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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.

INFORMATION BLACK HOLE on the Connecticut

Posted by on 05 May 2016 | Tagged as: American shad, Connecticut River, federal trust fish, FirstLight, GDF-Suez FirstLight, Greenfield Community College, Holyoke Community College, Holyoke Fish Lift, Jack Buckley, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, New Hampshire, Northfield Mountain, shad, shad fishing, Station 1, teachers, Turners Falls, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS, Vermont, Walpole, Wendi Weber

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INFORMATION BLACK HOLE

Copyright © 2016 by Karl Meyer

On this May 5th, 2016, they have no idea in Sunderland–or in Deerfield for that matter. Nor do they know anything in Greenfield, Turners Falls, Gill, Northfield or Millers Falls. Upstream, Vermont folks in Vernon, Guilford, Brattleboro and Putney don’t have a clue. Across the river, New Hampshire people in Hinsdale, Chesterfield, Walpole and Charlestown remain in the dark.

What these towns all have in common is that nobody can tell them anything of the whereabouts of their share of the spring American shad run. The fish have been in the river and upstream of Holyoke for a full five weeks now, and there hasn’t been a single fish count provided from the Greenfield Community College students hired by GDF-Suez FirstLight to monitor fish passage at Turners Falls. An accounting of the public’s fish remains in the hands of a private company—and, as I’ve said before, many or most are likely struggling to survive a trip through their private power canal.

For a migrating shad, the 36 mile swim from Holyoke to Turners Falls is a walk in the park. It’s a day—maybe a day-and-a-half trip, ostensibly on the way to spawning habitats in Vermont and New Hampshire. But thousands of the public’s fish have gone missing on the Connecticut River this spring. And it seems no one can say exactly where they are. If you had to make an educated guess, you could surmise many are somewhere between Greenfield and Turners Falls, with many not in the actual river at all.

A significant number are fighting currents in the debased habitats of the Turners Falls power canal, where murky flows delay most by over a week before they even approach the site that could route them past the dam. Others are in the river, trying to find a path to the base of a fish ladder whose construction back in 1980 was based on Pacific salmon. And still others are sidetracked and stalled in the riverbed like sardines, expending precious migratory and spawning energy in front of the ramping outflows at a mini overflow power site known as Station 1. Wherever those fish may be, we do know that, on average over time, just 4% of those shad ever make it beyond Turners Falls Dam toward Vermont and New Hampshire. In the very few “good” years, one fish in ten wriggles upstream.

We also know that the first two American shad were lifted past Holyoke Dam five weeks ago. As of May 4, 2016, some 25,000 had been passed upstream at the Holyoke Fish Lift. What happened to them next is anyone’s guess. Once they pass Holyoke, accounting for them is left in the hands of a private power company—currently GDF-Suez FirstLight Hydro, now going under the corporate aegis Engie. These are the folks responsible for passing the public’s fish at Turners Falls Dam, and giving public accounts of fish passage for anglers, teachers, the general public, and the state and federal fish agencies.

It’s been documented that at least half of all the shad passing Holyoke will attempt to pass Turners Falls. It’s wholly possible the actual number is significantly higher. It matters little though, as all fish get diverted into the Turners Falls Power Canal once they attain this easy upstream reach, and only that average of 4% make it past the TF Dam. The rest simply go unaccounted for once they arrive and are tempted into that turbine-lined pit.

Five full weeks since fish have been heading upstream, and that includes sea lamprey as well. Yet we still do not have a single fish passage update at Turners Falls. What’s wrong here? Who is responsible?? Well, obviously FirstLight GDF-Suez is responsible. But, nobody is holding them to it. These fish, while moving through Massachusetts, are the responsibility of the US Fish & Wildlife Service. But, while here, they in large part fall under the responsibility of the MA Division of & Wildlife. Why aren’t they ensuring the public gets daily fish updates—like those that have been available at Holyoke Dam for years? Again, go fish…

At Holyoke Dam there are actually humans on-site that can witness real-time conditions, fish passage, and provide the needed public info in a timely manner. These come via students from Holyoke Community College. Not so at Turners Falls, where the Commonwealth has largely left responsibility for the chicken coop up to the fox. All monitoring is done remotely by video, with equipment provided by FirstLight. Prior years show repeated equipment failures. And then you have to wait—often many WEEKS, before those videos are handed off and analyzed by GCC interns. Its only then that we are treated to weeks-out-of-date info about where our fish are.

This privatization needs to change. Wendi Weber, Region 5 Director at the USFWS might be able to help. Or MA Division of Fish & Wildlife Director Jack Buckley. Or, perhaps, MADFW’s Caleb Slater, Anadramous Fish Passage Project Director. The guy at FirstLight responsible if Bob Stira.

As a side note: many other states have actuarial tables that put specific monetary values on migratory and resident fish. Then, if they are killed in project operations, or fish do not reach their spawning grounds, the public is reimbursed for the ecological damages.

Updated HOLYOKE fish counts can be accessed at:
www.fws.gov/r5crc under Recreation.

The Great Eddy at Bellows Falls

Posted by on 27 May 2015 | Tagged as: American shad, Bellows Falls, Bellows Falls Fishway, Cabot Station, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Dead Reach, GDF-Suez FirstLight, migratory delay, New Hampshire, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, power canal studies, Rock Dam, Rock Dam Pool, shad, shad fishing, Station 1, The Great Eddy, Turners Falls, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS, Vermont, Walpole

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May, 27, 2015. I happened to be at Bellows Falls High School yesterday, and I took a walk into town and over to the Connecticut River at the now-closed Vilas Bridge. Just downstream of here and pictured above is a place formerly known as the Great Eddy. Here, prior to the completion of the Turners Falls Dam in 1798–the first dam to span the entire Connecticut, historic accounts recall 1,200 shad being pulled from the river at a single haul of the net. This picture was taken a few years ago, my batteries proved exhausted as I stood looking downstream yesterday.

There were two young guys far below, fishing in the shadow of the bridge, just downstream of the Bellows Falls Dam. When I hollered down they said yes, the fishing was good, “A rainbow and some bass.” Thus, today, it is rare for a single shad to reach Bellows Falls, the upstream limit of their historic reach. It is harder still to imagine that this place was once a key part of an ecosystem connected to the OCEAN.

I got a note from John Howard, GDF-Suez FirstLight’s Director of Hydro Compliance on Monday. He assured me that those scores of American shad stalled by false attraction flows roaring down from Station 1 had been worked out and agreed to by the USFWS as part of a flexible test flow grid due to an absence of rain. He’d neglected to forward the new test flow schedule to the Fish and Aquatics Studies Team. I imagine those shad burning up their energies would’ve liked to have had a heads-up as well. Their destination–as is the professed destination of the Connecticut River anadromous fisheries restoration these last 48 years, has been to REACH Bellows Falls, VT, and Walpole, NH.

Head gate flow at the TF Dam today, Wednesday, was again lamb-gentle. Of all the years I’ve witnessed flows pouring out of those head gates in the midst of fish passage season, this is the quietest I’ve ever seen them. Canal head gate flow and power generation from the canal at Station 1 and Cabot Station will all need to be looked at carefully in these studies to tease out any biases. (Click to enlarge photo).P1000457

Meanwhile, there were still shad being taken at The Rock Dam Pool this afternoon. I was headed down the path about 3:30 pm and a guy was walking out with a pole and his two energetic labs. He cautioned the wet dogs to give me a wide birth and I asked how it had been. “Not bad,” he said, “Better this morning.” I took a second look at the gentlemen and said, “Hi Jake, how are you?” “Doing OK, how about you?” Jake was part of the maintenance and grounds crew up at Northfield Mountain under Northeast Utilities when I was working at the Visitor Center some dozen years back.

“You still writing letters?” he asked. “I’m doing what I can.” “Good,” Jake replied, “Give it to ’em. Good luck!” Funny, but I bump into many folks who used to work there and there seems to be little sympathy for the company–or lingering loyalty.

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When I get down to the Rock Dam Pool three people are angling. The guy here has a shad on the line. Another guy, just a bit upstream toward the dam hooks one two or three minutes later. I head out, continuing downstream by bike. (Click to enlarge)
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Looking upstream from the deck of the General Pierce Bridge in Montague City, much of the riverbed is exposed due to the low flows. At top, far right, is the outfall and attraction flow at Cabot Station, which is likely to be attracting and capturing a good slug of the migrating fish–steering them out of the river to the ladder that will dump them into the power canal. (Click to enlarge)

Its about the River, AND the Fish…

Posted by on 19 Jan 2012 | Tagged as: American shad, Atlantic salmon, Bellows Falls Fishway, blueback herring, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Connecticut River ecosystem, Conte, CRASC, Dead Reach, ecosystem, federal trust fish, FirstLight, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Reservoir, river steward, salmon, Salmon eggs, salmon hatchery, sea lamprey, shad, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Geological Service’s Silvio O. Conte Anadromous Fish Lab, Vermont, Vernon Dam Fishway, Walpole

© Copyright 2012 by Karl Meyer   All Rights Reserved

The following Opinion piece appeared in publications and media sites in CT, MA, VT, and NH.  It is a reply to writing in support of the status quo on the Connecticut River fisheries restoration, emphasizing extinct salmon.  The writer, Mr. Deen, is a river steward, flyfishing guide, and VT representative.  This piece appeared mainly in a shorter, Letter to the Editor format.  Here it appears in an expanded OpEd, this version from The Vermont Digger.  Find them at www.vtdigger.org. 

