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EMPTIED RIVER NOTES: May 19, 2021

Posted by on 19 May 2021 | Tagged as: 1872, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River Refuge, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Conte National Fish & Wildlife Refuge, Endangered Species Act, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, FirstLight, fish passage, Great Falls, Landmark Supreme Court Decision 1872, Monte Belmonte, Northfield Mountain, Peskeomscut, Relicensing, Rock Dam, Turners Falls, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls Massacre, United State Supreme Court, Vernon Dam Fishway

Copyright © 2021 by Karl Meyer

I took a bicycle ride 20 miles upstream to Vernon Dam this day in hopes of finding a few fish in the windows there. It proved a fruitless journey, though a pretty ride on a summer-like afternoon. There were plenty of lively bubbles in the windows, but not a single shad or early lamprey. Nothing.

The Vernon Fishladder and Dam Photo Copyright © 2021 by Karl Meyer

This was a river site smack in the midst of migration season that should have seen its first shad weeks ago. But here, on an 80 degree day, nothing.

The Connecticut’s DEAD REACH below Turners Falls Dam Photo Copyright © 2021 by Karl Meyer

That nothing is because the river downstream below Turners Falls Dam is all but empty. A thin stream of perhaps 1000 cubic feet per second is being dumped over the dam. What should be here, a full three years after the federal license for the hydro site expired, are flows on the order of 5X higher. That water, instead, continues to be dumped into FirstLight’s power canal in order to get an extra peak-priced power jump that puts more money in their coffers and leaves federal trust American shad and federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon starved of migration and spawning flows necessary for them to complete their life cycles in their natural habitats.

For the shad, that fully should now include the 50 miles of open spawning habitat above TF Dam that reaches to Bellows Falls VT and Charlestown NH. But, without water in the DEAD REACH for yet another year, their percentage-prospects for that are in the very low single digits.

The exposed and baking cobbles at Rock Dam, where shortnose sturgeon eggs and early life stage young are supposed to find watery shelter. Photo Copyright © 2021 by Karl Meyer

And, the endangered sturgeon, well, the message from the company is simply–tough luck. Flows at their only documented natural spawning site in the entire ecosystem have be dismal at their Rock Dam nursery and refuge. They were Monday, and Tuesday, and again today. This is a river run by foreigners with no mercy. And, in the midst of all this–in the midst of a a relicensing for facilities whose current license ENDED three spawning seasons back, no one has stepped up for the Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon in their time of greatest need. Another season, another sidestep for federal and state fish and environment agencies who fail to act again… and again. And, just one more year for a river without a single independent watchdog–on the four-state Silvio O. Conte Connecticut River National FISH & Wildlife Refuge.

This is a river that, 174 years after the US Supreme Court made the landmark(1872) environmental decision in HOLYOKE COMPANY v. LYMAN that dam and facility operators must ensure safe upstream and downstream passage for migratory fish, does not even have a single day-to-day attorney, as even the most bare bones watchdog organization would. And the one on this river has been around since Truman was president.

No water, no watchdog, no ESA enforcement. Corporate Canada–which today owns Northfield Mountain and Turners Falls/Cabot operations, has nothing to fear in this “refuge.” And, the other sad irony, not lost on me as I made my way upstream, is that today is the solemn anniversary of the Turners Falls Massacre, the grim genocidal event that wrested sovereignty from Native People in today’s southern New England on May 19, 1676. They were ambushed in the pre-dawn at Peskeomscut, the great falls, because they had come to the banks of a living river that would feed them, offer them water, shelter, and rest as it had for generations past. It was a respite that was not to endure…

Something there yet remains evident today in the starved riverbed. Recovery is still a dream denied to this place. There is yet little life. This a place that awaits healing water that might again make it whole once more.

Today it sits abandoned, reduced to computations and algorithms that see only money and megawatts as a river’s reason to be…

NOTE: Please click on the link below which includes an invitation to the WalK-the-Walk for Endangered Sturgeon to Rock Dam this Saturday. It is important that people show up for the River. Please join myself and others. And please be aware that there is some steep terrain on this walk.

https://wrsi.com/monte/how-to-save-the-shortnose-sturgeon/

Justice for New England’s Embattled River

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


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

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

Copyright © 2019 by Karl Meyer. All Rights Reserved.

Justice for New England’s Embattled River

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Karl Meyer: Connecticut River dam owners pulling a fast one