The Greenfield Recorder

Archived Posts from this Category

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.

Mirror to the Past: a legacy of failure at Turners Falls

Posted by on 21 Dec 2011 | Tagged as: American shad, Anne Makepeace, Atlantic salmon, blueback herring, Captain William Turner, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, CRASC, Daily Hampshire Gazette, Dead Reach, didymo, federal trust fish, Jessie Little Doe, Narragansett, Pilgrims, Rock Dam, Rock Snot, Rutland Herald, shortnose sturgeon, The Greenfield Recorder, Times Argus, Turners Falls dam, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS, Wampanoag, William Pynchon

The following essay appeared on the November OpEd pages of the Rutland Herald, Times Argus, Greenfield Recorder, and Daily Hampshire Gazette.

December 21, 2011

Copyright © 2011 by Karl Meyer     All Rights Reserved

A Mirror to the Past: the legacy of failure at Turners Falls

Some history is worth repeating.  In Deerfield, MA on November 9th I listened as independent filmmaker Anne Makepeace introduced, “We Still Live Here” in a church at a place once called Pocumtuck.  There in 1638, Springfield’s William Pynchon bargained with the Pocumtuck for 500 dirt-cheap bushels of corn—selling it at inflated prices to Connecticut colonists who’d run out of food while warring against the Pequot.  The Pequot massacre at Fort Mystic, as well as Pynchon’s low-ball trading, established a posture toward Native Americans that overran a continent.

But Ms. Makepeace’s documentary displayed a clear sensitivity in depicting the 18-year odyssey of a Wampanoag woman, Jessie Little Doe.  Through vision and genius, a seemingly-everyday working mom has begun reviving the spoken Wampanoag language, last heard over a century ago.  At Mashpee and Gay Head, MA, a bedrock tongue of indigenous North America is again being taught and spoken, where starving Pilgrims first encountered it.

The next evening the Associated Press published a story: ‘Rock Snot’ Fear Means Salmon For Native Tribes.  It told how the disaster of an invasive alga picked up by thousands of hatchery salmon at the US Fish &Wildlife Service’s flooded White River National Fish Hatchery during Tropical Storm Irene was turning into a curious windfall for Native Americans.  The USFWS and Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission (CRASC) had just unanimously voted to give free fish to the Indians.

The headline was unfortunate, sounding like the tribes were being used.  CRASC’s half-billion-dollar CT River salmon restoration had had another dismal year—returning just 106 fish.  The Irene flood was the second million-dollar disaster befalling the White River VT hatchery in 4 years.  Giving a tiny portion of the facility’s half-million surviving fish might play better in the media than advertising a likely fate for most—killing and burying the lot to avoid releasing rock-snot-infested salmon and trout to New England rivers and Great Lakes habitats.

Filed from Montpelier, VT, the story sketched that morning’s CRASC meeting at Turners Falls, MA, once known as Peskeomscut, just 7 miles from Pocumtuck.  It missed some substance an attending reporter might’ve caught–that CRASC Chair Bill Hyatt had become chairman that day; that it was his first meeting ever.  Hyatt’s quotes hit the media so quickly—hours after the meeting, it might appear someone had been spoon fed a cheery “salmon-for-the-Indians” pre-Thanksgiving tale.  But an editor made a good call on its content: rock-snot-means-gift-to-tribes.

On-the-ground reporting might also have uncovered that—just beyond the federal Conte Lab where CRASC meets, sits two miles of beleaguered Connecticut River identified on colonial maps as Peskeomscut.  It’s a delicate place to fashion an ‘Indian-fish-rescue’ story from.  Here on May 19, 1676, Captain William Turner and Hadley-based soldiers surprise-attacked hundreds of sleeping Wampanoags, Narragansetts, Pocumtucks and Nipmucks–largely women, children, and elders. They’d come to rest, plant, and dry-harvest massive blooms of migrating shad, herring, and a knot of spawning shortnose sturgeon.  If time allowed, they’d tap a small, later-arriving salmon run.

Time did not.  This was King Phillips War, their fight for sovereign lands.  Dawn brought the Turners Falls massacre.  Just past Conte Lab’s windows warriors encamped at the ancient fishing-island today called Rock Dam counterattacked–routing and killing 37, including Captain Turner.

This day, 335 years later, it was noted that half the hatchery’s 8,000, two-to-four year old salmon, the small ones, could likely be released to already didymo-infected rivers.  Regulations would prevent any sale.  Still, all remaining baby salmon, plus 500,000 didymo-infected lake trout still faced a quick landfill burial before the hatchery could be flushed with chlorine.  They could not be released for anglers—and way back in 2004 the USFWS Region 5 actually issued a consumer advisory on eating hatchery salmon.  Those remaining 4,000 larger salmon, some to 9-1/2 lbs., might also have had to be killed and land-filled–had they not found someone to take them…

CRASC, charged with protecting all of the river’s migratory fish species, unanimously voted to donate those big fish—killed, gutted and iced, to any federally tribe who’d take them.  It might be a PR coup for the disastrous restoration, buffering perceptions away from the millions lost producing ten dozen salmon returns annually.  As with the Pilgrims, Pynchon and William Turner, the Indians had not come calling: USFWS had.  Region 5’s William Archambault noted, “We reached out to the federal tribes.” Ironically, that included the Wampanoag and Narragansett.

I hope all fully understood that in accepting fish they did USFWS a huge favor.  They should also know the embattled 2-mile reach of river they know as Peskeomscut remains today a desolate place.  There, USFWS and CRASC have abandoned spawning federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon and beleaguered American shad to the excesses of a for-profit power company.  Certainly they know that Jessie Little Doe was awarded a MacArthur genius grant in 2010.  “We Still Live Here” premiered nationwide on November 17th, funded in part by WGBY in Springfield, MA.

#          #          #

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

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

Copyright © 2011 by Karl Meyer                                   All Rights Reserved.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So did the American shad.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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