                        It’s about the river, AND the fish…

The Connecticut River Watershed Council’s Vermont River Steward David Dean asks the public not to judge the 45 year-old Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission’s fisheries restoration by numbers of returning fish, while 74 salmon reached the CT’s first dam at Holyoke, MA in 2011.  As someone advocating rededicating funds away from an extinct salmon strain, I found the piece well-intentioned but short on fact.

After decades and hundreds of millions spent on the science, genetics, and hatcheries dedicated to a centuries-extinct, cold-water salmon on the southern-most river it ever briefly colonized, the public has a right to a return on investment in this time of demonstrated climate warming.  I agree that that return should be an improving river ecosystem.  Useless dams should be eliminated; hydro operations damaging rivers and skirting regulations protecting fish should be prosecuted.

But Mr. Deen cites as salmon-program benefits “growing populations of other anadromous fish,” specifically shad and lamprey.  Science is, and should be, about measurable results.  Yet in results coming back from a hatchery program dedicated to elite angling, salmon represented less than three-hundredths of 1% of this year’s fish returns, while devouring 90% of funding for all migrants.  As to the 244,000 American shad and 19,000 sea lamprey he touted as reaching Holyoke–that’s a 66% plunge from the 720,000 shad counted there two decades back; and 19,000 lamprey?—only 4 years have seen lower numbers since tallies began.  Personally, I’d note 138 blueback herring–a might shy of the 410,000 Holyoke counted in 1992.

It is time for an ecosystem restoration.  Turn this upside-down species pyramid back on its base–rededicate funds to bedrock species of this ecosystem.  River groups could contribute greatly by opening public discussion about desperate river conditions just below Turners Falls, the second dam on the CT.  Migratory fish there are funneled into an ecosystem death trap: Turners Falls power canal.  Meanwhile the adjacent Connecticut is strangled in its own bed by pummeling and parching flows–deeply impacted by pumping operations at Northfield Mountain just upstream.

Today, the only shad regularly reaching VT/NH waters are a few hundred sometimes trucked there from Holyoke.  However, in 2010 Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station choked on its own silt.  Its mile-long intake tunnel and turbines became massively clogged.  From May 1st to November, it did not add a single watt of energy to the grid.  Few noticed.  There was no energy interruption—even while Vermont Yankee was down for refueling in early May.

Yet something amazing happened: shad numbers passing Turners Falls skyrocketed over 600% to levels not seen in 15 years.  Without Northfield pumping–and with river levels kept steady and artificially high at TF dam as FirstLight Power tried to conceal a 65,000 ton mountain of silt it was dumping in the river, the miserable conditions in the riverbed below the dam actually improved.  With May and June rains arriving, artificially brimming river levels behind the dam meant more steady flows were released directly downstream to the oft-parched and pummeled “dead reach” of river below the falls.  Shad got their ancient migration route back—swimming upriver, rather than being deflected into the punishing currents and turbines of the Turners Falls power canal.

Even with suspect tallies and FirstLight’s counting equipment inoperable for parts of 37 days, 16,768 shad were counted passing toward VT–the most since 1995.  Vermont salmon expert Jay McMenemy expressed surprise when all eight free-swimming salmon also used the ancient riverbed to shoot directly upstream to the ladder at the dam.  Since 1967 over 11 million shad have passed Holyoke.  All but a whisper of them ever made it to the Green Mountain State, while they once spawned to Bellows Falls and Walpole, NH.  Ironically, federal studies show 17,000 shad is a shadow of the run that should be passing: at least half of all shad passing Holyoke eventually attempt to pass Turners Falls–95% get deflected into the meat-grinder of currents and turbines of the Turners Falls power canal, never to emerge.

The main reason for no Vermont fish runs: no regulated flows in the riverbed; no easy-access fish lift built upstream at TF dam.   The ecosystem dies in the 2 miles of river directly below Turners Falls—due in large part to floodgate manipulations to accommodating Northfield’s pumping.  There is no working fish passage at Turners Falls.  It is legally required and should have been in place over a decade back.

Northfield Mountain is a reserve energy source that can produce a large amount of energy, 1,000 megawatts, in a very short time.  But it can only run for 10 hours, and then its reservoir is depleted.  It is dead in the water.  Owners must then go out on the market and buy electricity to divert the Connecticut’s flows uphill to its 5.6 billion gallon reservoir again.  Then, they sell our river back to us as expensive energy.  Northfield’s efficiency is just 67%.  Add in its profound river impacts and you have to question: Why is no one talking publicly about this ecosystem-killing elephant in the room?

Karl Meyer is an environmental journalist and award-winning non-fiction children’s author who writes frequently about Connecticut River issues from along its shores at Greenfield, MA.

THE “BIG GAME” PROSECUTION of RYAN MCCULLOUGH: another red herring in a failing Connecticut River restoration

Posted by on 19 Jan 2012 | Tagged as: American shad, Atlantic salmon, Bellows Falls Fishway, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Connecticut River ecosystem, Conte, CRASC, Dead Reach, didymo, endangerd shortnose sturgeon, Endangered Species Act, ESA, federal trust fish, FERC license, FirstLight, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Reservoir, Pioneer Valley News, Rock Dam, salmon, salmon hatchery, shad, shortnose sturgeon, The Pioneer, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, US Geological Service’s Silvio O. Conte Anadromous Fish Lab, USFWS, Walpole

© Copyright 2012 by Karl Meyer    All Rights Reserved

The “big game” prosecution of Ryan McCulough: another red herring in a failing Connecticut River restoration

(NOTE: the following article first appeared in The Pioneer, January 5, 2012, available now on free newsstands from Springfield, MA to Bellows Falls, VT.   Find it online at: www.pioneervalleynews.com )

Legend has it a reporter once asked career criminal Willy Sutton, aka Slick Willie, to explain his long history of thefts, “Willy, why do you rob banks?”  Sutton, a master of disguise, purportedly answered in terms as honest as a crisp January day: “Because that’s where the money is.”

At criminal proceedings in a jtrial scheduled for January 12, 2012 in State Superior Court at Windsor, VT, accused Atlantic salmon poacher Ryan McCullough will likely be asked why he was fishing downstream of the US Fish & Wildlife Service’s White River National Fish Hatchery(WRNFH) last July 25th.  With the Connecticut River and a failed migratory fish restoration looming as backdrop, I’m hoping McCullough replies with a similar bit of direct irony: “Because that’s where they make the fish.”

Last August a hatchery-bred Atlantic salmon created in controlled environs at the White River hatchery in Bethel, VT, was traced via a receiver to a radio-tag blipping away in the freezer of a nearby home.  That tag, hidden inside a 31-inch, 9-1/2 lb. salmon, landed the 22 year-old fisherman in hot water.  McCullough, an aspiring fishing guide, contended he mistook the fish for a huge brown trout.  He’s now charged with taking a “big game species” under Vermont fish and wildlife statutes.  Conviction carries a $1,500 fine and a possible 3-year suspension of his hunting and fishing license.

That big game fish McCullough caught was not even remotely connected to a healthy river system.  It was homing back from the sea to an artificial environment only a factory fish would recognize as habitat—the climate-controlled conduits of WRNFH.  That aqua-culture facility is part of a 19th century industrial idea: factory production substituted for a working ecosystem under the 44-year old banner of the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission (CRACS)’s Connecticut River migratory fish “restoration.”

The fly-fishing community was abuzz about this incident.  Yet the only “wild” thing about that salmon was its public perception.  It had been conceived at the hands of humans.  The egg and milt (sperm) that spawned it had been matched up by computer models, those genetic fluids were mingled together in plastic tubs, swirled by human hands.  In that immaculately-sterile conception a tiny fish was produced—one of ten million “fry” that were later flushed into Connecticut River tributaries to swim to the ocean.  Every tiny fish produced and released that year along with the one McCullough was to catch two years later was at least two generations removed from any salmon that had ever tasted the salt sea.

In the months just prior to McCullough’s apprehension fisheries personnel at the Holyoke, MA, fish lift on the Connecticut had intercepted the entire spring salmon “run” from the decades-old, half-billion-dollar-plus effort—still politely referred to as a “restoration.”  They trapped all 107 returning fish.  Of those, all but nine were put in trucks and rushed to sterile, hatchery-lab settings where they were weighed, genetically profiled, vaccinated, quarantined, had their fins clipped, and tissue samples taken.  All would ultimately be needed as breeding “stock” for next years dump of millions of “state-farmed” salmon babies into Connecticut River tributaries.

