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New Opportunities to Improve Fish Passage for Endangered and Migratory Fish on the Connecticut River

By William McDavitt, Northeast Regional Office Habitat Conservation Division

In order to operate a hydroelectric facility in the United States, the owner of the facility must have a license, which is granted by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).  When a company’s license is about five years from expiring, it notifies FERC whether it plans to renew its license.  Once this process is initiated, members of the public and agencies such as NOAA Fisheries can provide comments and requests for studies to help address any project-related impacts on habitat and vulnerable fish species.

FirstLight Power Resources, which produces hydroelectric power, is now seeking to renew its license for two Massachusetts projects: the Turner's Falls Hydroelectric Project and the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project.

Located in the Town of Turner’s Falls, Massachusetts, the Turner’s Falls project sits on the mainstem of the Connecticut River.  FirstLight operates two powerhouses that supply electricity to thousands of households across Massachusetts.  Currently there are three fish ladders in place to help andramous and catadromous fish navigate around the dam.

Cabot Station Powerhouse Fish Ladder. Photo credit: Microsoft Corp Pictometry Bird's Eye @ 2012 MDA Geospatial Services Inc.

The Connecticut River is home to American shad, American eel and endangered shortnose sturgeon.  The river used to have a large population of blueback herring, but this species has not been present in the vicinity of the Turner's Falls project since 2003 as illustrated in the second image on the right side of this page.  During the five-year relicensing process, NOAA Fisheries Habitat Conservation Division will be working with Firstlight, US Fish and Wildlife and other stakeholders to improve upstream and downstream passage conditions for American shad and American eel. We will also be working closely with other NOAA staff to make sure that Firstlight's operations and management can sufficiently protect shortnose sturgeon.

The Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage project pumps water from the Turner's Falls headpond, generally at night, and then starts to provide power when demand is higher during the day by releasing the stored water in the upper reservoir. 

Northfield Mountain Pump Storage Project.  Reservoir to the right.  Photo credit: Microsoft Corp Pictometry Bird's Eye @ 2012 MDA Geospatial Services Inc.

The same turbines that pump the water uphill are used to generate power when water is released from the reservoir.  When power is being produced, approximately 20,000 cubic feet of water are being released back into the Turner's Falls headpond.  The pumping and releasing of river water can affect habitat and aquatic resources in a number of ways such as raising and lowering the elevation of the Turner’s Falls headpond and changing the amount of water that is released from the Turner’s Falls project.  As withTurner's Falls, the relicensing process provides an opportunity to minimize these impacts.

Throughout the next several years, we will work closely with FirstLight to identify ways to make it easier for fish to traverse the Connecticut River and these hydroelectric facilities without impeding the company’s ability to generate clean energy for Massachusetts residents.