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ENDGAME LOOMS FOR NEW ENGLAND’S GREAT RIVER

Posted by on 10 Sep 2020 | Tagged as: American shad, Anadromous Fish Conservation Act, Atlantic salmon, blueback herring, climate-destroying, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Conte National Fish & Wildlife Refuge, endangerd shortnose sturgeon, Endangered Species Act, ESA, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, FERC, FERC licensing process, FirstLight, FirstLight Power Resources, Fish and Aquatics Study Team, GHG, Massachusetts Division of Fish & Wildlife, National Marine Fisheries Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, New Hampshire, NMFS, Northfield Mountain, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, pumped storage, right-to-know, Rock Dam, shad, shortnose sturgeon, Silvio O. Conte Connecticut River National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, The Revelator, The Society of Environmental Journalists, Turners Falls, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, Uncategorized, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS, Vermont

Endgame Looms for England’s Great River Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer


The impoverished Connecticut River looking downstream to Turners Falls Dam. The run stops here. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer All Rights Reserved. (CLICK x 3 to enlarge)

NOTE: The following piece first appeared as an Op-Ed in The Revelator, an initiative of the Center for Biological Diversity on August 26, 2020. www.therevelator.org

FURTHER NOTE: * On September 1, 2020, after this piece first appeared, FirstLight petitioned FERC for an open-ended date to extend the filing of their Final License Applications citing a need for new test data to respond to the USF&WS. If FERC agrees, that would add another 4 months and possibly another full year, to this endless process–without any long-awaited relief for a flow starved Connecticut River. It’s time for FERC to wrap this up.

After a half-century of failures, the recovery of the Connecticut River ecosystem hangs in the balance. Will authorities finally act to save it?

Rivers should not die in the dark.

On Aug. 31 FirstLight Power Resources is expected to file its final license applications with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to continue operating three hydro facilities profiting off massive water diversions from the Connecticut River in Massachusetts. The conditions written into FERC licenses can last up to 50 years.

These applications signal the beginning of the final chapter in determining the future of the four-state river at the heart of the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, founded to protect a 7.2-million-acre watershed. Their rendering will decide the future of migratory fish, river flows and a host of embattled ecosystem conditions on New England’s longest river, some running counter to laws in place since 1872.

When decisions affecting a river for decades are being made, the public has a right to know of the stakes, the players and the key decision makers. In this case the public knows little of issues potentially affecting 2.4 million people in a sprawling watershed.

One of the failed fish ladders sending all spring migrants into the Turners Falls power canal maize. Across 45 years just 5 shad in 100 have succeeded in passing the Turners Falls Dam–leaving 50 miles of spawning habitat in 3 states largely empty. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer All Rights Reserved.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service and Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife have been at the table in this FERC license-determining process since 2012. But three years back, all parties signed nondisclosure agreements with FirstLight — ostensibly to facilitate settlement discussions on flows, habitat, dismal fish passage and endless mortality cycles at these Massachusetts hydro sites. Those NDAs have kept these issues largely out of the media, even as initial settlement talks broke off a year and a half ago.

*Since 2012 I’ve been a FERC-recognized intervener in the relicensing process. I chose not to sign the company’s confidentiality agreement in order to preserve the right to address and highlight the critical, long-term decisions being made about the Connecticut River in a process that remains largely out of public view.

FirstLight is part of the giant Canadian investment outfit PSP Investments, which arrived in Massachusetts four years back to buy up these facilities from GDF Suez. In 2018 it quickly reregistered the facilities as limited liability tax shelters in Delaware. Regardless of their state of incorporation, the licenses they now vie for will each be subject to current federal and state environmental laws, under terms mandated by the fish agencies and FERC.

Entranceway to the “Great Falls Discovery Center” where, most days out of the year, there are literally no great falls running here at all… The sprawling rocky riverbed is an emptied bowl. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer.

Of more than 500 U.S. refuges, Conte is one of just three with “fish” in its name. Today hopes for the long-term protections of its fish and the river comprising its central artery rest heavily in the hands of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service and Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. They have “conditioning authority” in these relicensings — mandates to protect the life in this river system. FERC, the ultimate relicensing umpire here, is also mandated to ensure compliance with environmental laws. For the fish agencies this is their one chance to redeem some far-reaching mistakes made by their predecessors.

Forty-five years ago these agencies — operating on limited information and pursuing dreams of reprising a salmon not seen on this river since 1809 — signed agreements with different owners of these facilities. That hobbled, for generations, a four-state migratory fisheries restoration for American shad and river herring and a recovery for federally endangered shortnose sturgeon. They sanctioned the daily use of the massive river-reversing pumped storage facility still chewing through generations of migratory and resident fish today. Concurrently they left two miles of the river emptied downstream, its flow diverted into a turbine-lined power canal that all migrants must negotiate in order to access the next 50 miles of open spawning habitat. Just 5 shad in 100 have ever succeeded. Perhaps worse, the river’s only documented natural spawning habitat for the endangered shortnose sturgeon was left without life-sustaining flow.

A Tale of Two Salmon, a River Without Fish

The last wild salmon run on the Connecticut River was recorded in 1809.

Science later revealed the salmons’ end was likely a combination of warming temperatures following the unusually cold period known as the Little Ice Age coupled with modern dam building.

For 165 years there were no salmon. Then, in 1974, a single fish arrived at Holyoke Dam. Far from being a native of the Connecticut River, this was a new hybrid — a returning fish produced at one of several federal hatcheries completed five years prior. This salmon’s genes, like the genes of all the fish that would return in subsequent years, were cobbled together using salmon from several still-surviving runs in northern New England.

This past June 30 marked a different milestone on the river. It ended the first season in 46 years when not a single hatchery-derived Atlantic salmon returned past Massachusetts’ Holyoke Dam.

That unnatural history event passed with little fanfare. Its silent-spring absence marked the end of a half-century-old program that consumed hundreds of millions of dollars and ate up far too much room in a badly broken ecosystem. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service abandoned its hatchery program at the end of the 2012 migration season, but across its 43 years — which saw the annual release of millions of fry and smolts to tributaries in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire — so few adults returned that no one was ever allowed to catch one.

This second salmon ending highlights the fish agencies’ last shot at returning ancient ocean connections to the river’s still-viable, age-old runs of American shad, blueback herring and federally endangered shortnose sturgeon in three states.

All these species have been guaranteed safe passage on U.S. rivers, going back to the landmark Supreme Court decision in Holyoke Company v. Lyman in 1872. That finding centered on the dam in Holyoke, Massachusetts and held that private dam owners operating on U.S. rivers must provide for the free movement, upstream and down, of migratory fish past their facilities.

Looking west across the CT to the Holyoke Dam fish lift complex. Since 1955 it is one of the East Coast’s few fish passage successes. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer All Rights Reserved.

Its implementation on New England’s river is now 148 years overdue.

A River Run in Reverse

What’s ultimately at issue here is flow.

Having taken a back seat for generations, wild runs of shad, herring and sturgeon remain in desperate need of passage and consistent, exponentially increased river flow in FirstLight’s hydro-complex dominated reach. It’s literally the weight of water that matters most to FirstLight. It’s money in the bank. And where flow diversion is concerned, it’s been pretty much a free ride for companies here for the past 50 years.

The 20 miles of river backed up into Vermont and New Hampshire behind Turners Falls Dam are massively suctioned for hours at up to 15,000 cubic feet per second to fill the 4-billion-gallon reservoir above the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station.

Northfield’s suction is so violent it literally reverses the Connecticut’s current for up to a mile downstream at times, erasing the essence of a living river system. The station kills everything it sucks in, from tiny fish eggs to full-size eels. In pumping mode it suctions the equivalent of 3,600 seven-bedroom mansions, each filled with the aquatic life of a river, vaporized every hour, for hours on end. Agency studies on America shad show tens of millions of eggs and larvae extinguished at Northfield annually, plus the deaths of over 2 million juvenile shad sucked in on migrations back to the sea. Five migrant species are subjected to Northfield. In all 24 species live here, most unstudied.

Warning floats on the CT at the entranceway to Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station’s massive subsurface suctioning site. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer All Rights Reserved.

Northfield’s operations are nothing like classic hydro, operating to produce virgin electricity via a dam in or adjacent to a river. It’s actually an electric appliance, built to take advantage of excess, unused megawatts produced nightly at the nearby Vermont Yankee nuclear station. Northfield burns electricity to pump water from the river a mile uphill to into its reservoir tank, which was created by blasting off the top of a mountain. The company’s original owners would buy up Vermont Yankee’s cheap electricity to power its giant, reversible turbines. Later, during peak energy times, that now-lifeless river water would get sent back through the turbines to generate hours-long pulses of energy at peak market prices.

It’s a buy-low, sell-high operation, still running at the expense of a river system six years after Vermont Yankee shut down.

Idle bulldozers sit in the emptied bed of the giant NMPS reservoir on June 27, 2010–the year they broke their giant appliance by fouling the pumps with muck and silt. Sanctioned by the EPA for a cover-up and massively dumping the muck from their mile-long intake tunnel directly into the river, Northfield didn’t operate for over half a year. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer. All Rights Reserved. (Click x3 to enlarge.)

Northfield is a net-loss energy machine — a giant underground appliance consuming massive amounts of grid electricity, half of it now generated by the climate-scorching natural gas that dominates New England’s power grid today. The station consumes 25% to 33% more juice than the secondhand megawatts it sends back by dumping deadened river water back through its turbines. It and a smaller pumped storage station in Connecticut are responsible for gobbling up 1.4% percent of the region’s energy in order to reproduce the few hours of secondhand juice they regenerate. According to grid operator ISO-New England, they are the only facilities whose operations flush out as negative input in the regional power mix.

Northfield has never generated a single watt of its own electricity. And though it may be fine as blunt instrument for use during the occasional power grid slump or rare emergency blackout, its endless, river-crippling, pump-and-purge cycle of regenerated megawatts is unnecessary for the daily operation of the New England grid. While its owners brag of being able to power a million homes for a few hours, they never mention having already burned through the energy of 1.25 million homes to do so. After its daily flush, Northfield is virtually dead in the water and must begin pulling from the grid and sucking life from the river all over.

Past mistakes not only allowed for this massive upstream disruption, they sanctioned diversion of nearly all flow, as well as all migrating fish, into a downstream power canal that on average just 5% of shad have ever successfully negotiated. That left another two miles of New England’s river dysfunctional, with the company providing just a dribble flow of 400 cubic feet per second in the riverbed in spring, when fish are moving upriver. That riverbed remains emptied of all flow more than half the other days of the year.

The most critical time for sustaining flows and the river’s migrants is April through June, when New England’s energy consumption is at its low annual ebb. But federal and state studies and in-river findings show that spring flows will need to be increased by a factor of 20, supplying 8,000 cfs rather than the current brook-like drizzle of 400 cfs. That’s what it will take to guide shad and blueback herring upstream in the river past Turners Falls Dam. That will also provide this river’s only endangered migrant the consistent flows required to successfully allow the shortnose sturgeon to spawn and ensure its larvae can develop in the cobbles at an ancient river pool in that impoverished reach.

