Since late 2012, five hydroelectric facilities in the heart of the Connecticut River have been in the process of renewing their operating licenses, which are issued by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). The Wilder, Bellows Falls, and Vernon dams in VT and NH, and the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project and Turners Falls dam in MA impact more than 175 miles of the Connecticut River. Later this summer, the public will have what may be their last chance to have a say in the final licenses that will endure for the next 30-50 years.
The last time these hydro facilities were licensed was 1979. As a result of that licensing process, fish passage facilities were built at all three dams in VT and NH to support the restoration of our native migratory Atlantic salmon and American shad. While the attempt to restore Atlantic salmon failed, we still have a chance to support the restoration of American shad, sea lamprey, blueback herring, and American eel populations in the river, as well as the resident species, by advocating for more effective fish passage through these facilities.
These species have been migrating up this river to spawn for thousands of years. This year we have an opportunity to provide them a better chance to thrive. The decisions that result from this relicensing will affect our river and these fish until we revisit this license in 2060 or so.
Every year, for decades, hundreds of thousands of American shad have been successfully lifted via a fish elevator over the Holyoke dam only to be stymied by the next obstacle upstream – the Turners Falls dam. On average only 5-10% of those migratory shad are able to pass the Turners Falls dam and move successfully up the river to Vernon. A 5% passage rate is unacceptable. At the Vernon dam, about 43% pass in any given year, but that number should be higher. And the shad are exhausted. The shad migrating into the Connecticut River, on average, spawn only once or twice when they should be able to spawn for three years in a row.
Unlike the sea lamprey in Lake Champlain, sea lampreys in the Connecticut River are native and an important part of the river ecosystem. Each obstacle they encounter threatens their opportunity to reproduce and sustain populations of this native fish in local rivers.
American eel live their adult lives in our rives and migrate out to sea to spawn. Having to make their way downstream, many of them go through the turbines in the hydro-facilities. Based on studies done over the past eight years we now know that if 100 healthy adult eels begin their migration downstream, only about 40 would make it alive to the Massachusetts border. A 60% mortality rate is unacceptable. Fish that do survive incur injuries as they pass downstream through the turbines.
While Great River Hydro, the owner of the Wilder, Bellows Falls and Vernon dams, has proposed significant positive operational changes in their revised application, they have offered little other detail to address migratory fish passage. They indicate that they will be holding discussions with resource agencies, but in the meantime, there is little information in the application for the public to comment on. All stakeholders should be involved in these discussions and their application is not complete until they include a plan to improve fish passage.
We need to push for changes to fish ladders at all of these facilities to support the restoration of these species by increasing fish passage effectiveness, accommodating their migration timing, and improving safety. The goal is to provide safe, effective, and timely upstream and downstream fish passage for migratory species, while allowing resident species to move around for spawning and rearing.
This could be accomplished by:
- Improving the effectiveness of the Vernon, Bellows Falls, and Wilder fish ladders to accommodate diadromous species such as American shad, American eel, and sea lamprey.
- Utilize alternate means to pass American eel if the ladders cannot adequately provide effective and timely passage.
- Implement structural and/or operational changes to provide safe, effective, and timely downstream passage for American eel, American shad, and juvenile sea lamprey.
- Expand fishway operation to accommodate resident riverine species such as walleye and sucker that make spawning migrations.
- Continue to test and gather information to ensure these facilities do not continue to cause delay, injury and mortality of these ecologically important species.
Comments to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission by local communities, the states, and individuals are needed to ensure that the new license requires improvements for fish passage to increase the health of our river and protect our migratory species. If we don’t act now to help sustain this fishery for our children, the next opportunity won’t come until they are our age. Let’s fix this now so we don’t pass this problem on to the next generation. You can learn how to get involved at ctriver.org/hydropower.