The Greenfield Recorder

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CONNECTICUT RIVER: maybe not left for DEAD after all

Posted by on 04 May 2021 | Tagged as: American shad, Anadromous Fish Conservation Act, Andrew Fisk, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Connecticut River Watershed Council, Conte National Fish & Wildlife Refuge, CRC, Daniel McKiernan: Director MA Division of Marine Fisheries, Delaware LLC, Eversource, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federal trust fish, FERC, FirstLight, Julie Crocker, Kathleen Theoharides, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, Martin Suuberg, Martin Suuberg: Commissioner MA Department of Environmental Protection, Massachusetts DEP, Massachusetts Division of Fish & Wildlife, National Marine Fisheries Service, NMFS, Northfield Mountain, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, P-2485, Ron Amidon: Commissioner MA Dept. of Fish and Game, Source to Sea Cleanup, State of Delaware, The Greenfield Recorder, Traprock Center for Peace and Justice, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS, Wendi Weber

CONNECTICUT RIVER: maybe not left for DEAD after all

Following the Great Earth Week Walk for River Survival to the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project on April 24th, it’s been inspiring to see people publicly raising their voices to pull the grim, daily carnage of that power-hungry machine out from the shadows. One of particular insight was written by Susan Olmsted and appeared in The Recorder on April 30:
https://www.recorder.com/my-turn-olmsted-NorthfieldHydroStation-40211638 . Later, Ms. Olmsted relayed those same points into the public record of Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s relicensing comments for the Northfield docket: FERC P-2485. Those are the routes to raising the public profile of our endlessly crippled River—its fate all but buried under confidentiality agreements and generations of inaction by the responsible agencies and so-called protectors. They all continue to lay low in a process that will decide our river’s ultimate viability for decades.


At the NMPS Intake. Photo Copyright © 2021 by James Smethurst

I again must thank the Traprock Center for Peace and Justice and Anna Gyorgy for organizing the event. Having written about this broken river for decades, and now having served on the Fish and Aquatics Study Team in this endless FERC process since 2012, it was an honor to speak up for the river with a caring and determined crowd in attendance. As I’ve noted to several people, last October I witnessed MA Energy Secretary Kathleen Theoharides and Watershed Council/Conservancy Director Andy Fisk launch a PR canoe tour for elected officials–directly upstream of the killer suction pipes of Northfield. In grim, self-serving fashion neither stepped up to the TV cameras or spoke with attendant reporters to proclaim, “This thing is our river’s greatest killer, it should be closed; this company, FirstLight, wholly re-registered these holdings out of state into Delaware as tax shelters two years back—they have no business here.” Shame on them both.

Watershed Council/CRC Director Andy Fisk, in vest, Chairs the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission 12/10/2018

BTW, we spoke at some depth on the Walk about the NU/Eversource building-of, and current massive connections to NMPS–and also the long-standing financial and Source to Sea greenwashing links between the Watershed Council/Conservancy and Eversource? Well, here’s a little late-breaking Eversource monopoly news: https://www.eenews.net/stories/1063731537

Personally, I would feel I’d failed our Great River, this ecosystem and coming generations had I never stood in front of this killer to bear witness to the truth. NMPS is a killer, and no configuration that leaves its grim sucking mouth open for ANY part of the year will retrieve it from being the most lethal machine ever deployed on the Connecticut. After so many years I am grateful that I had that opportunity–to stand up with other people and keep faith with our river–and link with those who will depend on its living waters in the future.


Revival Walk Crowd April 24, 2021 Photo Copyright © 2021 by David Keith

I don’t think a single person in attendance that day believes the snake-oil logic for continuing NMPS: that wasting massive amounts of energy to actually pull a river backward for miles–sucking 100s of millions of fish to their deaths as it wrenches its deadened water up a mountain, will ever be any kind energy “clean” or “green” solution on a heating-up planet whose ecosystems are unraveling. FirstLight’s will merely continue the laying-waste to our long-crippled river. It has nourished life here for millennia; they want to trade that in for their few hours of peak-priced energy.


MA Secretary of Energy & Environmental Affairs Kathleen Theoharides talks to the media–just yards away from Northfield’s deadly intake on a fluff PR tour on the river, October 2020. Photo Copyright © 2021 by Karl Meyer

It’s important to remember that this machine’s emplacement ran counter to one of the most significant landmark environmental decisions ever from the US Supreme Court, centered right here on the Connecticut River in 1872. In Holyoke Company v. Lyman the Court decided private operators of dams and facilities on the Connecticut—and thence, for all rivers, must provide safe upstream and downstream passage for migratory fish. Nearly 150 years later, this machine continues crushing millions of migratory fish—among them federal trust American shad, blueback herring and American eels. That killing occurs for eggs, larvae, juveniles and adult fish across the many months of their full migratory life cycles.

With the presence of a real watchdog, NMPS’s illegal presence never would have arisen here. There were decades to have sued for its shutdown. Today, neither its operation–nor FirstLight’s thin mitigation proposal to put up a partial, temporary net across its mouth annually that might spare some adult shad and eels from its suction just two months out of their killing year, even remotely passes the smell test for legal operation in a US Fish & Wildlife Refuge.

Raising public voices and flushing the buried dealings in this race-to-the-bottom FERC relicensing process is now the key to having some real impact in saving the Connecticut.

This Great River still feeds bodies and souls. It’s been struggling for well over half a century without an entity taking on the necessary mandate to “enforce” and take on the employ of a day-to-day legal team worthy of facing down predator corporations. This is an ecosystem destined to failure if citizens stay on the sidelines. But people are getting it; and standing up. Maybe this critical life-line of a river can be revived for the coming half century, to again nourish those of the future.

