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THE RIVER FIX FOR FATAL ATTRACTION

Posted by on 12 Dec 2012 | Tagged as: American shad, blueback herring, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, ecosystem, endangerd shortnose sturgeon, FirstLight, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, National Marine Fisheries Service, salmon hatchery, shad, shortnose sturgeon, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, Uncategorized, US Fish & Wildlife Service, US Geological Service’s Silvio O. Conte Anadromous Fish Lab, US Geological Survey's Conte Fish Lab, USFWS

NOTE: The following piece, slightly edited, appeared earlier this month in Connecticut River Valley publications and outlets in CT, MA, and VT. The original version is below.

http://www.rutlandherald.com/article/20121206/OPINION04/712069975/1018/OPINION

http://www.recorder.com/home/3161519-95/falls-shad-fish-canal

Copyright © 2012, by Karl Meyer

The River Fix for Fatal Attraction

With a salmon hatchery program no longer clouding issues, the US Fish & Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, and directors from MA, VT, NH and CT have a singular opportunity to redeem the Connecticut River restoration. They’re currently making choices for restoring migratory fish north to Bellows Falls, VT, begun under the 45 year-old New England Cooperative Fisheries Compact. The decisions stem from the 1965 Anadromous Fish Conservation Act. They’ll seal this ecosystem’s fate at four federally-licensed dams and the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station until 2058.

US F&WS’s Region 5 Director Wendi Weber, John Warner, and Ken Sprankle will join National Marine Fisheries’ Daniel Morris, Julie Crocker, and MA Fish & Wildlife’s Caleb Slater in making the decisions—with input from state directors. Their 1967 mandate is restoration of shad and herring runs to offer the public “high quality sport fishing opportunities” and provide “for the long-term needs of the population for seafood.”

Sadly, in 1980 their predecessors abandoned two miles of the Connecticut to the power company operating at Turners Falls and Northfield Mountain. By allowing privatization of the river at mile 120, they killed chances of passage success for millions of American shad barred from spawning at Greenfield, Gill and Northfield, MA, right to the foot of Bellows Falls at Walpole, NH at mile 172. Unwittingly, they also continued the decimation of the ancient spawning grounds of the river’s last, 300, viable federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon.

Instead of mandating river flows and a direct route upstream to a lift at the dam, they acquiesced to diverting migrants into a power canal. That Rube Goldberg–a three-trick knot of currents and ladders, proved an utter failure to the hundreds of thousands of shad moving upstream annually through elevators at Holyoke Dam. There, via a lift built in 1955, 380,000 American shad streamed north in 1980. It’s the East Coast’s most successful fish passage; it by-passes the city’s canals.

Half or more of those shad swam upstream; but foundered in the treacherous Turners Falls complex. At the dam, just as today, some depleted their energies by treading water for weeks—washed back and forth by a power company’s deluge-and-trickle releases, finding no elevator or upstream entrance. Many eventually turned back, only to be tempted by spill from their power canal. Fish unlucky enough to ascend the ladder there found a desperate compromise. Over 90% wouldn’t exit alive. Just as today, alien habitat and extreme turbulence overwhelmed them. Only 1-in-100 emerged upstream. For the rest, a turnaround spelled almost certain death in turbines. Others lingered for weeks in an alien canal environment, until they expired. Just as today.

This year over 490,000 shad passed Holyoke. Half or more attempted to pass Turners Falls. Just 26,000, or 1-in-10, swam beyond the dam–a percentage consistently reached in the 1980s. This is described as “success” by US Geological Survey Conte Lab scientists, Dr. Alex Haro and Dr. Ted Castro-Santos, after fourteen seasons of canal study. In work garnering annual power company subsidies, they’ve attempted to model that canal is a viable migration path.

I interviewed Dr. Haro in 2007, subsequent to a 1999-2005 study finding shad passage at Turners Falls had plummeted to “one percent or less” directly on the heals of Massachusetts 1999 energy deregulation for the Northfield Mountain-Turners Falls’ complex. I asked why passage had failed there, “I wouldn’t call it failure,” Haro replied. Fish passage saw no significant rebound until 2010, when the effects of GDF-Suez’s Northfield Mountain plant were stopped cold for 6 months—sanctioned by the EPA for massive silt dumping. Likewise, Dr. Castro-Santos’s claims to passage of one-in-ten fish as progress seem deeply troubling when his findings, after 14 years, are just now revealing shad dying “in droves” in that canal, “We don’t know why.”

In 1865, James Hooper, aged 86, of Walpole, NH reported: (from The Historical Society of Cheshire County (NH) “The area just below Bellows Falls was a famous place for catching shad because they gathered there but did not go up over the falls. The fish were caught with scoop nets. One spring Hooper helped to haul out 1300 shad and 20 salmon with one pull of the net.”

Citizens upstream of the 1798 Turners Falls Dam need not accept the dead shad runs and severed ocean-ecosystem of the last 214 years at a dam operated to cull price-spikes from the electricity “spot market.” An 1872 US Supreme Court decision against owners of Holyoke Dam mandates passage of the public’s fish. Nor do citizens from Old Saybrook, CT to Bellows Falls have to accept endangered sturgeon, a lethal canal, and a dead river at mile 120. After 32 years of fatal attraction at Turners Falls, its time to stop steering fish into a canal death trap. Holyoke proves that’s possible.

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

The Devolution of a River Restoration: killing the Connecticut softly

Posted by on 31 May 2011 | Tagged as: American shad, Atlantic salmon, Bellows Falls Fishway, blueback herring, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Conte, CRASC, Farmington River, federal trust fish, New Hampshire, Rainbow Dam Fishway, salmon hatchery, Uncategorized, USFWS, Vernon Dam Fishway, Walpole

This article appears in the current(May-June) issue of the Pioneer Valley News, a small, bimonthly news-magazine available, free, at various Valley locations.

