Magazine, shortnose sturgeon, The Greenfield Recorder, The Springfield Republican, Turners Falls power canal, USFWS, Walpole

Copyright © 2011 by Karl Meyer                                   All Rights Reserved.

* The following article first appeared in the July/August 2011 issue of the Pioneer Valley News.

                          IT’S THE DEAD REACH, STUPID: the selling of the Connecticut River ecosystem

If you think the Connecticut River is worth saving for your children and their grandchildren, you’d better act fast.  New England’s River is dying in the two-mile stretch directly below the dam in Turners Falls, MA.  Go take a look.  It’s a section subjected, alternately, to channel-starving flows and punishing deluges caused by manipulations at the dam from the Northfield Mountain-Turners Falls hydropower operations.  Look just to the left, where roiling water churns and hurtles down the Turners Falls Power Canal.  That’s where most of the river’s water goes—into an unnatural conduit that’s the final stop for most of the Connecticut’s migratory fish.  It’s killing this ocean-connected ecosystem, which once stretched north to Walpole, NH and Bellows Falls, VT.

For decades US Fish and Wildlife Service agents, federal scientists at the Conte Fish Lab in Turners Falls, and MA Fisheries & Wildlife officials have ignored this “dead reach” where the river’s only breeding population of federally endangered shortnose sturgeon spawns; and migrating “federal trust” American shad and blueback herring are turned out of their ancient river highway two miles downstream.   That power canal has hydro-turbines slicing through the current at three sites, and warming, silted-in habitats along its middle stretch.  Few fish emerge from that habitat to swim to Vermont and New Hampshire.  An ecosystem dies at Turners Falls.

Yet federal and state fisheries officials don’t monitor the flows, releases and river levels coming down past the Turners Falls dam.  They leave it to the complex’s owners, global giant FirstLight, to police themselves on this critical reach.  They then use what little data the company deigns to give them, often months late—about flow and numbers of migrating fish, in the fisheries science that’s been supposed to restore New England’s migratory fish here these past last 40 years.  Boy is that smart.

Last year, FirstLight surreptitiously dumped 65,000 tons of silt into the Connecticut here after it got clogged in its massive turbines–also fouling the entire, mile-long intake tunnel to its sprawling 5-billion gallon Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Reservoir.  They were mucking the sludge out of the reservoir for the first time in 20 years; that’s supposed to happen every five.  On May 3rd FirstLight manager John Howard grossly under-represented the extent of the pollution to the US EPA when he notified them that “silt was entering the river.”   From May 1 – August 4th, FirstLight pushed at least 45,000 cubic square yards of muck into the Connecticut at Northfield.  Daily, between 40 – 50 dump truck loads flowed in.

On June 23, 2010, boater Bruce Miriam called the EPA’s hotline reporting piles of silt in the river.  Yet EPA didn’t make its initial inspection until 3 weeks later, and it wasn’t August 4th that EPA finally ordered them to cease and desist “polluting the navigable waters of the United States.”  Fisheries agencies didn’t pursue the critical matter of that oxygen-and-light-robbing silt.  It was visible from Northfield to the mouth of the Deerfield River.  Silt is known to affect the spawning, eggs and young of endangered sturgeon and federal-trust shad—struggling here in the upper-most stretch that ocean-going migrants can reach in any meaningful numbers.

FirstLight was belatedly ordered to dredge up the mess they’d largely kept from the public by hiding it underwater–keeping the river’s levels at maximum height behind their TF dam gates for months.  Ultimately they sucked out just a third of it, 15,000 cubic square yards.  They were also ordered to come up with a future plan on how they would deal with the sludge clogging their reservoir.  Last November, when EPA Council Michael Wagner was asked who will monitor FirstLight’s actions in the future he replied, “Most compliance happens from the company.  We just expect the company will comply.”   In another river-pollution non-sequitur, FirstLight quietly agreed to spend a few thousand dollars to fund a study of dragonfly larvae, far downstream from their pollution.  That backroom deal was cut with MA Dept. of Environmental Protection, and agreed to by EPA.  It was the public’s recompense.