WORTH NOTING: Massachusetts and federal agency officials responsible for securing a living Connecticut River for your great, great, grand kids–upstream and down, through to Vermont and New Hampshire:

Kathleen Theoharides: Sec. of MA Energy & Environmental Affairs
Martin Suuberg: Commissioner MA Department of Environmental Protection
Ron Amidon: Commissioner MA Dept. of Fish & Game
Daniel McKiernan: Director MA Division of Marine Fisheries
Wendi Weber: Director Region 5, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Julie Crocker: Branch Chief, Endangered Fish Recovery unit, NOAA, Gloucester MA (endangered CT River shortnose sturgeon habitat)

NEW ENGLAND’S GREAT RIVER AND THE RIGHTS OF NATURE

Posted by on 25 Jan 2021 | Tagged as: Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River pollution, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FERC, FirstLight, IS IT CLEAN?, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project, The Greenfield Recorder, Turners Falls power canal

NEW ENGLAND’S GREAT RIVER AND THE RIGHTS OF NATURE

NOTE: Grim red soup entering the Connecticut at the Rock Dam from FirstLight’s failing riverbanks December 22, 2020. This is the most biologically important endangered species site in the entire ecosystem, as well as one of longstanding cultural and historic import. Photo Copyright © 2021 by Karl Meyer

NEW ENGLAND’S GREAT RIVER AND THE RIGHTS OF NATURE from The Greenfield Recorder January 4, 2021

NOTE: Randy Kehler was kind enough to honor my work with several mentions in the essay below. More importantly, he makes his own eloquent statements about the inherent dignity and right to life of New England’s river–as well as highlighting the decades of abject failures to act from river groups who’ve long-claimed public trust ownership for the river’s safeguarding and have miserably failed to act in its behalf. Please see Randy Kehler’s text below, followed by my Recorder essay it refers to from December 12, 2020.

The weekend Recorder of Dec. 12 featured yet another passionate, well-documented“My Turn” essay by Karl Meyer (“The selling of New England’s River”) about the ongoing destructive impact on the Connecticut River’s animals (especially fish) and plants —and on the river itself —of the Turners Falls and Northfield Mountain hydro-electric facilities owned and operated by the Canada-based First Light Corporation, a “Canadian-owned, subsidiary of venture capital giant PSP Investments.”

Prompted by Karl’s essay, I ask myself why little or nothing (certainly nothing effective) continues to be done to protect “New England’s River” — surely the most prominent and precious natural feature of this region —and stop this ongoing desecration that Karl describes. Where are the citizen lobby efforts, the educational campaigns, the petitions,the protests, the acts of nonviolent civil disobedience that have successfully challenged other corporate assaults on our local and regional environment (e.g., local tri-state opposition to the Entergy Corporation’s radioactive Vermont Yankee “nuke” and, more recently, Western Massachusetts towns’ united opposition to the Kinder Morgan Corporation’s natural gas pipeline project)? In short, why are we putting up with the continuing abuse of “New England’s River”?

Perhaps we need to join the growing movement called the “Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature (GARN)” that’s taking hold in countries around the world and in various communities here in the U.S., a movement that recognizes that our ecosystem—including animals, forests, oceans, rivers, mountains, etc. —have god-given rights just as human beings have god-given rights. Both Ecuador and Bolivia, at the initiative of their indigenous populations, have recently amended their constitutions to include the “Rights of Nature,” thus guaranteeing legal protections for rain forests and other natural features under assault from corporate exploitation.

Similar efforts are underway in other parts of the globe, and in a growing number of communities here in the U.S. The “Rights of Nature” concept doesn’t deny the rights of humans; it’s about balancing what is good for human beings with what is good for other species, and what is good for the earth as a whole. It’s based on the holistic recognition that all life forms on our planet, human and non-human, are deeply intertwined and dependent on each other —a recognition the lack (or denial) of which has clearly given rise to the escalating global climate crisis bearing down on us today with increasingly destructive force.

According to the “Rights of Nature” website (www.theRightsOfNature.org): “Rather than treating nature as property under the law, Rights of Nature acknowledges that nature in all its life forms has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles. And we —the people —have the legal authority and responsibility to enforce these rights on behalf of ecosystems. The ecosystem itself can be named as the injured party, with its own ‘legal standing’ rights, in cases alleging rights violations. “By recognizing rights of nature in its constitution, Ecuador—and a growing number of communities in the United States —are basing their environmental protection systems on the premise that nature has inalienable rights, just as humans do.

This premise is a radical but natural departure from the assumption that nature is ‘property ’ under the law.”
For indigenous cultures around the world, recognizing the rights of nature is simply recognizing reality, a reality consistent with their traditions of living in harmony with nature. All life, including human life, is deeply connected. Decisions and values are based on what is good for the whole.
Nonetheless, for millennia legal systems around the world have treated land and nature as “property. ” Laws and contracts are written to protect the property rights of individuals, corporations and other legal entities. As such environmental protection laws actually legalize environmental harm by regulating how much pollution or destruction of nature can occur within the law. Under such law, nature and all of its non-human elements have no standing.”

