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Connecticut River blog: portage parade a quagmire of mixed motives

Posted by on 15 Jul 2021 | Tagged as: Andrew Fisk, Bellows Falls VT, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Connecticut River Conservancy, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River Watershed Council, Conte National Fish & Wildlife Refuge, CRASC, CRC, Dead Reach, Deerfield River, Eversource, FirstLight, FirstLight Power, Landmark Supreme Court Decision 1872, New Hampshire, Northeast Utilities, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project, NU/WMECO, portage parade, PSP Investments, public trust, Rock Dam, Silvio O. Conte Connecticut River National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, State of Delaware, Turners Falls, United State Supreme Court, Vermont

Connecticut River blog: portage parade a quagmire of mixed motives.

Copyright © 2021 by Karl Meyer


It was a little four-boat affair at Turners Falls on July 10, 2021. Photo Copyright © 2021 by Karl Meyer

On Saturday, July 10, 2021, Dr. Andy Fisk, Chair of the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission (CRASC), stood alongside a lawyer on the banks of the Connecticut River in the Village of Turners Falls in Montague MA. That lawyer was not an employee of the Connecticut River Conservancy, which Fisk also directs (that 69 year old organization has never had a staff lawyer), and this was not a gathering about salmon (the last natural run of salmon occurred on the Connecticut in 1809), or any of the endangered or federal trust fish in this tiny, embattled ecosystem reach they were here to highlight. The Connecticut River Watershed Council (today d.b.a. The Connecticut River Conservancy) had brought along Bob Nasdor of American Whitewater. That recreation organization’s crash-helmet-attired attorney and legal advocate was here as part of a CRC press conference and their touted public “portage parade.”

This, just upstream of the Turners Falls Dam, was an event aimed at getting scheduled flow releases from Canada-own FirstLight, and more water, plus an easy access path past the dam for joy-riding paddlers and rafters seeking a chance to dive into the most impoverished, endangered, historic and biologically sensitive 2-1/2 miles in the entire Connecticut River ecosystem.

As parades go, it hardly made a splash. Ultimately around two dozen people assembled, though fully half were CRC staff, family members, and CRC’s handful of invited speakers. The other speakers included Walter Ramsey, planner and conservation agent for the Town of Montague, as well as representatives of the Appalachian Mountain Club, American Whitewater and All Out Adventures. Three CRC staff were recording the event for further promotion. In reality about a dozen members of the public showed up to the “parade”, plus two journalists.


Revving up the “crowd” at Turners. Photo Copyright © 2021 by Karl Meyer

Funny thing–to prioritize commerce and recreation at a site that has been a half century without healing water, one that represents the epitome of historically fragile and endangered habitat. Strange bedfellows, these. Montague’s conservation agent was one more case in point. He noted that the town gets 20% of its tax revenue from Canada-owned, Delaware-registered FirstLight Power, so he wouldn’t want to see more water being returned to the impoverished Connecticut because that would mean less water diverted down the Turners Falls power canal–and less returned tax cash from their Delaware tax-sheltered, FirstLight LLC corporate absentee landlords/neighbors.

On the other hand, Ramsey noted, he is desirous of the economic bump a tourist town gets by drawing-in traffic for water sports. Those big, partying, river-running crowds so often filling the channels and pull-offs on the Deerfield mean big tourist dollars. What could be better?

In that vein though, there was no mixed message or hesitation at all on the part of the paddle-packing Bob Nasdor. He told those assembled that he sees access to this short river stretch that features one single, tiny rapid (incidentally it’s at precisely the shortnose sturgeon’s fragile and crumbling habitat and nursery) as a “tremendous opportunity”–naming the big commercial rafting outfits over on the Deerfield as well as people arriving for “tubing” as parties that have an eager interest in accessing the river here. This despite expert commentary from shortnose sturgeon biologist Dr. Boyd Kynard already in the FERC record stating that watercraft pose a danger to spawning and developing sturgeon here at their Rock Dam habitat.