Though the Connecticut belongs to the United States, Massachusetts, and all New Englanders, it appears its ownership and control has been ceded to FirstLight—who could sell their hydro complex here tomorrow.   The EPA, US F&WS, the US Geological Service’s Conte Anadromous Fish Lab, the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission (CRASC), MA DEP and MA Div. of Fisheries & Wildlife–agencies charged with protecting this river system for all time, have offered up our river ecosystem to the short-term, profit desires of FirstLight’s shareholders.

What’s more, they are about to concede this river’s ecosystem disaster to the power company for all time–decades after they should have conducted the independent science and required that changes be instituted here that would have taken the river off life-support.  That should have been in 1998–the halfway point in the current federal operating license.  If they succeed, it will ensure the ecosystem remains comatose for generations.

In behind-the-scenes negotiations that should be subject to open-meeting laws and public input, federal and state fisheries officials are talking with FirstLight owners about permanently accepting the diversion of the bulk of the river’s flow and fish out of the riverbed–sending the mass of migratory fish into the trap they co-created with Northeast Utilities back in 1978: the treacherous currents and warming muck that’s the Turners Falls Power Canal.

An ample flow of natural seasonal current left in the river–leading fish directly upstream to a fish elevator at the dam would instantly revive the Connecticut’s dead reach.  That’s what they’ve done downstream at Holyoke since 1955.  It’s the East Coast’s most successful fish passage.  Between 40 – 60% of the fish would quickly be able to pass Turners Falls, according to statements from US Conte Lab fish scientist Alex Haro at a 2010 fish passage symposium held at the US Fish & Wildlife Service’s Region V Headquarters in early 2011.  That passage would send meaningful numbers of American shad upstream toward VT and NH for the first time since John Adams was president.  No honest fish scientist disputes this.

But instead, federal fish scientists including Haro’s colleague at Conte, Ted Castro-Santos, are prioritizing building a fish lift at the foot of the Turners Falls Power Canal—continuing to sentence embattled fish into a migratory limbo few emerge from.   Both Haro and Castro-Santos are salaried federal employees, but up to half the money they’ve accepted for doing fish passage studies that center on keeping fish in the power canal comes from FirstLight.  If federal and state fisheries officials sell-out the dead reach once more, it will be the fourth time in as many decades that watchdog agencies have failed our river here.

That power canal fish diversion was put in place by forerunners of these agents in 1978.  It’s the Roach Motel of fish passage: millions of shad have checked in, but hardly a fish checks out the other side.  A 1988 study conducted by John O’Leary of the Massachusetts Cooperative Fisheries Unit and supervised by Dr. Boyd Kynard, spelled out the failure of using that canal for fish passage.  Successful passage that year came in at a whopping 5.4% at the Turners Falls Gatehouse–after years of tinkering with the hopeless system.  The study’s summary sized-up the situation succinctly, “Remarks:  “Upriver Passage: None.”

But FirstLight makes electricity along this 5-mile reach in a deregulated market, and works to maximize profits for shareholders.  Conversely, it sends pulses of water downstream from its giant Northfield generators through this industrial reach into critical spawning and migratory habitats while taking advantage of price spikes the energy “spot market.”   Ironically, the Northfield plant actually requires more energy to run than it produces.  But when prices and demand climbs, they quickly spill punishing flows downstream at the dam; while at other times their hydro gates close and the river is left treacherously de-watered.  Migrating shad and (formerly) blueback herring swim to this reach in numbers of at least 100,000 fish annually.  But just a few get beyond Turners Falls dam, in place here since 1798.  Whole seasons of just-spawned shortnose sturgeon eggs and young have been washed out of the riverbed by surges in this broken stretch—where most migrating shad are conveniently shunted out of the river into miserable canal habitat.  US F&WS and MA Fisheries & Wildlife leaders sit on their hands.