Passing far-reaching new laws, let alone amending constitutions at the state or federal levels, is bound to be a time-consuming effort. But there’s no reason why in the meantime we can’t start practicing the “Rights of Nature” as a “community ethic” right now —focusing first and foremost on the right of “New England’s River” to be respected and protected. Our planet Earth is rightfully regarded as our “mother ” —“Mother Earth.” By the same token, the Connecticut River should rightfully be regarded as New England’s “Mother River”—and thus honored and protected. Thank you, Karl Meyer, for repeatedly sounding the alarm and awakening us to this reality.

Randy Kehler and his wife Betsy Corner, after 40-plus years in Colrain, have recently moved to Shelburne Falls.

THE SELLING OF NEW ENGLAND’S RIVER

NOTE: Part of the failing riverbank leakage of the grim pollution entering the shortnose sturgeon spawning pool at Rock Dam and the Connecticut at the FirstLight site on January 10, 2021. Photo Copyright © 2021 by Karl Meyer

THE SELLING OF NEW ENGLAND’S RIVER from The Greenfield Recorder 12/12/2020

By KARL MEYER

On Nov. 12 FirstLight and broker Energy New England sent out a paid press release with a Twitter link on Businesswire: “21 New England Municipal Electric Utilities Commit to Historic Purchase of Clean Power From First-Light Through ENE.” Formatted like news, it hyped agreements —overwhelmingly to eastern Massachusetts towns, for future electricity exports. It boasted big complex numbers, long-term megawatts and clean, renewable hydropower sales to towns 100 miles from the source. Factually, if all that hyped power was directed to the coastal town of Hingham (pop. circa 23,000) on that list, all 20 others, including tiny outliers in Vermont and Rhode Island, would be left in the dark.

FirstLight never mentioned it hadn’t secured a long-term license for diverting flows from the public’s Connecticut River to produce future electricity. That remains many months in the future. On Nov. 12 it hadn’t even submitted a final application to the Federal Energy Regulatory
Commission (FERC) requesting the privilege. The AP picked up that release, though it flagged it as paid content. It spiraled all over the web looking like reporting. What further blurred the perception line between the public press and private interests was state Rep. Tom Golden, chair of the Commonwealth’s Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy. He’s quoted in that paid release touting FirstLight’s export deal as representing the “significant
expansion of their procurement of renewable and carbon-free electricity, produced right here in Massachusetts.” This was odd corporate coziness amidst a FERC relicensing. Was a fix in?

This Dec. 5, a headline under “Staff Report” ran in the Recorder: “Public power entities in three states commit to clean energy purchase from FirstLight.” As reporting, it appeared much like a recycling of that paid press release —but now with quotes from First-Light’s website. For federal and state agencies working within the FERC licensing process these last eight years on flows to restore a river massively exploited by Turners Falls and Northfield Mountain facilities for half a century that deal was a slap in the face. Over 18 months ago FirstLight exited settlement negotiations with those agencies over flows —yet here was FirstLight cutting eastern Massachusetts deals for over 40% of the generating capacity of their river-gorging diversions.

It echoed a grim 1970s plan to plunder more of the river’s aquatic life. The Metropolitan District Commission and NU-WMECO planned to use the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage project as a spigot to supplement over consumption of local water supplies and freshwater tables in eastern Massachusetts towns —even as their municipal systems were leaking like sieves.
Billions of gallons the Connecticut’s flow would be sucked into NMPS’s giant, fish-killing apparatus and piped east to the Quabbin Reservoir, then to metro Boston. But the Conservation Law Foundation’s Alexandra Dawson, Massachusetts Audubon’s Robie Hubley and conservationist Terry Blunt organized public meetings and spoke to reporters. They thwarted that scheme —in work that ultimately morphed into the MA Interbasin Transfer Act of 1983. It prevents exporting flows out of one river basin to service distant towns in another—until overuse, leaks and local supply measures are all implemented. It lets rivers live.

FirstLight is the latest exploiter of New England’s river here. Since2001 that’s included NU-WMECO, Northeast Generation Services, Energy Capital Partners, GDF-Suez, Engie, PSP Investments, and First-Light. Rep. Golden didn’t mention FirstLight is a Canadian-owned subsidiary of venture capital giant PSP Investments, who arrived four years ago to buy up the grimmest, ecosystem crippling machinery on the entire 410-mile river. Their investment scheme now twists 350 miles south before heading back to Canada. In December 2018 they pulled their facilities from commonwealth rolls and registered them as Delaware LLC tax shelters.

FirstLight’s deals occurred while the U.S. Fish & Wildlife, National Marine Fisheries Service, and Massachusetts Fish & Wildlife were all kept in the dark. Today they remain muzzled from accessing the media about relicensing specifics —due to confidentiality agreements First-Light demanded years back to allow participation in now long-stalled settlement talks. FirstLight’s facilities are key factors in spawning failure for the federally endangered shortnose sturgeon. Its failing river banks, just 100 yards from the power canal, continue eroding into critical river habitat today.

FirstLight Vice President Thomas Kaslow testified in Washington to continue banning media access to the meetings of NEPOOL—the monopoly-dominated New England Power Producers association that steers ISO —New England. They’re no friend of a free press. New Englanders are due facts about how FirstLight’s diversions and massive fish-devouring pumped storage machine stunt and obliterate the life of a four-state ecosystem and how they’ll end that year-round carnage before any FERC licenses get issued.

Karl Meyer, a Greenfield resident, has served on the Fish and Aquatics Studies Team in the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s relicensing process for river facilities here since 2012. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

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.

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.