Flow starved Connecticut River at the Rock Dam–critical shortnose sturgeon spawning and rearing site, May 13, 2018. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer All Rights Reserved.

Back in 1967, when four New England states and these agencies signed the “Statement of Intent for the Cooperative Fishery Restoration Program for the Connecticut River Basin,” they projected some 38,000 salmon would return annually to this four-state ecosystem. For salmon, a pinnacle of sorts was reached in 1981, when 592 were tallied passing Holyoke. But for a hybrid fish whose wild prototype disappeared 160 years prior, it was downhill from there. Most years fewer than 100 salmon returned to the river.

That 1967 agreement also set annual run targets of one million American shad heading upstream, with 850,000 shad passing Turners Falls and 750,000 entering Vermont and New Hampshire habitats above Vernon Dam. The highest shad return saw 720,000 passing Holyoke in 1992. Sadly, they’ve never made it much farther.

The Run Stops in Massachusetts.

Just 36 miles upstream of Holyoke, all semblance of a successful restoration ends when the annual shad run reaches Turners Falls Dam. Of the 537,000 shad that passed Holyoke in 2017, just 48,000 — a mere 9% — squeezed back into the river beyond Turners Falls.

Vernon Dam between Vernon VT and Hinsdale NH, March 2020. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer

The annual inversion at the next upstream dam in Vermont illustrates the perils on this broken river. In 2017 29,000 or 59% of the shad that survived the miseries of Turners Falls were subsequently counted passing Vernon Dam, 20 miles upriver. That inverted interstate ratio has been the case since 1975, with few shad managing to break out beyond the brutal ecosystem conditions in Massachusetts.

Why the Restoration Failed

The current restoration, congressionally authorized in 1967 and still operating today under the moniker of the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, made their biggest blunder in 1975 when they signed off on new license requirements for upstream fish passage. They ultimately chose a design based on hydro project fish ladders on Washington State’s giant Columbia River, known for huge Pacific salmon runs. What got built was a three-ladder fish passage that forced all migrants out of their ancient river highway and into the byzantine maze of the company’s power canal, while leaving two miles of riverbed all but emptied of flow.

Scaled down and put in place at Turners Falls, it worked fine for the program’s few successfully returning hybrid salmon but failed immediately for 95% of the hundreds of thousands of migrating shad. No big run has ever passed that site, leaving three states without their promised bounties. Vermont and New Hampshire remain this river’s shad deserts today.

The Prescription

It’s now 2020. At this late date, corporate re-registrations can’t hide what’s legally required and a half-century overdue on New England’s river. The last opportunity to undo those festering mistakes for the Connecticut now rest in the hands of the National Marine Fisheries Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Massachusetts Division of Fish and Wildlife. They are the people’s gatekeepers, mandated to guard the public trust — agencies with the authority to change to the generations-old crippling conditions here in Massachusetts.

Across 45 years of tracking fish runs passing upstream at successive dams on the Connecticut, shad counts have averaged 315,369 at Holyoke, 17,579 at Turners Falls, and just 9,299 at the Vernon Dam in Vermont. But recently long-term federal and state studies on passage and juvenile survival for American shad have led to new minimum benchmarks for fish passage at each dam to ensure the long-term survival of the river’s runs.

Using those findings, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, National Marine Fisheries Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the four states have formally adopted new Connecticut River fish passage goals. They include annual minimums of 687,000 shad passing Holyoke, 297,000 passing Turners Falls, and 227,000 at Vernon Dam annually. Those federal and state targets are now part of the public record in the current FERC relicensings. Their implementation would also ensure the endangered shortnose sturgeon gets the flows needed to begin its recovery here.

It’s time to return flow to the Connecticut River below Turners Falls. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer All Rights Reserved.

The time has come for facilities operating and profiting off the life of New England’s river to come into compliance with the laws of the land, including the Supreme Court’s 1872 finding in Holyoke Company v. Lyman, the Anadromous Fish Conservation Act of 1965, the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and a host of others. For the fisheries agencies charged with protecting a river’s bounty, standing up for their implementation is the sole prescription for success in a four-state restoration undertaken when back Lyndon Johnson was president.

By law, by right and by the public trust, the Connecticut River’s time has come.

Karl Meyer has been a member of the Fish & Aquatics Studies Team and an intervener in the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission relicensing process for three Massachusetts facilities on the Connecticut River since 2012. He lives in Greenfield, Massachusetts. Meyer is a member of The Society of Environmental Journalists.

* * FINAL NOTE from the author: if all this history is new and troubling to you it must be considered that: this is the only river in the Northeast with several federal designations that has remained the only major waterway without an independent and effective watchdog–one with a full legal team on staff, and a mandate to investigate, enforce, and go to court. The generations-long mistakes and brutal conditions that have existed here would’ve long ago been challenged in court had there been an effective organization protecting the integrity of this river system. If the Connecticut River is to have a future as a living ecosystem, a new model will have to come into being.

REIMAGINING A RIVER: The Year without Northfield Mountain

Posted by on 01 Jun 2020 | Tagged as: American shad, Clean Water Act, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Connecticut River Coordinator, Connecticut River pollution, Connecticut River Watershed Council, CRASC, Daily Hampshire Gazette, EPA, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, FirstLight, fish passage, Gary Sanderson, Greenfield, hatchery, Holyoke Dam, ISO New England, Larry Parnass, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, migratory fish, Northfield Mountain, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Reservoir, Old Saybrook CT, pumped storage, Riverkeeper, salmon, salmon hatchery, The Daily Hampshire Gazette, The Greenfield Recorder, The Recorder, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Environmental Protection Agency, USFWS

THIS GREAT AND BROKEN RIVER VII

Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Issue # 7, Part 1, REIMAGINING A RIVER: The Year without Northfield Mountain


Sunderland Bridge over the Connecticut. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. (Click X 3 to enlarge, back arrows to return to text)

AUTHOR’S NOTE: I have found it difficult to write these past days. I am heartsick for my country. Are we to be a fair, generous and courageous people, or just a collection of frightened, soulless bystanders? What world do we want our children to grow up into? I have not been without a few tears at times over the past week. But, I know that good work and living rivers benefit all; they do not hate, judge, murder, or discriminate. So, noting that all of us have some heart-work to do, I continue here, with this also…

On May 1, 2010, I began a 5-day cycling trip from Greenfield MA, downstream to Long Island Sound and back again along the Connecticut River. I set out by bike to highlight and blog about the massively wasteful and misplaced emphasis on the forever-failed, hatchery-produced, 40 year-old salmon program for the river. Meanwhile, across the preceding decade, the formerly growing and robust American shad runs had concurrently experienced precipitous declines in fish passage returns at Holyoke Dam. More importantly, the shad run was literally flirting with extinguishment upstream of the Turners Falls Dam.


Miserable shad tally board at TF Fishway, 2007. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. (Click X 3 to enlarge, back arrows to return to text)

The plunge at Turners Falls had taken hold pretty much simultaneously with the implementation of newly-legislated electricity deregulation in Massachusetts. It gave owners of the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station a license to unleash new, lucrative and disruptive flow regimes in the river—just 5 miles upstream of Turners Falls Dam. Ironically, that same May Day when I left for the mouth of the river, was the day that Northfield Mountain was scheduled to shut down to begin mucking out the decade’s worth of silt and muck they’d inhaled up into their 4-billion gallon mountaintop reservoir.


Cyclist’s Shad Dinner, Saybrook CT. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. (Click X 3 to enlarge, back arrows to return to text)

Unbeknownst to me–and to NMPS management, once they shut down and started draining their reservoir that net energy loss contraption would not suction the river again for over half a year. They broke their regenerating plant; their muck half-filling the mile-long tunnels connecting it to the river. FirstLight then tried to hide their plight and the evidence as they turned around and massively polluted the river for months. That came to an abrupt halt when the EPA(remember them?) issued a “Cease and Desist” order against them extensive violations of the Clean Water Act.

But, a great upshot benefit soon came into focus: with the river not suctioned and ramping up-and-down at Northfield, successful fish passage at Turners Falls Dam jumped back to well over 400% over 2009 totals–leaping to 16,422 shad passing in 2010(though likely significantly more, since FirstLight’s fish counting software was curiously ‘inoperable’ on 17 different days that spring), while just 3,813 shad squeezed past Turners Falls in 2009. Overall, that 2010 rise peaked at over 500% above that decade’s previous passage averages there. I returned to Greenfield on May 5, 2010, and learned of NMPS’s disastrous de-watering that same afternoon. It was of great interest, but its significance wouldn’t be understood for weeks until the unusual and increasing shad tallies passing Turners began coming in.

Just 3 years earlier, after spending over half a decade working at the Northfield Mountain Recreation Center (where I’d even for a time been secretary for the Safety Committee up inside the pumped storage power plant), I quit. The dismal shad runs, just downstream, were chewing on my soul.


Lynde Pt. Light at the River’s Mouth, Old Saybrook CT. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. (Click X 3 to enlarge, back arrows to return to text)

By that May of 2010, I’d been doing part-time work for the Connecticut River Watershed Council for a few years. I immediately informed the Council of Northfield’s predicament when I got back. Sadly, I then had to watch their back-seat, kid-gloves handling of an opportunity to prosecute and hold the power company responsible for massive pollution. They stayed quietly in the background, letting the Massachusetts DEP and MA Div. of Fish & Wildlife take charge of holding FirstLight’s feet to the fire. It was a massive opportunity to begin taking on the gross daily river depredations of Northfield Mountain, but it was mostly just squandered here in Massachusetts.

The Commonwealth and MA Fish & Wildlife did little, though some effort by MA DEP and Natural Heritage ultimately bargained for a study of erosion effects on endangered dragonflies as some sort of restitution. I later felt compelled to quit the Watershed Council, which I did five months later. They weren’t players, likely because their board was full of former power company managers and folks still working as consultants, who might see some power company contract work in the future. It was just wrong that–as one of the oldest river organizations on the East Coast, they didn’t have a single lawyer on staff, nor have a mission that mandated enforcement. This was no Riverkeeper.

It wasn’t really until early that June that I began to realize the full ramifications of Northfield’s shutdown. Fish passage numbers just began creeping higher and higher at Turners Falls. I attended a June 22nd meeting of the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission (CRASC)—the Congressionally-authorized fed/state fisheries organization charged with managing and protecting migratory fish on the Connecticut. I asked the agency reps if they’d noticed the numbers and whether they’d been doing any studies on the relationship between the big shad passage at Turners and the turbine disaster upstream at Northfield. “We haven’t looked at it,” said a relatively new USFWS Connecticut River Coordinator Ken Sprankle.


