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DON’T SHORT-SELL NEW ENGLAND’S GREAT RIVER

Posted by on 17 Mar 2017 | Tagged as: Alex Haro, American Whitewater, Andrew Fisk, Bob Nasdor, Caleb Slater, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River migratory fisheries restoration, Connecticut River Watershed Council, CRWC, Dr. Boyd Kynard, ecosystem, Endangered Species Act, ESA, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FERC, FERC licensing process, FirstLight, Holyoke Gas & Electric, John Warner, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, National Marine Fisheries Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, NMFS, NOAA, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, PSP Investments, public trust, Relicensing, Sean McDermott, Society of Environmental Journalists, The Nature Conservancy, Turners Falls, Turners Falls dam, US Fish & Wildlife Service, US Geological Survey

(Note: the following piece appeared in The Recorder, www.recorder.com, on March 11, 2017 under the heading: “Who will protect Connecticut River?”)

DON’T SHORT-SELL NEW ENGLAND’S GREAT RIVER

Copyright © 2017 by Karl Meyer

Canadian investors are looking to purchase the Connecticut River for a few decades, cheap and quick. Canada’s Public Sector Pension Investment Board bought up the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station and Turners Falls hydro complex last year as part of PSP Investments. Their New England power play comes in the middle of the 5-year relicensing process for both facilities. That Federal Energy Regulatory Commission process will decide future conditions impacting this four-state ecosystem for decades.

The long-failed Cabot Station Fish Ladder on the Connecticut and competing flows flushing down the Turners Falls Power Canal’s Emergency Spillway. (Note:CLICK, THEN CLICK AGAIN TO ENLARGE.)

Thus, PSP may soon hold sway over what’s long been the most desolate 10-mile stretch of the entire Connecticut. It includes 2.1 miles of riverbed sitting empty for months at a time below Turners Falls Dam. It also includes the reach where, nearly 20 years back, federal fisheries expert Dr. Boyd Kynard found his boat being yanked backward—the Connecticut pulled into reverse by the suction of the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station while he was drifting for bass a mile downstream near the French King Bridge. Looked at fully, it encompasses the entire reach where a 50 year federal migratory fisheries restoration program has long foundered.

On March 7th, after four years of meetings, thousands of pages of reports–and with volumes of study information incomplete and disputed, owners of these FirstLight-branded facilities are hoping select interests agree to take licensing talks underground. They’ll be fishing for backroom deals at a Boston area hotel well before this process has had a full public vetting. FL wants to take this little party private, fast. They’re asking invitees to agree to an embargo on public information about settlement talks, positions and decisions.

The key phrase in their invitation reads: “Because this meeting is intended to initiate confidential settlement discussions, it will not be open to the press or general public.” That’s FirstLight’s Director of Massachusetts Hydro Gus Bakas. His selected invitees include the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration(Sean McDermott), US Fish & Wildlife Service(John Warner), US Geological Survey(Alex Haro), MA Fish & Wildlife(Caleb Slater), towns including Erving, Gill, Northfield, Montague, the Franklin Regional Council of Governments, The Nature Conservancy(Katie Kennedy), the Connecticut River Watershed Council(Andrew Fisk), and American Whitewater(Bob Nasdor).

That FirstLight stipulation is part of the quick-bait to get stakeholders thinking the time is right to cut deals. Sign-up, shut up; then we’ll talk. Cash out with what you can get for your agency, town, non-profit; or your fun-time rafting interests. Promises from this venture capitalist firm–in what’s become an ownership merry-go-round for these facilities, will surely all come true.

Ironically, many of these invitees descend directly from those who failed to step in and step up for the decimated river here decades back. They’re agencies and so-called watchdogs who failed to enforce laws and conditions negotiated when they were signatories to settlement talks for NMPS and Turners Falls nearly 40 years back–and for the 1999 FERC license negotiated for Holyoke Dam as well. At that site, Holyoke Gas & Electric just finally completed required improvements for endangered shortnose sturgeon last spring. Their license had mandated they be completed in 2008. Eight years, nine–no suits, no injunctions; no action.

Maybe that’s because the Watershed Council’s board chair works for HG & E, or because a significant number of board members are retirees from the region’s legacy power companies. Or, might it be because CRWC receives grant monies from National Marine Fisheries, US Fish & Wildlife, and MA Division of Fisheries, that these agencies were never taken to court for the withering spawning conditions and crippling flows experienced by federal trust American shad and federally endangered sturgeon in the reaches from Turners Falls to Northfield?

So who can our river look to for environmental protections under the National Environmental Policy Act, the Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Clean Water Act in the future?

Fourteen months remain in this relicensing. Key reports won’t be available until April, while other critical study information won’t be out until July. Some studies may need repeating. The best future for New England’s River will not be well served by quick-and-dirty agreements made in the shadows. Remember, Dear Stakeholders, it’s your names that will be forever associated with the conditions on a future Connecticut River—the river your grandchildren will be relying on. This is no time to sell the Connecticut short. What’s your price for a river’s soul?

Karl Meyer of Greenfield is on the Fish and Aquatics Study Team in the FERC relicensing for the Northfield Mountain and Turners Falls hydro facilities. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

(Note: Bob Nasdor is former director of the Massachusetts Commission on Open Government.)

END

NOAA has once-in-a-lifetime Recovery Plan opportunity for sturgeon

Posted by on 17 Jan 2017 | Tagged as: Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Dr. Boyd Kynard, endangerd shortnose sturgeon, ESA, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Jack Buckley, MA Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, Mr. John Bullard, National Marine Fisheries Service, NOAA, NOAA Fisheries Regional Administrator, Regional Director of the National Marine Fisheries Service, Rock Dam, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS, Wendi Weber

KM-Rock Dam program 4-23-16
(Above:crowd attending shortnose sturgeon program at the Rock Dam spawning site, April 2016. Presenters were Dr. Boyd Kynard and me. CLICK and click again to ENLARGE.)

Below is a letter to Regional NOAA Fisheries Director John Bullard requesting immediate action to gather small funds to take advantage of a unique Recovery Plan Step that has literally been waiting in the wings for 167 years. Small Recovery Plan funds are needed to monitor newly-returning endangered shortnose sturgeon as they regain upstream access to their natural spawning reach in the Connecticut River for the FIRST TIME SINCE 1849! Recovery Plan opportunities and low-cost, critical federal science in the public interest come around but once in a Blue Moon.

Please feel free to copy the text of this letter, paste in your own information noting your concerns, and forward to Mr. Bullard and the two other fisheries directors cc’d here. Help these newly-arriving federally endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon successfully SPAWN on their ancient home grounds for the first time in over a century and a half!

Karl Meyer
Greenfield, MA
413-773-0006

Mr. John K. Bullard, NOAA Fisheries Regional Administrator January 16, 2017
Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office
55 Republic Drive
Gloucester, MA 01930
john.bullard@noaa.gov

Dear Mr. Bullard,

I’m one of many New Englanders anxious to see the Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon begin its long-belated recovery here by finally having a chance to regain its documented natural spawning habitat in Turners Falls–and experiencing conditions where it can successfully reproduce. Nine years late license agreements at Holyoke Dam have finally been met allowing SNS to pass upstream in significant numbers. This is literally the first progress made in this species’ name here since it was placed on the original federal Endangered Species List in 1967. And this is the first time since 1849 that these fish will have a real chance at increasing their genetic diversity, as well as their numbers. This is their chance at recovery.

It’s come to my attention that a unique opportunity exists to track SNS in the By Pass Reach of the Connecticut River in Turners Falls this spring. The USGS Conte Lab has proposed a straightforward, acceptable, and verifiable study plan. Apparently all that is needed for this simple study to go forward is $20,000. This is an extremely modest expenditure for your agency. This unique opportunity to collect information in the first season in 167 years that SNS have been able to return upstream to this site will never come around again. This study will document whether these fish are successfully arriving and accessing their chosen age-old spawning habitats. Critical, baseline information.