The Devolution of a River Restoration: killing the Connecticut softly

by Karl Meyer                                   Copyright © 2011 by Karl Meyer

May 5, 2010.  7:30 a.m:

THWACK!  Standing next to the pulsing waters of the Rainbow Fishway on the Farmington River in Windsor, CT, I’d just received a watery slap in the face from a 280 million year-old living fossil.  I was travelling by bicycle, heading to the Holyoke dam from Old Saybrook, CT at Long Island Sound.  I’d left the Sound the day before, with a final destination of Bellows Falls, VT, following the Connecticut River’s fish migration upstream.  But I just had to stop at this storied tributary.  Astonished, I stared at the frothy spot where a 2-1/2 foot sea lamprey had just been cemented to the concrete wall of a 34 year-old salmon ladder–its suctioning mouth holding it in the wild current.  Now, it was gone.

Wiping the spray from my cheek, I look upstream to the next frothing pool.  There, peeking just above the water like a spy-hopping whale is my lamprey.  Its snakelike body flutters in the current while its round, jawless-mouth keeps it fused to the concrete as if joined by Crazy Glue.  Two flooded basins downstream, three more lamprey do the exact same thing; in the pool beyond, another, nearly as thick as my arm, waves like a streamer in violent water.

THWACK!—another sprits of Farmington water hits me.  In a flash, the ropey, mottled-brown fish disappears, only to emerge a second later in the next higher pool, glomming onto the steep wall.  Its rudimentary gills writhe like bellows in the froth as they siphon needed oxygen.

I am witnessing a miracle of tenacity and evolution as these ancient fish scale an impossible fishway.  I’m also witnessing everything that is wrong with the Connecticut River basin’s failed 44 year-old federal-state migratory fish restoration here at the first dam on Farmington River–the longest tributary in the state of Connecticut.

This fishway is a trap.  It kills fish.  In fact, the Rainbow Fishway kills most of the fish the New England Cooperative Fisheries were charged with restoring way back in 1967—the American shad and blueback herring that once fed humans along 172 miles of the Connecticut River, as well as up tributaries like this one–all the way from Long Island Sound to Bellows Falls, VT.

In 1976, state and federal fisheries officials came up with the design here—a ponderously steep ladder with punishing flows charging through rasping, pebble-ridden concrete slots not much wider than a splayed hand.  It was based on West Coast ladders designed for Pacific salmon–here to be used for the Atlantic salmon, extinct in the Connecticut River since 1809.  From day one, Rainbow proved a killer.  For the past 35 years this ladder has drawn spawning-run shad and blueback herring upstream to its watery promise by the tens of thousands—only to flay them alive in repeated attempts to pass.  Those that succeed expire soon after reaching the top, their reward for tenacity.  In total, Rainbow Fishway has quietly killed more migrating shad and herring–classified as “federal trust fish,” than it has ever assisted.

Lacking scales, a’ la salmon, the scrappy sea lamprey is this fishway’s—and the Connecticut River restoration’s, single, unequivocal, unintended success.  By the end of the 2010 spawning season Rainbow had passed a grand total of 4 hybrid salmon.  But 3,090 sea lamprey made it out the top of Rainbow–exhausted, but otherwise uninjured.  Concurrently, those narrow, flaying, concrete slots injured and likely killed all 548 American shad and 25 blueback herring that were counted as “passing” the fishway.  That number is a trick.  The counting window is located in the bottom third of those 64 treacherous pools–where hapless, de-scaling migrants still have a wrinkle of life left in them when the staff checks them off.

By 1970, just three years after its start, fisheries officials had turned the basics of Connecticut River migratory fish restoration on its head–placing the extinct salmon as priority one, and relegating American shad and blueback herring to poor step-child status.  Their overarching federal mandate was to create “high quality sport fishing opportunities” in the Connecticut basin, and to “provide for the long-term needs of the population for seafood.”  The large, sporty American shad was the top fish named in that mandate; followed by the extinct salmon, and then those migratory herring.  Federal and state managers were entrusted with both river ecology and fish runs. At Rainbow, they crushed the possibilities of both.

Historically, for millennia, American shad fed Native Peoples and later European immigrants throughout the Connecticut Valley.  Herring were salted and eaten too, and used in livestock feed and fertilizer. Here, that extinct salmon had colonized the Connecticut River system just a few hundred years prior at the very southern edge of their cold-water range–during the Little Ice Age in New England, 1400 – 1800 AD, a time of shifting ocean currents and unusual cold for Northern Europe and Northeastern North America.

The salmon were large but few—amounting to perhaps one fish in five thousand in the annual runs of migratory fish.  Though tasty, they never fed the populace.  And, with warming Atlantic currents and the first dams on the Connecticut, the salmon run had died off by 1809.  Yet, in 1976, fisheries officials built this fish trap in the name of salmon, fueled by their trophy fish desires.  It flew in the face river ecology principals, and it has crippled fish restoration on the Farmington and depleted the Connecticut River’s migratory fish stocks for decades.  Four salmon used this ladder in 2010.  Four.

One biologist refers to Rainbow Fishway as “the world’s greatest shad de-scaler.”  That’s what it does–it rakes the scales off hapless two foot-long American shad, drawn into those narrow slots by the upstream current.  Thousand perish annually.  With bellies flayed raw in the effort, they either wash back down downstream, or expire after reaching the top of the dam.  The smaller, foot-long herring receive the same fate.  And the public hasn’t a clue.  Remarkably, Rainbow holds an “open house” each June, with smiling state fisheries personnel standing over a few listless shad, live-trapped at the base of the dam.  They politely explain how the system functions…  The place is a PETA protest waiting to happen.

Though few people admire this member of an ancient order of jawless fish, I’m watching a miraculous creature—one that does nearly everything a salmon restoration effort on the Connecticut never will.  The wonderfully adapted sea lamprey is ghoulish-looking.  They appear more eel-like than fish, but they are fish indeed.  They were thriving before the glaciers arrived here—indeed, living-well before even the molten rise of the Holyoke Range and the ancient layers of earth rose and parted to later become Turners Falls. Sea lamprey were making a good living 200 million years before dinosaurs laid tracks here in the fogs of Valley pre-history.