Jilted American shad flashes CRASC attendees at the TF Power Canal. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. (Click X 3 to enlarge, back arrows to return to text)

Even then, I was as yet unaware that NMPS was STILL not operating. But I got a curious look from FirstLight’s Bob Stira, also in attendance, when I posed that question. That look–and the immediate notice of the shutdown of Northfield Mountain’s reservoir trails that same afternoon, is what soon sent me on a recon trip with a camera up to that reservoir. I started crunching numbers and writing. On a Sunday morning one week later I found an unposted back woods trail up to the reservoir, and there was the whole story.

Days earlier, I’d independently handed over some initial fish passage numbers and gave a few pointed quotes in an email to Gary Sanderson, sports and outdoors editor at The Recorder. Gary enthusiastically included them in his column along with his own comments. The following week, after FirstLight’s sudden and inexplicable closure of trails leading to the reservoir–plus immediately moving their riverboat tour boarding site from Northfield down to Barton Cove in Gill, I snuck up and took a photo of that emptied reservoir with two fat earth movers sitting silent in the silt-filled bed.


Emptied Northfield Mountain Reservoir. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. (Click X 3 to enlarge, back arrows to return to text)

Their riverboat got moved downriver to hide from the public the chocolate colored river that Northfield’s dumping was creating at intake tunnels next to the Riverview dock site. The silt cloud reached all the way down to the French King Bridge.


Muck-plagued Connecticut River beneath the French King Bridge. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. (Click X 3 to enlarge, back arrows to return to text)

In late June, Daily Hampshire Gazette Editor Larry Parnass ran my rather telling Northfield Reservoir photo above my expository OpEd bringing to light the disaster there–and the surprise fish passage bonanza occurring at Turners Falls Dam. It wasn’t until the first week of August that the EPA finally stepped in to order FirstLight to cease and desist. They’d been dumping the equivalent of 40-50 dump truck loads of reservoir muck directly into the Connecticut for over 90 straight days. That EPA order would keep Northfield shutdown well into November.

Despite Northfield’s claims of the usefullness of its daily input, and the touted critical emergency readiness of their net-energy loss machine to the grid, no one in New England went without electricity in the long months their river-strangling contraption was lifeless. The only mourners during its 7 month coma appeared to be two climate-change cheerleaders: ISO-New England and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Yet even during a long hot summer–one in which Vermont Yankee shut down for a week to refuel, everyone had essential power. The public didn’t miss Northfield, the shad run blossomed, and a river came back to life.

SPRING: Private Profit; Public Loss

Posted by on 26 May 2020 | Tagged as: American shad, Connecticut River, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, FERC, FirstLight, FirstLight Power, FISH CAM, fish passage, Holyoke Dam, Holyoke Fish Lift, Humor, ISO New England, migratory fish, Northfield Mountain, shad fishing, Silvio O. Conte Connecticut River National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, Slim Shad Point, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, USFWS

THIS GREAT AND BROKEN RIVER VI

Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

SPRING: Private Profit; Public Loss

Despite the enormous and longstanding damages the Industrial Age visited upon the Connecticut River—the early clear-cutting of the north woods, the building of the main stem dams and canals, the profligate effluent pollution, the thermal heating from a pair of nuclear reactors, the eviscerating impacts of a massive, river-reversing pumped storage project, it somehow has survived into the 21st century with a relatively robust and still-restorable spring run of American shad in its lower reaches.


Fishing Slim Shad Pt. Holyoke Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. (Click X 3 to enlarge; back arrows to return)

The Connecticut is indeed rare in that respect—as well as for being host to the most successful fishway on the entire East Coast, with a lift first put in place at Holyoke Dam in 1955. That spurred a New England fisheries restoration effort begun here between federal and state fisheries agencies in 1967. It is why the Connecticut ultimately became the central artery of the 4-state Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge in 1997. But by that time the river’s migratory fisheries restoration had already stalled and foundered in Massachusetts just 36 miles upstream of Holyoke, at the foot of the Turners Falls power canal and dam.


Shad Angler Wading at Holyoke Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. (Click X 3 to enlarge; back arrows to return)

The complex of fish ladders and canal routes chosen and installed there in 1980 were largely weighted toward passage of a new, mass-produced hatchery-hybrid salmon strain. They proved an obvious and instant failure for the hundreds of thousands of shad returning to pass that place as soon as all the concrete dried. Vermont, New Hampshire, northern Massachusetts—never received their promised bounty.

And so it is to this day. The Connecticut, still massively overworked and under-protected, remains without any new bona fide restoration success for migrating shad in 3 out of 4 of the states over its 410 mile reach over the last 30 years. Where have the fish successfully passed? You need not go far to identify the break point. Smack in the heart of this spring’s migration peak here’s a quick look at the stats for fish passage success up through Memorial Day weekend. As of May 25, 2020, some 274,370 shad had been lifted past Holyoke Dam according to USFWS Connecticut River Project Leader Ken Sprankle.

And at Turners Falls? Well, the last report offered included a total of 735 shad passing as of May 17, 2020. They don’t report regularly from Turners Falls. If FirstLight had just installed a simple Fish Cam the public would have had something this year—while all their license-required recreational access has been shut down tight this spring, including fish viewing, camping, even hiking trails. But, just to compare: as of that same date, May 17, 2020, Holyoke had already reported passing 51,000 shad upstream. It only takes the 1-1/2 – 2 foot long, blue-green migrants just a day or so to start knocking on the door at Turners Falls. But as the failed restoration numbers have grimly shown for decades, the river’s great run dies in the alternately starved and ramped-up industrial flows set in motion by gatehouse and dam operators at Turners Falls and Northfield Mountain.

Listless Riverbed at Turners Falls, May 14, 2020
Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
. (Click X 3 to enlarge; back arrows to return)

It’s now three migration seasons past the April 30, 2018 expiration date of the current Federal Energy Regulatory Commission license for FirstLight’s Turners Falls Dam, yet no legally-mandated fish passage–upstream and down, has been constructed. Literally nothing has been done. While citizens in three states—including fifteen cities, towns and villages, are yet to see their rightful share of the river’s fish.

As always, FERC and ISO-New England (in Holyoke) have both made sure to requisition and have available a glut of power for the sprawling Northeast power grid here (at public expense, but without public input of course) It’s way more than enough to easily exceed the grip of a summer heat wave. Climate emergency be damned… It does means big corporate profits. Meanwhile, it’s mid-spring. Power use is at a low annual ebb. Yet New England’s Great River here in the United States is currently starved of both its fish and life-giving flows at Turners Falls–while Canada’s shareholder-owned FirstLight Power exports its profits out of the region.

A living river is a public right here. Whose pockets are being lined?

Issue # 3: The River Emptied at Spring

Posted by on 13 May 2020 | Tagged as: American shad, Bellows Falls VT, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Endangered Species Act, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeion, FERC, FERC license, FirstLight, Greenfield Recorder, Holyoke Dam, Holyoke Fish Lift, migratory fish, Narragansett, Nipmuck, Northfield Mountain, Norwottuck, Pocumtuck, Rock Dam, Rock Dam Pool, shad, Silvio O. Conte Connecticut River National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, Turner Falls Massacre, Turners Falls, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, US Geological Survey's Conte Fish Lab, USFWS, Vermont, Walpole

THIS GREAT AND BROKEN RIVER III

Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Issue # 3: The River Emptied at Spring

Dismal Mother’s Day flow at Turner’s Falls Dam and Fishway Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer (Click X 3 for closeup, click back arrow to return to text)

It was a grim Mother’s Day weekend for the Connecticut River in Massachusetts. The only current left in the riverbed below Turners Falls Dam amounted to little more than a thin, spreading soup winding a shallow path around successive ridges of drying ledge as it threaded together a downstream path along it’s ancient, impoverished bed. Anyone with a pair of rubber boots could’ve easily walked across the Connecticut just a few hundred feet below that dam without much risk of getting wet to the knees–smack in the middle of fish migration and spawning season in the heart of the Silvio O. Conte Connecticut River National Fish and Wildlife Refuge.

There’s something soulless in starving a river of its flow—particularly in the spring when the shadbush is in bloom, the columbine have sprouted, and the fish are in the river. This year, with the corona virus draining spirits and sapping energy during March and April, the presence of a living river in Western New England’s back yard was something to anticipate come May. The light returned, the trees were in flower, birds were making music, and energy use was in its usual seasonal retreat—demand being down ever since a warmer than normal winter.


Days Earlier Flow over Turners Falls Dam May 5, 2020 Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer (Click X 3, back arrow to return to text)

This should have been a promising early May on New England’s Great River. But no–not here in northern Massachusetts–not this Mother’s Day weekend. For migrating American shad seeking a route upstream here, the river was literally a road to nowhere. As of Monday, May 11th, though some 18,000 shad had passed upstream at the Holyoke Fishway, 36 river miles to the south, not a single shad had been tallied managing to pass beyond the grim maze of a power canal and several ladders to emerge above Turners Falls Dam. By Monday not a single migrant from the ocean had been tallied passing that dam–thus none were present moving upstream to open Vermont, New Hampshire and northern Massachusetts habitats. The public has no access to the fishway this year, and FirstLight has not provided a simple video feed for people to see their fish. At Turners Falls, the power company alone, is left to monitor itself and report on the public’s fish.


Shad Anglers below Holyoke Dam May 7, 2020 Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer

But, most grimly again this May, river conditions on Mother’s Day were altogether devastating for federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon attempting to spawn and nurture young in the currents at their ancient Rock Dam spawning pool–a mile and a half downstream of the dam. Vital river flows at a natural basalt, in-stream formation known as Rock Dam–which had been accommodating for spawning sturgeon just a week before, were shut down to the point where the cobble shoals that shelter eggs and developing young were now visible along a receded shoreline.

Hopeful shad anglers from the adjacent USGS Conte Lab and nearby US Fish & Wildlife Service in Sunderland were present to witness the impacts. This year’s potential progeny–at the sturgeon’s only documented natural spawning site in the ecosystem, were once more left to desiccate–starved of life-giving, oxygenating water as the sun warmed the prematurely exposed, rocky shallows. Though not fishing on this Mother’s Day morning, one of the leaders of the local Nolumbeka Project stopped to inquired of me if the sturgeon had been able to successfully spawn this year. I had to tell him no.

For the second year running FirstLight Power had squeezed the bascule gates closed at Turners Fall Dam, leaving just a curtain of a few hundred cubic feet per second (cfs) of flow entering the starved riverbed below Turners Falls Dam. The Federal Energy Regulatory license for FL’s Turners Falls and Northfield Mountain operations expired two years back on April 30, 2018. . Conditions in a new license would have hopefully increased that dribbling flow at the dam by a factor of 20. Grimly, the starving of this Great River is occurring at the exact site where women, children and elders of the Nipmuck, Pocumtuck, Norwottuck and Narragensett People were set upon and slaughtered in their pre-dawn sleep in the Turners Falls Massacre on May 19, 1676.

