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ENDGAME LOOMS FOR NEW ENGLAND’S GREAT RIVER

Posted by on 10 Sep 2020 | Tagged as: American shad, Anadromous Fish Conservation Act, Atlantic salmon, blueback herring, climate-destroying, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Conte National Fish & Wildlife Refuge, endangerd shortnose sturgeon, Endangered Species Act, ESA, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, FERC, FERC licensing process, FirstLight, FirstLight Power Resources, Fish and Aquatics Study Team, GHG, Massachusetts Division of Fish & Wildlife, National Marine Fisheries Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, New Hampshire, NMFS, Northfield Mountain, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, pumped storage, right-to-know, Rock Dam, shad, shortnose sturgeon, Silvio O. Conte Connecticut River National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, The Revelator, The Society of Environmental Journalists, Turners Falls, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, Uncategorized, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS, Vermont

Endgame Looms for England’s Great River Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer


The impoverished Connecticut River looking downstream to Turners Falls Dam. The run stops here. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer All Rights Reserved. (CLICK x 3 to enlarge)

NOTE: The following piece first appeared as an Op-Ed in The Revelator, an initiative of the Center for Biological Diversity on August 26, 2020. www.therevelator.org

FURTHER NOTE: * On September 1, 2020, after this piece first appeared, FirstLight petitioned FERC for an open-ended date to extend the filing of their Final License Applications citing a need for new test data to respond to the USF&WS. If FERC agrees, that would add another 4 months and possibly another full year, to this endless process–without any long-awaited relief for a flow starved Connecticut River. It’s time for FERC to wrap this up.

After a half-century of failures, the recovery of the Connecticut River ecosystem hangs in the balance. Will authorities finally act to save it?

Rivers should not die in the dark.

On Aug. 31 FirstLight Power Resources is expected to file its final license applications with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to continue operating three hydro facilities profiting off massive water diversions from the Connecticut River in Massachusetts. The conditions written into FERC licenses can last up to 50 years.

These applications signal the beginning of the final chapter in determining the future of the four-state river at the heart of the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, founded to protect a 7.2-million-acre watershed. Their rendering will decide the future of migratory fish, river flows and a host of embattled ecosystem conditions on New England’s longest river, some running counter to laws in place since 1872.

When decisions affecting a river for decades are being made, the public has a right to know of the stakes, the players and the key decision makers. In this case the public knows little of issues potentially affecting 2.4 million people in a sprawling watershed.

One of the failed fish ladders sending all spring migrants into the Turners Falls power canal maize. Across 45 years just 5 shad in 100 have succeeded in passing the Turners Falls Dam–leaving 50 miles of spawning habitat in 3 states largely empty. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer All Rights Reserved.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service and Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife have been at the table in this FERC license-determining process since 2012. But three years back, all parties signed nondisclosure agreements with FirstLight — ostensibly to facilitate settlement discussions on flows, habitat, dismal fish passage and endless mortality cycles at these Massachusetts hydro sites. Those NDAs have kept these issues largely out of the media, even as initial settlement talks broke off a year and a half ago.

*Since 2012 I’ve been a FERC-recognized intervener in the relicensing process. I chose not to sign the company’s confidentiality agreement in order to preserve the right to address and highlight the critical, long-term decisions being made about the Connecticut River in a process that remains largely out of public view.

FirstLight is part of the giant Canadian investment outfit PSP Investments, which arrived in Massachusetts four years back to buy up these facilities from GDF Suez. In 2018 it quickly reregistered the facilities as limited liability tax shelters in Delaware. Regardless of their state of incorporation, the licenses they now vie for will each be subject to current federal and state environmental laws, under terms mandated by the fish agencies and FERC.

Entranceway to the “Great Falls Discovery Center” where, most days out of the year, there are literally no great falls running here at all… The sprawling rocky riverbed is an emptied bowl. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer.

Of more than 500 U.S. refuges, Conte is one of just three with “fish” in its name. Today hopes for the long-term protections of its fish and the river comprising its central artery rest heavily in the hands of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service and Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. They have “conditioning authority” in these relicensings — mandates to protect the life in this river system. FERC, the ultimate relicensing umpire here, is also mandated to ensure compliance with environmental laws. For the fish agencies this is their one chance to redeem some far-reaching mistakes made by their predecessors.

Forty-five years ago these agencies — operating on limited information and pursuing dreams of reprising a salmon not seen on this river since 1809 — signed agreements with different owners of these facilities. That hobbled, for generations, a four-state migratory fisheries restoration for American shad and river herring and a recovery for federally endangered shortnose sturgeon. They sanctioned the daily use of the massive river-reversing pumped storage facility still chewing through generations of migratory and resident fish today. Concurrently they left two miles of the river emptied downstream, its flow diverted into a turbine-lined power canal that all migrants must negotiate in order to access the next 50 miles of open spawning habitat. Just 5 shad in 100 have ever succeeded. Perhaps worse, the river’s only documented natural spawning habitat for the endangered shortnose sturgeon was left without life-sustaining flow.

A Tale of Two Salmon, a River Without Fish

The last wild salmon run on the Connecticut River was recorded in 1809.

Science later revealed the salmons’ end was likely a combination of warming temperatures following the unusually cold period known as the Little Ice Age coupled with modern dam building.

For 165 years there were no salmon. Then, in 1974, a single fish arrived at Holyoke Dam. Far from being a native of the Connecticut River, this was a new hybrid — a returning fish produced at one of several federal hatcheries completed five years prior. This salmon’s genes, like the genes of all the fish that would return in subsequent years, were cobbled together using salmon from several still-surviving runs in northern New England.

This past June 30 marked a different milestone on the river. It ended the first season in 46 years when not a single hatchery-derived Atlantic salmon returned past Massachusetts’ Holyoke Dam.

That unnatural history event passed with little fanfare. Its silent-spring absence marked the end of a half-century-old program that consumed hundreds of millions of dollars and ate up far too much room in a badly broken ecosystem. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service abandoned its hatchery program at the end of the 2012 migration season, but across its 43 years — which saw the annual release of millions of fry and smolts to tributaries in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire — so few adults returned that no one was ever allowed to catch one.

This second salmon ending highlights the fish agencies’ last shot at returning ancient ocean connections to the river’s still-viable, age-old runs of American shad, blueback herring and federally endangered shortnose sturgeon in three states.

All these species have been guaranteed safe passage on U.S. rivers, going back to the landmark Supreme Court decision in Holyoke Company v. Lyman in 1872. That finding centered on the dam in Holyoke, Massachusetts and held that private dam owners operating on U.S. rivers must provide for the free movement, upstream and down, of migratory fish past their facilities.

Looking west across the CT to the Holyoke Dam fish lift complex. Since 1955 it is one of the East Coast’s few fish passage successes. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer All Rights Reserved.

Its implementation on New England’s river is now 148 years overdue.

