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REIMAGINING A RIVER: The Year without Northfield Mountain

Posted by on 01 Jun 2020 | Tagged as: American shad, Clean Water Act, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Connecticut River Coordinator, Connecticut River pollution, Connecticut River Watershed Council, CRASC, Daily Hampshire Gazette, EPA, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, FirstLight, fish passage, Gary Sanderson, Greenfield, hatchery, Holyoke Dam, ISO New England, Larry Parnass, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, migratory fish, Northfield Mountain, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Reservoir, Old Saybrook CT, pumped storage, Riverkeeper, salmon, salmon hatchery, The Daily Hampshire Gazette, The Greenfield Recorder, The Recorder, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Environmental Protection Agency, USFWS

THIS GREAT AND BROKEN RIVER VII

Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Issue # 7, Part 1, REIMAGINING A RIVER: The Year without Northfield Mountain


Sunderland Bridge over the Connecticut. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. (Click X 3 to enlarge, back arrows to return to text)

AUTHOR’S NOTE: I have found it difficult to write these past days. I am heartsick for my country. Are we to be a fair, generous and courageous people, or just a collection of frightened, soulless bystanders? What world do we want our children to grow up into? I have not been without a few tears at times over the past week. But, I know that good work and living rivers benefit all; they do not hate, judge, murder, or discriminate. So, noting that all of us have some heart-work to do, I continue here, with this also…

On May 1, 2010, I began a 5-day cycling trip from Greenfield MA, downstream to Long Island Sound and back again along the Connecticut River. I set out by bike to highlight and blog about the massively wasteful and misplaced emphasis on the forever-failed, hatchery-produced, 40 year-old salmon program for the river. Meanwhile, across the preceding decade, the formerly growing and robust American shad runs had concurrently experienced precipitous declines in fish passage returns at Holyoke Dam. More importantly, the shad run was literally flirting with extinguishment upstream of the Turners Falls Dam.


Miserable shad tally board at TF Fishway, 2007. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. (Click X 3 to enlarge, back arrows to return to text)

The plunge at Turners Falls had taken hold pretty much simultaneously with the implementation of newly-legislated electricity deregulation in Massachusetts. It gave owners of the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station a license to unleash new, lucrative and disruptive flow regimes in the river—just 5 miles upstream of Turners Falls Dam. Ironically, that same May Day when I left for the mouth of the river, was the day that Northfield Mountain was scheduled to shut down to begin mucking out the decade’s worth of silt and muck they’d inhaled up into their 4-billion gallon mountaintop reservoir.


Cyclist’s Shad Dinner, Saybrook CT. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. (Click X 3 to enlarge, back arrows to return to text)

Unbeknownst to me–and to NMPS management, once they shut down and started draining their reservoir that net energy loss contraption would not suction the river again for over half a year. They broke their regenerating plant; their muck half-filling the mile-long tunnels connecting it to the river. FirstLight then tried to hide their plight and the evidence as they turned around and massively polluted the river for months. That came to an abrupt halt when the EPA(remember them?) issued a “Cease and Desist” order against them extensive violations of the Clean Water Act.

But, a great upshot benefit soon came into focus: with the river not suctioned and ramping up-and-down at Northfield, successful fish passage at Turners Falls Dam jumped back to well over 400% over 2009 totals–leaping to 16,422 shad passing in 2010(though likely significantly more, since FirstLight’s fish counting software was curiously ‘inoperable’ on 17 different days that spring), while just 3,813 shad squeezed past Turners Falls in 2009. Overall, that 2010 rise peaked at over 500% above that decade’s previous passage averages there. I returned to Greenfield on May 5, 2010, and learned of NMPS’s disastrous de-watering that same afternoon. It was of great interest, but its significance wouldn’t be understood for weeks until the unusual and increasing shad tallies passing Turners began coming in.

Just 3 years earlier, after spending over half a decade working at the Northfield Mountain Recreation Center (where I’d even for a time been secretary for the Safety Committee up inside the pumped storage power plant), I quit. The dismal shad runs, just downstream, were chewing on my soul.


Lynde Pt. Light at the River’s Mouth, Old Saybrook CT. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. (Click X 3 to enlarge, back arrows to return to text)

By that May of 2010, I’d been doing part-time work for the Connecticut River Watershed Council for a few years. I immediately informed the Council of Northfield’s predicament when I got back. Sadly, I then had to watch their back-seat, kid-gloves handling of an opportunity to prosecute and hold the power company responsible for massive pollution. They stayed quietly in the background, letting the Massachusetts DEP and MA Div. of Fish & Wildlife take charge of holding FirstLight’s feet to the fire. It was a massive opportunity to begin taking on the gross daily river depredations of Northfield Mountain, but it was mostly just squandered here in Massachusetts.