But FERC stepped in on FirstLight’s behalf, and has now offered two years of license extensions to this Canadian-owned, Delaware-registered company, allowing these grim impacts to continue. In doing so it has now green-lighted these conditions for three consecutive spawning seasons–allowing crippling industrial practices put in place 52 years back to choke the life out of four-state migratory fish runs, and crushing the spawning prospects for those sturgeon–literally the Connecticut’s only federally endangered migratory fish species. This, in an ecosystem that should have had connected and sustaining flows and fish passage upstream to Bellows Falls VT and Walpole NH long ago.

The flows present in the river on Mother’s Day are flows that force endangered sturgeon to default downstream to attempt spawning in the pulsing industrial flows churning out of the Cabot Station powerhouse a half mile downstream. There, any spawned and developing young-of-the-year will have no defense against the scouring-out hydro surges pulsing canal water back into the riverbed below once fertilized young are dispersed in the flows to shelter in rocky shallows .

Those tamped-down Mother’s Day flows from the dam also create conditions that keep American shad in an endless Groundhog Day cycling at Rock Dam–circling and re-circling in the depleted currents at a pool where depths become too shallow to find a flow offering a negotiable upstream path. Anglers sometimes do quite well at this migratory cull-de-sac where agitated, circling shad snap at darts while wasting hours and energy in this suspended-migration.

But those same tamped down flows diverted at TF Dam also cause just-arriving American shad from Holyoke to be led directly to the false upstream currents exiting the power canal at Cabot Station. Sensing that upstream attraction flow, those unlucky fish get drawn into a ponderous and exhausting fish ladder there. There they are diverted entirely out of the riverbed and into a concrete chute where they must attempt to better an impossible series of steps, twists, and turns that will ultimately dump them into the alien and un-river-like environs of the Turners Falls power canal. Once they enter that industrial habitat, many end their upstream migrations altogether, spending weeks in the labyrinth of that walled corridor without finding a way out and upstream.

Grimly, this year was nearly a carbon copy of the brutal conditions visited below Turners Falls the week of Mother’s Day 2019. Last year at this time researchers tallied the largest-ever catch of spawning-run endangered sturgeon gathered at their Rock Dam nursery pool, corralling 48 fish in a morning survey of a biologist’s net. Days later, at the height of shortnose spawning season, FirstLight abruptly cut off life giving flows to the site. Those same banks and cobbles were exposed, and the spawning run sturgeon were sent packing—forced to abandon the site, with any embryos and young that might have proved viable left withering in the shallows.


FL’s Locked Entrance at Cabot Woods & Rock Dam mid-afternoon May 5, 2020 Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer

You might have expected more from FirstLight this year. This is a Canadian shareholder company seeking a new federal license to operate these facilities on the Connecticut River in Massachusetts after recently re-registering them in Delaware as tax shelters. But, now that FERC continues to allow them to profit off the grim and antiquated tenets of a license written under the Federal Power Commission 52 years ago, they seem in no particular hurry to become relicensed neighbors operating for profit on a four-state US river that is the centerpiece of a National Fish and Wildlife Refuge.

These ongoing grim flow regimes fly in the face of mandates long-ago included in the Endangered Species Act and the Anadramous Fish Conservation Act, here, in the most biologically important and critical habitat in the entire Connecticut River ecosystem. They also feel like a thumbing of the nose at Massachusetts taxpayers—as well as all the deserving citizens in the three states from Montague MA to Walpole NH, who also pay taxes and are certainly entitled to a living river. It is a form of public theft.

As the Connecticut River is left starved, its ancient fish runs foundering, there is no movement to bring to a close the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s “5-year” relicensing process—begun here in 2012 and lingering on, laughably unfinished. The power company continues to pocket profits, while the FERC is led by a stilted and hand-picked majority happy to feed the corporations what they want, to the benefit of foreign shareholders far from New England. Sadly, there is no state or federal environmental agency that appears willing to challenge this endless delay. And, as noted here before—this four-state river lacks a true NGO watchdog with a mission-mandate and staff lawyers protecting it. See The Greenfield Recorder: https://www.recorder.com/New-England-s-great-river-without-a-watchdog-33291778

FERC orders Canada’s FirstLight to investigate ITSELF on ESA impacts

Posted by on 27 Feb 2020 | Tagged as: Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Endangered Species Act, ESA, Federal Conte Anadromous Fish Research Center, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, FERC Secretary Kimberly D. Bose, FirstLight, Kimberly D. Bose, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, National Marine Fisheries Service, Rock Dam, Rock Dam Pool, Secretary Kimberly Bose, shortnose sturgeon, Silvio O. Conte Connecticut River National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, State of Delaware, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, US Geological Survey's Conte Fish Lab, USFWS

Photo Copyright © 2020, by Karl Meyer.
NOTE: the above photo was taken on 2/25/20 at the Rock Dam pool in Turners Falls. This is the ONLY documented natural spawning site for the federally endangered shortnose sturgeon on the Connecticut River. NOTICE: the Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon is the ONLY federally-endangered migratory fish in the entire ecosystem. Shortnose sturgeon will be returning to the grim conditions in this ancient spawning pool in just 7 weeks.(Click, then click twice more to enlarge)

I sent the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission the following letter in October of 2019.

Karl Meyer, M.S. Environmental Science October 9, 2019
91 Smith Street
Greenfield, MA, 01301
karlmeyer1809@verizon.net

The Honorable Kimberly D. Bose, Secretary
Federal Energy Regulatory Commission
88 First Street, NE
Washington, DC 20426

ILP COMMENTS re: Turners Falls Hydroelectric Project P- 1889, and Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project P-2485.

Dear Secretary Bose,

These comments are made with respect to immediate concerns respecting P-1889 and operations of the Turners Falls Dam and power canal impacting the riverbanks and the spawning habitat of the federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon at the Rock Dam, this species’ only documented natural spawning site in the Connecticut River ecosystem. I have been a participating Stakeholder in the FERC relicensing process for P-1889 and P-2485 since 2012. I serve on the Fish and Aquatics Studies Team for both these projects.

In recent weeks I have noted increasingly steady water leakage in the riverbanks above the Rock Dam site, leading to constant water flow intrusions along these banks. Less than 400 feet away sits the downstream, outer-right banking curve of the Turners Falls power canal, which is the apparent source of these increasing water intrusions.

In a visit to the Rock Dam site on October 8, 2019, I noted the dramatic collapses of a long section of riverbank adjacent to the Rock Dam. This collapse, of some 25 feet in width and dropping down between 5 – 10 feet toward the river, is apparent in my attached photo. Please note that the draped yellow jacket in the foreground is approximately 3-1/2 feet across. This new bank collapse is just south, by perhaps 30 feet, from an earlier recent collapse of a smaller scale of some 6 feet across, occurring at approximately the same bank level. At both of these sites there has been a serious leaching of manganese, the red colored flow toward the river and the sand and cobbles that constitute the shortnose sturgeon spawning site and egg/embryo nursery unique to this reach.

Of most import in the licensing and management of this critical habitat is the damaging, new eroded channel flowing around the Rock Dam site on river left that has grown from a trickle in the mostly rain-free months of this year’s late summer and early fall—until, by yesterday, October 8, 2019, it had grown to torrent of new water coursing through a new channel adjacent to those collapsing river banks. The corresponding connection to this dramatically increasing damage appears to stem from the increased flows currently being released from Turners Falls dam to facilitate the week-long dewatering of the Turners Falls canal, currently in progress. See attached photo of TF dam release on that day. This new channel presents an immediate threat, through deposition and erosion and pollution, to the spawning and early life stage development of shortnose sturgeon in the rock, sand, and cobble habitats at the Rock Dam pool, immediately downstream and adjacent.

Immediate action appears to be necessitated by these developments. This riverbank and traditional fishing access has been neglected and poorly maintained through the last decade. A cursory look would find neglected concrete pilings where steps were to be built, as well as literal sink holes in at least two sites in areas above these collapsed banks, where small hemlock trees are now sunk to the depth of 4 feet.

Please take action requiring immediate remedy to this situation, which appears to concern license and statute infractions that run afoul of the federal Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, and Article 17 concerning erosion; Article 19, concerning construction and maintenance; Article 18 concerning fishing access; and Article 35 concerning State Historic Preservation under the current license for P-1889.

Thank you for your careful review of these matters; they are of immediate import.

Sincerely,
Karl Meyer

Cc:
Doug Bennett, FirstLight
Julie Crocker, NMFS/NOAA
Ken Spankle, USFWS
Melissa Grader, USFWS
Caleb Slater, MA Div. of Fish & Wildlife,
Rich Holschuh, Elnu-Abenaki”

Photo Copyright © 2020, by Karl Meyer.

Just one small section of FirstLight’s collapsing riverbank and the pollution that runs into the Rock Dam pool just 40 feet away. This is just 250 yards away from the USGS S.O. Conte Anadromous Fish Research Center. (NOTE: Click, then click x2 to enlarge)

NOTE: Over 4 months later the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission finally took the bold action to order Canadian-owned, Delaware-registered FirstLight to investigate and report on their own impacts on this critical endangered species habitat on the Connecticut River. THE ORDERS ARE BELOW:

FEDERAL ENERGY REGULATORY COMMISSION
Washington, D. C. 20426
OFFICE OF ENERGY PROJECTS
Project No. 1889-090 – Massachusetts
Turners Falls Hydroelectric Project
FirstLight Hydro Generating Company
VIA FERC Service
February 21, 2020

Mr. Donald E. Traester
Manager, Regulatory Compliance
FirstLight Power Services, LLC
99 Millers Falls Road
Northfield, MA 01360
Subject: Complaint – Erosion

Dear Mr. Traester:
On October 9, 2019, we received a complaint regarding erosion in the bypassed
reach of the Turners Falls Project No. 1889. According to the complaint, releases fromthe dam caused erosion in the area known as the Rock Dam in the project’s bypassed reach. For us to complete our review of the of the complaint, please file the following information within 30 days of the date of this letter:

1. Photographs and the location(s) and an estimate of the extent(s) (e.g., height,
width, depth) of the erosion in the bypassed reach identified in the October 9, 2019complaint.

2. The dates and timing of the Turners Falls power canal drawdown, why it was
performed during this time, whether it was typical of past drawdowns, and what
measures you took to protect downstream resources and the public.

3. Flow data for the entire period identified in item 2, including releases from the Turners Falls dam.

4. A comparison of the flow releases into the bypassed reach during this drawdown
to historical releases into the bypassed reach (e.g., for maintenance purposes,
naturally occurring high flows, etc.)

5. Any additional information you believe is pertinent to the allegations raised in the October 9, 2019 complaint.

20200221-3033 FERC PDF (Unofficial) 02/21/2020
Project No. 1889-090 – 2 –

The Commission strongly encourages electronic filing. Please file the requested
information using the Commission’s eFiling system at http://www.ferc.gov/docsfiling/efiling.asp. For assistance, please contact FERC Online Support at
FERCOnlineSupport@ferc.gov, (866) 208-3676 (toll free), or (202) 502-8659 (TTY). In
lieu of electronic filing, please send a paper copy to: Secretary, Federal Energy
Regulatory Commission, 888 First Street NE, Washington, D.C. 20426. The first page of any filing related to this letter should include docket number P-1889-090.
If you have any questions regarding this letter, please contact me at (202) 502-
6778 or Christopher.Chaney@ferc.gov.