A River Run in Reverse

What’s ultimately at issue here is flow.

Having taken a back seat for generations, wild runs of shad, herring and sturgeon remain in desperate need of passage and consistent, exponentially increased river flow in FirstLight’s hydro-complex dominated reach. It’s literally the weight of water that matters most to FirstLight. It’s money in the bank. And where flow diversion is concerned, it’s been pretty much a free ride for companies here for the past 50 years.

The 20 miles of river backed up into Vermont and New Hampshire behind Turners Falls Dam are massively suctioned for hours at up to 15,000 cubic feet per second to fill the 4-billion-gallon reservoir above the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station.

Northfield’s suction is so violent it literally reverses the Connecticut’s current for up to a mile downstream at times, erasing the essence of a living river system. The station kills everything it sucks in, from tiny fish eggs to full-size eels. In pumping mode it suctions the equivalent of 3,600 seven-bedroom mansions, each filled with the aquatic life of a river, vaporized every hour, for hours on end. Agency studies on America shad show tens of millions of eggs and larvae extinguished at Northfield annually, plus the deaths of over 2 million juvenile shad sucked in on migrations back to the sea. Five migrant species are subjected to Northfield. In all 24 species live here, most unstudied.

Warning floats on the CT at the entranceway to Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station’s massive subsurface suctioning site. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer All Rights Reserved.

Northfield’s operations are nothing like classic hydro, operating to produce virgin electricity via a dam in or adjacent to a river. It’s actually an electric appliance, built to take advantage of excess, unused megawatts produced nightly at the nearby Vermont Yankee nuclear station. Northfield burns electricity to pump water from the river a mile uphill to into its reservoir tank, which was created by blasting off the top of a mountain. The company’s original owners would buy up Vermont Yankee’s cheap electricity to power its giant, reversible turbines. Later, during peak energy times, that now-lifeless river water would get sent back through the turbines to generate hours-long pulses of energy at peak market prices.

It’s a buy-low, sell-high operation, still running at the expense of a river system six years after Vermont Yankee shut down.

Idle bulldozers sit in the emptied bed of the giant NMPS reservoir on June 27, 2010–the year they broke their giant appliance by fouling the pumps with muck and silt. Sanctioned by the EPA for a cover-up and massively dumping the muck from their mile-long intake tunnel directly into the river, Northfield didn’t operate for over half a year. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer. All Rights Reserved. (Click x3 to enlarge.)

Northfield is a net-loss energy machine — a giant underground appliance consuming massive amounts of grid electricity, half of it now generated by the climate-scorching natural gas that dominates New England’s power grid today. The station consumes 25% to 33% more juice than the secondhand megawatts it sends back by dumping deadened river water back through its turbines. It and a smaller pumped storage station in Connecticut are responsible for gobbling up 1.4% percent of the region’s energy in order to reproduce the few hours of secondhand juice they regenerate. According to grid operator ISO-New England, they are the only facilities whose operations flush out as negative input in the regional power mix.

Northfield has never generated a single watt of its own electricity. And though it may be fine as blunt instrument for use during the occasional power grid slump or rare emergency blackout, its endless, river-crippling, pump-and-purge cycle of regenerated megawatts is unnecessary for the daily operation of the New England grid. While its owners brag of being able to power a million homes for a few hours, they never mention having already burned through the energy of 1.25 million homes to do so. After its daily flush, Northfield is virtually dead in the water and must begin pulling from the grid and sucking life from the river all over.

Past mistakes not only allowed for this massive upstream disruption, they sanctioned diversion of nearly all flow, as well as all migrating fish, into a downstream power canal that on average just 5% of shad have ever successfully negotiated. That left another two miles of New England’s river dysfunctional, with the company providing just a dribble flow of 400 cubic feet per second in the riverbed in spring, when fish are moving upriver. That riverbed remains emptied of all flow more than half the other days of the year.

The most critical time for sustaining flows and the river’s migrants is April through June, when New England’s energy consumption is at its low annual ebb. But federal and state studies and in-river findings show that spring flows will need to be increased by a factor of 20, supplying 8,000 cfs rather than the current brook-like drizzle of 400 cfs. That’s what it will take to guide shad and blueback herring upstream in the river past Turners Falls Dam. That will also provide this river’s only endangered migrant the consistent flows required to successfully allow the shortnose sturgeon to spawn and ensure its larvae can develop in the cobbles at an ancient river pool in that impoverished reach.

Flow starved Connecticut River at the Rock Dam–critical shortnose sturgeon spawning and rearing site, May 13, 2018. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer All Rights Reserved.

Back in 1967, when four New England states and these agencies signed the “Statement of Intent for the Cooperative Fishery Restoration Program for the Connecticut River Basin,” they projected some 38,000 salmon would return annually to this four-state ecosystem. For salmon, a pinnacle of sorts was reached in 1981, when 592 were tallied passing Holyoke. But for a hybrid fish whose wild prototype disappeared 160 years prior, it was downhill from there. Most years fewer than 100 salmon returned to the river.

That 1967 agreement also set annual run targets of one million American shad heading upstream, with 850,000 shad passing Turners Falls and 750,000 entering Vermont and New Hampshire habitats above Vernon Dam. The highest shad return saw 720,000 passing Holyoke in 1992. Sadly, they’ve never made it much farther.

The Run Stops in Massachusetts.

Just 36 miles upstream of Holyoke, all semblance of a successful restoration ends when the annual shad run reaches Turners Falls Dam. Of the 537,000 shad that passed Holyoke in 2017, just 48,000 — a mere 9% — squeezed back into the river beyond Turners Falls.

Vernon Dam between Vernon VT and Hinsdale NH, March 2020. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer

The annual inversion at the next upstream dam in Vermont illustrates the perils on this broken river. In 2017 29,000 or 59% of the shad that survived the miseries of Turners Falls were subsequently counted passing Vernon Dam, 20 miles upriver. That inverted interstate ratio has been the case since 1975, with few shad managing to break out beyond the brutal ecosystem conditions in Massachusetts.

Why the Restoration Failed

The current restoration, congressionally authorized in 1967 and still operating today under the moniker of the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, made their biggest blunder in 1975 when they signed off on new license requirements for upstream fish passage. They ultimately chose a design based on hydro project fish ladders on Washington State’s giant Columbia River, known for huge Pacific salmon runs. What got built was a three-ladder fish passage that forced all migrants out of their ancient river highway and into the byzantine maze of the company’s power canal, while leaving two miles of riverbed all but emptied of flow.

Scaled down and put in place at Turners Falls, it worked fine for the program’s few successfully returning hybrid salmon but failed immediately for 95% of the hundreds of thousands of migrating shad. No big run has ever passed that site, leaving three states without their promised bounties. Vermont and New Hampshire remain this river’s shad deserts today.