The Commonwealth and MA Fish & Wildlife did little, though some effort by MA DEP and Natural Heritage ultimately bargained for a study of erosion effects on endangered dragonflies as some sort of restitution. I later felt compelled to quit the Watershed Council, which I did five months later. They weren’t players, likely because their board was full of former power company managers and folks still working as consultants, who might see some power company contract work in the future. It was just wrong that–as one of the oldest river organizations on the East Coast, they didn’t have a single lawyer on staff, nor have a mission that mandated enforcement. This was no Riverkeeper.

It wasn’t really until early that June that I began to realize the full ramifications of Northfield’s shutdown. Fish passage numbers just began creeping higher and higher at Turners Falls. I attended a June 22nd meeting of the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission (CRASC)—the Congressionally-authorized fed/state fisheries organization charged with managing and protecting migratory fish on the Connecticut. I asked the agency reps if they’d noticed the numbers and whether they’d been doing any studies on the relationship between the big shad passage at Turners and the turbine disaster upstream at Northfield. “We haven’t looked at it,” said a relatively new USFWS Connecticut River Coordinator Ken Sprankle.


Jilted American shad flashes CRASC attendees at the TF Power Canal. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. (Click X 3 to enlarge, back arrows to return to text)

Even then, I was as yet unaware that NMPS was STILL not operating. But I got a curious look from FirstLight’s Bob Stira, also in attendance, when I posed that question. That look–and the immediate notice of the shutdown of Northfield Mountain’s reservoir trails that same afternoon, is what soon sent me on a recon trip with a camera up to that reservoir. I started crunching numbers and writing. On a Sunday morning one week later I found an unposted back woods trail up to the reservoir, and there was the whole story.

Days earlier, I’d independently handed over some initial fish passage numbers and gave a few pointed quotes in an email to Gary Sanderson, sports and outdoors editor at The Recorder. Gary enthusiastically included them in his column along with his own comments. The following week, after FirstLight’s sudden and inexplicable closure of trails leading to the reservoir–plus immediately moving their riverboat tour boarding site from Northfield down to Barton Cove in Gill, I snuck up and took a photo of that emptied reservoir with two fat earth movers sitting silent in the silt-filled bed.


Emptied Northfield Mountain Reservoir. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. (Click X 3 to enlarge, back arrows to return to text)

Their riverboat got moved downriver to hide from the public the chocolate colored river that Northfield’s dumping was creating at intake tunnels next to the Riverview dock site. The silt cloud reached all the way down to the French King Bridge.


Muck-plagued Connecticut River beneath the French King Bridge. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. (Click X 3 to enlarge, back arrows to return to text)

In late June, Daily Hampshire Gazette Editor Larry Parnass ran my rather telling Northfield Reservoir photo above my expository OpEd bringing to light the disaster there–and the surprise fish passage bonanza occurring at Turners Falls Dam. It wasn’t until the first week of August that the EPA finally stepped in to order FirstLight to cease and desist. They’d been dumping the equivalent of 40-50 dump truck loads of reservoir muck directly into the Connecticut for over 90 straight days. That EPA order would keep Northfield shutdown well into November.

Despite Northfield’s claims of the usefullness of its daily input, and the touted critical emergency readiness of their net-energy loss machine to the grid, no one in New England went without electricity in the long months their river-strangling contraption was lifeless. The only mourners during its 7 month coma appeared to be two climate-change cheerleaders: ISO-New England and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Yet even during a long hot summer–one in which Vermont Yankee shut down for a week to refuel, everyone had essential power. The public didn’t miss Northfield, the shad run blossomed, and a river came back to life.

Who is protecting New England’s Great River??

Posted by on 15 Jul 2019 | Tagged as: Connecticut River migratory fisheries restoration, Conte National Fish & Wildlife Refuge, ecosystem, Endangered Species Act, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federal trust fish, federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeion, FERC, FirstLight Power, Fish and Aquatics Study Team, limited liability corporation, LLC, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, Rock Dam, Rock Dam Pool, shortnose sturgeon, Society of Environmental Journalists, State of Delaware, The Daily Hampshire Gazette, The Greenfield Recorder, Treasury Board of Canada, Turners Falls dam, US Fish & Wildlife Service, US Geological Survey, US Geological Survey's Conte Fish Lab, USFWS

The following piece appeared in The Greenfield Recorder on June 27, 2019, and in the Daily Hampshire Gazette on July 17, 2019. The original title ran as “Sturgeon Revival on the Connecticut.” www.recorder.com, www.gazettenet.com .
Ruined Rock Dam spawning and nursery site on May 17, 2019. At upper left is one of the extremely sensitive island habitats that rafters repeatedly trammeled. NOTE: Click, then click twice more to enlarge. Photo Copyright © 2019 by Karl Meyer, All Rights Reserved.