However, ensuing developments at White River will make it interesting to see if Vermont Fish & Wildlife continues in its attempt to make an example of Ryan McCullough.  Tragically and ironically, WRNFH was all but washed away by Tropical Storm Irene just weeks after he was brought up on poaching charges.  A storm surge of White River water entered pools, conduits, wells and buildings throughout the facility—overwhelming well-water fed fish ponds and carrying in the seeds of didymo, aka Rock Snot.  Didymo is an easily-spread invasive alga that was discovered upstream of the hatchery 3 years back.  It smothers river bottom habitats.

Suddenly, tiny salmon fry and over a half-million surviving hatchery fish had become potential carriers of a Rock Snot plague–if they were to be spread in the annual truck-and-dispersal system into Connecticut tributaries and the lakes and streams of four New England states.  Annual production costs alone for five salmon hatcheries around New England can reach a million bucks per facility.  Mistakes and the necessity for new “bio-security” protocols and upgrades repeatedly send costs skyrocketing.  And, after 44 years of trying to create a new strain of cold-loving salmon on the southern-most river it ever colonized, the number of hybrid salmon returning to a warming Connecticut River averages between 40 -100 fish.

A quick damage estimate by USFWS for White River was put at between $10 – 14 million.  But the hatchery would have to be “depopulated;” then sterilized, before any rebuilding could start.  They’d likely have to kill and landfill half a million fish, including hatchery trout and salmon.  Desperate to put a good spin on this second million-dollar disaster at WRNFH in 3 years, USFWS and CRASC scrambled to find a feel-good PR angle.

Ultimately they “reached out” to federally-recognized Native American tribes, inquiring if they would like a “gift” of expensive hatchery salmon—some 8,000 of the table-sized fish were still swimming on site.  Some tribes immediately accepted.  CRASC convened quickly to take a unanimous vote legalizing the “donation.”  They then began killing, gutted and icing the largest salmon, happy to pass them along to indigenous peoples of the Northeast.  Within hours of that vote, CRASC’s feel-good ‘fish-to-the-Indians’ story hit the media via the Associated Press.

Ironically, the 600 largest of those choice “gift” salmon were near replicas–in size and weight (30 inches, 9 lbs), to the fish Ryan McCullough sits accused of poaching months earlier.  But at this point it appears the angler can mount a pretty decent defense.  Back in July he’d actually let a local paper photograph him holding his prize “brown trout” prior to placing it in that freezer.  Though the photo showed a fish appearing to have the slightly hooked lower jaw of a “cock” salmon–that PR move would have been a hugely naïve bit of bravado, something a knowing, and aspiring, fishing guide would never do.  His supporters, including fish and game people, contend he simply may have made a rookie mistake.

Curiously, if he’d purchased a MA fishing license and landed a tagged salmon there, the Bay State penalty would have been akin to a parking ticket: $50 – $100.  Why??  MA doesn’t have a hard classification for exactly what these hybrid fish are.  They aren’t considered a native Connecticut River migratory fish in MA, where the Connecticut’s minor salmon strain has also been extinct for over 200 years.  This is also likely the reason there isn’t a federal prosecution looming for McCullough.  Connecticut River Atlantic salmon are officially classified as “extirpated” by the US Fish & Wildlife Service.  To prosecute him they’d have to hold a monkey trial with a hybrid fish at its center, a spectacle Darwin himself would shake his head at. Considering the fish give-away status at the WRNFH–and the endlessly-failed Connecticut River salmon restoration program, Vermont is going to look foolish if they don’t let young Ryan McCullough off the hook.

But the Green Mountain State has long had a blind spot about all other native migratory fish on the Connecticut save for extinct salmon.  Fisheries officials there long-ago staked Vermont’s idea of pristine environments and elite sport fishing on the creation of a new salmon strain to replace one not seen since 1809.  Decades later, Vermont anglers, as well as those just across the river in New Hampshire, are left without a nifty shad run anglers could be tapping into all the way to Bellows Falls and Walpole.  They get no fish at all, save spawned-out hatchery lunkers dumped into local lakes as salmon program PR (*USFWS Region 5 put out an official advisory on consuming hatchery salmon way back in 2004).  Meanwhile, their rivers and tributaries face the ongoing specter of new and potentially-catastrophic emerging fish diseases being spread through hatchery operations in a time of warming climates.

The full ironies of last summer’s comedy of errors become even more apparent looking just south of the Vermont/New Hampshire border to the federal Conte Fish Lab where CRASC meetings are held beside the dead stretch of Connecticut River in Turners Falls, MA.  CRASC and USFWS are responsible for all the “federal trust” migratory fish on the Connecticut including blueback herring, American shad, and federally endangered shortnose sturgeon.  Yet there, state and federal fish guardians continue to ignore the river’s most-critical 2-1/2 mile chasm—one that’s been key to migratory fish restoration to Vermont and New Hampshire for decades.

Thirty years ago VT and NH should’ve begun crying foul due to the lack of accommodating flows and a fish elevator (still yet to be built) directly upstream at Turners Falls dam.  Implementing those proven remedies–required under federal and state license regulations for migratory fish to reach upstream waters, would long ago have revived those “dead reach” flows during spawning season—concurrently providing easy upstream passage for very fishable runs of American shad all the way to Walpole, NH and Bellows Falls, VT.  Today, the Connecticut’s federal trust run of American shad expires in the dead reach below Turners Falls dam, deflected into the treacherous environs of a power canal.  For decades now VT and NH anglers have been denied fishing for what would’ve amounted to millions of 3 – 6 lb. shad, a tasty catch that makes for excellent fishing in anyone’s book.

Today, funded in part by FirstLight-GDF-Suez, (the global power company manipulating pulses sent downriver from their Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, and flows diverted into their Turners Falls Power Canal) USFWS, CRASC, and federal Conte lab researchers continue ignoring the devastation to migrating and spawning river fish from company flow regimes.  In deference to FirstLight’s preferences, annual agency studies continue emphasizing sending migrating fish into miserable habitats, cross currents, and slicing turbines of the Turners Falls Power Canal.  Meanwhile, virtually next door to the federal Conte Fish Lab, federal trust American shad runs and whole season’s production of eggs and young from the river’s only spawning population of federally-endangered shortnose whither in a dying reach of river annually.

Perhaps most shameful of all is that there is virtually no federal enforcement or prosecution for the year-in, year-out, damage to those federally endangered sturgeon.  US Endangered Species Act protections are wholly ignored for this population, which measures only in the hundreds.  The beleaguered two-mile reach behind the federal Conte Lab has served as their historic mating ground for untold centuries.

Annually, successful shortnose sturgeon spawning in this reach occurs less than half of the time.  Much of the loss is preventable, and could be stemmed in large part by enforcing environmental statutes that would quell the punishing effects of the water pulses and parching trickles sent downstream by Northfield Mountain/Turners Falls dam operators toward an ancient, low escarpment in the river known as the Rock Dam.  Shortnose sturgeon have spawned at this site since before well before Columbus sailed.

More losses arise from the company’s spawning-season water diversions into—and out of, the Turner Falls Power Canal.  That flow can be, alternately, either so strong, or so halting, that it can stop an entire season’s worth of sturgeon mating dead in its tracks.  Or, those same vacillating pulses will either wash downstream, or strand, a season’s worth of tiny sturgeon embryos–leaving them to decay beneath the silt, or desiccate on barren riverbanks.  Either way, a year’s worth of endangered shortnose sturgeon production regularly gets sideswiped to oblivion.

The penalty to an individual for catching, killing or interfering with a federally endangered shortnose sturgeon is up to a year in jail, and a $100,000 dollar fine per instance.  That penalty is increased to $200,000 for corporations, which seems a bit out of balance.  Right at Turners Falls–adjacent to the US Geological Service’s Silvio O. Conte Anadromous Fish Lab and just downstream from the US Fish & Wildlife Service’s Great Falls Discovery Center, there is documented evidence of annual damage to the Connecticut River’s only spawning population of endangered shortnose sturgeon, yet here no one is being dragged into court…

At the November 10, 2011 CRASC meeting in Turners Falls, USFWS’s Connecticut River Coordinator Ken Sprankle announced the outlines and some preliminary observations from a multi-year American shad migration study he’s begun.  With assistance, Sprankle caught and radio-tagged over a hundred shad, some at the mouth of the Connecticut, some at the Holyoke fish lift.  This allowed him to track their movements via receivers placed along the river as they made their upstream runs.  Partly funded by FirstLight Power, federal Conte Lab researcher Dr. Ted Castro-Santos partnered on the Sprankle study.  Castro-Santos was the point person responsible for siting receivers along the river from downstream of the Turners Falls Power Canal up to the Vernon dam in Vermont.

Sprankle termed the undertaking a “whole river study for shad,” one that would help in understanding how they use the river in migration.  He further noted that Dr. Castro-Santos had placed radio receivers throughout FirstLight’s Turners Falls Power Canal.  At that point I asked how many receivers had been set up in the “actual river bed”—referring to the Connecticut’s embattled, 2-mile “dead reach” just beyond Conte Labs west windows.  As expected, he answered that none were in place to monitor that section or river.  It’s remains the river’s missing link.