Lamprey are large, but hardly sexy.  They are writhers, not leapers.  Indeed, upon hatching they will spend well over half an unglamorous decade rooted and waving like worms in riverbed silts, growing slowly as they filter nutrients and detritus from the downstream current.  Then, in an amazing transformation, they head to the sea to spend the final two years of their decade-plus lifespan in the open ocean, maturing quickly into two- and three- foot fish who making a living as ocean parasites attached to larger fish–using their sucking-disc mouths full of hundreds of needle-like teeth to draw in nutrition.

Then, come spring– blind, fasting, and loosing those teeth, they return to the Connecticut River tributaries of their birth to spawn.  Using their powerful sucking jaws, the male and female will move fist-sized rocks to create a rounded rock nest called a redd– remarkably similar to one a salmon would make.  That rock-corral will catch the doomed couple’s fertilized eggs after spawning.  Their life-cycles complete, upon spawning all adult lamprey perish, leaving both their thousands of tiny eggs and their rotting carcasses to the clear-running reaches of Connecticut River tributaries.

In a 2007 study, Drs. Keith Nislow and Boyd Kynard of the UMass-Amherst Dept. of Natural Resources and Conservation surveyed the results of 20 years of sea lamprey spawning research on the Fort River–a Connecticut tributary in Hampshire County, MA.  Their findings show that the quick-rotting carcasses left by spawned-out adult lamprey contribute critical ocean-derived nutrients–including phosphorus and nitrogen, to freshwater systems at a time when other spring nutrient sources are largely unavailable to freshwater organisms.  In short, dead, unlovable, lamprey carry needed “seafood” to our streams—like salmon on the West Coast.

Though you can’t hook’em, sea lamprey were eaten in former times in Hampshire County, and also fed to the hogs, according to Sylvester Judd’s posthumous, 1863, History of Hadley, 1905 edition: “Lampreys came above the falls in great numbers, and entered the streams that run into the Connecticut, until the Holyoke dam was built in 1849.  They were very numerous in Fort River in Hadley, below Smith’s mills, and were caught by the light of torches, sometimes several hundred in a night.  Men waded into the stream, and grasped them with a mittened hand and placed them in a bag…  Some were eaten in a few towns in old Hampshire, but most were carried to Granby, Simsbury and other towns on the Connecticut.”

I’d actually left Simsbury, CT that very morning—biking the six miles to Rainbow Fishway.  It was still early, 8:10, but no one was around.  The gate, supposedly open at 8 a.m., was still locked.  I’d snuck in.  Special “salmon transport” trucks sat idle in a fenced-off area.  The thwack-splash of lamprey was ever present–but no sign of a single shad, herring or salmon, living or dead.  I backtracked over Hatchet Hill to the Farmington River bikeway as jets from nearby Bradley Airport roared above.  I’d make my way through Granby, then across Southwick and Westfield, MA on my way to the Holyoke dam, some 30 miles distant.  I’d told a friend I’d meet him by noon.

By 12:15, I was rolling through the streets of Holyoke, down to the Connecticut and the Holyoke dam at South Hadley Falls.  Grabbing my wallet, I left my loaded bike, and headed over the cement wall to the river near Slim Shad Point.  There, a dozen guys are waist deep in the river, flicking shad darts into an ample current.  My friend Tony is one of them.  They’ve had some luck this morning.  Upstream, the river makes a low roar rolling over the dam and through the spillway at Holyoke Gas & Electric’s generating plant.

I was hoping to catch Tony for lunch, but he’s too involved.  Shad fever, they call it.  He greets me, can hardly turn around—so intent is he on the catch.  “Sorry, I can’t stop,” he says.

One of his compadres, getting that I’d biked from Long Island Sound just the day before, chides, “Geez, he won’t even leave the water to shake this guy’s hand.”  Tony does offer me one tidbit though, “Karl, you’ll never guess what a guy caught this morning.”  From his tone, it’s obvious, a salmon.  “Thirty-three inches,” he laughs, “tossed it back in.”

Though classified as “extirpated” by the USFWS, you still cannot catch or keep the Connecticut hybrid they’ve created through a series of $ million-dollar hatcheries across New England.  Just a few dozen from the millions of industrial-hybrid salmon fry dumped in Connecticut River tributaries each spring grow and survive to adulthood to swim back from the ocean each year.  “Too bad he didn’t keep it,” I say, “We could’ve had a barbeque!”  The fishermen laugh.

I grab my bike and walk the quarter mile back to the Holyoke Fishway next to the dam.  This fishway is the prototype for what should have been the Connecticut River’s successful fish restoration.  Built in 1955, it is the East Coast’s oldest and most successful fish passage facility.  Since 1848, all migratory fish here had been blocked by Holyoke dam.  In its first year, the lift installed here passed over 5,000 American shad–more than the total number of hybrid salmon that have returned over the entire 44 year salmon program—a hatchery based effort that has cost taxpayers well over a half billion dollars.

Simple, direct, elegant—over the last half century the elevators have successfully passed tens of millions of fish upstream here—all kinds, all species—including shad, herring, lamprey, salmon—even endangered shortnose sturgeon.  The design is common-sense-simple: a square, water-filled elevator with one swinging-door side that closes behind fish drawn to it by an ample flow of downstream “attraction” current.  You corral the fish; close the side door–and lift them over the dam.  Done.  A winner, this design is what they might have copied 21 years later, when they built Rainbow.  But they went for sexy, they went for salmon.  Today, they are left with a festering, open sore.

A public viewing site, this is opening day at Holyoke Fishway.  Two of the fishway guides greet me as an old friend, “They’re here,” they assure me.  I climb the stairs.  Scores of shiny blue-green shad are nervously milling in the windows.  A few lamprey are here as well–all waiting to be released upstream.  There are no herring, no salmon, but a lone white sucker lurks near the bottom of the tank.  Still, this window is full of promise–agitated, determined life.