Sincerely,
Christopher Chaney, P.E.
Engineering Resources Branch
Division of Hydropower Administration
and Compliance

INSIDE A FERC LICENSING PROCESS: the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the State of the Connecticut River in Massachusetts

Posted by on 31 Jul 2019 | Tagged as: climate-heating, Connecticut River, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Dr. John Waldman, Endangered Species Act, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, FERC Commissioner Neil Chatterjee, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, National Freshwater Marine Sanctuary, National Marine Fisheries Service, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project, Riverkeeper, Scott Pruitt, Silvio O. Conte Connecticut River National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, Turners Falls dam, US Environmental Protection Agency, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS

Inside a FERC Licensing Process: The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the State of the Connecticut River in Massachusetts

Copyright © 2019 by Karl Meyer All rights reserved.


The Connecticut River below Turners Falls Dam. Photo Copyright © 2019 by Karl Meyer All rights reserved. (NOTE: Click, then click twice more to enlarge.)

“River conditions miserable; relicensing progress, negligible. No end in sight.”

Note: the following is a long-form letter to Dr. John Waldman, CUNY Queens College professor of biology. John dropped a friendly note inquiring as to the state of affairs on the Connecticut River. I replied I would like get back to him in some detail, with a view toward publishing those extended thoughts. Besides his teaching, John is an award-winning author of several books. He has been a long-time advocate for the restoration of the Hudson River and its environs. We met some years back when I took him on a tour of the Connecticut River reaches I write about here. John was in the process of completing, RUNNING SILVER: Restoring Atlantic Rivers and Their Great Fish Migrations, published by Lyons Press (2013). He is an avid angler and a fierce defender of rivers.

Karl Meyer
Greenfield MA 01301 July 31, 2019

John Waldman, Professor of Biology
Queens College, CUNY
Queens, NY 11367

Hi John,

You asked me sometime back how things were going on the “mighty Connecticut?” Sorry it’s taken a while to get back to you.

As you know, the real news—as it were, is all bound up in the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s 5-year relicensing process for Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project, P-2485, and Turners Falls/Cabot Hydro Project, P-1889. That ponderous process for these tandemly-operated, peaking electric facilities, began way back in August of 2012. All the while some 10 miles of the Connecticut have been essentially strangled and broken here since 1972, when the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station came on-line in concert with the now-shuttered Vermont Yankee Nuclear Plant, just upstream in Vermont. Overall, NMPS’s massive pump-and-purge water appetite impacts flows and habitat across 50 river miles in three New England states.

VY closed permanently in 2014. Instead of being pulled from daily service at that time and kept on as a reserve emergency power source for summer and winter grid-stress days, NMPS somehow has been allowed to soldier-on by importing giant surges of electricity from distant power sources, battering an ecosystem with deadly, pumped storage suction and creating artificial tides here daily, some 70 miles above the nearest reach of Long Island Sound tidal impacts at Hartford.

Of course NMPS has never produced, and will never produce, a single watt of its own virgin power. This is not renewable energy, and Northfield is not “hydro” power, as people think. It is recycled nuclear, natural gas, oil, coal, etc., power taken directly off the grid to do the unseemly work of suctioning a river backward. Pumped storage is the only category that shows up on regional power grids as turning in a negative percentage of power production. It’s a river-killing technology–a bulk power relay switch ferrying the climate-heating juice of a disastrously warming planet.

If I were to put into the fewest possible words how things are going on the mighty Connecticut it would read something like: “River conditions miserable; relicensing progress, negligible. No end in sight.”

It all seems to work in favor of the corporation—which, if you try and look beneath all the legal paperwork permutations still is ultimately parent-owned by Canada–the country, to the detriment of a four-state US river and ecosystem, and dozens of communities in Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire. The biological losers, besides the citizenry, include—among others, the federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, and federal trust species including American shad and blueback herring.

Further below you’ll find part of the asset transfer paperwork entered into this FERC relicensing record on Wednesday, July 17th, via the company’s Washington law firm, a limited legal partnership. They’ve essentially split these intimately-integrated components—Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage and Turners Falls power canal/Cabot Station, into a handful of separate limited liability companies, all now registered as corporations in the state of Delaware.

As you know, these peaking/re-peaking projects have proven major stumbling blocks to river connectivity and real anadromous/diadromous fish restoration above Holyoke Dam into wide open Vermont and New Hampshire habitats. There has long-existed fifty-miles of essentially empty and infinitely-restorable river spawning and rearing habitat for shad, lamprey, bluebacks, etc., in those New England states.

But the Connecticut is sucked into reverse for up to a mile downstream via NMPS’s monstrous water appetite. Chewing through 15,000 cubic feet per second of CT River flow for hours when pumping, it extirpates virtually all the river life it inhales—fish, eels, eggs, etc. And, in grim concert, the riverbed below Turners Falls Dam is left all but an empty bedrock relic many months out of the year—as the flow from Northfield is re-peaked into their three-mile long power canal below that dam.

Today as I write, there are three miles of exposed rocky riverbed baking in the sun in 93F degree heat. The company is actually required to only dribble 125 cubic feet per second of water into this Dead Reach from a point just below the dam. The rest is corralled for Northfield’s huge appetite and for shunting into that canal. Thus, the Connecticut River itself is essentially broken at this point. And, no nourishing, connecting flow to make it a viable river and waterway will be required again until NEXT April, at the earliest. It just sits—baking, starved of water.

During this spring’s migration season just over 7% of the 315,000 shad that passed Holyoke Dam were tallied passing Turners Falls. Those numbers do not even approach the passage numbers achieved here mid-1980s. That’s absurd.

Plus, during peak shortnose sturgeon spawning season operators inside Northfield Mountain pinched off spawning flows at the key site known as Rock Dam during a period when investigations by USGS fish biologists had demonstrated that 4 dozen of members of that federally-endangered species were present. The ancient pool at the Rock Dam site is their only documented natural spawning site in the entire river ecosystem.

This occurred during a time when the power company was conducting their own test flows to potentially move tagged American shad upstream through that water-starved Dead Reach which includes Rock Dam. I witnessed and documented the flow cuts one morning, and another federal fisheries biologist witnessed the same brutal draw-down two days later.

An email confirmed those grim impacts on those spawning sturgeon were caused by the operators 7 miles upstream inside the Northfield Mountain Mountain Pumped Storage Station, who control the Turners Falls Dam. The company has long been fully apprized during this federal relicensing process that shortnose sturgeon spawn here from mid-April past the third week of May, yet they pinched the flows shut and egg-sheltering banks were dewatered. That’s deadly. It’s what’s known as a taking under the Endangered Species Act.

Days later, a commercial rafting company was documented making repeat runs over that single, tiny rapid at the Rock Dam, while repeatedly entering onto sensitive wetland habitats on the island adjacent in rerunning those very brief joy rides.

As you know, a single instance of interference with a federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon is subject to a fine of $49,000 and possible jail time. If this was an individual citizen destroying spawning habitat and crippling reproduction–rather than a “corporate” citizen, I’m sure they would’ve ended up in court, fined, and answering to the law. I think if there was a worthy watchdog on the Connecticut, the company would have been sued, and a judgment sought. If the judgement of a taking of say 20 endangered shortnose sturgeon was rendered, at $49k per fish, we are talking serious river protection money! Here? Nada. Due diligence? Any diligence??

Alas, we really have no enforcing non-profit watchdog here on the Connecticut like you have with Riverkeeper and its battery of lawyers on the Hudson. There’s no enforcement or taking the corporations to court here on our 4-state Connecticut. That’s certainly why conditions are so miserable, despite the presence of long-settled law, the ESA and CWA statutes. No NGO teeth.

Our resident NGO did change its name a year or so back, but not its mission and mandate. And what’s always been needed here is that promise to prosecute corporations and take government agencies to court when they fail to enforce environmental mandates and do their jobs. The one we have submits lots of “comments.”

OK, they also hold a big river clean-up—offering high PR visibility for questionable corporate sponsors who have a legacy of nuclear waste left in their wake here, and they do some water quality testing. They also plant trees with grant money, and pull aquatic weeds. But, since producing several guides for boaters on the Connecticut, some of their key constituencies are the promoters of recreational and commercial paddle sports here—kayakers, rafters, canoeists.

They are pushing to get these interests portage and river access to the long-abused, critical habitats immediately below Turners Falls Dam. I have stated publicly any number of times that in a just world this tiny reach would be designated a National Freshwater Marine Sanctuary, so critical is it to this ecosystem—upstream and down.

Given the fragile biological, historical and cultural nature of those three river-miles—recreational and commercial watercraft pursuits are the absolute last pursuits that should be allowed there. But, guess what? That little NGO just entered their for-the-record “comments” into this FERC relicensing for their vision of new recreation access in that fragile reach—where over a dozen state- and federally- listed species are struggling for survival. It reads more like a marketing and development plan: new parking spaces, a trail cut onto an island for repeat runs over the tiny Rock Dam and habitat of endangered sturgeon and what may be the last place in the reach where state-endangered yellow lampmussels were documented.

I really have no idea whether they have ever looked up the definition of conservancy.

They want three or four new accesses designed for this tiny reach, as well as a road cut for emergency vehicles and a ramp-slide for watercraft. Makes you wonder who is donating to them. This is a mostly-forgotten, fragile biological gem, adjacent to a tiny backwater neighborhood of old factory double-decker homes—and you can just see it being turned into something commercialized and soulless…

It’s a damned good thing they have no actual conditioning authority in this relicensing. I think USFWS, National Marine Fisheries, MA Natural Heritage, MA Historical Commission, and several federal- and state recognized Native American tribes will be looking at this with some shock. At the very least, that NGO’s director should step down as vice chair and MA public-sector representative on the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission. It’s been two years now, but it’s more like a sycophant position for the NGO–since they get channeled grant monies through the fed and state agencies that they should be watch-dogging over. So, it’s like a cheerleading slot. Before that, the MA public sector slot on CRASC sat empty for seven years, but at least it was a do-no-harm arrangement.

They really need to look up the definition of conservancy.

Unfortunately John, that’s the state of affairs in this critical section of the Connecticut, tottering on the brink between resurrection and conservation protections, and their vision of the river as an attraction for tide of tourist-joyriders with little regard for place, or species, or the intrinsic right for a river to just live and heal; as a life giving entity in its own right. It’s merely a fun-time commodity. Sad, that we have no legal team or NGO operating under the watchdog/enforcement mode here. Lacking that bedrock necessity, a Connecticut River with monitored–and enforced, protections and life-giving flows in the future seems a highly unlikely prospect, no matter what gets written into a new license.

Unless, another organization steps into the breach–bringing consistent enforcement and a willingness to drag crimes against this ecosystem into the courtroom every time they occur. We need an every-day enforcement presence like you have on the Hudson.