NOAA’s own banner states it provides science based conservation and management for sustainable fisheries and aquaculture, marine mammals, endangered species, and their habitats. There is no better belated-opportunity to fulfill that mandate vis-à-vis the Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon than to provide the small funding this study requires. Members of your endangered species team are aware of this, and have expressed enthusiasm for this study to go forward. Further, your fisheries colleagues from other federal and state agencies share a common mandate and concern for the SNS’s protection and recovery. This modest study will help to further that end, particularly given that in just 15 months a new federal license will be signed with the new Canadian owners of these hydro installation and facilities whose operation will directly impact the recovery and spawning success of SNS.

This time-sensitive request for small funding can demonstrate due diligence by NOAA in its migratory fisheries and habitat protections mandate here. Please make us proud of NOAA’s shortnose sturgeon Recovery Plan efforts and make these funds available immediately so that this key spring work can go forward. Your colleagues, state and regional directors at USFWS and MA Division of Fish & Wildlife may be able contribute as well as both Ms. Weber and Mr. Buckley have hands-on experience with endangered SNS research. They are being cc’d here. Thank you.

Sincerely,
Karl Meyer
Cc: Wendi_Weber@fws.gov; jack.buckley@state.ma.us

(BELOW: the Rock Dam and its adjacent pool to the left–the sole documented natural spawning site for shortnose sturgeon on the Connecticut River. USGS Conte Fish Lab is a few hundred yards southeast of this site. CLICK to enlarge; then click again.)
P1000433

On Walking

Posted by on 15 Nov 2016 | Tagged as: American shad, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River migratory fisheries restoration, Henry David Thoreau, John Hanson Mitchell, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, National Marine Fisheries Service, Northfield Mountain, Society of Environmental Journalists, The Great Eddy, Turners Falls dam, US Fish & Wildlife Service, Walking

NOTE: the following essay first appeared in edited form in Spring 2016 in a book of essays published by the Massachusetts Audubon Society entitled The Quiet Earth. That publication represented the final work of the Society’s Sanctuary Magazine staff, including founder and long-time writer/editor and author John Hanson Mitchell; writer-editor Ann Prince, Rose Murphy, and others. For decades, Sanctuary was the flagship publication that helped define MA Audubon in the public square, offering insights into the heart and soul of a caring and engaged organization.

dead-reach-ladder-and-canal

ABOVE: In the foreground the disastrous fish ladder built at Turners Falls in 1980; leading all migratory fish into the deadly Turners Falls Power Canal–in upper background with bridge, here looking downstream.(CLICK; then click again to enlarge.)

Copyright © 2016 by Karl Meyer

ON WALKING

“I like walking because it is slow, and I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour. If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, or thoughtfulness.” Rebecca Solnit, from Wanderlust: A History of Walking.

I was deep in thought when the SUV pulled up. “Would you like a ride?” This was Herb, who’d repaired my computer a few times when I lived up this way. I’d just crossed into Shelburne Falls on a walk along the Deerfield from East Charlemont through parts of Buckland. “No thanks” I said, “but thanks for asking.” “But you’re limping,” he noted, a bit concerned. “Actually” I said, “I’ve been limping since I was twenty. If I stop limping, I’ll stop limping.”

There’s some truth to that last statement. My right hip is an inch higher than the left one—not by design. Some people notice the hitch in my gate, but most don’t. Still, I’m always grateful to be moving about the landscape under my own power. But I almost blew all that once—in one of those course-altering moments that occur in each life. Though some take time and reflection to recognize, this one was different.

This one transpired under a blistering August sun on the desert prairie of north Texas. For several minutes, broken and bleeding, I wasn’t sure I’d walk again. I’d just failed to vault over a looming guardrail from the back of a speeding motorcycle—my ragged skeleton cart-wheeling several times before coming to a halt. And there I lay like crumpled paper, an unspeakable pain hammered my extremities.

Someone finally came to help me out of a fogging helmet. An ambulance had been summoned. “Hang on, I’ll be back” he said, running off to locate the motorbike’s injured driver. It was then that I finally looked down at ripped jeans and some oddly turned legs that didn’t seem my own. I turned away, wanting to disappear into the Texas hardpan. But beyond that pain, there was also a profound numbness separating me from those odd-angled legs. They no longer felt part of me. Under assault, my mind and body seemed to have parted ways, perhaps forever.

At 50 miles an hour I’d made hash of all the strongest bones in the body. I knew then something more was required. I was 20 years old and had to know “Will I walk again?” Summoning all my courage I turned to face the moment. Against electrifying pain–and observing from what seemed a great distance, I gasped as my right knee twitched; then nudged up half an inch. “I’ll live,” I told myself, crumbling back in shock. That dodgy self-assessment likely helped save me.

Two months and five days later I left Wichita Falls General Hospital, rail-thin and barely able to take a few steps. I wasn’t well enough to travel home, but, I was in love. I’d continue recuperating at the apartment of one of the nurse’s aides who’d held my hand through weeks of surgeries and traction. It was absurdly romantic. My angel’s name was Karin.

Yet amongst those weeks of developing romance were endless days when no one visited. I’d only been in Texas for weeks before the crash–my people were all in New Jersey. Healing time crept by slowly; sometimes not at all. August drifted to September, which lumbered on into October. Dead center in Tornado Alley, fall settled in heavy and still, its light strange. Billowing storms flashed past hospital windows, yet I couldn’t detect any change in the season.

I daydreamed of home—of friends; familiar sights. But it was more than just a longing for things known. I craved my little corner of earth. My most fervent desire—one still tangibly sharp today, was to simply shuffle, ankle deep, through a pile of October leaves.

It’s been two years since Herb pulled up and offered me that lift. I live in Greenfield and close to town these days–where I often leave my car idle in the driveway for a week or more. I walk almost daily, more purposely in winter for the sun and its helpful shot of Vitamin D. In warmer months I move alternately by foot and bicycle, sometimes both. No matter the means, that quiet travel fulfills a longing to understand landscape and habitat, and to tread lightly across fertile tracts.

And I always go untethered. There isn’t a cell phone or I-Pod along. People today seem indifferent to their surroundings in proportion to the amount of digital armor weighing them down. Out in the world, they’re literally elsewhere–peering at screens telling them when to step left or right. We blithely wrap ourselves in the ever-spreading electric grid that’s now overheating our habitat—while denying any interdependence on what’s literally under our feet. We’ve allowed ourselves to become a pod-race of savants, vulnerable to interruptions of electro-magnetic pulses that can instantly pitch our daily lives all into an apoplectic stupor.

I was a full year recovering from that motorbike accident—three aspirin at a time, four times a day. Left with a tilted axis, I understood the need to keep moving—in order to keep moving. But somehow when I was able, it really wasn’t a burden.

Before Texas, I’d barely been out of New Jersey. Most of my recovery year was ultimately spent there. Immobile and youthfully-poor, I started reading: Melville, Dickens, Emerson, Conrad, Kerouac, Dostoevsky, Faulkner, and, thankfully, Thoreau. My world got a little bigger. When I was at last well enough to support myself, my first purchases were hiking shoes and a bicycle. They’d keep me moving.

That day along the Deerfield I was actually working, being paid something as I walked. These last six years I’ve supported a modest lifestyle by driving a bus–which might seem anomalous to someone who prefers to turn his back on his carbon belching car and hasn’t boarded a plane in two decades. Suffice to say, it’s what’s working for me at the moment.