It’s early in the run; the shad are mostly males—sleek, wiry, “bucks” about two feet long.  I check the bulletin board: already 15,000 have passed here.  By season’s end that number will be 164,000, hardly a record.  In 1978 this fishway was further improved by adding a second fish elevator.  The fish runs blossomed.  By the mid-1980s totals of shad and herring here averaged nearly a million fish passing annually.

In 1992, a record 720,000 American shad were lifted at Holyoke dam, as well as 310,000 blueback herring.  But it’s been downhill ever since.  The key reason: in 1978–two years after the Rainbow Fishway became operational, federal and state fisheries experts ordered a second fish trap built—this one at the Connecticut’s next upstream dam from Holyoke’s simple fish elevators: Turners Falls.  If Rainbow proved an ugly slap in the face for the Farmington, the design they insisted on for passing migratory fish blocked at Turners Falls since the time of George Washington proved a devastating blow to fish restoration throughout the Connecticut River basin.

Renamed the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission (CRASC) in 1983, it was this same group of federal and state fisheries directors in 1978 that insisted Northeast Utilities build another system based on Pacific salmon and the Columbia River at Turners Falls.  NU was obligated to create and improve fish passage under federal environmental law and regulatory statutes.  It is an ongoing obligation of all owners of federal generating licenses on the Connecticut, including the current owner—multi-national FirstLight GDF-Suez, a mandate that operators must accept for being allowed to profit from use of the public’s river.  NU, and now FirstLight-GDF Suez, derive great profits from using our river’s power at their Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage-Turners Falls hydro generating complex along a 7-mile stretch of the Connecticut.  Once this new design was completed as requested, it was agreed that no major changes in fish passage would be advanced again until mid-way through the 40-year Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) license—1998.

Completed in 1980, the Turners Falls Fishway proved another day-one disaster—but on a much grander scale.  Federal-state studies from the 1980s quickly documented the failure.  But fisheries officials took little action.  Though the new Turners Falls fish passage complex didn’t kill fish outright, it essentially strangled this river migration’s ancient, upstream connection with the sea right where it had died when a dam was built here in 1798.  Rather than build a proven elevator at the dam suited to all species, they turned the migrating runs out of the ancient riverbed and forced them to attempt an upstream run through the punishing flows and the barren, silt-and-muck habitats of the Turners Falls Canal.

Annually, hundreds of thousands of shad would arrive, but 98 fish out of 100 fish would repeatedly attempt to pass that two miles of alien habitat and fail—met by the harsh pulses and quick-changing pond levels sent downstream from the unchecked operations at the upstream Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage facility.   That promised ocean-fish sport and seafood connection never reached Vermont and New Hampshire.

So intent was this group on resurrecting extinct salmon, that the pact they made with the power company to get their salmon ladders actually yanked the fish out of the Connecticut River.  They forced them up the impossibly treacherous steps of the “Cabot Ladder,” built at the downstream end of Turners Falls Canal.  The design proved so useless that–other than a handful of hybrid salmon and that ever-remarkable, unfishable, sea lamprey, it has crushed any hope for meaningful fish runs to Vermont and New Hampshire waters for these last 30 years.  That tragedy too, continues.

By utilizing the simple lift design achieved at Holyoke 23 years prior, fish officials would’ve restored the remaining 60% of historic upstream spawning reach for American shad and blueback herring all the way to Bellows Falls, VT, 172-miles from the sea, in a single stroke–a site unreachable since 1798.  Today, shad passage continues to teeter at anywhere between 0 – 5 percent at Turners Falls “fishway.”  Though it doesn’t de-scale shad, its series of ladders and jumbled currents so stresses and depletes shad energy reserves that they simply stall in the lower part of the system, and eventually wind back down to the bottom—only to begin the whole ugly gauntlet over again the next day.  The few that reach the top and enter the canal simply stop migrating at that juncture, languishing for weeks in mud-barren habitat that is nothing like a river.  The herring no longer arrive.

The Turners Falls boondoggle was such an embarrassment that CRASC has worked mightily to keep it quiet.  Responsible US Fish and Wildlife Service and state fisheries officials kept mum, partly because the system DID at least work for the few dozen returning salmon.  Costing taxpayers some $10 million per year via hatchery operations, salaries, and grant studies funded through NOAA, the National Science Foundation, state programs—and a byzantine money pipeline, the 44 year-old effort today known as the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission (CRASC) restoration produced 51 returning hybrid salmon last year.  The numbers reaching Holyoke, the first dam on the main stem Connecticut remain startling: 2005—132 fish; 2006—115 fish; 2007—107 fish; 2008—86 fish; 2009—60; 2010—41 fish.  After decades and over a half billion public dollars spent.

The other federal trust fish included for restoration in their mandate—the shad, the herring, continue their inexorable drift toward eventual failure below Turners Falls dam.  CRASC partners at the $12 million federal Conte Anadromous Fish Lab adjacent to the power company’s canal at Turner Falls, continue to do experiment after experiment on the behavior and genetics of tiny hatchery salmon fry and smolts.  They’ve become quite cozy with the recent and current owners of Northfield/TF hydro operations—who donate a paltry tithing of $40,000 per year for fish counting personnel and a few dilatory experiments proving what we knew in 1980—turning fish out of the Connecticut River and into the Turners Falls Canal is a fatal restoration choice.

The ongoing failure of officials and environmental groups to demand the fish elevator owed to the public at Turners Falls dam these last ten years is a complete abrogation of responsibility.  The current flow regimes–ignored by fisheries and regulatory officials, and ramped-up by operators of the Northfield-Turners Falls hydro complex since deregulation in 1998, compounds the treachery of this fish trap with punishing downstream surges in violation of federal environmental laws license requirements.  When I visited the true riverbed at Turners Falls last April 23rd there was virtually no river flow in the stretch of basin utilized by the federally endangered shortnose sturgeon.