Last chance for a Great River

Posted by on 10 Jul 2017 | Tagged as: 5-year FERC licensing process, American shad, Bellows Falls, Connecticut River, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Daily Hampshire Gazette, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, FERC, FirstLight, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, National Marine Fisheries Service, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, PSP Investments, Rock Dam, The Greenfield Recorder, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS, Vermont Digger, Vernon Dam Fishway


The DEAD REACH of the Connecticut River just bellow Turners Falls Dam, 7/9/2017. (Click; then click again to enlarge)

NOTE: The following piece appeared in the Vermont Digger (www.vtdigger.org), The Daily Hampshire Gazette (www.gazettenet.com), and the Greenfield Recorder (www.recorder.com), in June.

Copyright © 2017 by Karl Meyer, All Rights Reserved

Last chance for a great river

It’s sink-or-swim time on the Connecticut River at Turners Falls for the National Marine Fisheries Service, the US Fish & Wildlife Service and the MA Division of Fish & Wildlife. Fifty years ago they signed the 1967 Cooperative Fishery Restoration Agreement for the Connecticut. It’s “Statement of Intent” was to pass “one million fish at Holyoke, 850,000 at Turners Falls, and 750,000 at Vernon,” restoring American shad to 86 miles of their spawning habitat upstream to Bellows Falls, VT. Back then a simple elevator at Holyoke Dam, 36 miles downstream, had already proven effective at passing shad upriver since 1955. Instead, the agencies opted for complexity.

Within a decade they decided to have three fish ladders built at Turners Falls, forcing all fish out of the river and into a 2.1 mile, turbine-lined power canal. That complex solution failed spectacularly. Deprived of a river route upstream, the runs withered while power company profits accrued. Instead of the 10,000 cubic feet per second flows needed for river habitats, they only required the power company to dribble 400 cfs over that dam. That also wrecked recovery prospects for federally endangered shortnose sturgeon at the Rock Dam, their ancient, natural spawning site just downstream.

Today these agencies are again on the hook to safeguard the river, and fish passage. They’re now taking part in potential backroom settlement negotiations at the invitation of PSP Investments, a Canadian venture capital outfit. PSP is the latest owner of the Turners Falls dam and canal. They also bought the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, now powered on imported, fossil-fueled megawatts that suck the Connecticut into reverse at Northfield, yank it up a mountain, and send it back down as peak-priced, secondhand electricity.

PSP, operating here as FirstLight Power, is bidding for a new Federal Energy Regulatory license for their new pension investments, where profits—and the river itself at times, will all flow north. PSP is bidding to withdraw 30% more water at Northfield for a third of the year, and get paid handsomely by ratepayers for the practice—whether they regenerate electricity with it or not. Positions taken by federal and state reps in these mandated non-disclosure, negotiations, will define this four-state ecosystem for decades to come.

On May 19th, an influx of ocean life not seen in 170 years occurred at the 1848 Holyoke Dam. In a three-day span, two elevators at its base lifted nearly two hundred thousand silver-green American shad toward spawning habitat in Vermont, New Hampshire and northern Massachusetts. Previous records were shattered. As the East Coast’s most successful passage, Holyoke has lifted as many as 720,000 shad in a season. Turners Falls has never passed more than 60,000 fish. For a full decade success there dropped to around 1-fish-in-100.

Two days after that burst of sea life through Holyoke, half those fish would’ve reached the brutal Turners Falls reach. There, confused industrial flows charge the river at all angles, and just a thin curtain of water is required to spill from the dam. Ultimately, every migrant was forced into the canal. Just a few would emerge upstream. For the rest, migration had ended abruptly—far short of rich upstream spawning grounds.

The run past Holyoke is this region’s last great migration–a pulse of planetary life, magical to witness. Each sleek, agitated shad is hell-bent on spawning as far upstream as time, energy, and luck allows. The few that found a way beyond Turners would have had little trouble following the river to the Vernon Dam. There, most could easily swim directly up a short ladder–passing the last hurdle toward that historic Great Eddy between Bellows Falls and Walpole, NH, 172 miles from the sea. Young spawned there would fatten on river-rich nutrients. Surviving adults could turn back toward the sea.

But Turners Falls has slammed the door on hundreds of thousands of others. Industrial currents, dead-end flows, and slack water offer no real path forward. The canal is their dead end. Ken Sprankle, the USFWS’s Connecticut River Coordinator, posts Holyoke fish passage numbers three times a week. Holyoke personnel happily provide them. Sadly, the MA Division of Fish & Wildlife long ago abandoned a daily presence at Turner Falls, leaving the power company in charge to pass along woefully outdated fish count numbers. By the time they reach the public its weeks past when any flow adjustments might have helped exhausted fish attempting to pass there.

Turner Falls is a black hole. There’s really no river there at all. New England’s Great River has long been owed its water–and the habitat and fish passage protections mandated by federal acts and a landmark 1872 Supreme Court ruling centered on the Holyoke Dam. Let’s hope fisheries representatives in backroom PSP talks don’t sell an ecosystem short again. Keep it simple. Fish need water and a river, and a direct route upstream–like at Holyoke and Vernon. This is the public’s river, not a cash cow. If the price gets too high, walk away. Future generations will know.

Karl Meyer of Greenfield is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists. He remains a participating stakeholder in FERC relicensing proceedings for these sites. He is not attending these side-talks on settlements due to PSP’s mandatory non-disclosure requirements.