Thus, from the foot of the Turners Falls canal to the base of Turners Falls dam, Sprankle and Castro-Santos will have no data on shad movement in a critical river reach.  I pointed out to Sprankle that the undertaking could not then be considered a bona fide “whole river study for shad.”  This is decidedly a broken river study—missing the miles of streambed where a river’s ocean-connected ecosystem dies.  I further observed that the section Castro-Santos has chosen to monitor promotes a power “canal restoration”—a configuration that has failed for the past 40 years, and one that let’s the power company wholly off the hook in terms of sustainable flows for federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon and working, direct, upstream fish passage for federal trust American shad.

Ryan McCullough is scheduled to appear on Thursday, January 12, 2011, in Room 1 of Vermont Superior Court in Windsor at 9:00 a.m.  He is pleading not guilty to the charge of knowingly taking a “big game species” and has chosen to be tried by jury, represented by attorny Jordanna Levine.

IT’S THE DEAD REACH STUPID: the selling of the Connecticut River ecosystem

Posted by on 24 Jul 2011 | Tagged as: American shad, Atlantic salmon, Bellows Falls Fishway, blueback herring, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Connecticut River ecosystem, Conte, CRASC, Dead Reach, EPA, federal trust fish, FERC license, FirstLight, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, MA Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, New Hampshire, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Reservoir, salmon, salmon hatchery, Sanctuary Magazine, shortnose sturgeon, The Greenfield Recorder, The Springfield Republican, Turners Falls power canal, USFWS, Walpole

Copyright © 2011 by Karl Meyer                                   All Rights Reserved.

* The following article first appeared in the July/August 2011 issue of the Pioneer Valley News.

                          IT’S THE DEAD REACH, STUPID: the selling of the Connecticut River ecosystem

If you think the Connecticut River is worth saving for your children and their grandchildren, you’d better act fast.  New England’s River is dying in the two-mile stretch directly below the dam in Turners Falls, MA.  Go take a look.  It’s a section subjected, alternately, to channel-starving flows and punishing deluges caused by manipulations at the dam from the Northfield Mountain-Turners Falls hydropower operations.  Look just to the left, where roiling water churns and hurtles down the Turners Falls Power Canal.  That’s where most of the river’s water goes—into an unnatural conduit that’s the final stop for most of the Connecticut’s migratory fish.  It’s killing this ocean-connected ecosystem, which once stretched north to Walpole, NH and Bellows Falls, VT.

For decades US Fish and Wildlife Service agents, federal scientists at the Conte Fish Lab in Turners Falls, and MA Fisheries & Wildlife officials have ignored this “dead reach” where the river’s only breeding population of federally endangered shortnose sturgeon spawns; and migrating “federal trust” American shad and blueback herring are turned out of their ancient river highway two miles downstream.   That power canal has hydro-turbines slicing through the current at three sites, and warming, silted-in habitats along its middle stretch.  Few fish emerge from that habitat to swim to Vermont and New Hampshire.  An ecosystem dies at Turners Falls.

Yet federal and state fisheries officials don’t monitor the flows, releases and river levels coming down past the Turners Falls dam.  They leave it to the complex’s owners, global giant FirstLight, to police themselves on this critical reach.  They then use what little data the company deigns to give them, often months late—about flow and numbers of migrating fish, in the fisheries science that’s been supposed to restore New England’s migratory fish here these past last 40 years.  Boy is that smart.

Last year, FirstLight surreptitiously dumped 65,000 tons of silt into the Connecticut here after it got clogged in its massive turbines–also fouling the entire, mile-long intake tunnel to its sprawling 5-billion gallon Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Reservoir.  They were mucking the sludge out of the reservoir for the first time in 20 years; that’s supposed to happen every five.  On May 3rd FirstLight manager John Howard grossly under-represented the extent of the pollution to the US EPA when he notified them that “silt was entering the river.”   From May 1 – August 4th, FirstLight pushed at least 45,000 cubic square yards of muck into the Connecticut at Northfield.  Daily, between 40 – 50 dump truck loads flowed in.

On June 23, 2010, boater Bruce Miriam called the EPA’s hotline reporting piles of silt in the river.  Yet EPA didn’t make its initial inspection until 3 weeks later, and it wasn’t August 4th that EPA finally ordered them to cease and desist “polluting the navigable waters of the United States.”  Fisheries agencies didn’t pursue the critical matter of that oxygen-and-light-robbing silt.  It was visible from Northfield to the mouth of the Deerfield River.  Silt is known to affect the spawning, eggs and young of endangered sturgeon and federal-trust shad—struggling here in the upper-most stretch that ocean-going migrants can reach in any meaningful numbers.

FirstLight was belatedly ordered to dredge up the mess they’d largely kept from the public by hiding it underwater–keeping the river’s levels at maximum height behind their TF dam gates for months.  Ultimately they sucked out just a third of it, 15,000 cubic square yards.  They were also ordered to come up with a future plan on how they would deal with the sludge clogging their reservoir.  Last November, when EPA Council Michael Wagner was asked who will monitor FirstLight’s actions in the future he replied, “Most compliance happens from the company.  We just expect the company will comply.”   In another river-pollution non-sequitur, FirstLight quietly agreed to spend a few thousand dollars to fund a study of dragonfly larvae, far downstream from their pollution.  That backroom deal was cut with MA Dept. of Environmental Protection, and agreed to by EPA.  It was the public’s recompense.

Though the Connecticut belongs to the United States, Massachusetts, and all New Englanders, it appears its ownership and control has been ceded to FirstLight—who could sell their hydro complex here tomorrow.   The EPA, US F&WS, the US Geological Service’s Conte Anadromous Fish Lab, the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission (CRASC), MA DEP and MA Div. of Fisheries & Wildlife–agencies charged with protecting this river system for all time, have offered up our river ecosystem to the short-term, profit desires of FirstLight’s shareholders.

What’s more, they are about to concede this river’s ecosystem disaster to the power company for all time–decades after they should have conducted the independent science and required that changes be instituted here that would have taken the river off life-support.  That should have been in 1998–the halfway point in the current federal operating license.  If they succeed, it will ensure the ecosystem remains comatose for generations.

In behind-the-scenes negotiations that should be subject to open-meeting laws and public input, federal and state fisheries officials are talking with FirstLight owners about permanently accepting the diversion of the bulk of the river’s flow and fish out of the riverbed–sending the mass of migratory fish into the trap they co-created with Northeast Utilities back in 1978: the treacherous currents and warming muck that’s the Turners Falls Power Canal.

An ample flow of natural seasonal current left in the river–leading fish directly upstream to a fish elevator at the dam would instantly revive the Connecticut’s dead reach.  That’s what they’ve done downstream at Holyoke since 1955.  It’s the East Coast’s most successful fish passage.  Between 40 – 60% of the fish would quickly be able to pass Turners Falls, according to statements from US Conte Lab fish scientist Alex Haro at a 2010 fish passage symposium held at the US Fish & Wildlife Service’s Region V Headquarters in early 2011.  That passage would send meaningful numbers of American shad upstream toward VT and NH for the first time since John Adams was president.  No honest fish scientist disputes this.

But instead, federal fish scientists including Haro’s colleague at Conte, Ted Castro-Santos, are prioritizing building a fish lift at the foot of the Turners Falls Power Canal—continuing to sentence embattled fish into a migratory limbo few emerge from.   Both Haro and Castro-Santos are salaried federal employees, but up to half the money they’ve accepted for doing fish passage studies that center on keeping fish in the power canal comes from FirstLight.  If federal and state fisheries officials sell-out the dead reach once more, it will be the fourth time in as many decades that watchdog agencies have failed our river here.

That power canal fish diversion was put in place by forerunners of these agents in 1978.  It’s the Roach Motel of fish passage: millions of shad have checked in, but hardly a fish checks out the other side.  A 1988 study conducted by John O’Leary of the Massachusetts Cooperative Fisheries Unit and supervised by Dr. Boyd Kynard, spelled out the failure of using that canal for fish passage.  Successful passage that year came in at a whopping 5.4% at the Turners Falls Gatehouse–after years of tinkering with the hopeless system.  The study’s summary sized-up the situation succinctly, “Remarks:  “Upriver Passage: None.”

But FirstLight makes electricity along this 5-mile reach in a deregulated market, and works to maximize profits for shareholders.  Conversely, it sends pulses of water downstream from its giant Northfield generators through this industrial reach into critical spawning and migratory habitats while taking advantage of price spikes the energy “spot market.”   Ironically, the Northfield plant actually requires more energy to run than it produces.  But when prices and demand climbs, they quickly spill punishing flows downstream at the dam; while at other times their hydro gates close and the river is left treacherously de-watered.  Migrating shad and (formerly) blueback herring swim to this reach in numbers of at least 100,000 fish annually.  But just a few get beyond Turners Falls dam, in place here since 1798.  Whole seasons of just-spawned shortnose sturgeon eggs and young have been washed out of the riverbed by surges in this broken stretch—where most migrating shad are conveniently shunted out of the river into miserable canal habitat.  US F&WS and MA Fisheries & Wildlife leaders sit on their hands.