The Prescription

It’s now 2020. At this late date, corporate re-registrations can’t hide what’s legally required and a half-century overdue on New England’s river. The last opportunity to undo those festering mistakes for the Connecticut now rest in the hands of the National Marine Fisheries Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Massachusetts Division of Fish and Wildlife. They are the people’s gatekeepers, mandated to guard the public trust — agencies with the authority to change to the generations-old crippling conditions here in Massachusetts.

Across 45 years of tracking fish runs passing upstream at successive dams on the Connecticut, shad counts have averaged 315,369 at Holyoke, 17,579 at Turners Falls, and just 9,299 at the Vernon Dam in Vermont. But recently long-term federal and state studies on passage and juvenile survival for American shad have led to new minimum benchmarks for fish passage at each dam to ensure the long-term survival of the river’s runs.

Using those findings, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, National Marine Fisheries Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the four states have formally adopted new Connecticut River fish passage goals. They include annual minimums of 687,000 shad passing Holyoke, 297,000 passing Turners Falls, and 227,000 at Vernon Dam annually. Those federal and state targets are now part of the public record in the current FERC relicensings. Their implementation would also ensure the endangered shortnose sturgeon gets the flows needed to begin its recovery here.

It’s time to return flow to the Connecticut River below Turners Falls. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer All Rights Reserved.

The time has come for facilities operating and profiting off the life of New England’s river to come into compliance with the laws of the land, including the Supreme Court’s 1872 finding in Holyoke Company v. Lyman, the Anadromous Fish Conservation Act of 1965, the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and a host of others. For the fisheries agencies charged with protecting a river’s bounty, standing up for their implementation is the sole prescription for success in a four-state restoration undertaken when back Lyndon Johnson was president.

By law, by right and by the public trust, the Connecticut River’s time has come.

Karl Meyer has been a member of the Fish & Aquatics Studies Team and an intervener in the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission relicensing process for three Massachusetts facilities on the Connecticut River since 2012. He lives in Greenfield, Massachusetts. Meyer is a member of The Society of Environmental Journalists.

* * FINAL NOTE from the author: if all this history is new and troubling to you it must be considered that: this is the only river in the Northeast with several federal designations that has remained the only major waterway without an independent and effective watchdog–one with a full legal team on staff, and a mandate to investigate, enforce, and go to court. The generations-long mistakes and brutal conditions that have existed here would’ve long ago been challenged in court had there been an effective organization protecting the integrity of this river system. If the Connecticut River is to have a future as a living ecosystem, a new model will have to come into being.

Honoring Peskeomscut

Posted by on 18 May 2020 | Tagged as: American shad, blueback herring, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Deerfield River, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, FERC, FERC licensing process, FirstLight, FirstLight Power, fish passage, Holyoke Dam, Narragansett, Nipmuck, Norwottuck, Peskeomscut, Pocumtuck, Relicensing, Riverside, sea lamprey, shad, The Dead Reach, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls Massacre, Uncategorized

THIS GREAT AND BROKEN RIVER IV

Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Issue # 4: Honoring Peskeomscut


Peskeomscut, Island?
Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer(Click X 3 to enlarge; back arrow to return to text)

At a glance, this could be a photo of a quiet pond in New England. It is not. This is the mid-May, midstream view of an island in the Connecticut River, just 250 yards below the Turners Falls Dam in Massachusetts. With a quick look you might be wondering: where’s the river—and, what island?? This is a chasm and landscape robbed of its water, life and dignity. On any mid-spring day for ages past, thousands of American shad would’ve been pulsing through the rolling froth on both sides of what is a now-erased and bereft island. Today, shad here are not even offered a decent puddle to flop in.

Glancing quickly, you might not have made note of an island. But a closer look reveals a small, tree festooned bump in the center-right background. That site was identified by FirstLight Power as PesKeomscut Island in their initial 2012 application for a new federal hydro license to operate Turners Fall Dam—which is just out of view to the right of this photo. Unfortunately, Turners Falls Dam has been the place where New England’s Great River has died for well over two centuries now.

As far as any real river here?—there’s a just-visible bridge in the upper right, beneath which the mouth of the Fall River is adding a little flow and a tiny bit of froth to the barely-running current in the background. What should be the strong, rolling pulse of the spring Connecticut here should to be pushing downstream from left to right across the entire foreground of this photo. Instead, there’s just a stilled pond. And, yes, that island has been virtually erased. To be an island, you must have water.

On this May 14, 2020, FirstLight has subtracted that main ingredient. At mid-afternoon the Connecticut has been turned off in its own 200 million year-old chasm, robbed of all but a riverlet of dribbling flow. They do that most months out of the year. This spring day all but a tiny percentage of its life-giving current is diverted into FL’s adjacent power canal. The Connecticut is broken here at a place once called Peskeomscut–broken since the first dam stretched across this ancient chasm from Turners Falls to Gill in 1798. That began the 2-1/2 mile reach just downstream that robbed the river of life and flow. It gave rise to a landlocked “island” without a watery moat.

Further out and to the left in the photo, two more humans engage in a leisurely stroll over exposed sand—mid-river at mid-spring, padding over a dry shoal that should be teeming with river life at this season. But not here; not in northern Massachusetts. The place is a desert.

Instead of a life-giving, roaring spring cataract–encircling an inaccessible island, just a salutary wash of water is spilling from the dam above. Peskeomscut Island has been reduced to an abandoned, rocky spit in a parching, emptied chasm.

Looking closely, lower left of center you can make out an angler at the quiet, current-less shore. He might as well be on a pond—migrating American shad won’t find an upstream current deep or strong enough to follow their ancient migratory path toward the lost waterfalls here this day. While downstream, Holyoke Dam had reported 10,000 shad passing there through May 8, Turners Falls Dam had a whopping 38 passing here…

Peskeomscut is an approximate spelling of an Algonquian term used to denote the place where an ancient waterfall, cataract and island anchored the landscape. That place, which teemed with life throughout its annual seasonal cycles back into the mists of time, is today robbed of its soul–deprived of dignity. What, in 2020, should be a restored, thriving, May Connecticut River–full of shad, herring, lamprey eels and frothing currents, is today a drying, emptied bed. Its “island” is simply a rocky spit, easily accessible across the barren, bedrock ledge.


Midstream Peskeomscut 1-1-2018 (Click X 3 to enlarge)
Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer

There is more than a little irony to this site being referenced today in Massachusetts as Turners Falls or the Great Falls. Any visitor here would more than likely find this curving, ancient chasm hollowed out at nearly any month of the year. There rarely are falls to see here. This is a broken place, a starved place. There is something raw and enduring about the injuries perpetrated here year in and year out. The once abundant life of this place is merely an afterthought here, if considered at all.

From Turners Falls Dam downstream to just above the river’s confluence with the Deerfield River, these 2-1/2 miles of the Connecticut are best described as its “Dead Reach.” There is no river in this stretch, just a parching/choking series of on-off flows that alternately starve and inundate what was once a life-filled artery.