CASHING IN ON A CASH COW

Posted by on 15 Jan 2016 | Tagged as: American shad, climate change, Connecticut River, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Daily Hampshire Gazette, endangerd shortnose sturgeon, Endangered Species Act, Energy Capital Partners, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FERC, FirstLight, fossil plant, GDF-Suez FirstLight, ISO, ISO New England, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, National Marine Fisheries Service, New Hampshire, NMFS, NOAA, non-renewable, Northfield Mountain, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, Rock Dam, shortnose sturgeon, The Greenfield Recorder, The Pioneer, The Recorder, Turners Falls dam, Uncategorized, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS, Vermont

The following piece appeared in the Daily Hampshire Gazette(www.gazettenet.com) and the Recorder(www.recorder.com) in the first week of January 2016.

CASHING IN ON A CASH COW

Copyright © 2015 by Karl Meyer

Ever dreamed of owning your own bank? I got a deal for you! Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project is for sale again, along with the Turners Falls canal and dam—and a string of little assets down in Connecticut. But Northfield’s the cash cow. Fourth time in a decade they’re unloading this golden calf–always at a tidy chunk of change. A quickie corporate win-win! It’s really like an A.T.M., run at the expense of the Connecticut River ecosystem.

Place works like a giant toilet–suck huge amounts of the river backward and uphill, then flush it all back and—viola, money spews out the other end. Could be ours! They’re holding bidder tours as we speak. I just need a few partners with ready credit. We go in on short-money and cash-in on the no-brainer electricity “spot market” for a few years. Then, with inflated power-price futures in play, we offload this puppy for a final cash-out of 30%–maybe 50%!

Here’s how it goes down. With the cheerleading of Northfield’s not-so-silent partner, ISO New England–the “independent” system operator (created by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission), we simply slow dance this darlin’ past the banks, the FTC and FERC. Then, in 2016, its sweet business-as-usual—maybe with new shirts for employees.

Trust me, this works every time. Everyone walks away with full pockets—without the public knowing what hit them. Northfield got wholesaled in 2006 by Northeast Generations Services(formerly WMECO—formerly of Northeast Utilities, now Eversource—you follow?) They grabbed a quick $1.34 billion for the package, slipping it to a trio of Jersey venture capitalists, Energy Capital Partners. ECP renamed their little project FirstLight Energy. Those smartest-guys-in-the-room hung-in and grabbed Northfield’s peaking spot-market profits for two years, before off-loading it for a nifty $1.89 billion in that crazy year, 2008.

With that, GDF-Suez, third owner in four years, swept in–the world’s largest private energy corporation, based in France. They’ve been gobbling up contracts to run water systems across the US under the name Suez United Water. But GDF-Suez recently did a clever name-change to Engie, keeping the public totally confused. They got game! The true costs of these premium-priced plant sales get buried in the list of acronyms on electric bills. It’s like owning a 25-mile stretch the Connecticut River to dip into for cash any time you please.

This is a turn-key operation–with us, the new guys, pushing the buttons. The joke is that the public thinks Northfield is a hydropower operation, while this baby has never produced a single watt of its own energy. It’s imported!–huge swatches of bulk electricity now run-in from outside the region to suck a mountain’s worth of flow from the Connecticut up to a reservoir. Then, dump it out on the power lines when prices peak. It’s hugely inefficient, now largely carbon-based—and massively damaging to the river. But amazingly profitable!

That’s where we come in. Sure it was built as a sister to the region’s nukes to gobble up their monstrous stream of unused electricity–because nukes can’t shut down their feverish output at night. That’s how you get to put in a giant straw and suck the Connecticut uphill at a rate of 15,000 cubic feet per second–more than enough to pull the river backward for a mile downstream under low flow conditions. But who’s watching? When the region’s last nuke shut down, nobody said ‘boo!’ with Northfield going fossil. What climate change?

And when it became clear years back that Northfield operations were imperiling spawning success for the federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon at the Rock Dam in Turners Falls–their singular natural spawning site going back into pre-history, again, nobody came forward. Not the US Fish & Wildlife Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service or the MA Division of Fish & Wildlife—or any river protection group. No bureaucrats, no suits–nobody. At Turners Falls—instead of 70% of migratory fish heading upstream toward Vermont and New Hampshire, they squeeze out 4%. We have it made!

Still skeptical? ISO and FERC are addicted to Northfield—even though its power-flush characteristics might come into play maybe a handful of times a year, if at all. For this they let owners cash in on the river whenever y they want. In 2012, the owners of this “asset” collection of 1500 megawatts(of which over 1100 MW derived from Northfield alone) told investors a full 40% of their profits were realized from “Capacity Fees.” What that means is you get paid for holding back the Connecticut! They’re not required to use it at all if they don’t want to—just flush when prices are high. Paid for being you! Of course another 50% of profit comes from generating, though the public doesn’t know it only operates a few hours a day when prices are highest.

Here’s the kicker: in 2014, after a cry-wolf energy deficit winter that never materialized, FERC–with ISO as cheerleader, sanctioned the doubling of those “capacity fees”. Plants are now collecting 2X the amount they were two years back, for having the potential to dump some power on the lines—not for actually generating. Paid for being you! With 1100 potential megawatts at Northfield, how quick can you say “windfall at the public’s expense?” Lastly, Northfield petitioned FERC the last two winters to increase its reservoir storage by a full 25%, with ISO their biggest cheerleader. FERC agreed, twice. Double-dip with a cherry, anyone?

This thing’s a cinch! Even with all the nukes shut—when this should have been moth-balled to emergency use as more climate-warming, spent nuclear junk, it soldiers on as a virtual river monopoly with the blessings of FERC and ISO. Trust me, no one goes to court. Ecosystem damage, costs to the public? Fuggetaboutit!