It appears that, for the annual price of a mini-van, corporate donations are enough to keep dithering fisheries scientists and CRASC partners quiet next to that canal–experimenting on an extinct hybrid of a cold-loving species on a warming river in a time of documented climate warming.  At a CRASC meeting last year it was revealed that, under a bit of pressure, CRASC representatives from the USFWS and MA Division of Fisheries were beginning to talk with FirstLight about making long-overdue improvements for fish passage at Turners.  They’d already had an initial meeting—one behind closed doors and without public input.

Astoundingly, the solution they are now talking about is replacing the Cabot salmon ladder with a fish elevator at the same site–they are again ready to continue to steer those fish out of the river and into the same treacherous power canal system they abandoned them to in 1980.   Heck, it works for FirstLight–who can then use all the water they please for their 5.6 billion gallon pumped storage operations at Northfield and power generation in the Turners Falls canal, while ignoring the water levels and flows essential to the Connecticut’s biological integrity in the two empty miles of parched riverbed downstream of TF dam.  If that decision comes to pass, the river will essentially remain as it was upstream of the Turners Falls when that barrier was built in 1798–no shad, no herring, no fishing–no ocean connection, no sea food.  A restoration denied.

I hopped back on my bike that May 5th at Holyoke dam, making the final 30 miles to Greenfield by mid-afternoon.  I’d spend a full day at Long Island Sound, and completed 250 miles of river riding in five days.  But it wasn’t until the Friday of Memorial Day weekend that I completed tracing the historic upstream migration route of American shad and blueback herring to Bellows Falls, VT.  That was a “century ride”—a 100 mile round trip in a single day.  I suppose you could say I could’ve saved the bother.  The gates at both the Vernon and Bellows Falls Public Fishways were locked tight.  The reason was simple: there literally are no fish to see.  By season’s end, just 396 fish had reached that Bellows Falls counting site—392 of them were blind, slithering sea lamprey.

Curiously, on May 1st last year, Northfield Mountain ruined its pumping facility in an attempt to clear two decades worth of silt from its giant reservoir.  The downstream impacts of Northfield’s operations on fish migration were silenced for an entire season, into early August.  Even though state fisheries officials have abrogated all fish counting responsibilities to FirstLight, they were hard pressed to explain this amazing outcome: shad passage jumped an astounding 800% at Turners Falls, with nearly 17,000 fish swimming by—the most shad moving upstream since at least 1996.

What fish officials also couldn’t quite explain was this puzzling outcome: only 290 shad were counted at the next dam, just 20 miles upstream at Vernon, VT.   I’m thinking it likely had something to do with that silt from FirstLight’s Northfield Mountain.  Between May 1st and August 4th, FirstLight quietly flushed at least 45,000 cubic square yards of that muck into the Connecticut just five miles upstream of Turners Falls dam—that’s equal to 40-50 dump truck loads of mud fouling the river daily for a period of over three months.  Tired, and faced with that curtain of darkness, you might stop migrating upstream too.

The EPA finally ordered FirstLight to “cease and desist” their polluting of “the navigable waters of the United States” on August 4–the damage already done.

#          #          #

Release the Connecticut River’s choke-point

Posted by on 26 May 2011 | Tagged as: American shad, Atlantic salmon, blueback herring, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Conte, CRASC, federal trust fish, Nature, New Hampshire, salmon, Uncategorized, USFWS

The following essay/OpEd appeared in the Connecticut River basin this month–printed in The Recorder, Greenfield, MA; The Daily Hampshire Gazette, Northampton, MA; The Times-Argus, Montpelier, VT; and the Montague Reporter, Montague, MA, among others.  It was submitted with the working title: “A long-owed debt on New England’s River.”  Here I have used the tag-line that appeared in the Gazette.

Karl Meyer                                                                 Copyright © 2011 by Karl Meyer

karlm@crocker.com

A long-owed debt on New England’s River

Given a chance to fix the ocean connection on the Connecticut River—the migratory fish link severed at Turners Falls, MA, since John Adams was president, wouldn’t you do it?  If that chance was blown decades back and you had a second shot to rescue New England’s River, you’d do the right thing, right?

The fate of our river for generations to come is currently being decided, out of the public eye.   Agencies responsible for the public trust are negotiating with global giant GFD-Suez/FirstLight.  Negotiators include Caleb Slater of the MA Div. of Fisheries & Wildlife, John Warner of the US Fish & Wildlife Service Field Office, Julie Crocker of NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, and NOAA attorney Kevin Collins.  Talks center on crippled fish passage at Turners Falls–and the fix, long overdue there under provisions in the current federal license controlling Northfield Mountain-Turners Falls hydro operations.

But the proposals under discussion mirror the worst decision made for the Connecticut River since 1978: continuing to send migrating fish into a trap–the Turners Falls power canal.  The reparation talks were announced at a 2010 Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission (CRASC) meeting.  They should have been in place back in 1998, the halfway point in that license.  Ongoing fish passage improvements are a mandated part of FirstLight’s 40 year license, compensation for profiting from use of the public’s river.  Yet studies from the 1980s proved using that canal as a migration conduit was a mistake.

What’s under discussion appears a surrender of the river to conditions surprisingly well-aligned with the unencumbered water-use desires of a for-profit company.  It forces shad and herring into a stress-laden environment nothing like a river–leading to more roiling waters at the powerhouse, where this run has died for centuries.  The one difference is that fish would get an elevator lift into alien, muck-laden habitat–instead of up useless salmon ladders in place since 1980.  Federal Conte Fish Lab scientists continue repeating studies remarkably similar to those of two decades ago, with FirstLight helping fund them.  Yet “improvements” recently touted at US Fish & Wildlife symposium are worse than numbers seen a quarter century back.