In the spring of 2020, this should not be. It should all be the past history of the Great River. The current 52 year-old Federal Energy Regulatory Commission license to operate Turners Falls Dam expired in 2018. But FERC has allowed repeated extensions of that license, in a so-called “5-year” relicensing process that began in 2012. This stilted, corporate-skewed federal process has seen virtually no forward movement for over a year–and will soon be celebrating its 8th birthday. That stale status quo seems to suit FERC and FirstLight–as well as their shareholders, quite nicely. It’s just another abuse in the ongoing nightmare for the central artery of Western New England’s largest ecosystem.

On May 19, 2004, I witnessed a reconciliation ceremony at a park in Montague adjacent to the Connecticut, just above Turners Falls Dam. Local officials, citizens, and representatives from several of the region’s Native American tribes were present. All were there to honor, and attempt to heal the lingering injuries and moldering legacy of a grim injustice committed here in the pre-dawn dark on the morning of May 19, 1676.


Turners Falls Dam and Riverside Massacre Site
Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer(Click X 3 to enlarge, back arrow to return to text)

Just across the river in the Riverside flats of Gill, 160 colonial troops swept down a hillside, firing muskets and stabbing bayonets into the tents of sleeping elders, women, and children of the Narragansett, Nipmuck and Pocumtuck and other peoples—encamped there in a hungry and desperate attempt to harvest fish and plant sustaining corn in their ongoing attempt to defend and keep the territories of their ancient homelands. For the colonists, it was a grim and successful slaughter of hundreds of defenseless Indians. For the indigenous tribes, though their surprise counter attack quickly sent the blood-bathed attackers into a chaotic, F-Troop rout, the loss of life ultimately proved a spirit and soul crushing disaster.

On this May 19th, 2020, much of the signaled healing and reconciliation of 16 years back seems to remain orphaned on the 344th anniversary of the Turners Falls Massacre. The wounds of that day are yet present. And, the later and ongoing theft of a river’s life-giving current–begun with that 1798 dam, still remains in place. The Connecticut here is–most days, an emptied and soulless place. It is long past time for the life and lives lost at Peskeomscut–and some of what is still missing as well, to see the beginning of a long overdue restoration. The river belongs to the people. Some of that healing must begin with water. Water is where life begins…

Issue # 3: The River Emptied at Spring

Posted by on 13 May 2020 | Tagged as: American shad, Bellows Falls VT, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Endangered Species Act, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeion, FERC, FERC license, FirstLight, Greenfield Recorder, Holyoke Dam, Holyoke Fish Lift, migratory fish, Narragansett, Nipmuck, Northfield Mountain, Norwottuck, Pocumtuck, Rock Dam, Rock Dam Pool, shad, Silvio O. Conte Connecticut River National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, Turner Falls Massacre, Turners Falls, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, US Geological Survey's Conte Fish Lab, USFWS, Vermont, Walpole

THIS GREAT AND BROKEN RIVER III

Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Issue # 3: The River Emptied at Spring

Dismal Mother’s Day flow at Turner’s Falls Dam and Fishway Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer (Click X 3 for closeup, click back arrow to return to text)

It was a grim Mother’s Day weekend for the Connecticut River in Massachusetts. The only current left in the riverbed below Turners Falls Dam amounted to little more than a thin, spreading soup winding a shallow path around successive ridges of drying ledge as it threaded together a downstream path along it’s ancient, impoverished bed. Anyone with a pair of rubber boots could’ve easily walked across the Connecticut just a few hundred feet below that dam without much risk of getting wet to the knees–smack in the middle of fish migration and spawning season in the heart of the Silvio O. Conte Connecticut River National Fish and Wildlife Refuge.

There’s something soulless in starving a river of its flow—particularly in the spring when the shadbush is in bloom, the columbine have sprouted, and the fish are in the river. This year, with the corona virus draining spirits and sapping energy during March and April, the presence of a living river in Western New England’s back yard was something to anticipate come May. The light returned, the trees were in flower, birds were making music, and energy use was in its usual seasonal retreat—demand being down ever since a warmer than normal winter.


Days Earlier Flow over Turners Falls Dam May 5, 2020 Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer (Click X 3, back arrow to return to text)

This should have been a promising early May on New England’s Great River. But no–not here in northern Massachusetts–not this Mother’s Day weekend. For migrating American shad seeking a route upstream here, the river was literally a road to nowhere. As of Monday, May 11th, though some 18,000 shad had passed upstream at the Holyoke Fishway, 36 river miles to the south, not a single shad had been tallied managing to pass beyond the grim maze of a power canal and several ladders to emerge above Turners Falls Dam. By Monday not a single migrant from the ocean had been tallied passing that dam–thus none were present moving upstream to open Vermont, New Hampshire and northern Massachusetts habitats. The public has no access to the fishway this year, and FirstLight has not provided a simple video feed for people to see their fish. At Turners Falls, the power company alone, is left to monitor itself and report on the public’s fish.


Shad Anglers below Holyoke Dam May 7, 2020 Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer

But, most grimly again this May, river conditions on Mother’s Day were altogether devastating for federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon attempting to spawn and nurture young in the currents at their ancient Rock Dam spawning pool–a mile and a half downstream of the dam. Vital river flows at a natural basalt, in-stream formation known as Rock Dam–which had been accommodating for spawning sturgeon just a week before, were shut down to the point where the cobble shoals that shelter eggs and developing young were now visible along a receded shoreline.

Hopeful shad anglers from the adjacent USGS Conte Lab and nearby US Fish & Wildlife Service in Sunderland were present to witness the impacts. This year’s potential progeny–at the sturgeon’s only documented natural spawning site in the ecosystem, were once more left to desiccate–starved of life-giving, oxygenating water as the sun warmed the prematurely exposed, rocky shallows. Though not fishing on this Mother’s Day morning, one of the leaders of the local Nolumbeka Project stopped to inquired of me if the sturgeon had been able to successfully spawn this year. I had to tell him no.

For the second year running FirstLight Power had squeezed the bascule gates closed at Turners Fall Dam, leaving just a curtain of a few hundred cubic feet per second (cfs) of flow entering the starved riverbed below Turners Falls Dam. The Federal Energy Regulatory license for FL’s Turners Falls and Northfield Mountain operations expired two years back on April 30, 2018. . Conditions in a new license would have hopefully increased that dribbling flow at the dam by a factor of 20. Grimly, the starving of this Great River is occurring at the exact site where women, children and elders of the Nipmuck, Pocumtuck, Norwottuck and Narragensett People were set upon and slaughtered in their pre-dawn sleep in the Turners Falls Massacre on May 19, 1676.