Got credit? Give a call!

Redeem the promise at Great Falls

Posted by on 16 Nov 2015 | Tagged as: 5-year FERC licensing process, American shad, bald eagle, canal shad, Captain William Turner, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River Refuge, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Conte, Conte National Fish & Wildlife Refuge, Daily Hampshire Gazette, endangerd shortnose sturgeon, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federal trust fish, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FERC, FERC license, FERC licensing process, Greenfield Recorder, Holyoke Fish Lift, New Hampshire, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, Relicensing, Rock Dam, Rock Dam Pool, shad, shad fishing, shortnose sturgeon, The Greenfield Recorder, The Recorder, Turners Falls, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, USFWS, Vermont, Vermont Yankee, wildlife refuge

The following piece, with edits, appeared in the Daily Hampshire Gazette and The Recorder on November 12, 2015 as: “Federal wildlife service must preserve the promise at Great Falls,” and “River restoration retreat”

The US Fish & Wildlife Service’s recent abandonment of their flagship Conte National Fish & Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center at Turners Falls defies all logic. In August they abruptly withdrew their on-site interpreter and funding for The Great Falls Discover Center. That center was located above the falls two decades back precisely because of the site’s importance as an ecological refuge—perched at a river crossroads critical to the success of their new “watershed-based” refuge.

Back then bald eagles had just returned to Turners Falls; it was once again the place that hundreds of thousands of migrating American shad surged to each spring. And just downstream was the sole natural site where the only federally-endangered migratory fish in the watershed–the ancient Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, attempted to spawn each May. Known as the Rock Dam, its an ancient geological formation that remains a premiere retreat for spring shad anglers. For its biological and historic importance alone, Rock Dam should have long ago been offered the Refuge’s first “in-river” sanctuary designation.

Yet today, USFWS seems ready to walk away from its core mission and long history on the river at Turners Falls. Doing so would be no less an historic retreat than that of Captain Turner and his battalion after their pre-dawn attack on hundreds of Native American women, children and old men seeking refuge at that very site nearly 340 years ago. On May 19, 1676–having accomplished their grizzly goal with the loss of just one man, they were sent in reeling retreat when the first counter-attacking Native warriors arrived from a downstream island encampment opposite today’s Rock Dam. They’d been stationed there to intercept the teeming May shad runs to help feed their people. Turner and 37 of his troops died in the ensuing rout.

Today, Turners Falls remains the site of the US Fish & Wildlife’s biggest regional blunder in a mission to protect a nation’s fish and wildlife resources on New England’s Great River. In the late 1970s they signed off on the plan resulting in a series of fish ladders being built there. It forced all migratory fish out of the river and into the Turners Falls Power Canal. That resulted in a half century of failed fisheries and habitat restoration—largely drawing the curtain down on a spring ocean-connection for riverine habitats in Vermont, New Hampshire, and northern Massachusetts. That 1967 USFWS/four-state migratory fisheries restoration compact for the Connecticut River still founders at Turners Falls today.

That is why the recent USFW’s retreat from their ecologically and historically unique flagship perch remains inexplicable. Currently federal hydro-relicensing studies of dam and canal operations at Turners Falls are taking place. Their outcomes will determine environmental conditions governing the Connecticut River in this reach for two generations to come. The USFWS is playing a key role in these studies as the lead agency empowered to define and require changes at Turners respecting the protection and restoration of the public’s federal-trust and federally-endangered fish species there. In short, they’re at a crossroads. They are the key player able to restore past mistakes and make the Conte Connecticut River Watershed National Fish and Wildlife Refuge a true refuge for annual migrants passing from Connecticut to Massachusetts; then Vermont and New Hampshire.

That long-awaited success would occur at the doorstep of the Great Falls Discovery Center–replete with its life-sized displays of watershed fish and wildlife, and its accessible public auditorium. It’s a huge opportunity at a site virtually on the river, easily reachable by visitors from a broad swath of southern New England travelling the I-91/Route 2 Corridor. Great Falls is the only brick and mortar place for the public to regularly interact with USFW staff and a diversity of displays of characterizing watershed habitats for 80 miles in any direction. What’s more it’s the only publicly-funded flagship Refuge site where admission is free.

Without a touchstone site in this populous reach of the watershed, most citizens will remain unaware of the restoration and conservation work of the USFWS. They’ll be left to surmise instead that Conte is more a theoretical Refuge—a concept and an amorphous jumble of disparate parts lacking any true core.

In practice and in theory, Turners Falls and the Discovery Center site represent the best of opportunities for the US Fish & Wildlife Service to succeed in their core missions of conservation, restoration, public access and education. A second retreat at Turners Falls would be an historic failure. This fabulously rich reach of the Connecticut is uniquely situated to showcase the Service’s long-awaited success in river restoration on the public’s behalf. Many mistakes could be redeemed with the right decisions at this time. Don’t abandon the Great River at the Great Falls.

Public comments are being accepted through November 13th on the USFWS’s plans for Conte Refuge priorities for the next 15 years at: www.fws.gov/refuge/silvio_o_conte/

Karl Meyer
Greenfield

Spawning shortnose sturgeon denied flow at Rock Dam Pool

Posted by on 08 May 2015 | Tagged as: 5-year FERC licensing process, American shad, Atlantic salmon, blueback herring, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Dr. Boyd Kynard, endangerd shortnose sturgeon, Endangered Species Act, ESA, Extinction, Federal Conte Anadromous Fish Research Center, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federal trust fish, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FERC, GDF-Suez FirstLight, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, National Marine Fisheries Service, Rock Dam, Rutland Herald, shortnose sturgeon, The Greenfield Recorder, University of Massachusetts, US Fish & Wildlife Service, Vermont Digger

PRockDamPoolDewatered (2)
(to view lager image, click on photo).