Engineers and biologists refer to it as the “by-pass reach.” It’s the Connecticut’s dead reach, the curving, 2-mile, river chasm of ancient shale directly below Turners Falls dam.  It once teemed with migratory life.  Today, flying in the face of federal law, environmental statute and license requirements, this critical river segment goes largely ignored and unregulated–unchallenged in the courts by public agencies and environmental interests.

The “dead reach” is subject, alternately, to withering, water-starved days when flows are cut to a trickle beneath FirstLight’s gates—or, to punishing, quick-changing flood tides there, pushed downstream from their nearby Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage plant.  Giant surges of water pulse into the river through turbines beneath its 5.6 billion gallon mountain reservoir to take advantage of price spikes on the energy “spot” market.  It wreaks havoc with fish and the river.  Like prior owner Northeast Utilities, GDF-Suez wants to continue its punishing practices below the dam—a crippled trench used by federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon.

Those unchecked operations force most migrants to abandon the river below Turners Falls–tricked out of the channel by out-flow from the power canal downstream, and forced “upstream” into its pummeling flows.  Just a tiny portion of migrants succeed in that industrial “by-pass.”  Stressed, depleted, faced with confused currents and an expanse of muck-filled canal leading to more roiling waters near the powerhouse, the fish simply stop migrating.  Shad and herring surrender their upstream spawning impulse at Turners Falls, languishing for weeks in the wide sections of canal—habitat best suited to carp and pond fish.  Barely three fish in a hundred ever pass toward Vermont-New Hampshire waters.

The solution at Turners Falls is simple: build the long-overdue fish lift at the dam, and return regulated spring flows to the crippled “dead reach.”  That simple solution has been in place at Holyoke dam since 1955–the most successful fish passage on the East Coast.  FirstLight, sanctioned by the EPA for dumping 45,000 cubic square yards of silt pollution into the Connecticut last year, can then use that mid-May-early-June window of low electricity demand for mucking-out their power canal, as well as silt in that mountain reservoir.  They’ll then be in compliance when bids begin on a new license, for 2018.

This is New England’s River; these are New England’s fish.  Biologists agree a lift at the dam with ample water in that riverbed will restore the first a bona fide ocean connection to Vermont and New Hampshire since 1798.  With mega-millions spent on a federal program that produced 51 salmon last year, it’s time both fisheries officials and dam owners got the real job done.  Building that lift makes decades of failure and unfulfilled obligations a thing of the past.

#          #          #

Environmental journalist and award-winning children’s author Karl Meyer writes often about the Connecticut River from Greenfield, MA: www.karlmeyerwriting.com

A RIVER RETROSPECTIVE

Posted by on 16 Jan 2011 | Tagged as: alewives, American shad, Atlantic salmon, blueback herring, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Conte, CRASC, salmon hatchery, Uncategorized, USFWS

A RIVER RETROSPECTIVE

Copyright © 2011 by Karl Meyer                                                               January 2011

All Rights Reserved

(This essay, with small edits, appeared in The Recorder and the Rutland Herald in early January.)

The year 2010 echoed the worst of times for New England’s Great River.  Last January 7th, radioactive tritium was found leaking at Entergy’s aging Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, right to the river’s edge.  The plume continues.  As of December 15th, still-rising tritium levels at wells next to the river registered 495,000 picocuries per liter–25-times the EPA safe drinking water standard.  Yet on November 18th, Entergy halted the groundwater extraction that slowed the radionuclide flow to the river.

May 3, 2010, witnessed Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage’s massive failure in what should have been routine maintenance.  They had not removed the sediments from their huge reservoir since 1990.  In this disaster giant turbines and the mile-long tunnel to the river were cemented shut by slumped, hardening sediment.  Owner FirstLight/GDF Suez began quietly shoveling the stuff into the river.  Daily, for 3 months, the equivalent of 40 – 50 dump truck loads of sediment poured in—up to 45,000 cubic square yards by its own estimate.

EPA counsel Michael Wagner says that on June 23rd a boater’s tip noting “a very visible plume of turbid water coming from the area of the Northfield Mountain facility” arrived at its Office of Ecosystem Protection.  EPA’s initial inspection wasn’t until July 15th–with a “cease and desist” order not coming until August 4th for Clean Water Act violations “in the navigable waters of the United States.”  Only 1/3 of the pollution was retrieved; 30,000 cubic square yards were simply flushed away–an oxygen- and-light-robbing assault on the fish, amphibians and myriad invertebrates that are the life of a river.  FirstLight was not fined.

For seven months, silt-choked Northfield produced not a watt of electricity; yet there was no hint of an energy shortage.  It begs the question: how critical, and of what value to the public are these power plants–as they abuse the letter and spirit of federal licenses and environmental laws in profiting from the public’s river?  In the 1950s the Connecticut was famously dubbed “the most beautifully landscaped sewer in America.”  Industry used it as a latrine; agencies and officials ignored it.  The 50s seem to be creeping back.

A further example: a decade back, the already-dismal annual fish passage success for hundreds of thousands of American shad reaching Turners Falls began to hover around 1%–as close to a 1950’s dead-at-the-dam-run as you get.  That began in 1999, when electricity deregulation came to the 7 miles of river comprising the Northfield Mountain/Turners Falls hydro-complex, and Northfield ramped-up its up-and-down manipulation of flows and river levels to profit from short-term energy price spikes.  The rapid fluctuations are experienced acutely at Turners Falls, as the shad attempt to pass upstream.

Last May, without foresight or pointed experimentation from the $12 million federal Conte Fish Lab in Turners, or the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission (CRASC)–the 40 year old state/federal fisheries partnership charged with protecting migratory shad, Northfield inadvertently created its own science experiment by shutting down for 29 weeks.  Some 16,768 shad–the most since 1995, passed Turners dam–an 800% –1,000% increase over the decade’s annual averages.