Story, Copyright © 2019 by Karl Meyer. All Rights Reserved.

Something remarkable occurred below Turners Falls this May: four dozen federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon were discovered at their embattled spawning and nursery site–the largest documented aggregation since long-term research began there in 1992.

In the afternoon of May 8, 2019 when US Geological Services biologist Micah Kieffer walked down to the river near the Silvio O. Conte Anadromous Fish Research Center, he got a surprise “burp” on the receiver he carried. That meant just one thing: a radio-tagged sturgeon was nearby. Since early spring consistent high flows had coursed down the riverbed—a rarity in the oft-emptied, 3-mile reach below the Turners Falls Dam controlled by FirstLight Power. Kieffer hustled back to the USGS Lab, gathering armloads of equipment and securing a boat. By nightfall he’d set out nets, hoping to find a few sturgeon where they’ve likely spawned for thousands of years–a unique, cobble-bottomed pool downstream of the dam.

The big shock came first thing next morning. Weighing down the nets were 48 squirming, 2-3 foot long, endangered sturgeon–one female “running eggs”; the males all running sperm. Kieffer worked quickly to catalogue each fish; returning all to the current. Across a quarter century of intensive federal research started under Amherst’s Dr. Boyd Kynard and continuing under Kieffer, this was a critical discovery near a place called Rock Dam—which hosts a single, tiny rapid. That site is critical to the shortnose’ recovery—it’s a unique biological refuge, and their only documented natural spawning site in the ecosystem.

Life-giving spring flows have been rare below Turners Falls Dam for nearly a half century. Most years currents get violently see-sawed up and down and diverted in and out of the riverbed at that dam via computers operated from inside the 1972 Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, seven miles upstream. Those disruptions help service the massive water and energy appetite of Northfield’s pumped storage electricity regeneration and resale regime. Most years spawning success for this 200 million year-old sturgeon species fails at Rock Dam. That flow chaos has also long-handicapped the stalled, four-state federal Connecticut River Cooperative Fisheries Restoration for shad and herring here.

But this year, nourishing high flow continued through that critical biological reach right into the height of shortnose spawning season—which extends to late May. Operating with minimal staff, Kieffer again managed to anchor “day-set” nets in the river on May 15th and 16th. He got 11sturgeon on each of those days. But when nets were set again on May 17th he suddenly found himself skunked.
Exposed, dewatered shoals in shortnose sturgeon spawning and nursery habitat below Rock Dam.
Photo Copyright © 2019 by Karl Meyer. All Rights Reserved. Click x3 to ENLARGE>

At 7:30 on the morning of May 17th, just a single gate spilled a thin stream of water into the channel below Turners Falls Dam. Though river flows had been slowly subsiding, when FirstLight pinched those gates shut they were pulling the plug on spawning flows. According to Dr. Boyd Kynard in his 2012 book, Life History and Behavior of Connecticut River Shortnose and Other Sturgeons, “Flow reductions that occurred while fish were spawning at RockD caused SNS to leave the area, and after females left, they did not later return to RockD spawning habitat.” What’s worse, that abrupt tamp-down dewatered the cobble bottom and shoals below Rock Dam where spawned eggs and embryos shelter and develop through June. It’s deadly.

Later that morning two gates were opened, re-ramping currents in the river. Over the ensuing days US Fish & Wildlife Service representatives noted gates alternately waffling flows up and down in sturgeon spawning time—from two open, down to one; later up to three. Perhaps encouraged by those settings, on May 29th a rafting company was seen repeatedly sending loaded, lumbering rafts over Rock Dam and walking them up onto sensitive island habitats.

FirstLight and those commercial rafters have long been apprised and legally aware of the presence of endangered sturgeon—federal studies are part of the relicensing record here. Liability is spelled out under the Endangered Species Act. A single act of interference with a federally endangered sturgeon carries a penalty of $49,000 and possible jail time. Those dam settings resulted in grim biological conditions at a time FirstLight should have been exercising utmost care: this was in the midst of their providing experimental flows from the dam to fulfill license requirements for migrating shad while meeting sturgeon spawning needs.

This December, FirstLight reregistered their Northfield and Turners Falls facilities in a series of tax-sheltered, limited liability corporations in the State of Delaware. As a venture capital firm, parent-owned by the Treasury Board of Canada, they’re seeking a new federal license to operate on this U.S. River in our Commonwealth for decades to come. This critical reach should not become a cash-cow playground for corporate shareholders or joyriding rafters. It’s time to celebrate the shortnose sturgeon, and time to let a river heal.

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.