Howsoever, I will say that the US Fish & Wildlife Service’s goal for Turners Falls Dam in these proceedings–after gathering research from long-range studies and examining decades of passage data, is: 75% of all the fish that pass Holyoke will be required to pass TF safely. After four decades of failed fish passage here, they appear solid on that goal being met through this relicensing. That passage, upstream and down, is required via the 1872 landmark Supreme Court decision in Holyoke Company vs. Lyman, as you know—decided exactly a century before NMPS began swallowing the Connecticut River and all manner of its migratory and resident fish. Its full impacts have never been calculated nor compensated–to even the smallest measure.

There’s one other ember of good news here: for the second year in a row a SINGLE blueback herring passed Turners Falls Dam. They hadn’t been seen here in most of a decade, though thousands used to pass back in the 1980s. It’s a federal trust species with its back against the wall. Good to see even the tiniest biological thread holding on.

The other test the power company is currently conducting–of its own volition vis-à-vis this relicensing: little swaths of mesh net have been placed in front of the massive sucking mouth of Northfield Mountain—purportedly to prevent that gaping maw from feasting on millions of tiny, young-of-year shad each spring, as well as adult American eels on their way downstream. Early YOY study results from fish agencies hinting that the reach at Northfield is the least productive of this river’s dammed sections. Wonder why??

The absolute brilliance of this “trial”, is they are going to project how effective a 1,000-plus foot net across the intake might be for decades into the future—by staking out several test panels that are about the size of high school flags in front of that giant pipe, during various sucking flows. I’m sure that’s gonna prove an effective snapshot of how a ponderous mega-net might perform for decades to come! Ludington Pumped Storage and lake trout should be the cautionary tale…

Of course, as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission let’s this bloated process go on, ad infinitum, we may all be dead before Vermont and New Hampshire get their long-deserved shad runs, and those shortnose sturgeon–which you assisted as a reviewer in their Federal Recovery Plan, receive flows that guarantee they actually can spawn and are able to begin the slow slog toward viable species-status.

Ok, just to give you a flavor of what rights and privileges a ten dollar (yes $10.00) tax shelter sale in this key reach in a 4-state ecosystem that is part-and-parcel of the Silvio O. Conte Connecticut River National Fish & Wildlife Refuge can offer, please see the included clauses below. THEY ARE HEART-BREAKING in the midst of a 5-year FERC relicensing process that is now set to begin its 8th year, if my math is correct. We began meeting in August 2012.

And, John, the company and its consultants do not seem in any hurry to bring this process to a close. The last negotiation with conditioning federal and state fisheries agencies took place in mid-winter. Basically, the parties all stated their positions; then walked away with no further meetings scheduled. This was, of course, after they made their surprise December 20, 2018 filing to break the company up into little, Delaware-registered, llc tax silos… Some ten agencies and stakeholder interests have filed protests with FERC and been granted Intervener status, myself included.

Here is an excerpt from that conveyance document:

“In consideration of the covenants and agreements contained herein and the payment of $10.00 and other good and valuable consideration, the receipt of which is hereby acknowledged by the Grantor, the Grantor and the Grantee hereby agree as follows:

The Grantor hereby grants, bargains, sells, and conveys to the Grantee, and its
successors and assigns, with Quitclaim Covenants, a perpetual nonexclusive right and easement for the purposes set forth below in, on, over, under, across and through the Property identified on Exhibit “A” attached hereto.

The rights and easements conferred hereby shall include, but not be limited to, the right, at any time and from time to time and without payment of damages or further consideration to:

1. Alter the level of the Connecticut River and of its tributaries to any extent by
withdrawing water from said River and returning the same water in whole or in part by
the use of structures now or hereafter forming part of the Northfield Mountain Pumped
Storage Project, FERC No. 2485;

2. Retard, accelerate, reverse, or divert the flow of said river and of said tributaries,thereby causing an increase or decrease in the percolation, seepage, or flowage of waterupon, over, and under or from the Premises described and identified in Exhibit A notwithstanding that by such percolation, seepage, or flowage damage may be caused directly or indirectly to the said Premises or to any one of them or to structures, personal property or trees or vegetation thereon;

3. To erect and maintain upon the Premises so subject suitable gauges to measure and
record the flow and level of the said river and said tributaries;

4. To enter upon said Premises for the aforesaid purposes and for the purpose of removing any trees or other vegetation which may be injured or destroyed by the flowage
aforesaid; and

5. As an incident of the foregoing, cause an increase or decrease in the flowage of water orice upon, over, or from said Premises, notwithstanding that portions thereof subject tothe aforesaid rights and easements may be washed away or added to by the action ofwater or ice and that damage may be caused thereto and to structures or vegetation thereon or adjacent thereto by flowage, seepage, percolation, erosion, accretion,interference with drainage, or otherwise.”

Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage remains today the same ecosystem killer it was when it came on line in 1972. Absent in any of these proceedings has been its grim impacts on resident fish species across 4-1/2 decades. It is both an engine and enabler of climate change, as it sucks in 34% more natural gas- and nuclear-produced juice from the grid than it ever sends back as 2nd hand, peak-priced electricity.

FYI: the weakest partner with conditioning authority in all these years has been MA Division of Fish & Wildlife—the sole agency that has had authority to reopen the current license across all these decades concerning failed fish passage. They sat on their hands, mum, while anadromous fish passage nearly disappeared above Turners Falls Dam in the first decade of this century—dropping at times to 1% or less. It all adds up to what a massive taking has occurred here in Massachusetts across the decades via the operations of Northfield Mountain and Turners Falls. Vermont and New Hampshire have been hereby impoverished as well During these relicensing hearings MA Fish & Wildlife has shown little in the way of leadership. It’s an embarrassment for this Commonwealth.

I will, however, recognize that the MA Natural Heritage people and the Dept. of Environmental Protection have shown up and been active partners in environmental safeguarding during these proceedings.

Otherwise, the federal fish and environmental agencies—the people I sit with on the Fish and Aquatics Study Team, have ultimately shown great expertise and resolve in enforcing US statutory law and long-standing environmental mandates respecting a new license. I think the US Fish & Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service recognize their responsibilities to get it right this time—and to protect this four-state New England River for the citizens of the United States as the heart of the US Silvio O. Conte Connecticut River Fish & Wildlife Refuge. They are proving forthright and honest brokers on behalf of the citizens they work for.

As you may know, I am the only recognized stakeholder/intervener in these proceedings who has not signed one of those grim non-disclosure agreements with the company. I have thus become a conduit for nearly all the relicensing information reaching the public on several platforms in this largely unseen process.

But as I write this I begin to wonder: since these intimately intertwined projects have now become a series of new LLC outfits–are all those agencies and towns still bound by non-disclosure agreements they signed years ago with a different company? The company’s behavior in that regard has been so snake-like that it hardly seems relevant or appropriate to hold back information from the public about their river at this time. It’s been like an in-your-face demonstration of the rootlessness and stark profit motives of the new “corporate citizenship.”

And, nowhere have I heard any hint that these newly-configured, on-paper companies are interested in coming to settlement terms any time soon.

With those actions driving the parties apart, why not just move it in front of FERC rather than watching and waiting for these venture capitalists’ next power move? Every year these proceedings drag on the Connecticut River ecosystem continues to fray and fracture along these miserable miles of broken river basin. And every year the company continues to profit from FERC’s extension of the current license. In the interim they’ve participated in helping change operational parameters for pumped storage payments and participation in ISO markets. The power companies sculpt the laws that FERC imposes.

And, of course, every year they do not have to put a shovel in the ground to construct mandatory fish passage is more money in the bank for them and their venture capital investors. The bulk power grid, FERC and ISO New England are some of the key engines of our climate crisis. Only distributed generation and micro-grid reorganization—stopping us from blithely consuming the glut of imported power that fuels our massive over-consumption, will offer us a way out of this emergency. Those new, localized power configurations would also guarantee routes around the looming threat of massive cyber attacks on this behemoth of a power grid.

Something called NEPOOL, a consortium of New England corporate power producers, really wags the dog that is ISO New England. And FERC generally rubber stamps their positions. And, FERC won’t even consider ruling on any given projects’ climate impacts or GHG emission contributions to an overheating planet. Not once. Seems they’ve never met a power project they didn’t embrace.

Hell, both NEPOOL and ISO ban the media outright from their meetings. They do not provide or disclose critical information needed for the public to understand and trust the decisions made about the grid, power production, energy sources, distribution and its import in the current climate crisis. It’s all backroom stuff. One of this company’s own executives testified in Washington hearings in support of continuing to ban the media from these critical, precedent-setting, energy meetings. As stakeholders we are denied data and information on what this power company pays for the glut of grid power it imports while it sells an ecosystem down the river, offering it back in deadened, second-hand, peak-priced juice.

There is speculation from folks I know who design and install solar projects and metering that this company may not actually be paying ANYTHING at times when the power grid is so bloated with excess juice at certain times and seasons. Bulk power producers pay to have it taken off their hands in what’s called “negative pricing”. How much money are they making? How much of a free ride is this boondoggle getting? Just a year and a half back the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s current chair Neil Chatterjee and now-disgraced former EPA chief Scott Pruitt made an all-but-secret visit to Northfield Mountain. No media; no witnesses. What does that tell you?

But then it’s always been pretty much at free ride at Northfield, having never paid for nearly a half century of unmeasured annual fisheries carnage. That’s been a taking on a massive scale: federal-trust migratory—and, resident fish, both.

The public really has no idea that this contraption can really only regenerate a few HOURS of dense, second hand juice, after which it is literally and completely dead in the water—and has to start hoovering-up endless juice from the grid once more, while sucking all manner of aquatic life through its deadly turbines. Its profits–and purchase price mechanisms are all shielded from the public in this FERC/ISO/NEPOOL process. It’s is an abomination of democracy.

Reregulating the energy market here presents the only open path to realigning our energy production, distribution and use with societal needs in the face of a climate crisis reaching a critical precipice. However, our governor here seems quite happy to farm-out our climate responsibilities and import-in massive amounts of what are termed green megawatts. Huge build-outs going on in Boston and elsewhere–casinos, luxury high-rise condos, giant, energy- sucking marijuana grow-houses. It’s all sleight of hand. Robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Rivers are the cooling arteries of this planet, and the Connecticut is the heart of an ecosystem stretching from the Quebec border to the estuary at Long Island Sound.

History will remember the inaction and misrepresentation of these corporate rogues and complicit bureaucrats in our time of climate crisis. Seems obvious that none of them have granddaughters or grandsons they worry for, in the draconian future they are helping engineer…

Well John, that’s plenty enough cheer from here.

BTW, how are things over on the mighty Hudson??

All best,
Karl

Who is protecting New England’s Great River??