I mainly drive high-schoolers to sporting events, museums, amusement parks and science fairs. Though there’s little glamour, it is mass transportation—efficient from an environmental standpoint. And though I was once a very disagreeable teen, today I’m pretty sympathetic, and happy to be working around their youthful energy. Is it high paid? No. Are there big benefits? Not so much. But yes—certainly in one way…

In between transport, there is down time. I can linger to watch them play—or root around the museum they’re visiting. Or better yet, I can get my feet moving and poke around the setting we’ve just descended on. Many trips are nearby, but some can be two hours distant—from Massachusetts into Connecticut, Vermont and New Hampshire. To me, walking is my own benefit. I’m paid something for my time, but it’s up to me to enrich that compensation.

So I go exploring, which often informs my writing. And, in doing so, I realize that I’m always treading ancient paths–walking atop other people’s stories. Present and past do literally merge when you wander into a 17th century graveyard huddled in the shadows of Hartford’s downtown towers. I go searching for the seeds of place. Who was here, first? When? Why on this bend of river? On longer trips I might cover 5 or 6 miles tromping a landscape or exploring a riverside–or haunting the frayed edges of 18th century New England towns.

My walks bend quickly toward the past—seeking out the oldest house, the earliest gravestone, an old ferry landing—or a town’s first mill site near an old stone bridge. On rural trips it might be ancient woods or a river crossing bearing an Algonquian name. Faced with the frenzied pace of our techno-consumer society, I’m hunting a language of place. It’s my attempt to recover some essence of earth.

I’ve always had an inescapable awareness that history is much more than the acceptance of dry, scholarly tales. I don’t enter a city or town center without thinking—or knowing, that this place was once home to others—that Deerfield was once Pocumtuck and Springfield was once Agawam. It never slips my mind that there is a Hockanum in Hadley, MA, and another in East Hartford, CT–both sites cradled in the shadow of an ancient Connecticut River oxbow. And it never leaves me that the people who first adopted those names for places they knew as home, did so in a deliberate tongue that connected them to what they understood as the essence of their earth.

Everywhere we tread, no matter how indecipherable a modern landscape has become, once had another name and another language—relayed in sounds that strove to offer its history and significance to its denizens. Those names were a key to an unbroken human connection to earth. Nearly all of that was erased. We are often left with just fragments.

That’s why I was once dumbstruck to discover a young Protestant immigrant and colonial trader named Roger Williams took time in 1643 to write A Key into the Language of America, translating Algonquian phrases for the English tongue. That opened a door for me, just a crack. A white spire may still be a great comfort to a little Massachusetts town, but just three centuries back the raising of that steeple signaled subjugation and conquest to still-living peoples whose ancestors had walked here for thousands of years prior.

“I believe in the forest, and in the meadow, and in the corn that grows in the night,” Thoreau wrote in On Walking–a swipe at rote Yankee preaching that exhorted ultimate dominance of the lands and landscapes so recently annexed. Today we rush across places where seminal cultures were brutally shattered and dispersed–conquests that, in very short order, led to the wholesale devouring of age-old New England’s forests.

So I go in search of a language of land. That may seem quaint in a time when Downtown Crossing is most identified as a collecting point for Boston consumers. Or here, Hadley—a 1659 Connecticut River settlement identified as Norwottuck on early maps, is now most notable for its ever expanding mall-strip near Old Bay Road. That’s part of what motivates me to walk. And I also think that maybe the earth talks to us a little bit through our feet, reveals some of its stories. We just seem to have stopped listening—perhaps when we abandoned walking to race across the earth in the hardened shells of carbon spewing conveyances.

Countless studies tout the benefits of walking: to balance, creativity, emotional and physical health. Walking also offers reconnection, the possibility of discovering new places. But it’s that my footsteps touch upon the stories of others and grounds me on the planet that matters most. I get to see and listen in earth time. And the best days can be charmingly, exotically freeing for a quiet plodder sniffing around old towns and rarely trammeled places. Padding along in a minimal carbon footprint, past and present sometimes merge in moments that are downright exquisite.

There’s a leafy amusement park in North Granby, CT–relatively pleasant and not overly electrified. One could be tempted to just sit by the shaded pool there. Instead I headed out in mid-June heat along a narrow stretch of Rt. 189. After a mile I veered off at Day Street—an intersection flanked by an old farmhouse. That led me up along the ridge overlooking the Salmon Brook Valley. Most of the houses turned out to be newer, with little pasture remaining. But then came a break in that developed tract–an opening where the light appeared different.

What popped out next–monstrously-sprawling, and stubbornly clinging to life, was the Dewey-Granby Oak. It was simply stunning, and all the more so set along this old road—holding ground against a spreading suburban shadow. I recognized its name from some distant reading, but knew nothing more. Here, unannounced and magnificent, was that sun-dappled great oak—a specimen worthy of period films set on old English estates.

But truth be told, there was little in the way of detail to adhere to. Rooted here long ago, the Granby Oak simply remains a presence to this day. Someone must’ve taken a core sample when this patch of earth was preserved by the Granby Land Trust. A plaque from 1997 intoned it had begun life perhaps 450 years earlier. However accurate, that implied it was just a forest ridge seedling at the time of Shakespeare’s birth in 1564. The Tunxis were then travelling this trail–later to become Day Street, passing and re-passing a white oak growing to maturity. Yet little more than a century on Europeans began swarming this little valley, quickly felling the upland tracts to stump pastures. An ancient woodland path disappeared beneath cart ruts and grazing cattle, but one venerable wolf tree was left as witness.

Here then was my day’s clue to understanding a moment in time. Survival, longevity, green leaves sprouted along sprawling, weathered branches–I’m not sure exactly why that satisfied me. Yet unheralded bits of knowledge are often what offer context to the fabric of life. I paused there for a few minutes, breathing in the continuity of a long life. “I have great faith in a seed,” Thoreau wrote. Today my seed was an old oak.

Wilder hikes on bus trips are rare, but there was a recent scramble up Mt. Monadnock– accompanied by that rare fellow bus driver not glued to a seat. We hustled up; then down, to deliver the dozens of prep-schoolers we’d unleashed on that hill. But briefly, in between, there were grand three-state views connecting back to another companion who’d passed this way. Thoreau visited here a handful of times, finding Monadnock a worthy place to “go a-fishin in.”

We’d soon meet again on a trip to Bellows Falls High. A walk there brought me to the train stop near the Connecticut River where Thoreau once disembarked. Unbeknownst to me, he’d also once walked to the Great Eddy—an ancient Abenaki fishing site below The Falls. Into the late 1700s Yankee farmers could still pull up 1,200 American shad here in a single haul of the net.

PHOTO: The Great Eddy at Bellows Falls today.

But we’d both found disappointment on the Connecticut. For Thoreau it was that there was hardly any river at all, the lingering result of the navigation canal diversion for riverboats, just upstream. Mine remains that those migrating shad–a half century after Congress authorized the four-state Connecticut River migratory fisheries restoration, still fail to reach Bellows Falls. From day one, shad were the program’s key restoration species. Far from extinct today, most remain blocked and imperiled 50 miles downstream–trapped in the private power canal below Turners Falls Dam at the place once called Peskeomscutt. Though a small portion of the run squeezes upstream toward open Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire habitats—some 200,000 shad or more never make it past a dam where they’ve been blocked since 1798.

Winter 2015 wasn’t easy for ambulation. Still, a mid-February trip to Phillips-Exeter in New Hampshire had its highlights. Though sidewalks were lined in waist deep snow, I tramped Exeter’s centuries-old byways for hours. I bundled down to the Squamscott River and its old bridge and frozen fishway. A turkey vulture swooped in–yards above the snowy street, the surprise of a brief squall. Sculptor Chester French’s birthplace is marked in downtown Exeter—along with the first meeting site of the Republican Party. Historic houses are now festooned with the symbol of an alewife, or smelt–ancient staples of the Pennacook and those who came after.

