Fish future hangs in balance
On May 7 the Holyoke (Mass.) fish lift passed 21,608 American shad upstream. The next day it lifted 44,456 — the all-time, single-day record for the Connecticut River. In two days it had passed more than 66,000 shad — 6,000 more than the highest number ever to pass upstream through Turners Falls and beyond its dam in a single season. That occurred back in 1992. Sadly, upstream regions — Vermont and New Hampshire — may never see more than a shadow of the ecosystem’s annual run of fish. Here’s why.
As April ended, GDF-Suez FirstLight Power cut off flow to the Connecticut below Turners Falls Dam. Essentially, the river died, reduced to a drool of 400 cubic feet per second of flow leaking through a wide, 200-million-year-old chasm of cobble, bedrock and shale. In order to remain a working migratory system, 3,000 CFS of flow would have been needed to nourish the river below that dam. Pinching off the flow there ensured that the fittest, early-arriving American shad and any remaining blueback herring (currently candidates for federal endangered species listing) would be forced from the river and into that power canal two and a half miles downstream.
Right at the cusp of spawning season FirstLight diverted at least 97 percent of the river’s flow. It sent some 16,000 CFS through the dam head gates into the power canal to supply a portion of the region’s base-load electricity. But beyond that, a still undisclosed percentage of the Connecticut was gobbled up to serve the massive pumping and generating operations of the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, five miles upriver. Tumultuous, tide-like effects created by those operations create a whole different river. There, using river water amassed in a 5 billion-gallon mountaintop reservoir, FirstLight generates electricity via massive surges into and out of the riverbed either when demand peaks — or when prices spike instantly on the electricity spot market. So while habitats are being deeply impacted by flow manipulations at the dam for Northfield, FirstLight profits form a crippled riverbed.
One result this year is that an unknown number of the last 300 federally endangered shortnose sturgeon surviving here were forced from their ancient river spawning pool to attempt their spring rite elsewhere. The overwhelming yearly result is that nearly all upstream migrating fish here, in retreat from a de-watered river, are left with no choice but to swim into the flows exiting the Turners Falls canal and turbines two and a half miles downstream. To successfully get upstream there, fish must move through two miles of alien flows and habitat. Then they must thread their way through brutal currents, blinding turbulence and tangled cross-currents while approaching the dam’s head gates, where — unknowingly, they are required to locate a tiny canal exit. If they get this far, all shad and herring must punch through more quickened flow, a final series of steps, and yet another narrow opening through fluctuating water levels at that gatehouse in order to emerge above the dam. In the best of years fewer than one in 10 shad succeeds. For most adult fish, any trip through that canal will prove fatal. If, this year, as at Holyoke, two fish elevators had been installed at the base of Turners Falls Dam, and if ample flow nourished the riverbed, as it does below Holyoke, some 33,000 of those 66,000 Holyoke shad would have passed Turners Falls a few days later. A couple of days after that — say May 13-15, some 16,000 shad would have begun wriggling their way up the Vernon ladder past Brattleboro and Hinsdale, N.H., on their way to Walpole, N.H., and Bellows Falls. And thousands more would have followed. But with a deadly canal intervening, that just won’t be happening. Connecticut River fans anywhere from Turners Falls and Northfield, Mass., to Chesterfield, N.H., and Bellows Falls, are currently hoping this ecosystem will be revived through improvements via the federal relicensing of dams at Vernon, Bellows Falls, and Wilder. But two federal hydro licenses in Massachusetts for the Northfield Mountain and Turners Falls hydro complex are also up for 2018 renewal. The hard truth is if they don’t get it right down here, there won’t be more than a whiff of a renewed ecosystem upstream. Forget any connection to the sea. Turners Falls/Northfield really is the ballgame. An ugly compromise that uses that power canal as an upstream migration route will ensure a functioning river ecosystem and ancient runs of shad and blueback herring to Bellows Falls and Walpole won’t ever materialize.
Public relicensing meetings are taking place at 9 a.m. at the Northfield Mountain Visitor Center, 99 Millers Falls Road. (Route 63), Northfield, Mass., on June 4 and 5. Those ecosystem-shaping decisions will be made by those who participate.
Karl Meyer of Greenfield, Mass., is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists. Read more about the river at: www.karlmeyerwriting.com.