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Terms of entrainment: a Connecticut River history



Thursday, October 25, 2018

At 2:41 p.m. on May 20, 2018, a lone blueback herring appeared in the windows at Turners Falls Dam among a school of larger American shad. It was a small miracle. Barely a foot long, it was the first blueback here since 2005, and there would not be another that spring. Like those shad, its life had already spanned four springs, swimming thousands of ocean miles in shimmering schools. It re-crossed bays and estuaries of seven states and two provinces before reaching this Connecticut River juncture. In doing so it had survived sprawling drift nets and repeated attacks from sharks, bluefish, spiny dogfish, cormorants, seals and striped bass.

All these fish were seeking to spawn and give their young a head start as far upriver as currents, time and temperature would allow. Unfortunately, five miles upstream sat the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, a river vacuuming machine capable of out-killing all their natural predators. For the next 20 miles they’d be vulnerable to its impacts.

NMPS has inhaled river fish of all species and sizes daily for nearly half a century. Results from a river sampling study “Juvenile Shad Assessment in the Connecticut River,” were released in June by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and state Division of Fisheries & Wildlife. They estimated NMPS’s 2017 operations resulted in losses of some 15 million shad eggs and larvae, plus the deaths of between 1 and 2½ million juvenile shad. That’s for just one species.

On April 20, 1967, years​​​​​​ before the Northfield pump station was built, federal agencies and four states signed the Statement of Intent for a Cooperative Fishery Restoration Program for the Connecticut River, agreeing to restore runs of American shad, salmon and blueback herring upstream to Bellows Falls, Vermont, and beyond. The migratory shortnose sturgeon had already been listed as endangered. Continuing today under Public Law 98-138, its mandate requires utilization of “the full potential of the fishery resources of the Connecticut River including both anadromous and resident species,” providing “high quality sport fishing,” and meeting “the long term needs of the population for seafood.”

Those American shad are still commercially fished just 60 miles downriver. They’ve fed this valley for ages, yet most people in Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts don’t know their states were promised a “just share of the fishery harvest” back in 1967. All remain without, while tasty shad grace dinner and restaurant tables in Connecticut every spring.

Running on imported power via the buy-low/sell-high model, Northfield can suck the river into reverse for up to a mile downstream. It devours everything captured in that vortex at 15,000 cubic feet per second. Think 15,000 milk crates, for hours, to fill a 5 billion gallon mountain reservoir. The result is 100 percent mortality for all fish entrained. During peak-use and/or peak-price times — or both – it sends the deadened water back through its turbines as twice-produced electricity.

Northfield was built to run off Vermont Yankee’ excess nuclear megawatts. But even after VY closed in 2014, it’s carnage continued, unchallenged, rather than being relegated to emergency use. Having never produced a watt of its own power, its 46 years of accumulating carnage has never yet to be tallied. That herring might have been heading for New Hampshire’s Ashuelot or Vermont’s Saxtons River, and those shad were perhaps steering for the Great Eddy at Bellows Falls. Regardless, any progeny would later face Northfield’s net-loss-power impacts heading downriver come fall.

Currently it pumps mostly at night when Canadian owners PSP Investments can purchase cheap electricity to suction the river uphill. Later it’s released as secondary juice at peak-of-the-day profits. Promoters claim the benefits of dispersed solar and wind power can’t be realized without first relaying their renewable energy across the region to this storage machine for later resale in markets far beyond the Connecticut Valley. “Clean, renewable” labels don’t apply when crippling an ecosystem.

NMPS boosters include (now-former) EPA Director Scott Pruitt, who made a sweetheart visit there last Valentine’s Day along with Federal Energy Regulatory Commissioner Neil Chatterjee. That occurred as PSP was requesting to suction yet more water from the Connecticut and applying for a new long-term FERC license. The next day FERC announced a major policy shift, potentially increasing both Northfield’s daytime use and its profits.

Since an 1872 landmark Supreme Court ruling indemnifying Holyoke Dam, all hydro facilities have been required to safely pass the public’s fish, upstream and down. But that 1967 agreement had this warning: “Based on the present fragmentary data available on the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project, it appears that this project poses definite limitations to an anadromous fish restoration program. These limitations involve the physical loss of eggs, larvae and young fish of both resident and anadromous species, and an orientation problem for both upstream and downstream migrants attributed to pumping large volumes of water.” Today the 20-mile reach hosting Northfield remains a migration minefield — while some 30 miles of open Vermont/New Hampshire spawning habitat above Vernon Dam sits essentially empty.

Holyoke Dam has annually lifted hundreds of thousands of shad and herring upstream since the 1970s. In 2017 it recorded its second highest shad numbers ever, 537,000 fish. Each spring, half or more of those shad attempt to pass Turners Falls. Less than 10-in-100 will succeed. Of those, some 50 percent drop from tallies and are never re-counted at Vernon Dam after entering the 20 miles impacted by Northfield. The blueback herring record at Turners Falls was 9,600 in 1986, out of the 517,000 counted 36 miles downstream at Holyoke that year. Of those 9,600 Turners herrings, just 94 reached Vernon Dam. Turners Falls saw another 7,500 blueback herring in 1991; just 383 reappeared upstream at Vernon.

Any new long-term FERC license must comply with federal and state law protecting endangered and public-trust fish. In seeking a new license, PSP’s main proposal for limiting Northfield’s massive carnage has been the test-anchoring of a few yards of Kevlar netting in the riverbed in front of the plant’s suction-and-surge tunnel. Those flag-sized yards of mesh, after a few months deployment, are supposed to effectively model how a 1,000 foot-lon  “exclusion net” — deployed seasonally in the river over the next decades, might halt the entrainment deaths of out-migrating adult – and millions of juvenile young-of-the year fish, heading back to the sea. Presumably, Northfield’s mouth would remain wide open to the ecosystem’s fish throughout the rest of the year.

In light of longstanding research the Fish & Wildlife, Service, Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission have set shad passage goals requiring that a minimum of 397,000 pass Turners Falls; and a minimum of 226,000 pass Vernon Dam. It’s a certainty that a new fish lift will be required at Turners Falls under any new license, modeled on the long-term success of Holyoke’s lifts. But the ultimate question is this: can Northfield comply with federal and state law protecting the four-state ecosystem’s fish in order to be granted a new FERC license?

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.