But my best walk came in mid-April, though dingy snow piles still had plenty of life in them. I’d dropped my kids off in Lowell National Historic Park. The forecast wasn’t great–brooding, with showers expected, but temps perhaps nearing sixty. I had hours to burn, and a rain jacket, so I took to the streets. I’d been here once, briefly in mid-winter. The Merrimack, Pawtucket Falls and Lowell’s ragged bordering neighborhoods grabbed my fancy. I’d wanted more.

This April day, winter seemed finally ready to relent. The rain held off as I steered toward Market Street, where the Olympic Bakery had offered me a great Greek salad and fresh cannoli last time. The sun burst through in a neighborhood of unvarnished factory houses—a Greek-Latino mix. I ordered pizza slices to go and found a quiet doorway to sit in the late morning’s humid air.

Then I headed to the river, dreaming of the Merrimack’s shad runs of old–wondering if endangered shortnose sturgeon had ever spawned this high in its reaches. Landlords chipped away at stubborn ice, and the gates leading to the river walk remained closed, still snowed over. But I followed the Merrimack just the same, heading downstream on Pawtucket Street and crossing at the first opportunity. This landed me at the edge of UMass Lowell’s North Campus, to finish lunch on a wall overlooking the city’s old mill towers and spires. Ruminating on that bank, I reflected that the earth under me was once part and parcel of a Pennacook village here.

The showers remained at bay so I continued seaward beside the water—crossing the river four times at three historic bridge sites. I gained a new sense of Lowell’s Byzantine canal system—branching from, and linking, the Concord and Merrimack. As hydraulics got refined, the rivers and river travel here were quickly eclipsed by giant mills and locomotives. Further on, I stumbled into a tiny urban park honoring Jack Kerouac. Enshrined on a polished slab was one of his poems, a loving, edgy, retelling of his parents’ stark lives here and his own subsequent birth along hard-bit Merrimack shores. It lent a presence to the place.

My best minutes though, came further on, at the merging place of two branching canals not far from Lowell’s rust brick downtown and signature Lowell Sun Building. I’d walked back in time along remnants of the centuries-old navigation system to its convergence with the Concord River, just ahead. Here, some 175 years prior, young Henry Thoreau and his brother John had passed–heading through locks ushering them onto the Merrimack. They steered upriver on that larger stream–north toward New Hampshire towns already felling their last forests to fuel an Industrial Revolution. Under that warming April sun, my day’s walk somehow seemed complete.

But there’s another walking exploration I’ve repeatedly engaged in these last four years–my tornado walk. I’ve literally been walking around inside a tornado. On June 1, 2011, an astonishing EF-3 tornado touched down in West Springfield. It skipped across the Connecticut; then battered the landscape for a full 39 miles east–all the way to Southbridge. I’d been driving kids through West Springfield just the day before it thundered through.

Tornadoes stalked the dreams of my youth since childhood, likely an offshoot of viewing the Wizard of Oz. Though strangely fascinating, I’ve never hankered to experience one in the flesh. In dreams they’d always loomed ominously on the periphery—never quite catching me up. But the absolute destructive power of this one–here in the Northeast, was disturbingly eye-opening. Three people died, hundreds of homes were destroyed. It roared across towns in a traceable, half-mile wide trajectory, just south of Route 20—in places my bus trips often intersect with.

That fall at West Springfield’s Eastern States Expo, I walked out the gate and into the neighborhoods due north. Whole houses still lay in ruins, dozens uninhabitable. Thousands of windows had imploded and were boarded up, or being replaced. What trees remained were hulks, stripped of all lateral branches. At Union Street the devastation across tightly-clustered double and triple-decker apartment homes was withering. A mother died here while shielding her teenage daughter from the storm’s fury. Heading home on I-91, Springfield’s South End was yet a mass of tumble-brick ruins. In the distance, a checkerboard of tarped-roofs led up the ridge toward East Forest Park like it was a staircase painted in blue.

One snowy day the following December, I again walked that tornado’s footprint among the relict trees south of Wilbraham Center. Cars had skittering off the highway, but I got my kids settled in safe. I then bundled up and took off down Main Street, where that unseen power had descended with little warning six months prior. It peeled off roofs, toppled outbuildings and shattered scores of trees–then stalked off up the mountain ridge toward Monson. One displaced citizen had returned to string up holiday lights on their darkened, uninhabitable home.

In late February I took another walk in that great scar where–just minutes later that June day, that tornado barreled down the ridge into Monson Center. Snap, snap—snap, snap, snap!–like twigs, whole trees were crowned; stems jackknifed just 20 feet from the ground. It then roared off to the east.

And I did the same, later that spring—on a Sturbridge Village trip. It’s just a ten minute walk out the back of that museum to where that EF-3 twister roared in, devouring an entire wooded swamp. It snapped and scattering trunks in astonishing blow-down jumbles; then crossed Rt. 131 into Southbridge.

On a return trip to Wilbraham two April’s ago, I again backtracked into that storm’s path once more. After dropping off my team I followed a hunch into the landscape. Peepers and warblers called along a winding cross country trail leading through lowland woods. But then a new slant of light from a little bluff to the north caught my eye. That detour—just a few yards off the trail, brought me dead center into the storm. Helter-skelter before me lay the remnants of a once-broad, upland forest–mature pine, oak and maple, leveled, upended; dead. Hundreds of trees, rank-on-rank—tossed or tumbled, sucked up; then mowed down. Like bowling pins.

The devastation was stark and powerful, yet bits of the place were now returning to life. A few trees, pitched and leaning, struggled on. Flickers and nuthatches darted about the edges, feasting on a buggy decay. The trail wound back down, and widened to a swampy marsh–also raked by the storm. Here too were the crowned, scattered trees of a wetland—shorn of branches and left as lifeless hulks. But in the crook of one was a fat jumble of sticks. And there, in profile, sat an erect, great blue heron. I quickly counted four more nests and attending sentinels–occupying four more of those hulks. Astonishing.

And my storm-walk in Wilbraham continued this last spring. In mid-April there was but one active heron nest remaining. Wood frogs had arisen from the ground just the day before, but they were quiet. The females had yet to join the gathering. Yet still I understood that this was a place becoming—a landscape evolving to something new. And that’s part of the reason I’ll likely take this same walk again, if it happens to turn up on my assignment list.

But beyond that, there’s one particular walk I’m absolutely certain I’ll be taking. Every fall, randomly and unannounced, blue sky and a hint of early October chill takes hold of me. Then, for a brief few minutes, I’ll joyously drag my clumsy feet through a pile of autumn leaves–relishing the decay they stir into the air; and savoring a papery sound that says home.

End

Rolling over on a River: the real cost of pumped storage energy

Posted by on 26 Oct 2016 | Tagged as: American shad, climate change, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River Watershed Council, Daily Hampshire Gazette, ecosystem, Entrainment, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeion, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FERC, fossil fuels, Greenfield Recorder, ISO New England, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, National Marine Fisheries Service, NMFS, NOAA, Northfield Mountain, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Reservoir, nuclear power, Public Comment period, public trust, pumped storage, Relicensing, shad, shortnose sturgeon, Society of Environmental Journalists, The Recorder, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS, Vermont, Vermont Digger, Vermont Yankee

Copyright © 2016 by Karl Meyer

(Note: this essay appeared in September and October in these MA and VT media and newspaper outlets: Vermont Digger, www.vtdigger.org ; The Daily Hampshire Gazette; and The Recorder.)

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The de-watered CT below Turners Falls Dam that few people see. (Click, then click again to enlarge.)