Caleb Slater, from MA Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, Technical Committee Chair and fish passage subcommittee leader at the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission (CRASC) is one of those talking to FirstLight.  With Massachusetts personnel negotiating on behalf of our interests, “open meetings laws” should apply.  But there’s no public input or access.  There’s been an unfilled MA “public sector” seat at the CRASC table since 2008.  It’s a rubber stamp position anyway, really concerned with keeping money flowing for CRASC’s massively-failed, half-billion-dollar salmon restoration and hatchery program.  After 40 years, a few dozen hybrid salmon return.  The other federal officials charged with representing our interests include John Warner of the US F&WS Field Office, Julie Crocker of NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, and NOAA attorney Kevin Collins.  All are charged with protecting the ecosystem for our grandkids, not the power company of the day.

FirstLight only leases the use of some of our river’s water—subject to conditions in the current federal operating (FERC) license, in place until 2018.  That license requires them to protect and improve passage for the migratory federal trust fish impacted by their facilities and operations.  By law they must maintain conditions and construct new fish passage that protects the public’s migrating and spawning fish—or they can be ordered to cease generating.

But the company has a powerful incentive to keep as many fish as possible out of the river–as it would be inconvenient to shareholders not to maximize profits by having to tailor flow regimes in the river at certain seasons to the needs of the ecosystem’s fish.  If this backroom deal gets made it offers FirstLight–or the power company-of-the-moment, carte blanch to continue profiting from free-wheeling, unmonitored operations on the dead reach–where FirstLight and its predecessors have been notably out of compliance with respect to pollution, flows, fish passage and federal trust species.  Those activities go unchallenged.

Federal fisheries leaders and scientists at the nearby $12 million dollar Conte Anadramous Fish Lab, located on that canal, also have a powerful motive for wanting the fish to continue to be shunted into that debased canal habitat. It’s where their lab is and where they do their fish science, though the bulk of it involves studying baby, hatchery-produced, hybrid salmon.  The results after 20 years of lab operations are abysmal: 100 returning adult salmon this year—in a program that has cost taxpayers hundreds of millions.  The public won’t be willing to fund this white elephant forever.

Which sort-of leaves the federal Conte Lab scrambling for a reason to exist.  They’ve now even begun studying freshwater fish that are non-migratory–to fill the rather large hole in their failed collective purpose here.  Just like FirstLight, it would be best to keep those formerly-ignored shad coming up into that canal and past their lab.  They can then look like they are doing something.  So, with renewed energy, they are once again conducting studies remarkably similar to ones done in past decades–to answer a question that seems more like a children’s riddle at this point: Why can’t fish taken out of their true riverbed habitats find their way through the labyrinth and roiling waters of a warming power canal—and then jump up into flows from a higher pond at the dam to swim to Vermont and New Hampshire?   Like the power company, there’s a money motive here to.  It’s a co-dependency that’s developed over decades.

At a 2010 meeting of the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Vermont CRASC Tech Committee Member Jay McMenemy expressed surprise that four hybrid Atlantic salmon—the season’s entire free-swimming crop at Turners Falls, had reached the site by swimming directly up the dead reach of river, by-passing the power canal.  With Northfield shut down, it shouldn’t have surprised anyone.  I’d first noted the looming disaster at Turners Falls in print a dozen years prior, and in 2007 had written a front-page story about the impacts of the Northfield plant’s operations on dying shad passage in the Springfield Republican.  I’d put shad and Northfield impacts on the cover of Massachusetts Audubon’s Sanctuary Magazine again in 2009.

With FirstLight keeping river levels behind the dam as high as possible to cover their silt piles upstream, they tried to divert the rest of the river’s water into the canal—their preferred route for struggling fish.  But a canal is a finite conduit: it can only carry just so much water.  It started raining really hard here in late-May; and flows from heavy late-spring rains kept coming downstream through June.  That forced FirstLight to spill water over their dam–releasing substantial and steady flows to the river’s natural bed: the dead reach.  Apparently even million-dollar, hatchery-hybrid salmon can tell a true river current from a by-pass trick.  They followed their noses straight upstream to use the rarely-accessed fish ladder at the dam to pass Turners Falls.

So did the American shad.

When I enquired of FirstLight’s Bob Stira about the already 600-800% increase in shad passing Turners Falls at a June 22, 2010 CRASC meeting—trying to find out how many had been recorded swimming directly upstream to the dam and ladder at the top of that dead reach, he was hesitant, downplaying his answer, “Oh, maybe three or four thousand.”  In fact, allowing that 4,000 American shad had likely passed upstream by this route alone was hugely significant: yearly averages had dropped to a paltry 2,000 – 3,000 fish making it through the fish passage system at Turners Falls in the past decade.

Yet in 2010, with Northfield down–and FirstLight’s releasing public fish tallies lagging weeks behind the daily figures available from Holyoke, 10,000 shad had already made it past Turners Falls dam.  When I pointedly noted the relationship between the Northfield outage and record shad passage at Turners Falls, commissioners at the CRASC table had little in the way of response.  Ultimately it was months before FirstLight released their final fish tallies for shad passage, which included numbers swimming up the dead reach, and ascending the ladder directly at the dam.  In 2010, some 16,768 fish passed Turners Falls—the most fish recorded since 1995.

But even that number is highly suspect and likely low.  FirstLight’s fish counting equipment failed on 35 different occasions—with 17 of those failures occurring at the dam’s spillway ladder.    Those cameras record the fish that swim up the riverbed when they have ample flow through their natural migration corridor—that mostly-dead reach of river ecosystem.  FirstLight’s figures are the data Conte Lab and federal and state fisheries biologists use in their science.  As I first noted about these instititutions to the Greenfield Recorder’s Gary Sanderson last June, “Do you think they’re hiding something?”

FirstLight and Conte researcher Ted Castro-Santos appeared anxious last year to attribute the huge increase in shad passage at Turners Falls to experiments they’d done changing the exit opening for shad in their preferred upstream fish passage route—the canal.  But that new hole had first been cut three years prior, with the subsequent results admittedly “poor.”

To me it seemed obvious they were trying to steal the credit and credibility that belongs to nature: water in the actual riverbed, and a large population of American shad that has wanted to follow the river upstream to Vermont and New Hampshire for centuries now.

Managers and engineers at the Northfield-Turners Falls complex have been operating dam gates and manipulating flows along this five-mile stretch for decades.  They operate their gates day and night.  Federal and state fisheries managers and scientists don’t monitor the impacts.  Operating with few constraints, it’s certainly possible to create conditions that move struggling fish in any direction you want them to go.  For the fish, that’s usually a trip through the power canal.  Rarely–when flows vary, it can be something else…

Way back in the early 1980s hundreds of shad found enough current in the riverbed to follow it straight upstream to the dam.  But operators wanted more water elsewhere—to fill their mountaintop reservoir upstream, and the power canal flowing just east of the river.  They closed the dam’s gates and shut off flow.  Without flow and water left in the river to find a path downstream, hundreds of shad perished in the warming, oxygen-starved pools they got trapped in.  Needless to say, that visible configuration was never seen again.

Today, both FirstLight and federal Conte Fish Lab scientist find themselves in a bit of a bind over the choked ecosystem and fish passage.  It’s important to each to show that the best thing for those migratory fish is to be shoved out of the riverbed and into the power canal.  They want to build a fish lift there first–at the foot of the canal, to keep that system in place.  And it’s today’s paltry flows coming downstream through the dead reach that allow this to happen.  That status quo solution would keep everybody comfortably remunerated.

But with the anomaly of record numbers of shad passing Turners Falls while Northfield Mountain was down last year, you can’t just return to business as usual.  With those parching or punishing flows through the dead reach now a matter of public record–through recent news articles and OpEds, what you can do is try and optimize conditions that get a few more fish through that dismal system.  This season there has been a dismally small, but consistent, current spilling downstream at Turners Falls dam, noted by the public.  It seems mainly for show.

But downstream at Holyoke there has been a full 33% increase in American shad passage this year.  Sadly for Mr. Castro-Santos and the canal-route proponents–the corresponding increase that should have followed at Turners Falls if their new exit strategy was indeed the savior of those migratory runs, has not occured.  The numbers at Turners Falls were flat this year—actually down by a few hundred from last year.  They are below the shad numbers passing Turners Falls dam a quarter century back, when John O’Leary’s study characterized similar failing fish passage the “Remarks” section of his 1988 study as: “Upriver Passage: None.”

Sending fish into a power canal won’t fix the Connecticut River’s broken ecosystem—the ocean connection and its shad and herring runs that once swam north to Vermont and New Hampshire.  Only real flows in the dead reach and a single fish lift directly upstream at the dam will make that possible.  That needs to happen today–should’ve happened a decade back.  It remains a debt under requirements in the current license.