Those counts, made by Greenfield Community College with FirstLight funding, are suspect and likely low.  Counting equipment crashed on 17 different days at the dam’s “spillway ladder”–the one shad negotiate most effectively.  It’s accessed only when rare, ample flows are released at the dam to the river’s natural bed.  Shad will then by-pass a treacherous ladder two miles south at the canal, and swim directly upriver to the dam.  Shad surged there following a May 27th deluge.  Sadly, 7 more days of data was lost when “gatehouse” counting equipment failed.  Turners “daily” fish counts were AWOL for nearly a month.  Yet even with broken data the impacts of Northfield-Turners flows–long-ignored in lieu of Conte and CRASC’s failed $500-million salmon restoration (51 fish this year), come into stark relief.

It’s 2011, not 1950.  Yet the year’s best river science arose from a giant mistake—and some of its best protection resulted from a citizen picking up a phone.  It’s time for an all-new fisheries commission–and for Northfield-Turners hydro owners to build the fish lift the public’s been owed there for over a decade.  Vermont Yankee’s record speaks for itself: it’s time to shut down.

Greenfield, MA writer and author Karl Meyer writes frequently about the Connecticut River. He followed the shad run by bicycle from Long Island Sound to Bellows Falls, VT, last spring.

Connecticut River special: “Season of Secrets”

Posted by on 04 Aug 2010 | Tagged as: alewives, American shad, Atlantic salmon, Bellows Falls Fishway, blueback herring, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Conte, CRASC, federal trust fish, Politics, salmon, Salmon eggs, salmon hatchery, Uncategorized, USFWS, Vernon Dam Fishway, Walpole

Connecticut River special: “Season of Secrets” with writer Karl Meyer, airs Wednesday, August 4, at 5:30 pm, on Local Bias:  www.gctv.org

(this local Greenfield cable show can be downloaded after tonight’s show, please share the link!)

Greenfield, MA.  August 4, 2010.  Environmental journalist and author Karl Meyer spent this spring and summer blogging and following the Connecticut River’s migratory fish runs, by bicycle, from Long Island Sound at Old Saybrook, CT  to Bellows Falls, VT and North Walpole, NH (www.karlmeyerwriting.com )  This was a follow-up to Meyer’s “Turners Falls Turnaround” in the March 2009 edition of Sanctuary Magazine.  Meyer spends a half hour with GCTV’s “Local-Bias” Host Drew Hutchinson talking about this year’s fish run and the secrecy and cover-ups shrouding the Connecticut River migratory fish restoration–on both the corporate and public agency levels.  Topics include:

  • Salmon farming: a river’s ecological pyramid stood on its head
  • An extinct hybrid at $300,000 per fish in public funds
  • Northfield Mountain-Turners Falls pumped storage operations grind to a halt for an entire migration season and fish passage at Turners Falls skyrockets 800%–from an average of 2000 American shad annually, to nearly 16,000 this spring
  • A year’s worth of American shad at Turners Falls disappears from the record
  • How FirstLight’s Northfield Mountain operations and impacts on river ecology and fish runs remain hidden from the public
  • Fisheries commissioners and Turners Falls Conte Lab scientists fail to respond with science to the most profound experiment handed to them in decades, i.e: What does the Connecticut River and fish passage at Turners Falls look like without Northfield Mountain pumped storage effecting river flows and levels?

“Season of Secrets,” airs Wednesday, August 4, at 5:30 pm; and repeats on Thursday and Friday August 5 & 6, at 9 pm.  The program repeats in those time slots the week of August 8th, and will be available for download on the video on demand page at gctv.org.

Confluence: a river blog

Posted by on 30 Jan 2009 | Tagged as: Confluence: a river blog, Uncategorized

Confluence: a river blog © 2009 by Karl Meyer

Confluence: entry one, January 28, 2009

I spent an hour walking in the snowy woods along the edges of a ridge that presides above the confluence of the Connecticut and Deerfield rivers. I walk there frequently. It’s a jumble of shorter and longer trails, some up, some down. You can pick your length and pretty much get what you want from a walk just ten minutes beyond the center of town. It’s an extension of the Pocumtuck Ridge, an ancient basalt escarpment that extends two miles to the north, and maybe six miles south of here. It’s interrupted by the water gap here where the Deerfield was forced to enter the Connecticut from an upstream angle due to this ancient rock formation. There is energy along this corridor.

As I walk the morning is cold, in the teens and sunny, but otherwise unremarkable. A few tufted titmice are beginning to hold forth with extended notes, foretelling their anticipation of spring—still months distant. If you take any one of the trails diverging from the main paths you can generally have a solitary walk in these woods. Noise from the outside world is not excluded completely, but it is generally a distant muffle against the sound of your own footsteps. As I circle down and then up along the shoulder of the ridge tumbling toward the Deerfield, I note through the trees for the first time that the river, half-obscured by my angle looking south from this ridge, is snow covered and frozen. I don’t recall that from last year—this being my second winter walking these trails.

What are remarkable, apart from the prints of snowshoes, skis, people and dogs along this trail, are the easily identifiable deviations of the wild creatures. Of most note are the tracks of coyotes which lead off in bee-line fashion at steep angles from the beaten paths, veering toward ridge lines and bounding down hillsides as they go about their wild business. It is pair bonding time for this species. These woods are busy each night as dusk descends. Rising up the hill from a site near the mouth of the Deerfield, comes a steady low hum and then banging echoes of a metal recovery works. Beyond that and opposite on the Deerfield sits the sprawling and sometimes busy track grid of the East Deerfield rail yard—still a significant switching station here in the Northeast. From there the rumbles of idling locomotives and the chain-slamming start-ups of train vibrate the air.

As I finish my loop here I am angling up hill with a view north toward a gap in the ridge with pure blue sky looming above. Something pulls my eyes in that direction and I’m struck with the absolute blue of the sky spreading beyond that snow covered lookout. It is such a deep blue I am momentarily dumbfounded—the stuff that you might pick out of the pure selections offered from a computer program for brochure printing. Only this is the real thing: deep, clear, clean blue. It is a saturated natural canvass, and one that I scarcely remember coming across before. There must be some interplay of sun, snow, and ridgeline color, and the angle of late-morning January light that has caused it, but all I can think is that it is magnificent.