Rolling over on a river

Since time began rivers have been the Earth’s arteries—the foundation of its ecosystems. Here in New England it’s “last chance” time for our Great River. On April 30, 2018 the fate of the long-foundered Connecticut River migratory fisheries restoration—and the survival of a four-state river ecosystem, will be decided for what’s essentially forever. New Federal Energy Regulatory Commission hydro licenses are expected to be signed then by government agencies and the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board–latest purchaser of the Turners Falls and Northfield Mountain projects. That company’s stated investor mandate is “to maximize investment returns without undue risk of loss.”

Over two generations ago public-trust mistakes were made favoring power companies, fish hatcheries, and high-end salmon-fishing interests that rendered eight miles of the Connecticut in Massachusetts a massively-suctioned, partially-dewatered flush sink. Sanctioned by fisheries agencies and non-profits, those decisions, severed an ecosystem in two. They forced all migrating fish into a deadly power canal, leaving three emptied miles of riverbed below Turners Falls Dam, while four turbines at the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station five miles upstream consumed massive amounts of nuclear energy to suck a river backward and uphill to a mountaintop reservoir.

Those turbines were built to run on the promised endless supply of overproduced juice generated nightly at the local, now-closed, Vermont Yankee nuke, 15 miles away. Today, running on giant slugs of imported fossil fuel, they continue to spin, sucking the river up in endless gulps into a 4 billion gallon pool a mile up Northfield Mountain. That daily suctioning creates riverbank eroding “tides” higher than those at Hyannisport, MA—with some rivaling the ten-foot fluctuations of Fundy Bay.

Back then, predecessors of today’s National Marine Fisheries Service, the US Fish & Wildlife Service, Massachusetts’ Fish & Wildlife and the Connecticut River Watershed Council signed off on an agreement with the Federal Power Commission and Western Massachusetts Electric that strangled the river in northern Massachusetts. It resulted in the failure of migratory fish passage and a promised renewal of the river’s ancient seafood resources upstream to Vermont, New Hampshire, and northern Mass. Few American shad emerged alive after diversion into that canal. It also failed the shortnose sturgeon—this river’s only federally endangered migratory fish, leaving it without flow or monitoring at its only documented natural spawning site.

Upstream at Northfield the destruction was yet more complete. The suck and gush appetite of that nuclear-charged contraption virtually disassembled the river. It gulped flow at a rate of 15,000 cubic feet per second, often for hours at a time—drawing on the river pool above Turners Falls Dam where, 70% of the time, the Connecticut’s natural routed flow is less than 15,000 cfs. Boaters a mile downstream could find themselves drifting upriver via Northfield’s unearthly pull. All fish and organisms drawn up through the sphere of that suction were deemed “functionally extirpated”–dead to the ecosystem by virtue of being sieved twice through the turbines. It was evolution in reverse, a river ripped away from its eternal run to the sea.

Today, climate-blind FERC labels Northfield as a source of “renewable clean” energy—but there’s nothing clean, renewable or sustainable about its imported, twice-produced, peak-priced electricity crippling this river. ISO New England, FERC’s Northfield-cheering, ever-energy-hungry cousin, also ignores climate and its environmental dismemberment. “Pumped storage” is not hydropower—not even by the industry’s own technical terminology. Northfield-produced power in fact represents the heavy planetary burden of fossil fuel used to push a mountain of water uphill, merely as a weight to produce high-cost, second hand electricity. It cares nothing of rivers, fish or ecosystems.

If bureaucrats again fail the public trust and don’t demand critical habitat protections, flows, and the day-to-day monitoring needed to fulfill U.S. environmental statutes, Canadian pension speculators will be left as the de facto controlling interests on our river. The new owners have asked FERC to merge two separate licenses for Northfield and Turners Falls into a single new license dubbed the “Northfield Project.” What’s represented as mere bureaucratic streamlining would actually enshrine, by precedent–next time and forever, river-killing pumped storage.

Any responsible environmental agency should deny this single-license merger, and seek to have Northfield kept in use as emergency infrastructure only—with the ultimate remedy it’s dismantling in tandem with a move to a decentralized, far less vulnerable system than today’s expanding mega-grid. Massachusetts legislators are currently signing onto backroom energy deals for a glut of future hydropower from Quebec. Some 1,200 megawatts of those penciled-in imports could easily replace the few hours of daily juice Northfield puts out–while keeping it available for rare emergencies. Though the new Canadian power imports largely ignore conservation and innovation, they could be employed to end the river carnage here and begin restoring a future for a critical New England ecosystem.

(Note: timely public comment on licensing issues is carefully considered by FERC. Go to: http://ferc.gov/docs-filing/ecomment.asp and use “E-Comment.” Check “Hydro” and address to Secretary Kimberly D. Bose, using the required identifiers “P-2485” and “P-1889” for Northfield and Turners Falls.)

Karl Meyer lives in Greenfield MA. He is participating in the FERC relicensing process and is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

ONE WILDLY ILL-ADVISED RIDE

Posted by on 31 Jul 2016 | Tagged as: AMC, American Whitewater, Appalachian Mountain Club, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Connecticut River migratory fisheries restoration, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Connecticut River Watershed Council, CRWC, Dead Reach, Dr. Boyd Kynard, EOEEA, Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, Fish and Aquatics Study Team, GDF-Suez FirstLight, Jack Buckley, John Bullard, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, NMFS, NOAA, Regional Director of the National Marine Fisheries Service, Secretary Matthew Beaton, Society of Environmental Journalists, University of Massachusetts, US Fish & Wildlife Service, US Geological Survey's Conte Fish Lab, Wendi Weber

The following piece appeared in The Recorder, www.recorder.com on July 30, 2016, under the heading, “Rafting over prime sturgeon habitat unwise; State officials need to be smarter.”

Copyright © 2016 by Karl Meyer

ONE WILDLY ILL-ADVISED RIDE

A photo from May 25, 2016 posted on American Whitewater’s website shows Massachusetts’ Secretary of the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs Matthew Beaton and his staff lumbering across a small run of Connecticut River whitewater on a large raft. The short rapid they just surfed over is at a place called Rock Dam. It drops directly into a small, crescent-shaped pool–the sole natural spawning and nursery site for the federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon.

That Turners Falls site is the last place you’d want to see the Commonwealth’s highest environmental official rafting in May. Rock Dam is critical habitat for survival of the river’s most endangered migratory fish. There’s no other place like it in the ecosystem. It’s also where the state-endangered yellow lamp mussel was last recorded in this reach. Ecological protection is key to preserving the natural heritage there for future generations.

Why Secretary Beaton was at Rock Dam on the heels of the state’s failure to protect endangered timber rattlesnakes in their remaining habitat is a puzzlement. That site is literally where the Connecticut has long been left for dead. Each spring it is alternately starved and inundated—making spawning and survival of young for shortnose sturgeon nearly impossible. Rapid pumped storage hydro fluctuations also help make successful upstream passage for wild American shad, sea lamprey, and blueback herring a 1-in-10 proposition above Turners Falls.

The EOEEA was joyriding on “test” flows returned there specifically for environmental protection. They were meant to allow wild fish to reenter critical habitats where they might successfully gather; then spawn—in a natural pool that would subsequently nurture developing young in critical weeks lasting through mid-June. Those flows were delineated by John Bullard, Regional Director of the National Marine Fisheries Service, to not drop below minimum thresholds that would drive spawning sturgeon out. NMFS mandated the higher limits through June 3rd to ensure sturgeon had sufficient time there. That meant healing water for the most impoverished 2.7 miles of habitat on the entire 410 mile Connecticut.