But FERC stepped in on FirstLight’s behalf, and has now offered two years of license extensions to this Canadian-owned, Delaware-registered company, allowing these grim impacts to continue. In doing so it has now green-lighted these conditions for three consecutive spawning seasons–allowing crippling industrial practices put in place 52 years back to choke the life out of four-state migratory fish runs, and crushing the spawning prospects for those sturgeon–literally the Connecticut’s only federally endangered migratory fish species. This, in an ecosystem that should have had connected and sustaining flows and fish passage upstream to Bellows Falls VT and Walpole NH long ago.

The flows present in the river on Mother’s Day are flows that force endangered sturgeon to default downstream to attempt spawning in the pulsing industrial flows churning out of the Cabot Station powerhouse a half mile downstream. There, any spawned and developing young-of-the-year will have no defense against the scouring-out hydro surges pulsing canal water back into the riverbed below once fertilized young are dispersed in the flows to shelter in rocky shallows .

Those tamped-down Mother’s Day flows from the dam also create conditions that keep American shad in an endless Groundhog Day cycling at Rock Dam–circling and re-circling in the depleted currents at a pool where depths become too shallow to find a flow offering a negotiable upstream path. Anglers sometimes do quite well at this migratory cull-de-sac where agitated, circling shad snap at darts while wasting hours and energy in this suspended-migration.

But those same tamped down flows diverted at TF Dam also cause just-arriving American shad from Holyoke to be led directly to the false upstream currents exiting the power canal at Cabot Station. Sensing that upstream attraction flow, those unlucky fish get drawn into a ponderous and exhausting fish ladder there. There they are diverted entirely out of the riverbed and into a concrete chute where they must attempt to better an impossible series of steps, twists, and turns that will ultimately dump them into the alien and un-river-like environs of the Turners Falls power canal. Once they enter that industrial habitat, many end their upstream migrations altogether, spending weeks in the labyrinth of that walled corridor without finding a way out and upstream.

Grimly, this year was nearly a carbon copy of the brutal conditions visited below Turners Falls the week of Mother’s Day 2019. Last year at this time researchers tallied the largest-ever catch of spawning-run endangered sturgeon gathered at their Rock Dam nursery pool, corralling 48 fish in a morning survey of a biologist’s net. Days later, at the height of shortnose spawning season, FirstLight abruptly cut off life giving flows to the site. Those same banks and cobbles were exposed, and the spawning run sturgeon were sent packing—forced to abandon the site, with any embryos and young that might have proved viable left withering in the shallows.


FL’s Locked Entrance at Cabot Woods & Rock Dam mid-afternoon May 5, 2020 Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer

You might have expected more from FirstLight this year. This is a Canadian shareholder company seeking a new federal license to operate these facilities on the Connecticut River in Massachusetts after recently re-registering them in Delaware as tax shelters. But, now that FERC continues to allow them to profit off the grim and antiquated tenets of a license written under the Federal Power Commission 52 years ago, they seem in no particular hurry to become relicensed neighbors operating for profit on a four-state US river that is the centerpiece of a National Fish and Wildlife Refuge.

These ongoing grim flow regimes fly in the face of mandates long-ago included in the Endangered Species Act and the Anadramous Fish Conservation Act, here, in the most biologically important and critical habitat in the entire Connecticut River ecosystem. They also feel like a thumbing of the nose at Massachusetts taxpayers—as well as all the deserving citizens in the three states from Montague MA to Walpole NH, who also pay taxes and are certainly entitled to a living river. It is a form of public theft.

As the Connecticut River is left starved, its ancient fish runs foundering, there is no movement to bring to a close the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s “5-year” relicensing process—begun here in 2012 and lingering on, laughably unfinished. The power company continues to pocket profits, while the FERC is led by a stilted and hand-picked majority happy to feed the corporations what they want, to the benefit of foreign shareholders far from New England. Sadly, there is no state or federal environmental agency that appears willing to challenge this endless delay. And, as noted here before—this four-state river lacks a true NGO watchdog with a mission-mandate and staff lawyers protecting it. See The Greenfield Recorder: https://www.recorder.com/New-England-s-great-river-without-a-watchdog-33291778

FISH CAM: Let the People See Their FISH!

Posted by on 05 May 2020 | Tagged as: American shad, blueback herring, Connecticut River, FirstLight, FirstLight Power, FISH CAM, Great River Hydro, Holyoke Dam, Holyoke Fish Lift, migratory fish, Northfield Mountain, sea lamprey, shad, shortnose sturgeon, Turners Falls, Vermont, Vernon Dam Fishway

THIS GREAT AND BROKEN RIVER II

Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Issue # 2, FISH CAM: Let the People See Their FISH!

Covid-19 shouldn’t be an excuse to cancel everything–especially when you owe something to an isolated and deserving public. If you’re a power company profiting from a resource like the Connecticut River, isn’t it just the minimum of responsibility and common courtesy when things are taken away, to offer something in its place? I’m not seeing that on New England’s Great River. But I am certain all will be seeing new electricity bills this month–the companies seeking payment while so many are out of work.

Holyoke Fishway w/Shad Debry sign. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.Click X 3.(NOTE: then hit the BACK BUTTON)

Yet there will be no spring family trips to the River to see the great fish migration through Holyoke Gas & Electric’s viewing windows at the South Hadley Falls. No moms will be receiving a little public relations carnation for visiting there this Mother’s Day. And scores of anglers will go wanting there too. The company-sponsored annual Shad Derby won’t be held on successive weekends this spring either. The Fishway lot at Holyoke Dam will be gated and locked.


TF Fishway Gate Locked. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Click X 3.

Upstream at Turners Falls, FirstLight’s little fish-viewing cavern just above the ancient falls will be locked down tight as well. There will be no family or school program visits; no access to the churning river at its most dynamic season. Just further upstream, FirstLight has closed Barton Cove to all camping, kayak rentals, and hiking. Five miles further on they’ve cancelled all riverboat tours, use of the Riverview boat launch, plus all use of the extensive trail system on FirstLight’s sprawling Northfield Mountain recreation property. It’s quite a cancellation laundry list. They want us safe—noting, as others, the state safety guideline for Covid 19.

Turners Falls Dam, May 25, 2019. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Click X 3.

If you were thinking—maybe a bit further upstream in Vermont you might get to witness the great migration of American shad, sea lamprey and blueback herring at Great River Hydro’s Vernon Dam Fishway, well, you’re again out of luck. The padlock remains on the gates there too. Nobody will be entering that bunker where bubble-filled windows sometimes offer a steady stream of passing shad, and close-up looks at the pulsing gills of lamprey—suctioning mouths glued to the glass, resting a minute before continuing upstream. Only the nesting phoebes in the dark corner of that cavern will have free access in that chained-off place.

Vernon Dam March 19, 2020. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Click X 3.

Phoebe’s nest at Vernon Fishway. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Click X 3.