But that would require integrity, determination, leadership—even a bit of courage, something citizens have come to no longer expect from the people charged with protecting their river.  And some of the folks making deals on the river today may be the same people in charge when a new federal license—also ostensibly designed to improve the river ecosystem, comes up for retooling in 2018.  It’s the recipe for a failed ecosystem for your great-grandchildren.

I recently spoke with the US F&WS’s Ken Sprankle, the Connecticut River Coordinator and fish researcher who works from a Sunderland office.  Ken seems to have some integrity.  He’s trying to do some of the catch-up science that was left a decade in arrears at the federal Conte Lab.  Last year he spent months cobbling together grant monies that enabled him to pay for a study that electronically tagged 100 American shad this year, to follow document their upstream migration patterns.  He says he’s getting lots of data.

But, when I questioned Ken about whether he is getting the critical independent data about flows, levels, and releases into the dead reach at Turners Falls dam—the ancient route for fish up the river, he said he is not.  He’s asked FirstLight’s Bob Stira for that information.  It’s been promised, but he doesn’t know when he’ll get it.

This is virtually the only real independent data and science that matters.  It’s the stuff that measures the damage to endangered shortnose sturgeon spawning populations and migrating federal trust fish that have always required a Connecticut River with water in it.  I was disheartened to hear this.  As other fisheries people tell me, however dedicated Ken might be, his work will only get as far as his US F&WS Region V supervisors allow him to go.

So, it appears the task of saving the Connecticut River ecosystem has been left up to New England citizens.  You and me.  Environmental groups have remained largely mute for decades.  Most accept power company funding, and many have boards of directors littered with former power company managers.  Though it would take just one with the courage to stand apart to perhaps change the course of this river’s history, I wouldn’t bet on it.

But you can act.  Contact your Congressmen and state representatives.  Ask them about open meeting laws and to hold hearings on protecting the federal trust and the river’s ecosystem at Turners Falls.  Ask them about the wisdom of spending $10 million a year on a failed salmon program that produces a few dozen fish—while endangered sturgeon go unprotected and federal trust shad runs remain dead to Vermont and New Hampshire, stuck behind Turners Falls dam since 1798. Write a letter to the paper. And, where’s the independent environmental watchdog that’s publicly going to go to bat for the river’s dead reach?  That might begin with you.

As research, take a ride to the Turners Falls dam and look south into the dead reach, then to the left at that churning canal.  Then, beginning around September 10, 2011, go south in Turners Falls and cross the canal on the 11th Street Bridge.  Head downstream along the public roads following the canal to where the paved road is called Migratory Way.  That’s where our federal fish lab is.  You may have to walk; they sometimes close the gates to cars.

But, beginning September 12th, that canal is set to be dredged of its muck by FirstLight.  Take a good look–before and after, at the muck-filled expanse.  Then, decide for yourself whether this is a suitable place to send even a few of the future’s precious remaining fish.

Karl Meyer of Greenfield, MA writes on many topics as freelance journalist. He has written for national and regional publications and been featured on public radio’s MarketPlace. Meyer is also an award-winning non-fiction children’s author. He holds an MS in Environmental Science from Antioch New England University and writes often about Connecticut River issues. Read his blog at: www.karlmeyerwriting.com  Contact him about writing and school and environmental presentations at: karl@karlmeyerwriting.com .

 

 

The Devolution of a River Restoration: killing the Connecticut softly

Posted by on 31 May 2011 | Tagged as: American shad, Atlantic salmon, Bellows Falls Fishway, blueback herring, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Conte, CRASC, Farmington River, federal trust fish, New Hampshire, Rainbow Dam Fishway, salmon hatchery, Uncategorized, USFWS, Vernon Dam Fishway, Walpole

This article appears in the current(May-June) issue of the Pioneer Valley News, a small, bimonthly news-magazine available, free, at various Valley locations.

The Devolution of a River Restoration: killing the Connecticut softly

by Karl Meyer                                   Copyright © 2011 by Karl Meyer

May 5, 2010.  7:30 a.m:

THWACK!  Standing next to the pulsing waters of the Rainbow Fishway on the Farmington River in Windsor, CT, I’d just received a watery slap in the face from a 280 million year-old living fossil.  I was travelling by bicycle, heading to the Holyoke dam from Old Saybrook, CT at Long Island Sound.  I’d left the Sound the day before, with a final destination of Bellows Falls, VT, following the Connecticut River’s fish migration upstream.  But I just had to stop at this storied tributary.  Astonished, I stared at the frothy spot where a 2-1/2 foot sea lamprey had just been cemented to the concrete wall of a 34 year-old salmon ladder–its suctioning mouth holding it in the wild current.  Now, it was gone.

Wiping the spray from my cheek, I look upstream to the next frothing pool.  There, peeking just above the water like a spy-hopping whale is my lamprey.  Its snakelike body flutters in the current while its round, jawless-mouth keeps it fused to the concrete as if joined by Crazy Glue.  Two flooded basins downstream, three more lamprey do the exact same thing; in the pool beyond, another, nearly as thick as my arm, waves like a streamer in violent water.

THWACK!—another sprits of Farmington water hits me.  In a flash, the ropey, mottled-brown fish disappears, only to emerge a second later in the next higher pool, glomming onto the steep wall.  Its rudimentary gills writhe like bellows in the froth as they siphon needed oxygen.

I am witnessing a miracle of tenacity and evolution as these ancient fish scale an impossible fishway.  I’m also witnessing everything that is wrong with the Connecticut River basin’s failed 44 year-old federal-state migratory fish restoration here at the first dam on Farmington River–the longest tributary in the state of Connecticut.

This fishway is a trap.  It kills fish.  In fact, the Rainbow Fishway kills most of the fish the New England Cooperative Fisheries were charged with restoring way back in 1967—the American shad and blueback herring that once fed humans along 172 miles of the Connecticut River, as well as up tributaries like this one–all the way from Long Island Sound to Bellows Falls, VT.

In 1976, state and federal fisheries officials came up with the design here—a ponderously steep ladder with punishing flows charging through rasping, pebble-ridden concrete slots not much wider than a splayed hand.  It was based on West Coast ladders designed for Pacific salmon–here to be used for the Atlantic salmon, extinct in the Connecticut River since 1809.  From day one, Rainbow proved a killer.  For the past 35 years this ladder has drawn spawning-run shad and blueback herring upstream to its watery promise by the tens of thousands—only to flay them alive in repeated attempts to pass.  Those that succeed expire soon after reaching the top, their reward for tenacity.  In total, Rainbow Fishway has quietly killed more migrating shad and herring–classified as “federal trust fish,” than it has ever assisted.

Lacking scales, a’ la salmon, the scrappy sea lamprey is this fishway’s—and the Connecticut River restoration’s, single, unequivocal, unintended success.  By the end of the 2010 spawning season Rainbow had passed a grand total of 4 hybrid salmon.  But 3,090 sea lamprey made it out the top of Rainbow–exhausted, but otherwise uninjured.  Concurrently, those narrow, flaying, concrete slots injured and likely killed all 548 American shad and 25 blueback herring that were counted as “passing” the fishway.  That number is a trick.  The counting window is located in the bottom third of those 64 treacherous pools–where hapless, de-scaling migrants still have a wrinkle of life left in them when the staff checks them off.

By 1970, just three years after its start, fisheries officials had turned the basics of Connecticut River migratory fish restoration on its head–placing the extinct salmon as priority one, and relegating American shad and blueback herring to poor step-child status.  Their overarching federal mandate was to create “high quality sport fishing opportunities” in the Connecticut basin, and to “provide for the long-term needs of the population for seafood.”  The large, sporty American shad was the top fish named in that mandate; followed by the extinct salmon, and then those migratory herring.  Federal and state managers were entrusted with both river ecology and fish runs. At Rainbow, they crushed the possibilities of both.

Historically, for millennia, American shad fed Native Peoples and later European immigrants throughout the Connecticut Valley.  Herring were salted and eaten too, and used in livestock feed and fertilizer. Here, that extinct salmon had colonized the Connecticut River system just a few hundred years prior at the very southern edge of their cold-water range–during the Little Ice Age in New England, 1400 – 1800 AD, a time of shifting ocean currents and unusual cold for Northern Europe and Northeastern North America.

The salmon were large but few—amounting to perhaps one fish in five thousand in the annual runs of migratory fish.  Though tasty, they never fed the populace.  And, with warming Atlantic currents and the first dams on the Connecticut, the salmon run had died off by 1809.  Yet, in 1976, fisheries officials built this fish trap in the name of salmon, fueled by their trophy fish desires.  It flew in the face river ecology principals, and it has crippled fish restoration on the Farmington and depleted the Connecticut River’s migratory fish stocks for decades.  Four salmon used this ladder in 2010.  Four.