NOTE: the photo above documents conditions found at the Rock Dam Pool on the Connecticut River on May 3, 2015. Seventeen years of published studies conducted by federal and University of Massachusetts fisheries researchers at the adjacent Conte Anadromous Fish Research Center show that these river conditions cause spawning failure for federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon at the Rock Dam Pool, their only documented natural spawning site. The May 3rd river conditions found at Rock Dam mimicked mid-summer flows on the Connecticut–conditions that research shows drives spawning-ready females from the site, and de-waters the cobble-strewn pool where eggs and embryos attach and develop. April 25 to May 22 is the documented spawning window for the shortnose sturgeon on the Connecticut. It is a crime to kill, injure or interfere with endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon under federal and state law. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the US Fish & Wildlife Service, and the MA Division of Fisheries & Wildlife are responsible for the protection of the Connecticut River’s only federally-endangered fish under the Endangered Species Act(ESA). GDF-Suez FirstLight controls river flows to this site via spill gate operations at the Turners Falls Dam, just upstream.

A RIVER PRESERVED IN PLASTIC Copyright © 2015 by Karl Meyer

(The following essay–with minor variation in each, appeared recently in The Recorder, The Rutland Herald, and at Vtdigger.org)

A lifeless, three-foot long Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon sits on display at the Great Falls Discovery Center in Turners Falls, MA. The shortnose has been this river’s only federally-endangered fish since 1967. That plastic sturgeon has sat amidst other replica fish for a dozen years now—a plastic American shad, a blueback herring, a trophy-size Atlantic salmon. They’re framed beneath a slightly-ruffled acrylic surface representing the Connecticut River at this flagship site of the Silvio Conte National Fish & Wildlife Refuge.

That display is the basic message offered to visitors here: ‘This is a river with congenial flows supporting populations of shad and herring, big native salmon, and federally-protected sturgeon.’

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Few upstream migrants reach Vermont and New Hampshire today. That’s part of the legacy of failure of federal and state fish agencies and watchdog groups claiming to safeguard an ecosystem and its native migratory fish. That legacy will remain intact until they confront ongoing conditions in Massachusetts that have been crippling the river here for decades.

That Discovery Center depiction falls apart if visitors simply walk outside onto the deck of the Turners Falls Bridge, adjacent to Turners Falls Dam. There, often for months on end, what they’ll see is the hollowed-out heart of New England’s Great River–a waterless chasm, or one teased by just a trickle from the power company’s dam. Conversely, when rain or snow send more river downstream than can be profitably sent through FirstLight’s power canal or stored upstream for their Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, those spill gates open wide–producing violent, see-sawing flows few fish can fight or follow.

Meanwhile a 200 million year-old evolutionary gem, the Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, remains all but abandoned just downstream–teetering on the verge of extinction for decades. Likewise, American shad can’t move upstream in the river here at all. They’re forced into that turbine-lined power canal where less than 1-in-10 will emerge alive beyond the dam. And those blueback herring–protected on paper as a “federal trust” species, have not been counted here in almost a decade. Just 20 years back they passed by the thousands.

That plastic salmon, showcased for decades as the darling of this river’s fisheries restoration, has been extinct here since 1809. It should not be presented as a living native fish. In science, extinct isn’t subject to interpretation.

That trophy-sized model derives from a massive hybrid hatchery program created by cross-breeding salmon imported from Canadian and northern New England rivers. For 43 years federal and state fish farms produced the millions of tiny fry dumped into the river each spring. Those fish factories repeatedly proved vectors for the potential spread of disease throughout the river system. Though those tiny fish proved great for public relations, no spawning population of engineered salmon ever took hold.

Hybrid salmon became the red herring that masked the massively broken ecosystem that exists on an eight-mile stretch of New England’s Great River from the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station to the tailrace of the Turners Falls Power Canal. Those salmon were the stand-ins for agencies including the National Marine Fisheries Service, the USFWS, and MA Division of Fish & Wildlife that had failed to protect living migratory species here–and an ecosystem suffocating right in their backyard.

The plight of the only state- and federally endangered fish here represents the ultimate failure of responsibilities. Dr. Boyd Kynard spent decades studying the shortnose and documented it’s only natural spawning site–the Rock Dam Pool, less than two miles downstream of Turners Falls Dam. Dam operations there were annually creating conditions that crippled spawning success for the remaining 300 sturgeon still able to reach their ancient rendezvous site.

Kynard’s federal- and state-funded findings were given to fish agencies a decade back. Each bore legal responsibility for that sturgeon. Yet no agency or non-profit stepped-in to monitor and enforce Endangered Species Act protections. None intervened to halt the trickle-and-torrent flows preventing reproduction. That step alone would’ve put living waters back into the river here–aiding the shad and herring attempting to reach Vermont and New Hampshire. Likewise in 2012, when Kynard published a book on the shortnose–documenting its life history and the river conditions necessary for its recovery, again, no one went to court to protect this public legacy.

Had agencies and watchdog groups taken responsibility years back for protecting spawning sturgeon at that Rock Dam Pool below FirstLight’s dam, native migratory fish and the river ecosystem would be in a far better place today. Instead, that work was left to become part of the current studies in the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s 5-year relicensing process for the Turners Falls and Northfield hydro sites, where I’m on the Fisheries and Aquatic Studies Team.