But don’t these for-profit and shareholder-owned companies have a responsibility to the local citizenry as they bill them to benefit stockholders who likely have no physical and intimate connection to the far-off Connecticut River they profit from? The truth is–the activities they won’t be providing for the public this year because of the Covid virus are actually required by law, as part of their federal and state operating licenses.

Conversely, these companies will not be carrying the payroll obligations for all their seasonal employees. There won’t be fishway guides and Shad Derby officials staffing Holyoke; nor will there be seasonal employees hired and staffing the Turners Falls Fishway, Barton Cove Campground, their kayak rentals—nor staffing and running the riverboat, the Visitors Center, nor staff maintaining those mileS of extensive trails and Riverview Picnic area, nor the Munn’s Ferry camp sites. All closed. That’s a considerable Covid-19 savings, and great loss to a cooped-up public…

TF Fishway, Simple Snapshot–its that easy! Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Click X 3.

Can’t something be done to give the public back their river access in this Covid-skewed spring? Is the public owed nothing more than an electric bill?

Well here’s a suggestion—and it’s not even thinking outside the corporate box. It’s time to offer the public FISH CAM, at each of these privatized falls and fish passage sites on the Connecticut. They fish cams in Virginia, Minnesota and elsewhere—heck, we even have a turn-key-ready version of it that could be hooked up in a minute at the Turners Falls Fishway. There, for decades, the company got great public relations for broadcasting Eagle Cam, a simple camera feed trained on the nest of the Barton Cove eagles and offered to an eager and enthusiastic public audience near and far.

It could be again reinstituted in a heartbeat at Turners Falls. And nobody would have to climb up into the nest to secure a camera—just put a video cam in those fish viewing windows and let the public have the delightful and comforting views of the Connecticut’s great spring migrations, right from the confinement of their homes. Just set it, and forget it. This would be great therapy for all those hungry for diversion and a river connection—and, wonderful for kids and student’s alike. It’s at least something they can do–and they have all the wires and electricity anyone could ever want. Local CCTV stations would surely help get it going at all these river sites, and viewers would likely tune in with grateful enthusiasm.

The Connecticut’s great migratory fish migration is just picking up steam now. Typically the runs begin moving toward peak in the several weeks following Mother’s Day, and continue right through June. Let’s give the public–the moms, dads, and kids something back during this greatly deprived spring. Hey Holyoke Gas & Electric; hey FirstLight—hey, Great River Hydro, please—it’s time to honor those obligations to the public on the public’s river. No excuses while shareholders profit. This is the simplest and quickest way to give just one thing back. With today’s technology you wouldn’t imagine this couldn’t be done by just aiming a laptop at the fish-viewing windows at Holyoke and Vernon, where an Eagle Cam never existed. It’s of out-of-the-box technology, to fulfill just one of the many unoffered public obligations this spring. Zoom in on the fish!

Please, no more telling the folks what won’t be offered or done in this bright season—now’s the time—and the place–and the season, for Fish Cam. If Minnesota and Virginia figured this out years ago, we should have it here on the Connecticut. It should be the standard. It’s a small gesture at a tiny cost–giving back a bit of comfort to those isolated at home or unable to get to the river. It’s a win-win, for all involved. Let the people tune in; let the public see their fish!

THIS GREAT AND BROKEN RIVER

Posted by on 28 Apr 2020 | Tagged as: 5-year FERC licensing process, American shad, Bellows Falls VT, blueback herring, Canada, climate-heating, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River migratory fisheries restoration, ecosystem, Endangered Species Act, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FERC, FirstLight, FirstLight Power, Holyoke Dam, Holyoke Fish Lift, Holyoke Gas & Electric, Massachusetts Division of Fish & Wildlife, Micah Kieffer, migratory fish, National Marine Fisheries Service, New Hampshire, Northfield Mountain, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project, pumped storage, Rock Dam, Rock Dam Pool, shad, shortnose sturgeon, State of Delaware, The Great Eddy, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, US Geological Survey's Conte Fish Lab, Vermont, Vermont Yankee

THIS GREAT AND BROKEN RIVER

Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Issue # 1, First Daylight for an Embattled Run

The tiniest spark of life reentered New England’s Great River on Tuesday, April 21, 2020. According to Ken Sprankle, Connecticut River Project Leader for the US Fish & Wildlife Service, the fish lifts began operating that morning at the Holyoke Dam, 82 miles from the sea. And on that day the first two migrating American shad of the spawning season were lifted upstream.


Holyoke Dam. Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Click x3.

I got that fragile bit of good news on Earth Day, and it was truly a bright spot in what seems a very distant and fragile time for people, ecosystems, and our beleaguered planet. And during this Covid pandemic, while our warming atmosphere is experiencing a brief respite from the particulate pummeling of jets and cars, the Connecticut is being brutalized as catch basin for all the chemicals, chlorine and antibiotics that are currently being flushing out into–and right through, our sewage treatment plants to the River… As such, the Connecticut had little to celebrate on the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day.

Nonetheless those two fish meant there would at least be some vestige of the spring run that once fed river communities for hundreds of miles along this central artery for untold centuries into the past.

It’s the public’s river, and these are the public’s fish. Those are the facts that I always keep in mind whenever I write or speak about the Connecticut. But there’s also this basic tenet for me: a river is a living system; it exists of its own right and its right to survive and thrive should thus be an unquestioned part of its existence. We humans have a moral obligation to protect the life of rivers, just as they have nourished, protected and supported the very ecosystems we’ve relied on for time immemorial.

For me, to kill a river is an immoral act. To flaunt any part of the legal framework that federal and state law has put in place protecting them is both criminal and repugnant. But maybe that’s just me…

Holyoke Dam looking toward Fish Lifts. Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Click x3.

Now two shad aren’t much in many minds, I’ll admit. But what those two shad—likely early males meant, was that the Connecticut had actually become a living river once more. At least a part of it. That tenuous little reconnection was completed when one fat, industrial bucket of river water was pulled from the downstream side of Holyoke Dam and dumped on the upstream side. Two living, blue-green American shad swam out into 35 miles of upstream river that all downstream fish are denied access to for some six months out of every year. That’s way less than a half-living river.

But what that tiny spark meant, more than symbolically was that—on the most basic level, the Connecticut was reopened along a tiny stretch as a true river–a TWO-WAY highway where migrating and resident fish can move both upstream and down as part of this ancient ecosystem highway.

The Holyoke Dam is historic for two reasons: First, it is the barrier at the center of the 1872 landmark US Supreme Court decision in Holyoke Company v. Lyman that established that dam owners and operators must provide passage for migratory fish—both upstream, and downstream, of their barriers. Second, though imperfect and of the simplest most basic design—i.e. upstream, in-river attraction flows leading migrating fish to be corralled in a closeable, industrial bucket and lifted over the dam–those Holyoke Fish lifts have remained the most successful fish passage on the entire East Coast since 1955.

