My Turn: Feds should reject FirstLight’s river deal

  • Absorbent booms in the Connecticut River below the Turners Falls dam. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Published: 12/7/2022 9:38:35 PM

Two generations back, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service signed a long-term Federal Power Commission license agreement with WMECO/Northeast Utilities. USFWS is a lead federal agency with “prescriptive” authority to ensure ample, safe and readable river conditions for migrating fish, as well as working fish passage construction on U.S. rivers. Today they are negotiating new river license conditions with Canadian-owned FirstLight Power. That old agreement permitted decades of deadly suction and miles of regularly reversed Connecticut River flows via the suck-and-surge intake of the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station. The sole protection for decades was a temporary, late-season “salmon” net there — designed to deflect those hatchery-produced young from the pull of Northfield’s deadly opening.

Their net did nothing for the river’s two dozen naturally producing fish species. Untallied hundreds of millions of eggs, larvae and young — even full adult fish, were left to perish in annual cycles there. Northfield remains the Connecticut’s killing field. For anything captured in the hours-long draw of its massive vortex there is “no expectation of survival.”

Further downstream, that agreement left a largely waterless riverbed chasm below Turners Falls Dam — with just a dribbling minimum flow during migration season, and next to nothing the rest of the year. In the fervor to manufacture hatchery salmon for sport fishing (Atlantic salmon disappeared on the Connecticut in 1809), USFWS signed a deal instructing WMECO to build three fish ladders — scaled-down ones based on passing native Pacific salmon and runs of introduced shad upriver on the mighty Columbia. That resulted in the ultimate failure for their earlier 1967 fed/state New England-wide “Cooperative Fishery Restoration Program for the Connecticut River Basin.” It promised runs of 850,000 shad passing Turners Falls, and 750,000 passing beyond Vernon Dam into central New England. They never materialized.

The ladder prescription forced all migrants — from American shad to blueback herring and sea lamprey into the alien miles of the Turners Falls power canal. Simultaneously, 36 miles downriver, hundreds of thousands of fish were being helped upstream via simple elevators built at the Holyoke Dam. But when the nose of those big runs reached the mishmash of canal flows and ladders beginning in 1980, just a tiny percentage of the arriving hoard emerged upstream of Turners Falls Dam. Nearly 50 miles of wide-open Vermont and New Hampshire spawning habitat remains empty today.

Today the Connecticut in northern Massachusetts is a broken, reversed, emptied and battered mess. It remains the unfinished business of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s four-state river restoration. Owned by venture capital giant Public Sector Pension Investments of Canada, FirstLight continues running Northfield via a license that expired in early 2018. PSP arrived to buy up regional assets including Northfield — their “flagship” property, on the cheap in 2016. Two years later they registered their purchases into Delaware tax shelters while continuing to profit via Northfield’s Federal Energy Regulatory Commission-extended license. In FERC documents in 2019 they reported out one year of sales from Northfield at $159 million. Of late FL has been spending their Mass-based millions widely — on big venture capital consortium deals in New York and property purchases into the Pennsylvania/New Jersey/Maryland energy market.

Meanwhile, the new FERC license deal they are pushing disastrously mirrors the one that’s left a half century of ecosystem destruction in its wake. Despite U.S. environmental laws protecting resident and migrant fish, despite the Clean Water Act and Rivers and Harbors Act — despite the utter brutality of a river run backward for miles, the Connecticut River killing grounds at Northfield and beyond appear on course to remain just that. In FirstLight’s Oct. 31, 2022 update to FERC on an “Agreement in Principle” signed by the USFWS and others, FL agrees to construct mandated fish passage at Turners Falls, but in 2032 — 14 years after their license end date.

And again, an untested, late-season net is being put forward for Northfield as specific protection for just two species: juvenile shad and downstream running silver eels. FirstLight also proposed spending just over a million dollars, in total, as their paltry reparation pay for ongoing losses of billions of the public’s fish and aquatic animals across a new half century. In their timeline that net won’t be in place until at least 2030, 12 years after that license expiration. And, once more the magnificent river chasm in front of Turners Falls Dam will remain a largely a water-starved desert for over nine months of the year in that proposal.

After over a decade of discussions, FERC finally handed FirstLight a Dec. 31, 2022 deadline to conclude negotiations. What’s on offer is tantamount to a 50-year fire sale of New England’s Great River. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should walk away now, rather than fail the ravaged Connecticut River once again in the public’s name.

Karl Meyer has been a Fish and Aquatics Studies Team member and intervenor in the current FERC licensing process since 2012. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists. He lives in Greenfield.


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