Posted by on 15 Jul 2019 | Tagged as: Connecticut River migratory fisheries restoration, Conte National Fish & Wildlife Refuge, ecosystem, Endangered Species Act, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federal trust fish, federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeion, FERC, FirstLight Power, Fish and Aquatics Study Team, limited liability corporation, LLC, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, Rock Dam, Rock Dam Pool, shortnose sturgeon, Society of Environmental Journalists, State of Delaware, The Daily Hampshire Gazette, The Greenfield Recorder, Treasury Board of Canada, Turners Falls dam, US Fish & Wildlife Service, US Geological Survey, US Geological Survey's Conte Fish Lab, USFWS

The following piece appeared in The Greenfield Recorder on June 27, 2019, and in the Daily Hampshire Gazette on July 17, 2019. The original title ran as “Sturgeon Revival on the Connecticut.” www.recorder.com, www.gazettenet.com .
Ruined Rock Dam spawning and nursery site on May 17, 2019. At upper left is one of the extremely sensitive island habitats that rafters repeatedly trammeled. NOTE: Click, then click twice more to enlarge. Photo Copyright © 2019 by Karl Meyer, All Rights Reserved.

Story, Copyright © 2019 by Karl Meyer. All Rights Reserved.

Something remarkable occurred below Turners Falls this May: four dozen federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon were discovered at their embattled spawning and nursery site–the largest documented aggregation since long-term research began there in 1992.

In the afternoon of May 8, 2019 when US Geological Services biologist Micah Kieffer walked down to the river near the Silvio O. Conte Anadromous Fish Research Center, he got a surprise “burp” on the receiver he carried. That meant just one thing: a radio-tagged sturgeon was nearby. Since early spring consistent high flows had coursed down the riverbed—a rarity in the oft-emptied, 3-mile reach below the Turners Falls Dam controlled by FirstLight Power. Kieffer hustled back to the USGS Lab, gathering armloads of equipment and securing a boat. By nightfall he’d set out nets, hoping to find a few sturgeon where they’ve likely spawned for thousands of years–a unique, cobble-bottomed pool downstream of the dam.

The big shock came first thing next morning. Weighing down the nets were 48 squirming, 2-3 foot long, endangered sturgeon–one female “running eggs”; the males all running sperm. Kieffer worked quickly to catalogue each fish; returning all to the current. Across a quarter century of intensive federal research started under Amherst’s Dr. Boyd Kynard and continuing under Kieffer, this was a critical discovery near a place called Rock Dam—which hosts a single, tiny rapid. That site is critical to the shortnose’ recovery—it’s a unique biological refuge, and their only documented natural spawning site in the ecosystem.

Life-giving spring flows have been rare below Turners Falls Dam for nearly a half century. Most years currents get violently see-sawed up and down and diverted in and out of the riverbed at that dam via computers operated from inside the 1972 Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, seven miles upstream. Those disruptions help service the massive water and energy appetite of Northfield’s pumped storage electricity regeneration and resale regime. Most years spawning success for this 200 million year-old sturgeon species fails at Rock Dam. That flow chaos has also long-handicapped the stalled, four-state federal Connecticut River Cooperative Fisheries Restoration for shad and herring here.

But this year, nourishing high flow continued through that critical biological reach right into the height of shortnose spawning season—which extends to late May. Operating with minimal staff, Kieffer again managed to anchor “day-set” nets in the river on May 15th and 16th. He got 11sturgeon on each of those days. But when nets were set again on May 17th he suddenly found himself skunked.
Exposed, dewatered shoals in shortnose sturgeon spawning and nursery habitat below Rock Dam.
Photo Copyright © 2019 by Karl Meyer. All Rights Reserved. Click x3 to ENLARGE>

At 7:30 on the morning of May 17th, just a single gate spilled a thin stream of water into the channel below Turners Falls Dam. Though river flows had been slowly subsiding, when FirstLight pinched those gates shut they were pulling the plug on spawning flows. According to Dr. Boyd Kynard in his 2012 book, Life History and Behavior of Connecticut River Shortnose and Other Sturgeons, “Flow reductions that occurred while fish were spawning at RockD caused SNS to leave the area, and after females left, they did not later return to RockD spawning habitat.” What’s worse, that abrupt tamp-down dewatered the cobble bottom and shoals below Rock Dam where spawned eggs and embryos shelter and develop through June. It’s deadly.

Later that morning two gates were opened, re-ramping currents in the river. Over the ensuing days US Fish & Wildlife Service representatives noted gates alternately waffling flows up and down in sturgeon spawning time—from two open, down to one; later up to three. Perhaps encouraged by those settings, on May 29th a rafting company was seen repeatedly sending loaded, lumbering rafts over Rock Dam and walking them up onto sensitive island habitats.

FirstLight and those commercial rafters have long been apprised and legally aware of the presence of endangered sturgeon—federal studies are part of the relicensing record here. Liability is spelled out under the Endangered Species Act. A single act of interference with a federally endangered sturgeon carries a penalty of $49,000 and possible jail time. Those dam settings resulted in grim biological conditions at a time FirstLight should have been exercising utmost care: this was in the midst of their providing experimental flows from the dam to fulfill license requirements for migrating shad while meeting sturgeon spawning needs.

This December, FirstLight reregistered their Northfield and Turners Falls facilities in a series of tax-sheltered, limited liability corporations in the State of Delaware. As a venture capital firm, parent-owned by the Treasury Board of Canada, they’re seeking a new federal license to operate on this U.S. River in our Commonwealth for decades to come. This critical reach should not become a cash-cow playground for corporate shareholders or joyriding rafters. It’s time to celebrate the shortnose sturgeon, and time to let a river heal.

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.

CONNECTICUT RIVER ALERT: FERC deadline looms

Posted by on 24 Jan 2019 | Tagged as: Canada, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River Refuge, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Conservation Law Foundation, Endangere Species Act, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Federal Recovery Plan, federal trust fish, FERC, FERC Commissioner Neil Chatterjee, FERC licensing process, First Light Hydro Generating Company, FirstLight, Greenfield Community Television, ISO New England, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, Maura Healey, Natalie Blais, National Marine Fisheries Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, NMFS, Northfield Mountain, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project, Paul Mark, Public Comment period, public trust, Rock Dam, shad, Treasury Board of Canada, Turners Falls dam, USFWS, Vermont, Vermont Yankee, Yankee Rowe Nuclear Plant

While federal fisheries stakeholders from the US Fish & Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service are shut out of the FERC relicensing process by the government shutdown, Canada-owned FirstLight Hydro Generating Company has maneuvered to split its assets on the Connecticut River. This is a slick move, and a punch in the gut to all that have been working in good faith on the understanding throughout–since 2012,that these long-co-run plants were to be covered by a single new license: per the power company’s standing, 5 year-old request.

Copy and paste link directly below to see a half hour on this suspect 12th hour maneuver, filmed for later airing on Greenfield Community Television.

NOTE: FERC has extended the COMMENT, PROTEST, and INTERVENTION deadline for Stakeholder to file Motions with them until February 8, 2019. Go back to www.karlmeyerwriting.com/blog and see second blog post following this on this one on how to submit at FERC.gov on Ecomments.

“Clean, renewable” labels don’t apply

Posted by on 01 Oct 2018 | Tagged as: Ashuelot River, Bellows Falls, blueback herring, canal shad, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River migratory fisheries restoration, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, crippled ecosystem, Dead Reach, ecosystem, endangerd shortnose sturgeon, Endangered Species Act, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federal trust fish, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FERC, FERC Commissioner Neil Chatterjee, FERC license, FirstLight, Fish and Aquatics Study Team, fish counts, fish kill, fish kill on the Connecticut, fish passage, fishway windows, Holyoke Fish Lift, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, MA Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, National Marine Fisheries Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, New Hampshire, NMFS, Northfield Mountain, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Reservoir, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, nuclear power, PSP Investments, Public Law 98-138, pumped storage, Relicensing, resident river fish, Saxtons River, Scott Pruitt, shad, shortnose sturgeon, Society of Environmental Journalists, Turners Falls, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS, Vermont, Vermont Digger, Vermont Yankee

Copyright © 2018 by Karl Meyer All Rights Reserved.

NOTE: the following piece appeared in VTDigger, www.vtdigger.org in September under the heading “Clean, renewable” labels don’t apply when crippling an ecosystem.”

TERMS OF ENTRAINMENT: a Connecticut River History


NOTE:in this photo are over 170 juvenile shad, among the many thousands killed in the recent de-watering of the Turners Falls Power Canal. The power canal is where the bulk of the Connecticut River is diverted into for most months of the year. So, when they drain it, they are killing the river. However, if you look at this photo and multiply that death toll by 10,000 you begin to get some idea of the mortality counts for young-of-the-year shad entrained annually–and un-tallied across nearly five decades, at the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station. (CLICK, then CLICK twice more to enlarge photos.)

At 2:41 p.m. on May 20, 2018, a lone blueback herring appeared in the windows at Turners Falls Dam among a school of larger American shad. It was a small miracle. Barely a foot long, it was the first blueback here since 2005, and there would not be another this spring. Like those shad, its life had already spanned four springs, swimming thousands of ocean miles in shimmering schools. It re-crossed bays and estuaries of seven states and two provinces before reaching this Connecticut River juncture. In doing so it had survived sprawling drift nets and repeated attacks from sharks, bluefish, spiny dogfish, cormorants, seals and striped bass.

All these fish were seeking to spawn and give their young a head start as far upriver as currents, time and temperature would allow. Unfortunately, five miles upstream sat the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, a river vacuuming machine capable of out-killing all their natural predators. For the next 20 miles they’d be vulnerable to its impacts.

NMPS has inhaled river fish of all species and sizes daily for nearly half a century. Results from a river sampling study Juvenile Shad Assessment in the Connecticut River, were released in June by the US Fish & Wildlife Service and MA Division of Fisheries & Wildlife. They estimated 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.

On April 20, 1967, years before Northfield was built, federal agencies and four states signed the Statement of Intent for a Cooperative Fishery Restoration Program for the Connecticut River, agreeing to restore runs of American shad, salmon and blueback herring upstream to Bellows Falls, Vermont and beyond. The migratory shortnose sturgeon had already been listed as endangered. Continuing today under Public Law 98-138, its mandate requires utilization of “the full potential of the fishery resources of the Connecticut River including both anadromous and resident species,” providing “high quality sport fishing,” and meeting “the long term needs of the population for seafood.”

American shad are still commercially fished today just 60 miles downriver. They’ve provided seafood to this valley for ages, yet most people in Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts don’t know they were promised a “just share of the fishery harvest” back in 1967. All remain without, while shad continue to grace dinner and restaurant tables in Connecticut every spring.

Running on imported power via the buy-low/sell-high model, Northfield can suck the river into reverse for up to a mile downstream. It devours everything captured in that vortex at 15,000 cubic feet per second. Think 15,000 milk crates, for hours, to fill a 5 billion gallon mountain reservoir. The result is 100% mortality for all fish entrained. During peak-use and/or peak-price times—or both, it sends the deadened water back through its turbines as twice-produced electricity.