The shortnose is a dinosaur-age fish—a yard-long creature with a shark-like tail and toughened leathery “scutes” instead of spindly scales. It’s the second species listed under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act, and the most exhaustively studied endangered migratory fish in the river. It has long had a federal recovery plan, one now including the boatload of science documenting building blocks necessary for its survival. None call for boaters bashing over them during spawning gatherings, or beaching in shallows where developing embryos shelter. If this iconic fish is ever to begin the road back from the brink of extinction, mandated protections and uninterrupted flows are critical at Rock Dam.

Dr. Boyd Kynard, formerly of the US Fish & Wildlife Service, the USGS Conte Lab and UMass, led the 17 years of studies that documented Rock Dam as the species’ sole natural spawning site in the ecosystem. He recently stated, “As to protection of the pre-spawning, spawning, and rearing area at Rock Dam, exclusion dates for boating should be the same as the dates for water flow, 15 March to 15 June.”

A “watered” Rock Dam had long-offered sturgeons a wide choice of depths and flow levels they could selectively adjust, and readjust to, when natural surface flow or river temperatures fluctuated beyond optimal conditions for spawning. And that cobble and sand pool was ideal for dispersing tiny eggs and young. Only when flow is present does Rock Dam regain its function as an ancient species shelter, protecting early life stages in currents circulating through cobbled shoals.

In the current 5-year Federal Energy Regulatory Commission relicensing process that will govern hydro operations and ecological conditions here for decades, the Connecticut River Watershed Council and Appalachian Mountain Club are jointly advocating new access points into this delicate habitat for whitewater interests. Both have sat at FERC hearings where Rock Dam has been delineated as critical habitat. In joint AMC-CRWC testimony to FERC they’ve argued their interests in increased flows stem from aquatic habitat concerns, as well as recreation desires. Yet it was AMC that posted dates of those ecological study flows to their website, urging whitewater enthusiasts to exploit them: “Fish Study to Provide Paddling Opportunities: May – June 2016”

Secretary Beaton needs better advice.

Several expert appointees represent the Commonwealth on the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission. Jack Buckley, Director of MA Fisheries and Wildlife studied Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon at UMass. Mr. Buckley’s Anadromous Fish Project Leader Caleb Slater is also well versed on critical Rock Dam habitat. And the US Fish & Wildlife’s Region 5 Director Wendi Weber also sits at that CRASC table. Dr. Weber studied shortnose sturgeon in Georgia’s rivers. Ultimately, turning a failing Connecticut River migratory fisheries restoration in Massachusetts into a success story will require government leaders embracing solid government science.

Karl Meyer is on the Fish and Aquatics Study Team for FERC hydro-relicensing studies of the Turners Falls and Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage projects. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

VERNON UPDATE: A peek into the public-trust’s black hole

Posted by on 26 Jun 2016 | Tagged as: American shad, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Coordinator, FirstLight, fish counts, fish passage, Fish passage results, GDF-Suez FirstLight, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, public trust, TransCanada, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS, Vermont Fish & Game, Vernon Dam Fishway

VERNON, VT Connecticut River Fish Passage Update: June 24, 2016

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Vernon Dam Fishway, and TransCanada’s Vernon Station(CLICK TO ENLARGE)

As of Friday, June 24, 2016, the best information US Fish & Wildlife Service was able to provide on Turners Falls and Vernon fish passage was a FULL THREE WEEKS OLD.

The last report CT River Coordinator Ken Sprankle had for Vernon shad passage was from June 3, 2016: 29,155 American shad passing there.

The last report coming from FirstLight at Turners Falls was yet a day older, from June 2, 2016: 45,330 American shad.

This is not a case of the USFWS’s Connecticut River Coordinator neglecting to gather the information and reproduce it in a timely manner. This falls squarely on the shoulders of the MA Division of Fisheries and Wildlife failing to ensure that this time-sensitive and important information is provided to Commonwealth citizens as part of their public trust. They have allowed GDF-Suez to maintain sole control and access to the fate of a public resource at Turners Falls, the river’s most critical and failed fish passage site.

Further, it must of course be stated that Vermont Fish & Game is in the same camp this year. As they are failing to provide this information–just a quick 20 mile, one-day scoot for a shad upstream to Vernon Dam, where TransCanada is calling the shots on providing info.

These state agencies are failing constituents they say they represent.

BUT here’s a tiny fish passage update for Vernon Dam. It’s just TWO DAYS OLD. I stopped by Vernon on my bicycle on Friday, June 24th at 10:30 a.m., just hours after that “best” stale information had been released.

Given low river flows I was happily surprised to see shad moving upstream in the Vernon windows at a good clip. Singly, and in twos and threes, and fives, I watched 20 American shad flash by and shoot upstream through bubbly, yellow currents there in just under six minutes. That fishway is a fish passage site that actually passes fish–with a nearly 70% passage rate last year.

Of course, Turners Falls fish passage remains a disaster, with all fish shunted out of the river and into the 2.7 mile power canal there: average annual passage rate is less than one fish-in-ten. And, unfortunately, Turners Falls viewing opportunities have been severely curtailed over the years. Whereas they used to be open through the week following Father’s Day, this year they closed on June 12. Thus, there is literally no on-site public access or real-time information provided on fish passage success at Turners Falls–while this year’s run is obviously still underway, given Friday’s eye-witness access at Vernon.

At Turners Falls flows have been reduced to 1500 cubic feet per second over the past weeks, and with FirstLight’s downstream Station 1 dumping attraction flow into the Connecticut, its unlikely many fish are moving upstream and able to by-pass that alien power canal habitat.

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The Connecticut below Turners Falls Dam (CLICK TO ENLARGE)

Station 1 is a source of “false” upstream flow “attraction”–which can keep shad treading water for days at a time without finding any real route upstream.

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Station 1 attraction flow (CLICK TO ENLARGE)

FISHY MISSING INFO

Posted by on 22 Jun 2016 | Tagged as: blueback herring, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River migratory fisheries restoration, Daily Hampshire Gazette, FirstLight, fish counts, Fish passage results, GDF-Suez FirstLight, Greenfield Recorder, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, migratory delay, New Hampshire, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Reservoir, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, public trust, right-to-know, salmon, salmon hatchery, sea lamprey, shad, The Recorder, Turners Falls, Turners Falls dam, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS, Vermont, Vernon Dam Fishway

The following OpEd appeared in the Daily Hampshire Gazette (Northampton,MA) and The Recorder (Greenfield, MA) in early June.

Fishy Missing Info Copyright © 2016 by Karl Meyer

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(low flows and byzantine fish ladder at Turners Falls 6/19/16:CLICK TO ENLARGE)

I’d like to change the name of a Commonwealth agency. What would you think about the Massachusetts Division of “Manufactured” Fisheries and Wildlife? I think it would offer a much better picture of the Agency’s focus, particularly here in the Connecticut Valley. Here you can get daily on-line information on where to find truckloads of thousands-upon-thousands of factory-produced rainbow, brown and brook trout before they are dumped into local rivers for hatchery-fish angling pleasure. But I dare you to find anything more than a several-weeks-old tally of the numbers of wild migratory fish streaming north here on the Connecticut anywhere beyond the fish windows at Holyoke Dam. So this would be a “truth-in-labeling” adjustment.

New England’s Great River runs for 69 miles through the Commonwealth. The MA Division of Fisheries & Wildlife is responsible for all migratory fish in that broad reach from the time they enter at Agawam, until they either remain here for spawning, or pass into Vermont and New Hampshire. Those runs are the agency’s “public trust”—to be protected for its citizens, anglers, students and future generations. But the less information the public gets on their whereabouts, the less an agency might be availed upon to actually protect them.