One biologist refers to Rainbow Fishway as “the world’s greatest shad de-scaler.”  That’s what it does–it rakes the scales off hapless two foot-long American shad, drawn into those narrow slots by the upstream current.  Thousand perish annually.  With bellies flayed raw in the effort, they either wash back down downstream, or expire after reaching the top of the dam.  The smaller, foot-long herring receive the same fate.  And the public hasn’t a clue.  Remarkably, Rainbow holds an “open house” each June, with smiling state fisheries personnel standing over a few listless shad, live-trapped at the base of the dam.  They politely explain how the system functions…  The place is a PETA protest waiting to happen.

Though few people admire this member of an ancient order of jawless fish, I’m watching a miraculous creature—one that does nearly everything a salmon restoration effort on the Connecticut never will.  The wonderfully adapted sea lamprey is ghoulish-looking.  They appear more eel-like than fish, but they are fish indeed.  They were thriving before the glaciers arrived here—indeed, living-well before even the molten rise of the Holyoke Range and the ancient layers of earth rose and parted to later become Turners Falls. Sea lamprey were making a good living 200 million years before dinosaurs laid tracks here in the fogs of Valley pre-history.

Lamprey are large, but hardly sexy.  They are writhers, not leapers.  Indeed, upon hatching they will spend well over half an unglamorous decade rooted and waving like worms in riverbed silts, growing slowly as they filter nutrients and detritus from the downstream current.  Then, in an amazing transformation, they head to the sea to spend the final two years of their decade-plus lifespan in the open ocean, maturing quickly into two- and three- foot fish who making a living as ocean parasites attached to larger fish–using their sucking-disc mouths full of hundreds of needle-like teeth to draw in nutrition.

Then, come spring– blind, fasting, and loosing those teeth, they return to the Connecticut River tributaries of their birth to spawn.  Using their powerful sucking jaws, the male and female will move fist-sized rocks to create a rounded rock nest called a redd– remarkably similar to one a salmon would make.  That rock-corral will catch the doomed couple’s fertilized eggs after spawning.  Their life-cycles complete, upon spawning all adult lamprey perish, leaving both their thousands of tiny eggs and their rotting carcasses to the clear-running reaches of Connecticut River tributaries.

In a 2007 study, Drs. Keith Nislow and Boyd Kynard of the UMass-Amherst Dept. of Natural Resources and Conservation surveyed the results of 20 years of sea lamprey spawning research on the Fort River–a Connecticut tributary in Hampshire County, MA.  Their findings show that the quick-rotting carcasses left by spawned-out adult lamprey contribute critical ocean-derived nutrients–including phosphorus and nitrogen, to freshwater systems at a time when other spring nutrient sources are largely unavailable to freshwater organisms.  In short, dead, unlovable, lamprey carry needed “seafood” to our streams—like salmon on the West Coast.

Though you can’t hook’em, sea lamprey were eaten in former times in Hampshire County, and also fed to the hogs, according to Sylvester Judd’s posthumous, 1863, History of Hadley, 1905 edition: “Lampreys came above the falls in great numbers, and entered the streams that run into the Connecticut, until the Holyoke dam was built in 1849.  They were very numerous in Fort River in Hadley, below Smith’s mills, and were caught by the light of torches, sometimes several hundred in a night.  Men waded into the stream, and grasped them with a mittened hand and placed them in a bag…  Some were eaten in a few towns in old Hampshire, but most were carried to Granby, Simsbury and other towns on the Connecticut.”

I’d actually left Simsbury, CT that very morning—biking the six miles to Rainbow Fishway.  It was still early, 8:10, but no one was around.  The gate, supposedly open at 8 a.m., was still locked.  I’d snuck in.  Special “salmon transport” trucks sat idle in a fenced-off area.  The thwack-splash of lamprey was ever present–but no sign of a single shad, herring or salmon, living or dead.  I backtracked over Hatchet Hill to the Farmington River bikeway as jets from nearby Bradley Airport roared above.  I’d make my way through Granby, then across Southwick and Westfield, MA on my way to the Holyoke dam, some 30 miles distant.  I’d told a friend I’d meet him by noon.

By 12:15, I was rolling through the streets of Holyoke, down to the Connecticut and the Holyoke dam at South Hadley Falls.  Grabbing my wallet, I left my loaded bike, and headed over the cement wall to the river near Slim Shad Point.  There, a dozen guys are waist deep in the river, flicking shad darts into an ample current.  My friend Tony is one of them.  They’ve had some luck this morning.  Upstream, the river makes a low roar rolling over the dam and through the spillway at Holyoke Gas & Electric’s generating plant.

I was hoping to catch Tony for lunch, but he’s too involved.  Shad fever, they call it.  He greets me, can hardly turn around—so intent is he on the catch.  “Sorry, I can’t stop,” he says.

One of his compadres, getting that I’d biked from Long Island Sound just the day before, chides, “Geez, he won’t even leave the water to shake this guy’s hand.”  Tony does offer me one tidbit though, “Karl, you’ll never guess what a guy caught this morning.”  From his tone, it’s obvious, a salmon.  “Thirty-three inches,” he laughs, “tossed it back in.”

Though classified as “extirpated” by the USFWS, you still cannot catch or keep the Connecticut hybrid they’ve created through a series of $ million-dollar hatcheries across New England.  Just a few dozen from the millions of industrial-hybrid salmon fry dumped in Connecticut River tributaries each spring grow and survive to adulthood to swim back from the ocean each year.  “Too bad he didn’t keep it,” I say, “We could’ve had a barbeque!”  The fishermen laugh.

I grab my bike and walk the quarter mile back to the Holyoke Fishway next to the dam.  This fishway is the prototype for what should have been the Connecticut River’s successful fish restoration.  Built in 1955, it is the East Coast’s oldest and most successful fish passage facility.  Since 1848, all migratory fish here had been blocked by Holyoke dam.  In its first year, the lift installed here passed over 5,000 American shad–more than the total number of hybrid salmon that have returned over the entire 44 year salmon program—a hatchery based effort that has cost taxpayers well over a half billion dollars.

Simple, direct, elegant—over the last half century the elevators have successfully passed tens of millions of fish upstream here—all kinds, all species—including shad, herring, lamprey, salmon—even endangered shortnose sturgeon.  The design is common-sense-simple: a square, water-filled elevator with one swinging-door side that closes behind fish drawn to it by an ample flow of downstream “attraction” current.  You corral the fish; close the side door–and lift them over the dam.  Done.  A winner, this design is what they might have copied 21 years later, when they built Rainbow.  But they went for sexy, they went for salmon.  Today, they are left with a festering, open sore.

A public viewing site, this is opening day at Holyoke Fishway.  Two of the fishway guides greet me as an old friend, “They’re here,” they assure me.  I climb the stairs.  Scores of shiny blue-green shad are nervously milling in the windows.  A few lamprey are here as well–all waiting to be released upstream.  There are no herring, no salmon, but a lone white sucker lurks near the bottom of the tank.  Still, this window is full of promise–agitated, determined life.

It’s early in the run; the shad are mostly males—sleek, wiry, “bucks” about two feet long.  I check the bulletin board: already 15,000 have passed here.  By season’s end that number will be 164,000, hardly a record.  In 1978 this fishway was further improved by adding a second fish elevator.  The fish runs blossomed.  By the mid-1980s totals of shad and herring here averaged nearly a million fish passing annually.

In 1992, a record 720,000 American shad were lifted at Holyoke dam, as well as 310,000 blueback herring.  But it’s been downhill ever since.  The key reason: in 1978–two years after the Rainbow Fishway became operational, federal and state fisheries experts ordered a second fish trap built—this one at the Connecticut’s next upstream dam from Holyoke’s simple fish elevators: Turners Falls.  If Rainbow proved an ugly slap in the face for the Farmington, the design they insisted on for passing migratory fish blocked at Turners Falls since the time of George Washington proved a devastating blow to fish restoration throughout the Connecticut River basin.

Renamed the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission (CRASC) in 1983, it was this same group of federal and state fisheries directors in 1978 that insisted Northeast Utilities build another system based on Pacific salmon and the Columbia River at Turners Falls.  NU was obligated to create and improve fish passage under federal environmental law and regulatory statutes.  It is an ongoing obligation of all owners of federal generating licenses on the Connecticut, including the current owner—multi-national FirstLight GDF-Suez, a mandate that operators must accept for being allowed to profit from use of the public’s river.  NU, and now FirstLight-GDF Suez, derive great profits from using our river’s power at their Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage-Turners Falls hydro generating complex along a 7-mile stretch of the Connecticut.  Once this new design was completed as requested, it was agreed that no major changes in fish passage would be advanced again until mid-way through the 40-year Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) license—1998.

Completed in 1980, the Turners Falls Fishway proved another day-one disaster—but on a much grander scale.  Federal-state studies from the 1980s quickly documented the failure.  But fisheries officials took little action.  Though the new Turners Falls fish passage complex didn’t kill fish outright, it essentially strangled this river migration’s ancient, upstream connection with the sea right where it had died when a dam was built here in 1798.  Rather than build a proven elevator at the dam suited to all species, they turned the migrating runs out of the ancient riverbed and forced them to attempt an upstream run through the punishing flows and the barren, silt-and-muck habitats of the Turners Falls Canal.