Caleb Slater, from MA Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, Technical Committee Chair and fish passage subcommittee leader at the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission (CRASC) is one of those talking to FirstLight.  With Massachusetts personnel negotiating on behalf of our interests, “open meetings laws” should apply.  But there’s no public input or access.  There’s been an unfilled MA “public sector” seat at the CRASC table since 2008.  It’s a rubber stamp position anyway, really concerned with keeping money flowing for CRASC’s massively-failed, half-billion-dollar salmon restoration and hatchery program.  After 40 years, a few dozen hybrid salmon return.  The other federal officials charged with representing our interests include John Warner of the US F&WS Field Office, Julie Crocker of NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, and NOAA attorney Kevin Collins.  All are charged with protecting the ecosystem for our grandkids, not the power company of the day.

FirstLight only leases the use of some of our river’s water—subject to conditions in the current federal operating (FERC) license, in place until 2018.  That license requires them to protect and improve passage for the migratory federal trust fish impacted by their facilities and operations.  By law they must maintain conditions and construct new fish passage that protects the public’s migrating and spawning fish—or they can be ordered to cease generating.

But the company has a powerful incentive to keep as many fish as possible out of the river–as it would be inconvenient to shareholders not to maximize profits by having to tailor flow regimes in the river at certain seasons to the needs of the ecosystem’s fish.  If this backroom deal gets made it offers FirstLight–or the power company-of-the-moment, carte blanch to continue profiting from free-wheeling, unmonitored operations on the dead reach–where FirstLight and its predecessors have been notably out of compliance with respect to pollution, flows, fish passage and federal trust species.  Those activities go unchallenged.

Federal fisheries leaders and scientists at the nearby $12 million dollar Conte Anadramous Fish Lab, located on that canal, also have a powerful motive for wanting the fish to continue to be shunted into that debased canal habitat. It’s where their lab is and where they do their fish science, though the bulk of it involves studying baby, hatchery-produced, hybrid salmon.  The results after 20 years of lab operations are abysmal: 100 returning adult salmon this year—in a program that has cost taxpayers hundreds of millions.  The public won’t be willing to fund this white elephant forever.

Which sort-of leaves the federal Conte Lab scrambling for a reason to exist.  They’ve now even begun studying freshwater fish that are non-migratory–to fill the rather large hole in their failed collective purpose here.  Just like FirstLight, it would be best to keep those formerly-ignored shad coming up into that canal and past their lab.  They can then look like they are doing something.  So, with renewed energy, they are once again conducting studies remarkably similar to ones done in past decades–to answer a question that seems more like a children’s riddle at this point: Why can’t fish taken out of their true riverbed habitats find their way through the labyrinth and roiling waters of a warming power canal—and then jump up into flows from a higher pond at the dam to swim to Vermont and New Hampshire?   Like the power company, there’s a money motive here to.  It’s a co-dependency that’s developed over decades.

At a 2010 meeting of the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Vermont CRASC Tech Committee Member Jay McMenemy expressed surprise that four hybrid Atlantic salmon—the season’s entire free-swimming crop at Turners Falls, had reached the site by swimming directly up the dead reach of river, by-passing the power canal.  With Northfield shut down, it shouldn’t have surprised anyone.  I’d first noted the looming disaster at Turners Falls in print a dozen years prior, and in 2007 had written a front-page story about the impacts of the Northfield plant’s operations on dying shad passage in the Springfield Republican.  I’d put shad and Northfield impacts on the cover of Massachusetts Audubon’s Sanctuary Magazine again in 2009.

With FirstLight keeping river levels behind the dam as high as possible to cover their silt piles upstream, they tried to divert the rest of the river’s water into the canal—their preferred route for struggling fish.  But a canal is a finite conduit: it can only carry just so much water.  It started raining really hard here in late-May; and flows from heavy late-spring rains kept coming downstream through June.  That forced FirstLight to spill water over their dam–releasing substantial and steady flows to the river’s natural bed: the dead reach.  Apparently even million-dollar, hatchery-hybrid salmon can tell a true river current from a by-pass trick.  They followed their noses straight upstream to use the rarely-accessed fish ladder at the dam to pass Turners Falls.