As a journalist I thought this publicized press event would be a real opportunity to ask about why CRC had taken no action concerning the clearly dissolving Connecticut riverbanks just downstream in the critical and sole documented natural spawning site of the shortnose sturgeon. Its fragile nursery environs are at a tiny place in the river called the Rock Dam. Those failing Connecticut River banks are owned by FirstLight Power, and adjacent to their power canal.

So it seemed a good question to get an answer to with the public present: was it because CRC has no lawyer?–or because they accept money from the MA Department of Environmental Protection?—that they’ve wholly avoided the site and taken no action, never sought an injunction or tested water or intervened as members of the Connecticut River Streambank Erosion Committee?


Here are the dissolving, slumping–sink-hole deepening Connecticut River banks at the Rock Dam site on the day of the “portage parade,” July 10, 2021. Photo Copyright © 2021 by Karl Meyer

Ironically, this line of questioning was in nearly the exact same vein as the questions I’d put to Andy Fisk a half decade ago. That was when they decided to hold a discussion in Brattleboro, Vermont about river recreation access–including the all-but-asphyxiated Dead Reach of this Rock Dam river section, where shortnose sturgeon have been annually crippled in successful spawning in their ancient, critical habitat and fragile nursery site for a half century. My questions were not welcome back then either.

This day Director Fisk simply claimed that CRC was taking action. He clearly did not wish to go into any particulars answering in front of the handful of public paraders. He seemed quite rushed, all of a sudden. When I pressed him on several areas of exactly where that action was, and a long timeline where no action whatsoever has been taken, he ended my queries and put the mike down. Unbeknownst to me, a live-feed was being streamed by CRC and it was abruptly shut down when I began my questioning. I heard about this later.

Once the crowd moved away he walked up to reengage–but my questions remained the same, and his responses revealed no on-the-ground action at this critical site. Actually, CRC has filmed and promoted themselves everywhere in this little 2-1/2 mile reach BUT at the dissolving riverbanks and dewatered critical sturgeon habitat on this river. There are videos of a sea lamprey cookout and a swimming hole celebration nearby—plus a big celebration of baby lamprey rescues in the power canal. Now there’s some low hanging fruit protecting a fish that will likely survive Armageddon. But never have they ever brought a parade of people down to that fragile Rock Dam site and filmed them with a backdrop of dissolving Connecticut River banks and baking cobbles where young-of-the-year endangered shortnose sturgeon should be developing.

It’s not hard to find CRC OPINIONS delivered to federal and state entities on a whole host of river issues. They send in all sorts of formal comments. But please, don’t call them a watchdog. Watchdogs inspire fear in companies and public agencies when they break laws or fail to enforce them. They take action. They have hungry, day-to-day staff lawyers–and their missions state clearly: we investigate, we enforce; we go to court–we sue corporations.

CRC gets lots of grant funding from the very agencies they should be forcing to do their jobs. So, don’t look for action there. And, of course, they have an endless legacy going back to their beginnings as close friends and recipients of monies from WMECO/Northeast Utilities, (d.b.a. Eversource) who built the crippling facilities that today dominate this miserable stretch of river. Join the annually major-sponsored Eversource-to-sea clean-up…!

Eversource remains massively—commercially, wired into today’s FirstLight river-crippling facilities at both Northfield and Turners Falls, both parent-owned by PSP Investments of Canada. These facilities trample the key ecosystem functions of New England’s Great River in the heart of the Silvio O. Conte Connecticut River National Fish & Wildlife Refuge all the way from Greenfield and Turners Falls MA to Bellows Falls VT and Walpole NH. Both facilities remain in violation of the landmark environmental 1872 decision of the US Supreme Court—based just downstream on this river in Holyoke Company v. Lyman. It ruled that migratory fish must be provided safe upstream and downstream passage on this and all US rivers. Here, that means all the way up to central Vermont and New Hampshire–and back.

Canadian venture capital outfit PSP/FirstLight Power is playing for keeps. They arrived here to run the giant river and energy-sucking, net-power-loss operations at Northfield Mountain and the smaller Turners Falls ops for long-term cash a full 144 years after the Supreme Court made those critical protections the law of this land . But, judging by priorities here, it seems those foreign venture capitalists have come to the right US river system…

This was an extremely small parade.

Living rivers come first.

Be careful what you wish for…

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