Annually, hundreds of thousands of shad would arrive, but 98 fish out of 100 fish would repeatedly attempt to pass that two miles of alien habitat and fail—met by the harsh pulses and quick-changing pond levels sent downstream from the unchecked operations at the upstream Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage facility.   That promised ocean-fish sport and seafood connection never reached Vermont and New Hampshire.

So intent was this group on resurrecting extinct salmon, that the pact they made with the power company to get their salmon ladders actually yanked the fish out of the Connecticut River.  They forced them up the impossibly treacherous steps of the “Cabot Ladder,” built at the downstream end of Turners Falls Canal.  The design proved so useless that–other than a handful of hybrid salmon and that ever-remarkable, unfishable, sea lamprey, it has crushed any hope for meaningful fish runs to Vermont and New Hampshire waters for these last 30 years.  That tragedy too, continues.

By utilizing the simple lift design achieved at Holyoke 23 years prior, fish officials would’ve restored the remaining 60% of historic upstream spawning reach for American shad and blueback herring all the way to Bellows Falls, VT, 172-miles from the sea, in a single stroke–a site unreachable since 1798.  Today, shad passage continues to teeter at anywhere between 0 – 5 percent at Turners Falls “fishway.”  Though it doesn’t de-scale shad, its series of ladders and jumbled currents so stresses and depletes shad energy reserves that they simply stall in the lower part of the system, and eventually wind back down to the bottom—only to begin the whole ugly gauntlet over again the next day.  The few that reach the top and enter the canal simply stop migrating at that juncture, languishing for weeks in mud-barren habitat that is nothing like a river.  The herring no longer arrive.

The Turners Falls boondoggle was such an embarrassment that CRASC has worked mightily to keep it quiet.  Responsible US Fish and Wildlife Service and state fisheries officials kept mum, partly because the system DID at least work for the few dozen returning salmon.  Costing taxpayers some $10 million per year via hatchery operations, salaries, and grant studies funded through NOAA, the National Science Foundation, state programs—and a byzantine money pipeline, the 44 year-old effort today known as the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission (CRASC) restoration produced 51 returning hybrid salmon last year.  The numbers reaching Holyoke, the first dam on the main stem Connecticut remain startling: 2005—132 fish; 2006—115 fish; 2007—107 fish; 2008—86 fish; 2009—60; 2010—41 fish.  After decades and over a half billion public dollars spent.

The other federal trust fish included for restoration in their mandate—the shad, the herring, continue their inexorable drift toward eventual failure below Turners Falls dam.  CRASC partners at the $12 million federal Conte Anadromous Fish Lab adjacent to the power company’s canal at Turner Falls, continue to do experiment after experiment on the behavior and genetics of tiny hatchery salmon fry and smolts.  They’ve become quite cozy with the recent and current owners of Northfield/TF hydro operations—who donate a paltry tithing of $40,000 per year for fish counting personnel and a few dilatory experiments proving what we knew in 1980—turning fish out of the Connecticut River and into the Turners Falls Canal is a fatal restoration choice.

The ongoing failure of officials and environmental groups to demand the fish elevator owed to the public at Turners Falls dam these last ten years is a complete abrogation of responsibility.  The current flow regimes–ignored by fisheries and regulatory officials, and ramped-up by operators of the Northfield-Turners Falls hydro complex since deregulation in 1998, compounds the treachery of this fish trap with punishing downstream surges in violation of federal environmental laws license requirements.  When I visited the true riverbed at Turners Falls last April 23rd there was virtually no river flow in the stretch of basin utilized by the federally endangered shortnose sturgeon.

It appears that, for the annual price of a mini-van, corporate donations are enough to keep dithering fisheries scientists and CRASC partners quiet next to that canal–experimenting on an extinct hybrid of a cold-loving species on a warming river in a time of documented climate warming.  At a CRASC meeting last year it was revealed that, under a bit of pressure, CRASC representatives from the USFWS and MA Division of Fisheries were beginning to talk with FirstLight about making long-overdue improvements for fish passage at Turners.  They’d already had an initial meeting—one behind closed doors and without public input.

Astoundingly, the solution they are now talking about is replacing the Cabot salmon ladder with a fish elevator at the same site–they are again ready to continue to steer those fish out of the river and into the same treacherous power canal system they abandoned them to in 1980.   Heck, it works for FirstLight–who can then use all the water they please for their 5.6 billion gallon pumped storage operations at Northfield and power generation in the Turners Falls canal, while ignoring the water levels and flows essential to the Connecticut’s biological integrity in the two empty miles of parched riverbed downstream of TF dam.  If that decision comes to pass, the river will essentially remain as it was upstream of the Turners Falls when that barrier was built in 1798–no shad, no herring, no fishing–no ocean connection, no sea food.  A restoration denied.

I hopped back on my bike that May 5th at Holyoke dam, making the final 30 miles to Greenfield by mid-afternoon.  I’d spend a full day at Long Island Sound, and completed 250 miles of river riding in five days.  But it wasn’t until the Friday of Memorial Day weekend that I completed tracing the historic upstream migration route of American shad and blueback herring to Bellows Falls, VT.  That was a “century ride”—a 100 mile round trip in a single day.  I suppose you could say I could’ve saved the bother.  The gates at both the Vernon and Bellows Falls Public Fishways were locked tight.  The reason was simple: there literally are no fish to see.  By season’s end, just 396 fish had reached that Bellows Falls counting site—392 of them were blind, slithering sea lamprey.

Curiously, on May 1st last year, Northfield Mountain ruined its pumping facility in an attempt to clear two decades worth of silt from its giant reservoir.  The downstream impacts of Northfield’s operations on fish migration were silenced for an entire season, into early August.  Even though state fisheries officials have abrogated all fish counting responsibilities to FirstLight, they were hard pressed to explain this amazing outcome: shad passage jumped an astounding 800% at Turners Falls, with nearly 17,000 fish swimming by—the most shad moving upstream since at least 1996.

What fish officials also couldn’t quite explain was this puzzling outcome: only 290 shad were counted at the next dam, just 20 miles upstream at Vernon, VT.   I’m thinking it likely had something to do with that silt from FirstLight’s Northfield Mountain.  Between May 1st and August 4th, FirstLight quietly flushed at least 45,000 cubic square yards of that muck into the Connecticut just five miles upstream of Turners Falls dam—that’s equal to 40-50 dump truck loads of mud fouling the river daily for a period of over three months.  Tired, and faced with that curtain of darkness, you might stop migrating upstream too.

The EPA finally ordered FirstLight to “cease and desist” their polluting of “the navigable waters of the United States” on August 4–the damage already done.

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Connecticut River special: “Season of Secrets”

Posted by on 04 Aug 2010 | Tagged as: alewives, American shad, Atlantic salmon, Bellows Falls Fishway, blueback herring, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Conte, CRASC, federal trust fish, Politics, salmon, Salmon eggs, salmon hatchery, Uncategorized, USFWS, Vernon Dam Fishway, Walpole

Connecticut River special: “Season of Secrets” with writer Karl Meyer, airs Wednesday, August 4, at 5:30 pm, on Local Bias:  www.gctv.org

(this local Greenfield cable show can be downloaded after tonight’s show, please share the link!)

Greenfield, MA.  August 4, 2010.  Environmental journalist and author Karl Meyer spent this spring and summer blogging and following the Connecticut River’s migratory fish runs, by bicycle, from Long Island Sound at Old Saybrook, CT  to Bellows Falls, VT and North Walpole, NH (www.karlmeyerwriting.com )  This was a follow-up to Meyer’s “Turners Falls Turnaround” in the March 2009 edition of Sanctuary Magazine.  Meyer spends a half hour with GCTV’s “Local-Bias” Host Drew Hutchinson talking about this year’s fish run and the secrecy and cover-ups shrouding the Connecticut River migratory fish restoration–on both the corporate and public agency levels.  Topics include:

  • Salmon farming: a river’s ecological pyramid stood on its head
  • An extinct hybrid at $300,000 per fish in public funds
  • Northfield Mountain-Turners Falls pumped storage operations grind to a halt for an entire migration season and fish passage at Turners Falls skyrockets 800%–from an average of 2000 American shad annually, to nearly 16,000 this spring
  • A year’s worth of American shad at Turners Falls disappears from the record
  • How FirstLight’s Northfield Mountain operations and impacts on river ecology and fish runs remain hidden from the public
  • Fisheries commissioners and Turners Falls Conte Lab scientists fail to respond with science to the most profound experiment handed to them in decades, i.e: What does the Connecticut River and fish passage at Turners Falls look like without Northfield Mountain pumped storage effecting river flows and levels?

“Season of Secrets,” airs Wednesday, August 4, at 5:30 pm; and repeats on Thursday and Friday August 5 & 6, at 9 pm.  The program repeats in those time slots the week of August 8th, and will be available for download on the video on demand page at gctv.org.