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Meyer/My Turn: Slow going for fish, answers

According to a recent Federal Energy Regulatory Commission inquiry of U.S. Geological Survey Conte Fish Lab researchers in Turners Falls, it takes a radio-tagged migrating American shad an average of eight days to swim the 21/2 miles from the end of the Turners Falls Power Canal to an area near the dam. A reasonably-fit person can stroll those same 21/2 miles along the Canal Side Rail Trail to Turners Falls Dam (basically the entire Power Canal) in less than 45 minutes. So, what’s dragging these fish down?

Things are becoming clearer as information dribbles out from the Conte Lab’s endless fish passage studies in the Power Canal via the FERC hydro-relicensing process on the Connecticut River. What’s obvious is how little we know about conditions encountered by the thousands of migrating shad forced into that private canal.

Nor do we have any definitive science describing what happens to tens of thousands of shad that choose their ancient migratory route directly up the Connecticut to Turners Falls Dam. They are fish seeking passage toward Gill, Millers Falls and Northfield, Guilford, Brattleboro and Bellows Falls, Vt., and Hinsdale, Chesterfield and Walpole, N.H. That dam holds back significant migration-sustaining flow to service FirstLight’s deregulated pumped-storage hydro plant inside Northfield Mountain.

The first thing noticed from a FERC memo dated Jan. 27 is that the 2008-2012 studies from the Conte Lab are being provided “with the caveat that they contain preliminary data that is subject to revision and that the reports have not been subject to independent peer review.” In short, this unvetted research does not meet some basic scientific benchmarks for making long-range decisions on river regulation. And, while conducted by federal researchers, some of the data is more than a half-decade old, while all of it’s been subsidized with power company funds.

Today just one-fish-in-ten passes successfully upstream through that canal to the river beyond Turners Falls dam — no better than averages tallied there in the mid-1980s. This begs theses questions: Why has FirstLight had access to this information over these years while the public has gone wanting? When do study findings from 2008, 2009 or 2010 get finalized — and when do they get published and made available for public and peer review? Is this public-science, or private consulting? How much weight should FERC accord them?

Here are further tidbits from a memo dated Jan. 30 and released by FERC. They’re from a follow-up phone call between FERC’s Ken Hogan and Conte Lab’s Dr. Ted Castro-Santos, a principal investigator in the canal fish passage studies. “Specifically, Mr. Hogan sought information from Dr. Castro-Santos on the duration of the upstream migration of adult shad within the Turners Falls power canal.” Though there isn’t an exact transcription for the public record, we do have this telling quote: “Dr. Castro-Santos stated that duration of the radio-tagged shad migration within the power canal from Cabot Station to the vicinity of the Gatehouse, is a median of 8 days.”

What Castro-Santos’s reply reveals is that most tagged spawning-run shad take over a week to swim less than 30 city blocks. Some obviously take much longer. But on average that’s a full four days to swim the mile from The Farren Care Center to 18th St., and another four days to fin the last 18 blocks to 1st St. — the “vicinity” of the dam.

Castro-Santos specifically describes fish as reaching “the vicinity of the Gatehouse.” “Vicinity” in this instance, is exculpatory language. It means shad experience further delay here, with some not proceeding upstream past the dam. It describes another fatal choke point in the Power Canal configuration and underscores failed engineering, fish passage, and science.

Curiously, Castro-Santos has noted at several fisheries meetings that a small segment of the shad population that does manage to thread the canal maze and emerge above Turners Falls Dam to continue upstream arrives at the base of Vermont’s Vernon Dam just 11/2 to 2 days later. That’s a 20-mile swim in 36 to 48 hours. After 14 years of study and 34 years of excruciatingly poor fish passage through that canal toward 50 miles of empty Connecticut River spawning habitat upstream, why is there no explanation for shad taking eight days to arrive at the “vicinity” of the dam through a 21/2 mile-long canal?

What’s dragging these fish down? — clearly alien migratory conditions, unasked questions and flawed public science. But FERC is asking good questions now and electricity demand eases in spring. River conditions can be required that protect the public’s fish and ecosystem flows. FERC is scheduled to release its new Study Plan Determination for the science required for relicensing on Monday.

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

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