So did the American shad.

When I enquired of FirstLight’s Bob Stira about the already 600-800% increase in shad passing Turners Falls at a June 22, 2010 CRASC meeting—trying to find out how many had been recorded swimming directly upstream to the dam and ladder at the top of that dead reach, he was hesitant, downplaying his answer, “Oh, maybe three or four thousand.”  In fact, allowing that 4,000 American shad had likely passed upstream by this route alone was hugely significant: yearly averages had dropped to a paltry 2,000 – 3,000 fish making it through the fish passage system at Turners Falls in the past decade.

Yet in 2010, with Northfield down–and FirstLight’s releasing public fish tallies lagging weeks behind the daily figures available from Holyoke, 10,000 shad had already made it past Turners Falls dam.  When I pointedly noted the relationship between the Northfield outage and record shad passage at Turners Falls, commissioners at the CRASC table had little in the way of response.  Ultimately it was months before FirstLight released their final fish tallies for shad passage, which included numbers swimming up the dead reach, and ascending the ladder directly at the dam.  In 2010, some 16,768 fish passed Turners Falls—the most fish recorded since 1995.

But even that number is highly suspect and likely low.  FirstLight’s fish counting equipment failed on 35 different occasions—with 17 of those failures occurring at the dam’s spillway ladder.    Those cameras record the fish that swim up the riverbed when they have ample flow through their natural migration corridor—that mostly-dead reach of river ecosystem.  FirstLight’s figures are the data Conte Lab and federal and state fisheries biologists use in their science.  As I first noted about these instititutions to the Greenfield Recorder’s Gary Sanderson last June, “Do you think they’re hiding something?”

FirstLight and Conte researcher Ted Castro-Santos appeared anxious last year to attribute the huge increase in shad passage at Turners Falls to experiments they’d done changing the exit opening for shad in their preferred upstream fish passage route—the canal.  But that new hole had first been cut three years prior, with the subsequent results admittedly “poor.”

To me it seemed obvious they were trying to steal the credit and credibility that belongs to nature: water in the actual riverbed, and a large population of American shad that has wanted to follow the river upstream to Vermont and New Hampshire for centuries now.

Managers and engineers at the Northfield-Turners Falls complex have been operating dam gates and manipulating flows along this five-mile stretch for decades.  They operate their gates day and night.  Federal and state fisheries managers and scientists don’t monitor the impacts.  Operating with few constraints, it’s certainly possible to create conditions that move struggling fish in any direction you want them to go.  For the fish, that’s usually a trip through the power canal.  Rarely–when flows vary, it can be something else…

Way back in the early 1980s hundreds of shad found enough current in the riverbed to follow it straight upstream to the dam.  But operators wanted more water elsewhere—to fill their mountaintop reservoir upstream, and the power canal flowing just east of the river.  They closed the dam’s gates and shut off flow.  Without flow and water left in the river to find a path downstream, hundreds of shad perished in the warming, oxygen-starved pools they got trapped in.  Needless to say, that visible configuration was never seen again.

Today, both FirstLight and federal Conte Fish Lab scientist find themselves in a bit of a bind over the choked ecosystem and fish passage.  It’s important to each to show that the best thing for those migratory fish is to be shoved out of the riverbed and into the power canal.  They want to build a fish lift there first–at the foot of the canal, to keep that system in place.  And it’s today’s paltry flows coming downstream through the dead reach that allow this to happen.  That status quo solution would keep everybody comfortably remunerated.

But with the anomaly of record numbers of shad passing Turners Falls while Northfield Mountain was down last year, you can’t just return to business as usual.  With those parching or punishing flows through the dead reach now a matter of public record–through recent news articles and OpEds, what you can do is try and optimize conditions that get a few more fish through that dismal system.  This season there has been a dismally small, but consistent, current spilling downstream at Turners Falls dam, noted by the public.  It seems mainly for show.