As we enter the final weeks of migration season the only information provided—not just days old, but nearly a month stale, refers solely to fish on the first 16 miles of river from the Connecticut border to the fish lift at Holyoke Dam. That leaves a full 52 miles of river with just a single—now uselessly outdated May 4th report about the truly wild shad, lamprey and herring now moving along New England’s flagship waterway. Salmon are not mentioned here because just three years after the US Fish & Wildlife Service stopped factory production of this hybrid, just a single salmon has been tallied. Hatchery fish production masks the reality of failing wild populations and deteriorating habitats. To date there’s been but one report on fish passage from Turners Falls.

As an interested citizen I’m a bit outraged that it’s June 1st, and I don’t have a clue about what’s going on with the wild, migrating fish coming upriver in what you have to consider as one of New England’s last remaining great migrations. Shad, blueback herring, and sea lamprey have been moving upstream for over two months now, and the only public information offered is of the absurd 54 shad counted at Turners Falls, almost a full month back. Really? This is any agency with an accountability problem.

MA DF&W has scant little to offer the public as to what they’ve been doing on the ground to protect our wild fish runs—and that includes struggling populations of state-listed, endangered shortnose sturgeon, also under their purview. But to not even take responsibility for having on-the-ground personnel monitoring runs at the river’s long-known choke point, Turners Falls, is a flagrant abdication of duty. Here in central and northern Massachusetts we not only don’t see fish because of decimated Connecticut River habitats, we aren’t even offered updated tallies on the ugly mess. But perhaps that’s by design. Connecticut’s state fisheries agency regularly provides more information on Commonwealth fish runs than does the MA DF&W.

When I recently contacted the Commonwealth’s Anadromous Fish Project Leader to inquire about fish passage information at Turners Falls, he tersely emailed back that the state no longer does those fish counts: I should contact FirstLight Power for information. I guess our fish are now fully privatized. And when it has come to the power company requesting larger and more frequent water withdrawals on the Connecticut upstream at the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, it appears the Division has never seen a company proposal it wasn’t just fine with.

This 2016 season has literally been the worst year for Massachusetts fish passage information since 2010, when FirstLight’s Northfield Mountain broke down, fouling its pumping tunnels with 45,000 cubic square yards of reservoir muck. They didn’t operate from May – November and fish passage at Turners Falls–it was subsequently revealed, had jumped 600-800% above yearly averages. We didn’t get that information until late as well. Seem a little fishy to you?

Some of us actually care about wild fish and living rivers. And, frankly, if I were reduced to thinking that following a truckload of factory fish to its dumping site for a day’s angling was a wildlife experience—well, I’d just as soon get one of those wind-up fish carousels you can hold–the ones with the tiny plastic pole and the revolving, yapping fish mouths. The Massachusetts Division of “Manufactured” Fish & Wildlife–sounds about right where wild fish and the Connecticut River is concerned.

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

HOLYOKE HOISTS RECORD SHAD NOS; TURNERS FALLS FOUNDERING ON ALL FRONTS

Posted by on 13 May 2016 | Tagged as: American shad, Connecticut River, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, GDF-Suez FirstLight, Greenfield Community College, Holyoke Fish Lift, National Marine Fisheries Service, New Hampshire, NOAA, Rock Dam, salmon, shad, shad fishing, shortnose sturgeon, Test flows, Turners Falls, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS, Vermont

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Copyright © 2016 by Karl Meyer

According to USFWS Connecticut River Coordinator Ken Sprankle on Thursday, May 12, 2016, the Holyoke Fishway lifted more fish—specifically 54,006 American shad, than on any single day in the fish lift’s 61 years of operation. In 1955, something simple and sensible came into being on the Connecticut. It was a fish passage set-up that brought shad directly upstream in the riverbed via upstream attraction flows, and drew them into an elevator that gave them a lift directly above South Hadley Falls. Once there they could head upstream toward open spawning habitat in Vermont and New Hampshire. For three generations, Holyoke has been the single largest fish passage success site and story for American shad on the entire East Coast.

Sadly, just 36 miles upstream, those shad met with the fish passage restoration boondoggle-disaster of all-time—a three-ladder fish passage puzzle that forced all fish into a 2.7 mile long power canal at Turners Falls. Steered out of the river, and forced to negotiate a turbine lined canal in order to make it upstream beyond the Turners Falls Dam, the average annual success rate was 4 fish out of 100. To focus in a bit more on the present, what Holyoke passed yesterday was nearly the equivalent of all the shad that made it past Turners Falls Dam last year: 58,000.

The Turners Falls Power Canal remains the dead end, adjacent to the Connecticut River’s Dead Reach, where the federal/state Connecticut River migratory fisheries program has lingered in a comatose—nearly frozen state, since those ladders were built in 1980.

Given the brief nature of spring spawning conditions, it’s likely—at minimum, 25,000 of yesterday’s shad from Holyoke will be attempting that torturous labyrinth in Turners Falls by midday today (Friday). Most won’t make it past, and most will expend over a week of their precious spawning energies in the attempt. A high, though poorly studied or documented percentage, will ultimately be cut up in the turbines of the Turners Falls Power Canal.

Such is the legacy of non-intervention on behalf of the public’s fish, and the 45 year focus on creating a hatchery strain of salmon on a river system where the species had been extinct since 1809. So, again, Vermont, New Hampshire, and northern Massachusetts—sorry, but your fish are stuck down here in the miseries of a power canal and the Connecticut’s Dead Reach lacking suitable flows and fish passage.

On that note: it’s now six weeks since we had the first fish passage numbers reported from Holyoke Dam. Here at Turners Falls, we have nothing from GDF-Suez FirstLight and the Greenfield Community College students hired to tally them. The public’s fish, and the information as to their whereabouts, remains in private hands—most of it in the murky environs of a private power canal.

I’ll give you an on-the-ground update from my visits. At Rock Dam, just after midday on Tuesday, three anglers were working the site for shad. Curiously, there was a very clear “tide” line in the sand at the site—which is also the natural spawning ground for endangered shortnose sturgeon. The very recent high water mark was between 10 and 25 feet wide leading down to the water’s edge. It indicated a recent and significant change in flow there. One of the gentlemen said the drop came quickly, and had only happened “fifteen minutes ago.” Such “ramping” up and down of flows by the power company has huge implications for migrating and spawning fish. In fact, ramping at this site is one of the key reasons for spawning failure for endangered sturgeon. But, who’s watching?

Anyway, the three anglers reported that the shad were running here before the flow drop—there were several in two buckets, but they had disappeared once flow conditions changed.

I returned to Rock Dam on Wednesday, and there was just a lone guy and his dog present. His name was Shawn, and he’s lived nearby for the past year, but this was his first outing for shad. He looked to be in his early 20s.

There must’ve been plenty of shad trying to pass upstream at Rock Dam—with extra “test” flow water being released at the dam for federal relicensing studies. It wasn’t a minute after I clambered up the rocks to speak with him that he hooked his first fish. I obliged and took his photo with it. While there, I also took a minute to explain that shad don’t survive handling well, and they do best if handled very gently and while right in the water at the shore line.

I only tarried only for five more minutes–in which time Shawn landed two more fish, and four new anglers had scrambled down to join the shad run at the Rock Dam.

