US Geological Survey’s Conte Fish Lab

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THE RIVER FIX FOR FATAL ATTRACTION

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2012, by Karl Meyer

The River Fix for Fatal Attraction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Failure to Protect

Posted by on 02 Aug 2012 | Tagged as: American shad, Bellows Falls Fishway, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Conservation Law Foundation, Conte, endangerd shortnose sturgeon, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FERC license, FirstLight, National Marine Fisheries Service, NOAA, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, US Geological Survey, US Geological Survey's Conte Fish Lab, USFWS

Copyright © 2012, by Karl Meyer      All Rights Reserved

The following essay appeared in July in the Vermont Digger (www.vtdigger.org); the Rutland Herald (www.rutlandherald.com), and other Valley venues.

A Failure to Protect

This Valley lost a lion of environmental defense when former Conservation Law Foundation Attorney and Antioch University Professor Alexandra Dawson of Hadley, MA died last December.  Quietly today, time grows desperately short for the ecosystem’s only federally-endangered migratory fish–the Connecticut River Shortnose sturgeon.  Alive since the dinosaurs, they arrived shortly after the glaciers left.  They are clinging to life by a thread–with perhaps 300 attempting to spawn annually in miserable conditions created in the 2-mile stretch of river below Turners Falls Dam.  NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service is responsible for protecting them; NMFS has known fully of those conditions since 2004.

FirstLight-GDF-Suez creates those conditions, right next to the US Fish & Wildlife’s Great Falls Discovery Center.  Yet the public is taught nothing of them.  Abandoned by federal agencies, the Shortnose is one industrial disaster or spill from extinction.  Your grandkids wouldn’t have been interested anyway…

But just in case, describe something that was a cross between a dinosaur, a catfish, and a shark.  At 3 – 4 feet long, Shortnose have bony plates instead of scales, with shark-like tails at one end, and suctioning, toothless mouths below cat-like feelers at the other.  They scarf down freshwater mussels whole; then grind them up in gizzards.  Shortnoses can live over 40 years: one alive today might’ve witnessed Richard Nixon signing the Endangered Species Act in 1973.  They had other priorities though, like survival.  But for how much longer?

Conditions most-imperiling the Shortnose are overwhelmingly the result of FirstLight-GDF-Suez’s floodgate manipulations and punishing water pulses sent to the riverbed and coursing down their two-mile long Turners Falls Power Canal via their dam, and operations at their giant 1,080 megawatt (now 1102 MW) Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station upstream.  Below the dam you won’t find anything like a river.  For a fish its manipulated chaos–a feast or famine flow regime run largely to maximize the day-trader profit margins of today’s deregulated energy spot-market.  And things may have just gotten worse.

FirstLight’s pumping and dam operations are the biggest disruptor to this ecosystem for a 7 mile stretch–affecting migratory fish restoration failures upstream to Bellows Falls, VT, and down to the Sound.  Instead of shad and other migrants moving up natural river habitat to the dam, they are funneled into a deathtrap: the turbine-riddled bottleneck of the Turners Falls Power Canal.  Barely one shad in ten emerges upstream alive–while crowded-in fish turning back out of that canal are diced-up in its blades.  US Conte Fish Lab researchers dubbed last year’s power canal shad passage a “success.”  FirstLight helped fund their study.  The dismal 16,000 shad they tallied mirrored “success” from 1987, a quarter century back.

And, if you are a spawning-age Shortnose wholly-dependent on spring riverbed flows resembling a natural system below that dam: you’re out of luck.  Annually, attempts at spawning fail in an ancient pool near Conte Lab.  Or, as conditions deteriorate, they default downstream to try spawning below the canal’s outflow.  Here again reproductive failure is common.  Dam-deflected surges deluge their gatherings; or flows get cut-off in minutes, causing mating-stage fish to abandon spawning.  Even when eggs get fertilized, embryos get silted-over or washed away by floodgate surges–or left to die on de-pauperized banks when flow is cut.  Most years no young are produced.  That’s extinction’s fast-track.

FirstLight’s Northfield Mountain offers tours of its 2 megawatt solar installation, but none to its reservoir and pumped-storage plant where, during fish migration in 2010, they dumped 45,000 cubic square yards of sludge directly in the river over 92 days.  This winter they quietly added 22 megawatts to those giant turbines: more than half all the power generated by HG&E’s Holyoke Dam.  This occurred despite their failure last July to have an EPA-mandated plan in place to prevent “polluting the navigable waters of the United States” with a mountain of pumped-storage silt.  Where are the public Federal Energy Regulatory Commission hearings on this license change?  Where is the Environmental Impact Assessment for endangered Shortnose sturgeon?

Northfield, dependent on nuclear power to pump its water, opened in 1970.  Its legally-stated purpose was as a “reserve” power source—to operate a few hours mornings and afternoons during peak energy use.  It can generate just 8-1/2 hours; then its reserve is depleted. Originally it was proposed they’d shut during fish migration.  Today, wildly outside its stated intent, those giant pumps are switched on like a coin-op laundry–day, night, with turnaround intervals of as little as 15 minutes.

Time is running out for the Shortnose; corporate fines for harming one start at $200,000. Our region’s electric capacity now exceeds 15% of demand.  Except for emergency power grid situations, why is this plant allowed to cripple an ecosystem?  Alexandra Dawson would surely cheer if her old Conservation Law colleagues sued National Marine Fisheries Service: for failure to protect a New England biological gem.

Environmental journalist Karl Meyer writes about the Connecticut River from Greenfield, MA and holds an MS in Environmental Science from Antioch University.

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