Meyer/My Turn: Still no exit strategy

Forty-three years after being chosen as the upstream route for migratory fish, the Turners Falls power canal remains the black hole of fisheries restoration on the Connecticut.

Currently, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is requesting telemetry coverage across the mid-Turners Falls canal to puzzle out the unexplained fate of thousands of fish. Trout Unlimited wants balloon-tagged shad and more monitors bracketing its powerhouse to study turbine kills and migratory delay. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission wants a hydraulics study of that canal, where all migrants must bypass two turbine stations, then negotiate blistering turbulence just to have a shot at spawning in Vermont and New Hampshire. On Aug. 14, canal/dam owners GDF-Suez FirstLight rejected those studies as unnecessary in legal filings for a new 30- to 50-year federal operating license.

While every fish attempting to spawn upstream of Turners Falls dam must enter the canal, scores of questions about their fate there remain unanswered.

This includes basic questions like, do shad spawn in the canal? This has never been studied, even though shad spend an average of 25 days there and just one fish in 10 that enters emerges beyond the canal.

Even more basic to success is this: if only one fish in 10 makes it through, what’s the fate of the other nine?

“Unconscionable” is the term Dr. Boyd Kynard uses for plans to move hundreds of thousands of shad into that canal via a new lift (as opposed to tens of thousands today.) He’s an award-winning fish passage expert who logged over 25 years as a federal fish scientist — helping found the Conte Fish Lab while with U.S. Fish and Wildlife. Kynard believes the ineffective ladder system in place there for decades may have actually saved hundreds of thousands of fish from death in Cabot Station turbines. “The Cabot ladder is so bad most fish never reach the canal where most will exit downstream through deadly station turbines.”

Kynard, a fish behavior specialist who studied shad passage and turbine mortality at Holyoke Dam through the 1980s, believes a new lift below Cabot Station could prove the ecosystem’s next 50-year disaster. He witnessed massive fish kills in Holyoke’s canals when, starting in 1976, a new lift passed hundreds of thousands of fish upstream to spawn for the first time in 120 years. It was hugely successful, but no one foresaw what would happen when adults headed back to sea. While part of the migrants rode over the dam during high flows, others re-encountered the dam-and-canal-system. Tens of thousands got sucked into turbines at Hadley Falls Station or died in the canal — unable to return safely to the river. A stench of rotting fish hung over that city while dump truck after dump truck hauled tens of thousands of dead shad from the canal to the landfill. (That condition was eventually remediated when dam owners installed a louver system in the canal to divert down-running shad into a pipe and back to the river, thus bypassing all turbines.)

But whereas Holyoke’s lift allowed shad to first spawn upstream in the river before encountering turbines, at Turners 200,000 fish could find themselves in a turbine-filled canal before ever getting a chance to spawn in Vermont, New Hampshire or northern Massachusetts. And this canal’s Frances-type turbines are far more deadly than Holyoke’s. Stressed, those newly lifted shad can encounter two discreet turbine sites before meeting the massive canal turbulence near the dam.

You’d think that the U.S. Geological Survey Conte Fish Lab researchers, who have been paid by Northeast Utilities and FirstLight for studies to improve the fish exit from the canal for the past 15 years, would come up with an answer on the turbines and why more fish aren’t exiting the canal. But after 15 years of study and re-engineering, it’s still one-fish-in-10 making it through and no solid answers.

This ecosystem can’t absorb another 40-year failure in the Turners Falls canal. Fish and Wildlife, Trout Unlimited and the Connecticut River Watershed Council are backing a study, adopted from Kynard’s Holyoke work, that would use low-frequency sound to deflect shad from entering the canal. If deployed correctly, it could send migrating fish straight upriver to a lift at the dam, like the one that’s succeeded at Holyoke for decades. It’s a simple, inexpensive study, though one FirstLight is already seeking to limit to a single year,or exclude altogether. But it’s FERC that will decide by Sept. 13. They have a mandate to protect the public’s fish.

Karl Meyer of Greenfield is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists. Read more of his writing about the river at:

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