NOTE: more of the TF Canal kill here in another location–including mostly juvenile shad, but also a bluegill, several mud-puppies, and a young sea lamprey. Again, this is just a whisper of the year round fish kill occurring upstream at Northfield Mountain.

Northfield was built to run off Vermont Yankee’s excess nuclear megawatts. But even after VY closed in 2014, its carnage continued, unchallenged, rather than being relegated to emergency use. Having never produced a watt of its own power, its 46 years of accumulating carnage are yet to be tallied. That herring might have been heading for New Hampshire’s Ashuelot or Vermont’s Saxtons River, and those shad were perhaps steering for the Great Eddy at Bellows Falls. Regardless, any progeny would later face Northfield’s net-loss-power impacts heading downriver come fall.

Currently it pumps mostly at night when Canadian owners PSP Investments can purchase cheap electricity to suction the river uphill. Later it’s released as second-hand juice at peak-of-the-day profits. Promoters claim the benefits of dispersed solar and wind power can’t be realized without first relaying their renewable energy across the region to this lethal storage machine for later resale in markets far beyond the Connecticut Valley. “Clean, renewable” labels don’t apply when crippling an ecosystem.

NMPS boosters include (now-former) EPA Director Scott Pruitt, who made a sweetheart visit there last Valentine’s Day along with Federal Energy Regulatory Commissioner Neil Chatterjee. That occurred as PSP was requesting to suction yet more water from the Connecticut and applying for a new long-term FERC license. The next day FERC announced a major policy shift, potentially increasing both Northfield’s daytime use and its profits.

Since an 1872 landmark Supreme Court ruling indemnifying Holyoke Dam, all hydro facilities have been required to safely pass the public’s fish, upstream and down. But that 1967 agreement had this warning: “Based on the present fragmentary data available on the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project, it appears that this project poses definite limitations to an anadromous fish restoration program. These limitations involve the physical loss of eggs, larvae and young fish of both resident and anadromous species, and an orientation problem for both upstream and downstream migrants attributed to pumping large volumes of water.” Today the 20 mile reach hosting Northfield remains a migration minefield—while some 30 miles of open Vermont/New Hampshire spawning habitat above Vernon Dam sits essentially empty.

Holyoke Dam has annually lifted hundreds of thousands of shad and herring upstream since the 1970s. In 2017 it recorded its second highest shad numbers ever, 537,000 fish. Each spring, half or more of those shad attempt to pass Turners Falls. Less than 10-in-100 will succeed. Of those, some 50% drop from tallies and are never re-counted at Vernon Dam after entering the 20 miles impacted by Northfield. The blueback herring record at Turners Falls was 9,600 in 1986, out of the 517,000 counted 36 miles downstream at Holyoke that year. Of those 9,600 Turners herrings, just 94 reached Vernon Dam. Turners Falls saw another 7,500 blueback herring in 1991; just 383 reappeared upstream at Vernon.

Any new long-term FERC license must comply with federal and state law protecting endangered and public-trust fish. In seeking a new license, PSP’s main proposal for limiting Northfield’s massive carnage has been the test-anchoring of a few yards of Kevlar netting in the riverbed in front of the plant’s suction-and-surge tunnel. Those flag-sized yards of mesh, after a few months deployment, are supposed to effectively model how a 1,000 foot-long “exclusion net”–deployed seasonally in the river over the next decades, might halt the entrainment deaths of out-migrating adult–and millions of juvenile young-of-the year fish, heading back to the sea. Presumably, Northfield’s mouth would remain wide open to the ecosystem’s fish throughout the rest of the year.

In light of longstanding research the US Fish & Wildlife Service, Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission have set shad passage goals requiring that a minimum of 397,000 pass Turners Falls; and a minimum of 226,000 pass Vernon Dam. It’s a certainty that a new fish lift will be required at Turners Falls under any new license, modeled on the long-term success of Holyoke’s lifts. But the ultimate question is this: can Northfield comply with federal and state law protecting the four-state ecosystem’s fish in order to be granted a new FERC license?

END

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.

ONE LAST CHANCE FOR THE CONNECTICUT RIVER

Posted by on 03 Sep 2018 | Tagged as: American shad, blueback herring, Clean Water Act, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Endangered Species Act, ESA, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, FERC, FERC licensing process, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, MA Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, National Marine Fisheries Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, NMFS, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, PSP Investments, Rock Dam Pool, shad, Society of Environmental Journalists, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS, Vermont, Vermont Yankee, Vernon Dam Fishway, Walpole

ONE LAST CHANCE FOR THE CONNECTICUT RIVER

Copyright © 2018, by Karl Meyer. All Rights Reserved.

Empty CT River bed below Turners Falls Dam on September 2, 2018 (CLICK, then CLICK AGAIN, to ENLARGE)

Northfield MA. On Wednesday, September 5, 2018, New England gets one final chance for a restored Connecticut River ecosystem, promised by federal and state fisheries agencies way back in 1967. That’s the day when the National Marine Fisheries Service, US Fish & Wildlife Service and MA Division of Fisheries & Wildlife meet at the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project for precedent-setting, backroom settlement negotiations to decide the ultimate fate of this ecosystem–long-crippled by the impacts of Northfield’s river-suctioning, power re-generation. They will be representing the public on behalf of New England’s Great River against the interests of FirstLight/PSP Investments of Canada, latest venture capital owners of NMPS. Future generations deserve the living river system promised here long ago.

Closed river gates at Turners Falls Dam, September 2, 2018. (CLICK, the CLICK AGAIN to ENLARGE)

The last time similar negotiations took place was in the 1970s when the agencies misplaced their priorities and Northfield’s nuclear-powered (NMPS was built to run off the excess megawatts produced by the now-closed Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, 15 miles upstream) assault on the river was ignored, scuttling prospects for a river restoration in Vermont, New Hampshire, and northern Massachusetts. Those negotiations led to federal fish hatcheries and ladders for an extinct salmon strain, leaving miles of the Connecticut emptied of flow in Massachusetts, while all migratory shad, blueback herring and lamprey were forced into the industrial labyrinth of the Turners Falls power canal. That also succeeded in leaving the federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon with no protections at all on its critical spawning ground.

Worst of all back then, the agencies failed to protect migratory and resident fish from the year-round deadly assault of NMPS, which sucks the river backward and uphill at 15,000 cubic feet per second. Its vortex can actually yank the Connecticut’s flow into reverse for up to a mile downstream, pulling everything from tiny shad eggs to juvenile fish and adult eels into its turbines on a certain-death Northfield Mountain Sleigh Ride. A USFWS study found that Northfield killed up to 15 million American shad eggs and swallowed between 1 – 2-1/2 million juvenile shad in 2017.

Northfield’s Canadian owners are seeking a new, generations-long operating license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The relicensing process has now completed its 6th year, with the serious work of safeguarding New England’s largest ecosystem just now coming into focus. This plant is an energy consumer, and has never produced a single watt of its own energy. It’s a bulk-grid power storage and transfer station that can only run for about 6 hours full tilt before it is completely spent and dead in the water. Then, it must go out and suck new virgin power from the bulk grid to begin refilling its reservoir with deadened river water. Its regenerated power is marketed and resold to entities far beyond the borders of the Connecticut River Valley.

New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts have a lot a stake here. Way back in 1967 they were promised a just share of a restored seafood harvest of American shad, all the way upstream to Bellows Falls VT and Walpole NH. Safe passage of fish, upstream and down, has been mandated on US rivers since a 1872 Supreme Court case. But no meaningful runs of shad and blueback herring ever materialized upstream of the brutal industrial impacts and flows created at Northfield Mountain and Turners Falls Dam. In 1967 when these agencies signed that Cooperative Fisheries Restoration agreement, 750,000 American shad was the target for passage above Vernon Dam to wide-open Vermont and New Hampshire habitats. The best year, 1991, saw just 37,000 fish.

Northfield’s giant Intake and Entrainment Tunnel (CLICK, then CLICK AGAIN to ENLARGE)

As for those shortnose sturgeon? Well, investigations continue to see if there is a remnant of this river’s population surviving upstream near Vernon. But, in Massachusetts their protection from interference and guaranteed spawning access and flows should have been enforced decades back in the 2-1/2 miles below PSP’s Turners Falls dam. But none of the federal and state agencies took action.

And here, the only non-profit river groups on the Connecticut have long been power-company-friendly and connected–and still accepting their corporate money. Other major river systems have watchdogs without ties to the corporations that cripple them–putting staff lawyers and their enforcement commitments and responsibilities front and center. These go to court repeatedly–the only method leading to lasting, meaningful results. Here, no one takes corporations to court for license violations or requirements under the Endangered Species Act or Clean Water Act. Others might have led a campaign to shut down an ecosystem killing plant the day the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant shut down forever in December 2014.

4-barrel floats above a few yards of experimental test netting that’s supposed to emulate how a 1000 foot-long net might be deployed seasonally over the coming decades to keep millions of baby fish from going on a Northfield Mountain Sleigh Ride. (CLICK, then CLICK AGAIN to ENLARGE)

Thus, it is really is now-or-never time on for a living Connecticut River ecosystem. So, the big question is: are the key agencies going to stand firm under federal and state environmental statute and law, and fulfill their mandate on behalf of future generations?

Here are some of the key questions to be decided at the table that will ultimately tell the four-state Connecticut River ecosystem’s future:

Can Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station—which literally kills millions of fish annually, be operated in such a way that it complies with long-standing federal and state environmental law in order to receive a new FERC license?

Will the US Fish & Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries require PSP’s operations to cease during critical times in the spawning cycles of the river’s fish—and only operate as an emergency power source at those times, rather than as a net-power loss, buy-low/sell high profit machine? (This happens on other river systems.)

Will National Marine Fisheries require the necessary 6,500 cubic feet per second flows now absent below Turners Falls Dam—from April through June, to protect the federally endangered shortnose sturgeon in its critical spawning ground?

Will the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife at last stand up for river protections in that same 2-1/2 miles of beleaguered river to safeguard over a dozen threatened and endangered plant, fish and aquatic species?

Will the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts protect the full spawning cycle of the shortnose sturgeon by barring all rafts and watercraft from landing on any of the islands in this stretch—and banning all disembarking in the critical Rock Dam Pool spawning area to safeguard young fish, rare plants and freshwater clams?

In deference to recognized New England Native American Peoples, will Massachusetts’s Natural Heritage Program leaders, the Massachusetts Historical Commission and the US Fish & Wildlife ban access to the Connecticut River islands in that embattled 2-1/2 mile reach, where several Tribes have a documented presence and ancient connection to these extremely sensitive sites?

Ultimately, the questions that will soon be answered are these:

Does the river belong to the corporation, or to the people?
Do endangered species matter?
Do ecosystems matter?
Do federal and state environmental laws matter?
And, finally: DO RIVERS MATTER?

Coming generations may soon have their answers on the Connecticut River.

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. Due to the non-disclosure agreements requested to take part in these private meetings with PSP Investments, he is not participating in these closed-door settlement discussions. The public is entitled to know.

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