A failure to protect
The Connecticut River Valley lost a lion of environmental defense when former Conservation Law Foundation attorney and Antioch University professor Alexandra Dawson died last December. Quietly today, time grows desperately short for this ecosystem’s only federally endangered migratory fish — the Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon.
Alive since the dinosaurs, they arrived shortly after the glaciers left. They are clinging to life by a thread — with perhaps 300 attempting to spawn annually in miserable conditions created in the two-mile stretch of river below Turners Falls dam in Massachusetts. The National Marine Fisheries Service, which is responsible for protecting them, has known of those conditions since 2004.
FirstLight-GDF-Suez helps create those conditions, right next to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s Great Falls Discovery Center. Yet the public learns nothing of them. Abandoned by federal agencies, the shortnose is one industrial disaster or spill from extinction. Your grandkids wouldn’t have been interested anyway.
But just in case, describe something that was a cross between a dinosaur, a catfish, and a shark. At 3 to 4 feet long, shortnose have bony plates instead of scales, with shark-like tails at one end, and suctioning, toothless mouths below cat-like feelers at the other. They scarf down freshwater mussels whole; then grind them up in gizzards.
Shortnoses can live more than 40 years: One alive today might have witnessed Richard Nixon signing the Endangered Species Act in 1973. They had other priorities though — such as survival. But for how much longer?
Conditions most imperiling the shortnose are overwhelmingly the result of floodgate manipulations and punishing water pulses sent to the riverbed and coursing down their two-mile long Turners Falls power canal via their dam — along with operations at FirstLight’s giant 1,080-megawatt (now 1,102-megawatt) Northfield Mountain pumped storage station upstream.
Below the dam you won’t find anything like a river. For a fish it’s chaos — a feast-or-famine flow regime run largely to maximize the day-trader profits of today’s deregulated energy spot-market. And things may have just gotten worse.
FirstLight’s operations are the biggest disruptor to this ecosystem for a seven mile stretch — affecting migratory fish restoration failures upstream to Bellows Falls and down to Long Island Sound. Instead of shad and other migrants moving up natural river habitat to the dam, they are funneled into a deathtrap: the turbine-riddled bottleneck of the Turners Falls power canal.
Barely one shad in 10 emerges upstream alive — while crowded-in fish turning back out of that canal are diced-up in its blades. Federal Conte Fish Lab researchers dubbed last year’s power canal shad passage a “success.” The dismal 16,000 shad they tallied mirrored “success” from 1987, a quarter century back. FirstLight helped fund their study.
And, if you are a spawning-age shortnose, wholly dependent on spring riverbed flows resembling a natural system below that dam, you’re out of luck. Annually, attempts at spawning fail in an ancient pool near Conte Lab. Or as conditions deteriorate, they default downstream to try spawning below the canal’s outflow. Here again reproductive failure is common. Dam-deflected surges deluge their gatherings; or flows get cut off in minutes, causing mating-stage fish to abandon spawning. Even when eggs get fertilized, embryos get silted-over or washed away by floodgate surges — or left to die on de-pauperized banks when flow is cut. Most years no young are produced. That’s extinction’s fast-track.
FirstLight’s Northfield Mountain offers tours of its two-megawatt solar installation, but none to its reservoir and pumped-storage plant where, during fish migration in 2010, they dumped 45,000 cubic square yards of sludge directly in the river over 92 days. This winter they quietly added 22 megawatts to those giant turbines: more than half all the power generated by HG&E’s Holyoke Dam.
This occurred despite their failure last July to have an EPA-mandated plan in place to prevent “polluting the navigable waters of the United States” with a mountain of pumped-storage silt. Where were the public Federal Energy Regulatory Commission hearings on this license change? Where is the environmental impact assessment for endangered shortnose sturgeon?
Northfield, dependent on Vermont Yankee’s nuclear power to pump its water uphill, opened in 1970. Its legally stated purpose was as a “reserve” power source — to operate a few hours mornings and afternoons during peak energy use. It can generate just eight and a half hours; then its reserve is depleted. Originally it was proposed they’d shut during fish migration.
Today, wildly outside its stated intent, those giant pumps are switched on like a coin-op laundry — day, night, with turnaround intervals of as little as 15 minutes.
Time is running out for the shortnose; corporate fines for harming one start at $200,000. Alexandra Dawson would surely cheer if her old Conservation Law colleagues sued National Marine Fisheries Service for failure to protect a New England biological gem.
Environmental journalist Karl Meyer writes about the Connecticut River from Greenfield, Mass.