But downstream at Holyoke there has been a full 33% increase in American shad passage this year.  Sadly for Mr. Castro-Santos and the canal-route proponents–the corresponding increase that should have followed at Turners Falls if their new exit strategy was indeed the savior of those migratory runs, has not occured.  The numbers at Turners Falls were flat this year—actually down by a few hundred from last year.  They are below the shad numbers passing Turners Falls dam a quarter century back, when John O’Leary’s study characterized similar failing fish passage the “Remarks” section of his 1988 study as: “Upriver Passage: None.”

Sending fish into a power canal won’t fix the Connecticut River’s broken ecosystem—the ocean connection and its shad and herring runs that once swam north to Vermont and New Hampshire.  Only real flows in the dead reach and a single fish lift directly upstream at the dam will make that possible.  That needs to happen today–should’ve happened a decade back.  It remains a debt under requirements in the current license.

But that would require integrity, determination, leadership—even a bit of courage, something citizens have come to no longer expect from the people charged with protecting their river.  And some of the folks making deals on the river today may be the same people in charge when a new federal license—also ostensibly designed to improve the river ecosystem, comes up for retooling in 2018.  It’s the recipe for a failed ecosystem for your great-grandchildren.

I recently spoke with the US F&WS’s Ken Sprankle, the Connecticut River Coordinator and fish researcher who works from a Sunderland office.  Ken seems to have some integrity.  He’s trying to do some of the catch-up science that was left a decade in arrears at the federal Conte Lab.  Last year he spent months cobbling together grant monies that enabled him to pay for a study that electronically tagged 100 American shad this year, to follow document their upstream migration patterns.  He says he’s getting lots of data.

But, when I questioned Ken about whether he is getting the critical independent data about flows, levels, and releases into the dead reach at Turners Falls dam—the ancient route for fish up the river, he said he is not.  He’s asked FirstLight’s Bob Stira for that information.  It’s been promised, but he doesn’t know when he’ll get it.

This is virtually the only real independent data and science that matters.  It’s the stuff that measures the damage to endangered shortnose sturgeon spawning populations and migrating federal trust fish that have always required a Connecticut River with water in it.  I was disheartened to hear this.  As other fisheries people tell me, however dedicated Ken might be, his work will only get as far as his US F&WS Region V supervisors allow him to go.

So, it appears the task of saving the Connecticut River ecosystem has been left up to New England citizens.  You and me.  Environmental groups have remained largely mute for decades.  Most accept power company funding, and many have boards of directors littered with former power company managers.  Though it would take just one with the courage to stand apart to perhaps change the course of this river’s history, I wouldn’t bet on it.

But you can act.  Contact your Congressmen and state representatives.  Ask them about open meeting laws and to hold hearings on protecting the federal trust and the river’s ecosystem at Turners Falls.  Ask them about the wisdom of spending $10 million a year on a failed salmon program that produces a few dozen fish—while endangered sturgeon go unprotected and federal trust shad runs remain dead to Vermont and New Hampshire, stuck behind Turners Falls dam since 1798. Write a letter to the paper. And, where’s the independent environmental watchdog that’s publicly going to go to bat for the river’s dead reach?  That might begin with you.

As research, take a ride to the Turners Falls dam and look south into the dead reach, then to the left at that churning canal.  Then, beginning around September 10, 2011, go south in Turners Falls and cross the canal on the 11th Street Bridge.  Head downstream along the public roads following the canal to where the paved road is called Migratory Way.  That’s where our federal fish lab is.  You may have to walk; they sometimes close the gates to cars.

But, beginning September 12th, that canal is set to be dredged of its muck by FirstLight.  Take a good look–before and after, at the muck-filled expanse.  Then, decide for yourself whether this is a suitable place to send even a few of the future’s precious remaining fish.

Karl Meyer of Greenfield, MA writes on many topics as freelance journalist. He has written for national and regional publications and been featured on public radio’s MarketPlace. Meyer is also an award-winning non-fiction children’s author. He holds an MS in Environmental Science from Antioch New England University and writes often about Connecticut River issues. Read his blog at: www.karlmeyerwriting.com  Contact him about writing and school and environmental presentations at: karl@karlmeyerwriting.com .