Sturgeon spawning is not monitored today. It’s unconscionable to have waited for a 40 year relicensing process to come around before broaching concerns for an endangered fish and broken ecosystem. Hopefully it won’t prove the difference between a living river, and one merely depicted in a museum model.

Greenfield, MA journalist Karl Meyer is participating in the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s relicensing process for the Northfield Mountain and Turners Falls hydro sites.

DUE DILIGENCE: looking beneath the surface

Posted by on 27 Dec 2013 | Tagged as: American shad, Bellows Falls, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Daily Hampshire Gazette, ecosystem, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FERC license, FirstLight, hydraulic study, shad, The Greenfield Recorder, Turners Falls power canal, USFWS

Copyright © 2013, by Karl Meyer

NOTE: the following piece appeared recently in Daily Hampshire Gazette, www.gazettenet.com; The Recorder, www.recorder.com; the Montague Reporter, and the Shelburne Falls and West County Independent.

                    DUE DILIGENCE: looking beneath the surface

New England’s Great River is at a critical juncture in the closing days of 2013.  An ecosystem door was slammed shut at Turners Falls 215 years ago when private investors built a dam across the river.  After 1798, migrating fish no longer reached northern Massachusetts, Vermont or New Hampshire.  In a landmark 1872 decision the US Supreme Court reopened the door to an ecosystem restoration via “Holyoke Company vs. Lyman.”  It upheld a Massachusetts law requiring dam owners to provide fish passage as part of the public interest of stakeholders upstream and down. Yet today there’s still no working fish passage at Turners Falls. 

As a stakeholder wishing to see the Connecticut River’s fisheries restoration succeed after decades of failure, I’m participating in the current 5-year Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s hydro relicensing process.  It will determine conditions in the river for the next 30-40 years.  If you go to www.northfieldrelicensing.com and click on “2013 Documents,” you’ll find FERC’s “Study Plan Determination Letter” dated 9/13/2013.  It’s a 74-page catalogue of studies FERC has determined necessary to protect the public interests as they move to issue new long-range hydro licenses on the river in 2018.  Curiously, if you open that letter and scroll to the last word on the last page (74) you’ll find “Karl Meyer,” listed as “Recommending Entity” for Study 4.2.3, “Hydraulic Study of the Turners Falls Power Canal.”

I was surprised to find my name there, given that each of the 18 studies above it lists Firstlight, owners of the Turners Falls Power Canal, as Recommending Entity.  But this was no accident on FERC’s part.  They’d originally included the canal study as part of Study 3.2.2 in their preliminary judgments on the science needed to define the impacts of FirstLight’s hydro operations on river environments.  I’d agreed with them.  But FirstLight, in all subsequent filings, seemed determined to exclude it.  They simply excised “power canal” from 3.2.2: “Hydraulic Study of Turners Falls Impoundment, Bypassed Reach, power canal and the Connecticut River below Cabot Station.”  Their main argument was that the water surface level in the canal remains relatively stable through the year.  But given that what happens below the surface is what’s critical to the needs of migrating fish, I argued a canal study was a critical consideration. 

Two generations back a chance to restore fish runs beyond Turners Falls was squandered when the US Fish & Wildlife Service and four state fisheries agencies agreed to steer migratory fish into the chaos of the privately-owned Turners Falls power canal.  A singular New England opportunity to recoup and expand the river’s biodiversity was lost.  Just as in 1980, at best one-fish-in-ten emerges alive upstream there today.  Some years it’s 1-in-100.  That mistake stemmed from a failed quest to create a hatchery-strain of extinct Atlantic salmon here.  As a result, due diligence wasn’t applied to the needs of growing populations of herring, shad and sea lamprey, who would now have to survive a trip through an industrial canal on their spawning runs.  It also scuttled the only natural spawning grounds of the endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon. 

Merriam-Webster defines due diligence as “the care that a reasonable person exercises to avoid harm to other persons or their property.”  Today, after 14 years of power company-subsidized canal studies that remain unpublished, we know scant little about conditions fish encounter throughout that canal.  Save for a few dozen yards at its entrances and exits, two full miles of watery terra incognita lay in between.  That missing knowledge comprises this ecosystem’s black hole. 

Yet with just tidbits of canal study information leaking into the public sphere, there is evidence that canal conditions–and the weeks-long migratory delays fish experience there, are proving lethal.  “Shad are dying in droves in the canal and we don’t know why,” is how one federal Conte Lab researcher responded to a question about mortality in the canal they’ve repeatedly studied using FirstLight funds.  Since dead fish don’t head back to sea to return as repeat spawners, the canal impoverishes a full 172 miles of river ecosystem up to Bellows Falls, VT. 

Thus, I’m proud to have my name listed next to canal hydraulics study 4.2.3.  I believe it represents FERC’s effort to exercise due diligence in getting the information needed to make the best choices in these proceedings.  It certainly represents my own.  FERC’s Ken Hogan has stated that thorough studies and reliable data are what FERC is aiming for as they decide on conditions hydropower interests will have to adhere to as they operate on our river for generations to come.  Anything less would constitute a failure of their public mandate.

 FERC’s Public Comment Period on any of the 39 studies they may require for the relicensing of Turners Falls and Northfield Mountain projects ends December 31, 2013.  Go to www.ferc.gov , and “filing e-comments.”  P-1889 is the Project # required for Turners Falls dam and canal; P-2485 is for Northfield Mountain.

 Karl Meyer is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

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