For the next few months Holyoke’s industrial buckets will facilitate a stuttering recreation of the former Connecticut as a living, 2-way river while American shad, sea lamprey, shortnose sturgeon and blueback herring attempt to access ancient spawning grounds. For many that open habitat reaches all the way to the dam between Bellows Falls VT and Walpole NH–nearly 90 miles upriver. That ancient destination, however, remains a cruel impossibility for all but a fortunate few migrants…

The Great Eddy at Bellows Falls Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Click x 3.

Once again this spring the vast majority of those hundreds of thousands of fish passing upstream at Holyoke will be thwarted from reaching the wide open spawning habitat anywhere above the Turners Falls Dam. That dam sits just 35 miles upstream of the Holyoke lifts. It’s an easy swim for most– just a day, maybe two.

But once they approach that river reach and barrier there won’t be accommodating riverbed flows or any lifts offering suitable passage upstream. They’ll encounter vacillating, confused flows and a series of obstacle-filled fish ladders that funnel all migrants into the grim habitats of the Turners Falls power canal before any get an outside chance to squeeze past the dam itself. Most never do. Perhaps one fish in ten will succeed–leaving the next 68 miles of Connecticut River habitat impoverished and all but empty of its ancient migrants.

And for shortnose sturgeon, one of this river’s most ancient species and the only federally-endangered migrant in this ecosystem, prospects are yet more dire. With the actual riverbed in the 2 miles below Turners Falls Dam sporadically deluged and emptied of suitable natural current, these fish are all vulnerable to being again robbed of what should be an annual, slam-dunk spawning aggregation at their only documented natural spawning site in the ecosystem–the Rock Dam in Turners Falls. Another season will go by without life-giving mandated flows to this critical habitat due an absence of enforcement protection and license requirements.

Of course, that was to have changed two years back.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission licenses for operation of the Turners Falls/Cabot Station hydro sites and the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project expired two years back on April 30, 2018. New flows and fish passage requirements should have been re-nourishing the endlessly pummeled and impoverished river in the beleaguered miles above and below Turners Falls Dam since that time. However, for the crippled run here, there is literally nothing new. Fish at Turners Falls today are almost as effectively blocked from moving upstream into Vermont, New Hampshire and northern Massachusetts waters as they were when the first dam across the Connecticut there blocked these runs beginning in 1798.

Today, the crushing suck-and-surge impacts of Northfield Mountain’s net-energy-loss, peak-price/peak-demand operations continue brutalizing the grimmest 10 miles in the entire ecosystem–cannibalizing the river’s fish runs and chewing through young-of-the-year. Pumped storage is not renewable energy, nor is it anything like the conventional river hydropower much of the public thinks it generates. Northfield Mountain consume vast amounts of virgin electricity from the grid here—most if it generated through imported natural gas, to pump the Connecticut backwards and a mile uphill. NMPS is in reality an energy consumer. It’s massive pull off the grid gets tallied in negative megawatts.

Today, the revival and protection of those long-ago, lawfully mandated runs remains stuck at Turners Falls and Northfield Mountain. The so-called FERC 5-year Integrated Licensing Process(ILP) that should have given them their two basic necessities for survival—water, and a safe, timely route upstream and down, actually began in the fall of 2012. It drags on to this day.

The day after FirstLight at long-last submits its final license application for examination to FERC–and the federal fisheries agencies with conditioning authority on the Connecticut, it will be September. September signals the beginning of the 9th year this supposed stream-lined FERC ILP has been malingering on this river system. FirstLight left off negotiations over a year ago with the US Fish & Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, and the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife for required new river conditions and construction of fish lifts. There has been no movement since that time.

Any delay in the construction of a fish lift at Turners Falls, and the requirement for real, life-sustaining flows in the riverbed, benefits this recently-arrived power company. Their interest is in stakeholder and corporate profit—and this is a Canadian-owned outfit that re-registered all of these assets out of Massachusetts, chopping them into a series of tax sheltered Delaware LLCs in late-2018. FERC continues to allow FL “extensions of time” to make their license-required filings, delaying what have long-been federally required mandates for river and migratory fish protections.


The de-watered Rock Dam Pool where shortnose sturgeon attempt to spawn, just after 6:00 a.m., May 17, 2019. Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Click x 3.

FL is now citing that restructuring as another reason for delay in submitting their “final license application” until August 31, 2020—that’s two years and four months of operating and profiting from a destructive and river de- pauperizing extended license. The current extension still requires only 400 cubic feet per second to be released into the Connecticut River bed in the spring migration season through which shad attempt to move upstream in—and embattled,federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon attempt to spawn in. That’s the equivalent of substituting a small brook for a river. Sturgeon spawning fails at the Rock Dam site most years, often caused by the abrupt ratcheting of those spring flows down to little more than that trickle.

Studies and investigations by the federal fish agencies show that a massive increase in sustained spring flows are baseline requirements for a living river here. Last year n the first week of May spring flows of some 10,000 cubit feet per second were coursing down the Connecticut’s “dead reach” here–and right through the Rock Dam pool. Shad anglers were landing fish by the dozen. On May 10, 2019, USGS Conte Lab researcher Micah Kieffer put out a research net overnight in that pool. Then next morning he found 48 federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon weighing it down—the largest aggregation ever recorded there. Kieffer continued his successful sturgeon netting through the following week, until coming up empty on Friday, May 17, 2019. He got “skunked” that day after flows through the Rock Dam reach were abruptly cut by FL to a relative trickle, exposing the cobble-lined shores of that pool where embryos and young develop.

Clearly, those 10,000 cfs flows are what are necessary to restore life to this river. They are required and long overdue—at a season when electricity demand is at some of its lowest points in the year.

The first year license extension by FERC was allowed because of the shuttering of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant upstream. VY’s excessive, night nuclear megawatts were the grim, 40 year engine that enabled Northfield Mountain to suck the river into reverse and pump it up into a 4 billion gallon reservoir to later re-create second-hand electricity at high prices.

Now restructured, FL appears in no hurry to move ahead with new licenses. Their study results have often been delayed in being handed over to the federal fisheries agencies and study teams in this relicensing–or handed in on the very last day the process requires. They seem happy to tread water and realize profits–while NMPS’s fish-eating, net-energy loss operations continue running along, largely fueled via the imported, climate-scorching, natural gas generated electricity now bloating the grid.

The longer you don’t have to put a shovel in the ground or give this US River its flows for federally-required fish passage, the more money you keep. It’s time FERC stopped letting them off the hook. Stop stringing this process along. It’s time this river was brought into compliance with 1872’s Holyoke Company v. Lyman; it’s time to comply with the federal Endangered Species Act of 1973. It is the public’s river; these are the public’s fish.