I’m trying to capture this in my head, azure?—cerulean??—I’ve never been good with color descriptors. A speck glides into view against that canvass. It slides across with a flap or two of its wings, and then simply floats northward above the ridge. Though it is perhaps a seven hundred feet up there is no mistaking this raptor. White tail, white head, dark body—strong, flat-winged glide: bald eagle. I count back in my head and realize that this will be the ten year anniversary of the return of naturally nesting bald eagles to the shores of the Connecticut. That nest is less than three miles from here. It’s possible that’s where this bird is heading. Against the blue I’m reminded of the eleventh hour attempt by the Bush Administration to turn back many of the tenets that brought this species back here for the first time in over a century—the Endangered Species Act.

Day dreams

Posted by on 13 Nov 2007 | Tagged as: Uncategorized

Day dreams 

Spending an entire day outdoors is unusual in these electronic times.  Fortunately there are a couple of yearly dates I rely on to get me outside all day.  These often echo back to me as some of the most memorable in my yearly cycle.  The Christmas bird count is one, and another is a Memorial Day bike ride around Quabbin Reservoir.  I’ve been doing both for more than two decades.  A third, added a decade back, is helping with race course duties and bus parking at the state high school cross country running championships in Northfield.  No matter the weather, these events are often remarkable.

This year’s November 10th cross country race was no different.  Lightly overcast and cold in the morning, the early afternoon turned to bright sunshine.  What I love most about this event–besides getting upwards of forty school buses arranged in unobstructed rows, is the glory of watching all those young, fit, high-schoolers doing something that I could not even touch when I was their age.  I was a pretty asthmatic kid; distance running was out of the question.

But these young people are a wonder.  Their athleticism, their stride, enthusiasm—their accomplishment, amazes me.  For some this may be the peak of their high school sports experience.  For others it is only a beginning; they’ll be at this for years to come.  For others still, you just know that their participation is the victory–to have made the team and stuck with it.  For them, finishing the course this day–some of them lumbering, limping, walking at times, is a benchmark all its own.

 As a bystander I applaud  them all.  That first place kid is no more heroic than the overweight, scrawny, disadvantaged, or flakey kid digging out those last bit of guts and stamina to complete a grueling three-mile run.  Not a few straggle to the finish line under the stares and cheers of hundreds of parents and classmates.  Every kid that runs is a winner.  Watching them makes me smile.

The other thing that made me smile on race day were the birds: snow buntings–in early November.  The race was still two hours off when the first few buses arrived.  So I’m there with nothing to do for minutes at a time, until the next bus tops the horizon.  But then, in the half-sunshine, a small, lilting knot of birds veers into view.  They circled wide over a grassy area, and nervously alight in a patch of pebbly dirt near the road.  As they slow to land I catch the white wing-bar flashes on these tawny, tan-white, flyers.  Snow buntings!

Winter birds!  Snow buntings are not a common sight from year to year, particularly if you don’t get out to their open habitats often.  And, with our “open”—sometimes snow-deprived, winters of late, even if they are around, their field choices can be immense.  You’re best to look for them along the windswept edges of snowy fields and roadsides.  Small airports and landfills are snow bunting specialties. 

But here they were, early, at what could possibly be the front end of a real New England winter—one with snow.  I was delighted.  They had just settled about thirty-five feet from me when they decided that my immobile stare was something of a threat.  They took to the air, undulating in a tight-ish flock, wing bars flashing in the light.  There are certain habits you get to know if you follow birds for a while.  The buntings flew in a half arc, this one fairly narrow, then simply put down at the field edge on the opposite side of the pavement.  They settled about sixty feet away.  I hardly moved as I watched their repositioning—reconfirming that these would be my first grassy species of the new season.  No mistake—snow buntings.  However, the birds quickly changed their mind about their new parking area and took off in their wavering flock of fifteen or twenty–heading to greener pastures among the sprawling of open fields to the north.  Still, like the young runners, I applaud them just showing up.

I shared my story with another friend who was helping with the race.  She tracks birds, and told me she’d heard it was going to be a good year for winter finches and buntings.  The wild seed crop in the north that includes the spruce-fir forests and boggy openings known as the Canadian Shield, has apparently been poor this year.  When that happens, those species will migrate further south to locate food.  She says she’s already had pine siskins at her feeder. 

At some point the final wave of runners sprinted up the starting hill that afternoon; then the last of those fire-breathing young dragons pulled themselves, limping, through the toughest three hundred yards, reaching the finish line.  I was yanking down flags, stakes, and fencing while race scores were being broadcast to hundreds of assembled kids and parents through a megaphone.  Cheers and applause filled the cool fall air.  A Cooper’s hawk gave two solid strokes of its wings, then angled high over the grassy fields, scarcely noticed.  One by one the buses peeled away.

I dozed off to sleep later that night after putting down a book of stories written by a Canadian doctor.  One was about a hallucinating patient and a questioning of reality upon seeing a purple bird–indoors and out of season.  Do you believe the vision, the patient, or discard all of those unlikely notions for a common sense explanation?  I awoke in the middle of that night, remembering that somewhere in my dream I’d clearly heard a house wren’s sweet, spitfire song.  They are months gone from this part of New England. 

The next time I woke–hours closer to actual morning, I’d been dreaming I was staring out a window on a mixed flock of birds.  Most were in a tree in the background.  Some were finches; and a very yellow one probably was a goldfinch.  But I remember thinking in my dream–maybe it’s a yellow warbler.  And I’m certain–quite certain, that I heard the fragmented, late-summer calls of a rufus-sided towhee.  Wasn’t that it, right there in the background of that tree?–here in southern New England in the middle of November??  My night’s gleanings from a day outdoors.

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