The latest Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon count at Holyoke Dam: 15 fish—ostensibly on spawning runs to that self-same Rock Dam spawning haven, have been lifted in the fish ladder this spring–and stopped abruptly once reaching the top floor. Every one of them has been slapped on the nose with a newspaper, told “NO!” and been dropped back in the drink below the dam. “Wait till next year..!” Hey, National Marine Fisheries Service: that is award-worthy endangered species protection through genetic deprivation! Kind of makes you miss David Letterman and his Stupid Pet Tricks…

DEAD REACH REPORT: the BLACK HOLE continues…

Posted by on 09 May 2016 | Tagged as: American shad, blueback herring, Connecticut River, Dead Reach, federal trust fish, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FirstLight, GDF-Suez FirstLight, Greenfield Community College, Holyoke Community College, Holyoke Fish Lift, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, National Marine Fisheries Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, New Hampshire, NMFS, Rock Dam, Rock Dam Pool, sea lamprey, shad, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS, Vermont, Vernon Dam Fishway

DEAD REACH REPORT: the BLACK HOLE continues…

Copyright © 2016 by Karl Meyer
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Forty-one days after the first fish were reported being lifted at Holyoke Dam, we still have not a shred of information on fish passage in the Connecticut River’s Dead Reach at Turners Falls. That’s the beleaguered, half-emptied, 2.7 miles of riverbed that all migrating American shad, sea lamprey, and blueback herring must pass in order to make progress toward Vermont and New Hampshire spawning grounds. Within that Dead Reach is the Rock Dam, the only documented natural spawning site for endangered shortnose sturgeon in this river system.

Thus, again, GDF-Suez FirstLight continues in sole control and possession of information on the public’s federal trust migratory fish—every one of which, in trying to reach upstream sites, gets diverted into their turbine-lined power canal. Once corralled and essentially privatized in that miles-long trench, very few ever emerge alive beyond Turners Falls Dam.

Holyoke Fish Lift numbers have been handed off daily to Ken Sprankle, USFWS’s Connecticut River Coordinator, for weeks now. Students from Holyoke Community College are staffing that site, overseen by the MA Division of Fisheries & Wildlife. MA Fish & Wildlife is responsible for those shad, lamprey and herring while they are traversing the Commonwealth’s reach on the Connecticut. They’re responsible for getting the public’s fish counted as well. That role up at Turners Falls is clearly not working or being taken seriously. We have no information from there whatsoever–with the video-counting apparatus controlled by FirstLight, and the review, tallies, and the hand-off of that public information left in the hands of Greenfield Community College students.

None of this speaks well for any safeguarding of the public trust.

Nevertheless, USFWS’s Ken Sprankle did provide these updates from Holyoke Dam this morning. Fish counts there as of Sunday, May 8, 2016 are: 32,937 American shad; 239 sea lamprey; and 14 federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon—all of which were brought to the top in the fish elevator, lifted out, and dropped back downstream. Virtually none of them will get an opportunity to spawn yet again this year.

To give you a sense of the miseries, one egg-laden female lifted up there had been tagged in the Dead Reach in Turners Falls 2004, as a female on a spawning site. This year, a dozen years after that tagging—she was apparently full of eggs and attempting to reach the Rock Dam for spawning once more. They plopped her back downstream on orders of the National Marine Fisheries Service. If that aging female dies over the winter, the genetic material in the hundreds of thousands of eggs she was carrying gets lost to eternity, and becomes yet another signpost on extinctions path.

Just what exactly is being accomplished by not letting these endangered fish spawn?

Meanwhile, here’s a tiny Dead Reach report of my own. I stopped by the TF Dam at mid-morning on Mother’s Day. It was drizzly, water was spilling from Bascule Gate 1(Turners Falls side), and no one was fishing at the site.

Downstream at 9:40 I met a lone angler exiting from the Rock Dam pool site at Cabot Woods. He said he’d had a few, earlier, but that it was slowing down. When I went out to the Rock Dam it was fairly quiet, with the water only moderately clear with the recent rain. Still, looking down from the rocks, schooling swirls of shad can sometimes be seen when the light is good. I saw nothing. Nor did I note any lamprey tails slapping the rock faces as they suctioned their way upstream through the notches.

According to this angler who fishes the mouth of the Deerfield as well, Rock Dam fishing on Saturday was pretty decent: “I had a dozen shad,” he noted. Thus, it’s become fairly obvious these last two springs that when flow is left in the riverbed, Rock Dam is one of the finest shad fishing sites on the Connecticut.

So, American shad have been reaching Turners Falls for 5 weeks now, we just don’t know how many are passing upstream—and we have yet to get count information from TransCanada about numbers passing Vernon Fishway. Thus parts of Massachusetts and all of Vermont and New Hampshire remain in the dark as to the whereabouts of their share of the ocean’s spring bounty.

Holyoke Fishway opened last week. You can visit, Weds. – Sunday from 9 – 5. Its on the CT, where Rt. 116 crosses into Holyoke from South Hadley. The public fish viewing facilities at Turners Falls have yet to open.

No “Springtime for Sturgeon in Holyoke…”

Posted by on 06 May 2016 | Tagged as: Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Endangered Species Act, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federal trust fish, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FERC, Holyoke Fish Lift, Holyoke Gas & Electric, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, National Marine Fisheries Service, NMFS, NOAA, Rock Dam, Rock Dam Pool, shortnose sturgeon, Turners Falls, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS

SHadFalls2MtTom
HG&E’s Holyoke Dam with Mt. Tom in background(click to enlarge)

No “Springtime for Sturgeon in Holyoke…” Unenforced FERC License continues the woes for the Connecticut’s only federally endangered migratory fish

Copyright © 2016 by Karl Meyer

For endangered shortnose sturgeon on the Connecticut River this year has been the best thing and the worst thing to happen to them since 1849. In an infinitely promising development over a dozen sturgeon(13 thus far)have found their way into the retooled Holyoke Fish Lift this spring—and all were lifted 30 feet toward upstream spawning habitats at the facility. However, in a most ugly turn of events for a creature listed under the Endangered Species Act since 1967, every one of those sturgeon was subsequently dropped back downstream by humans working there. They literally gained ten yards… after 167 years. Sorry kids, wait ‘til next year–or maybe the one after that.

In 2002 Holyoke Gas and Electric was issued a FERC license under which they were required to complete construction of a fish lift providing up- and downstream access for endangered sturgeon by 2008. FERC, responsible for enforcing those license requirements as well as the tenets of the ESA, failed to enforce their requirements, leaving those improvements unconstructed, year after year. The National Marine Fisheries Service, US Fish & Wildlife Service, and MA Division of Fisheries & Wildlife sat on their hands respecting their responsibilities to act. Nor did any so-called “watchdog” group fulfill their role–to make the enforcers enforce.

This was just the latest failure in a foundering Connecticut River ecosystem steered by money and politics rather than legal obligations, science, and enforcement of the public trust. Just consider that one of the Connecticut River Watershed Council’s Board Members has worked for Holyoke Gas & Electric at their fish lift for a decade… Then consider the resounding silence on enforcement.

This year–a full 9 springs beyond their license obligations, HG&E finally completed that mandated construction at the Holyoke Fish Lift. That says a mouthful about FERC, their licensing process, private industry, and whether anyone is actually protecting the public’s fish and river.

Grimly this spring, when the most sturgeon embarking on upstream spawning runs since the building of the railroads made it to the top of those South Hadley Falls, all were captured and “released downstream” of Holyoke Dam. This bit of brilliance comes via the orders—or lack thereof, of NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service. Their failure to act again denies any new genetic input into the tiny upstream population keeping this species’ flickering spark alive across the centuries up at their sole natural spawning site, the Rock Dam in Turners Falls.

Below Holyoke, generation after generation of these long-lived fish have been relegated to simply growing to maturity, repeatedly attempting to return upstream, and ultimately expiring without ever having the chance to pass on their genes. That goes back to the time of President Zachery Taylor.

In one very cruel act of fate, any shortnose sturgeon finding themselves downstream of the newly constructed Holyoke Dam in 1849, were forever barred from reaching their sole natural spawning site in the river system—that ancient Rock Dam pool in Turners Falls. What that has meant is that hundreds upon hundreds of these fabulously evolved fish–across more than a century and a half, have been relegated to the status of “reproductive nulls,” unable to spawn in their natal river system.

Pick your favorite bad actor in this failed scenario–there are a half-dozen choices.

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