Addendum: on Friday, April 24th, USFWS’s Ken Sprankle sent a note that the Holyoke Gas & Electric had shut down its fish lifts due to accumulating debris in its assembly. They would not operate through the weekend, and a fix would be attempted on Monday. Thus, the Connecticut became a one-way stream again anywhere above South Hadley Falls, leaving the next 88 empty miles of river still in midst of an endless vigil–awaiting the migratory runs guaranteed by the Supreme Court 148 years ago. Hopefully, for those migrating shad—and perhaps other early migrants wasting another week’s precious spawning-energy reserves while knocking on Holyoke’s door, those lifts are again operating and in full motion today.

Why no FISH?, STILL???

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visit the Rock Dam: endangered sturgeon sanctuary

Posted by on 05 Apr 2019 | Tagged as: Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Dr. Boyd Kynard, endangerd shortnose sturgeon, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, FERC, FirstLight, Holyoke Dam, Holyoke Fish Lift, Holyoke Gas & Electric, Northfield Mountain, Relicensing, Rock Dam, Rock Dam Pool, shad, shad larvae, shortnose sturgeon, Turners Falls, Turners Falls dam


Photo Copyright © 2019 by Karl Meyer. All Rights Reserved. (Click, then click twice more to enlarge).

On Sunday, April 14; 10:30 a.m. in Turners Falls you can join sturgeon expert Dr. Boyd Kynard and myself for a short hike to an exceptional and beleaguered aquatic refuge on the Connecticut River. This is a fragile sanctuary that endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon and other species have used as a spawning and rearing refuge for thousands of years.

Today, industrial depredations that result in dribble-and-surge, see-saw flows in the riverbed continually threaten the spawning success of the only federal- and state- endangered migratory fish in this ecosystem. Another looming threat are pods of lumbering rafts, rafters and kayakers with nascent plans to repeatedly surf the single and brief rapid here–landing in fragile habitat, and dragging boats upstream through wetlands and cobbles for endless joy rides.

Photo Copyright © 2019 by Karl Meyer. All Rights Reserved. (Click, then click twice more to enlarge).

Dr. Kynard recounts the shortnose sturgeon’s complex biology centered on this site and his results from decades of sturgeon research at the Rock Dam pool. Meyer gives an overview of this embattled river reach, including geology and human and industrial history. Free.

No pre-registration necessary. Meet at public lot off G Street in Turners Falls, near USGS Conte Fish Lab sign. Includes brief, steep, rugged terrain; not handicapped accessible. Walk best suited for ages 10 and above. Heavy rain cancels.

ALSO of note on the river, Holyoke Gas & Electric was scheduled to start running the fish lifts at South Hadley Falls on April 1st to begin passing this year’s migration of sturgeon, shad, lamprey and herring. As usual, the lifts were not readied in time, and the strongest, most eager migrants are treading water for a full week without upstream access. They are said to begin lifting fish next week, but flows have now come up, which may be an excuse for further delay.

Photo Copyright © 2019 by Karl Meyer. All Rights Reserved. (Click, then click twice more to enlarge).

Meanwhile, as the federal relicensing process for Northfield Moutain and Turners Falls embarks on it SEVENTH year, both FERC and FirstLight appear in no hurry to see the process conclude. Thus, a beleaguered ecosystem and embattled fish and habitats remain starved of their legally required protections.

Photo Copyright © 2019 by Karl Meyer. All Rights Reserved. (Click; then click twice more to enlarge).

Justice for New England’s Embattled River

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


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

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

Copyright © 2019 by Karl Meyer. All Rights Reserved.

Justice for New England’s Embattled River

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

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

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

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

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

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

Results from a Connecticut River study released last June by the US Fish & Wildlife Service and MA Fisheries & Wildlife estimated that NMPS’s 2017 operations resulted in losses of some 15 million shad eggs and larvae, plus the deaths of between 1 and 2-1/2 million juvenile shad. That’s for just one species.

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

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

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

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

Karl Meyer has been a stakeholder and member of the Fish and Aquatics Study Team in the current FERC relicensing process for the Northfield Mountain and Turners Falls projects since 2012. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

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

Karl Meyer: Connecticut River dam owners pulling a fast one

CONNECTICUT RIVER ALERT: FERC deadline looms

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

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

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

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

The Broken Connecticut

Posted by on 09 Oct 2018 | Tagged as: American shad, Clean Water Act, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, EPA, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federal trust fish, FERC, FirstLight, Northfield Mountain, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Reservoir, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, pumped storage, Relicensing, shad, Uncategorized


Copyright © 2018 by Karl Meyer. All Rights Reserved

Eight years ago, almost to the day, this is how the Connecticut River in front of the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage intake looked. (Click, then Click twice more)

The owners were under sanction from the EPA and had been scrambling for months to suction the mountain of reservoir silt they’d illegally dumped directly into the Connecticut after massively botching their reservoir de-watering and clean-out.Northfield remained inoperable from May 1st through early November. To minimize the reactivation of silt they’d already fouled the river with, they set up a ponderously long silt curtain–supposed to keep their gunk in place. Below, is how their silt-safety set-up looked on July 20, 2010 (Click, the Click twice more)

However, if you look at how effectively that sanctioned-solution was when employed-by–and deployed by the company, you would have to look at this photo below from October 2, 2010. (Click, then Click twice)

The sole solution FirstLight has proposed in these FERC proceedings to prevent the suctioning deaths of millions of juvenile shad–and that’s disregarding their round-the-year evisceration of adult and young fish of dozens of species, is to place a barrier net across the mouth of their giant suction and slice pumped storage contraption. This, for the next several decades, would be like putting a band-aid on a massively severed artery. If they couldn’t keep a net in place in the river when Northfield was sanctioned NOT pumping at all, what gives anyone the idea that this bit of window dressing will be of any service to a broken river system at all.

Since FirstLight is proposing to suck more water out of the river to suck into that reservoir, why not trade that money-making scheme for having NFMT shut down at key seasons to comply with the law and protect the Public Trust.

In delivering the 1872 Supreme Court’s decision in Holyoke Company vs. Lyman, Justice Nathan Clifford entered the following into his decision:

“Ownership of the banks and bed of the stream, as before remarked, gives to the proprietor the exclusive right of fishery, opposite his land, as well as the right to use the water to create power to operate mills, but neither the one nor the other right nor both combined confer any right to erect obstructions in the river to prevent the free passage of the fish up and down the river at their accustomed seasons.”

In deciding against the dam owners who had repeatedly refused to construct fish passage at their dam as settled law in the Commonwealth had long required, the Court made upstream and downstream passage of the public’s fish a precedent and legal right in rivers throughout the United States.

“Fish rights below a dam, constructed without passageways for the fish, are liable to be injured by such a structure as well as those owned above the dam, as the migratory fish, if they cannot ascend to the head waters of the stream at their accustomed seasons will soon cease to frequent the stream at all, or in greatly diminished numbers.”

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