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Easthampton’s fish ladder functional; Atlantic salmon, other species, spotted 7-14-15

Easthampton's fish ladder functional; Atlantic salmon, other species, spotted

By DAN CROWLEY
Staff Writer
Monday, July 13, 2015
(Published in print: Tuesday, July 14, 2015)

EASTHAMPTON — After more than a decade of planning, four years of on-and-off construction and $1.35 million, the city's much-hyped fish ladder is operating and ending its first year of shuttling aquatic species to the upper reaches of the Manhan River.

During the past year, dozens of sea lamprey, trout, schools of minnows and other species have traversed the gurgling apparatus that flanks one side of the Manhan River Dam off Route 10, according to video footage and data provided by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

In addition, on June 6, 2014, at approximately 8:14 p.m., an adult-sized Atlantic salmon was seen in the ladder's viewing window — the only salmon spotted in the fish ladder thus far. The sighting was notable given the declining numbers of Atlantic salmon returning to spawn in Connecticut River tributaries and the recent demise of federally led efforts to restore the salmon population here.

"I was very surprised, absolutely," Melissa Grader, a fish and wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, said of what appeared to be a 2-foot-long Atlantic salmon. "That salmon likely reared here as a baby, and it's likely why it came back to the river. We don't know for sure."

Public access limited

Construction on the 145-foot-long "Denil" fishway began in 2010 and was designed to allow migratory fish to access 11 miles of spawning territory in the upper Manhan, a Connecticut River tributary. The structure takes its name from G. Denil of Brussels, who first developed the kind of ladder in use in Easthampton in the early 1900s. The ladder resembles a concrete ramp with a series of wooden baffles in a narrow chute that serve as barriers that fish can swim through as the water slows and flows down from the top of the dam in rapids-like fashion.

The project was initially funded with $750,000 in federal stimulus money, but got mired in design and construction delays, legal actions and cost overruns that caused its price tag to balloon to $1.35 million. Unanticipated drilling and the discovery of timbers buried in sediment near the dam caused lengthy construction delays and were the primary reasons for the cost overruns since 2010. The project was ultimately completed with more federal funding.

Although the fish ladder is complete and open to the fish species it is designed to assist, those who both supported and criticized the project over the years say public access to the ladder's handicapped-accessible viewing area remains limited, leaving its future as a tourist draw and educational facility in question.

"The original plan was, we were supposed to have a viewing station ... so people could view the fish," said Frank Steplar, one of the earliest advocates of fish passage on the Manhan River and former chairman of the Manhan Fishway Committee. "What it is and what it could have been are two different things."

The fish ladder went live in the spring of 2014, but access to the viewing area remains off-limits behind a chain link fence near the city's old water works building, which was sold and then resold to private parties during the past decade.

Jamey Jeffords, who now owns the 39 Northampton St. building abutting the fish ladder, said people occasionally visit the site out of curiosity. Some of them park on his property instead of using the city's easement and small parking area at the dam.

"It's a big project and people want to see what happened," Jeffords said as he walked around the perimeter of the fishway. "Some are disappointed to see it locked.

"I just hope the fish ladder works, honestly," he added. "All that time and effort went into it."

Others say the fish ladder seems to have faded into obscurity just as it began operating.

"It seems to be one of those things that you've kind of forgotten about in town," said businessman David Boyle, whose father, Richard Boyle, had been involved in a legal battle with the city over use of the land abutting the fishway. The dispute was resolved in 2013 when both sides agreed to drop their lawsuits.

Asked whether the city has plans to provide future public access to the viewing platform, Easthampton Mayor Karen Cadieux wrote in an email that the project's engineering firm, Tighe & Bond, and federal wildlife officials believe the site is safely accessible to the public up to the fence that separates the parking lot from the viewing platform — even though that doesn't offer visitors a clear view of fish moving through the ladder. In addition, she noted the intent was not to allow round-the-clock access to the site, but rather to offer safe public viewing during specified time periods.

"It was not the city's intention to have it be completely open all the time to the public, but if a public viewing event was to happen then the site would be safe," Cadieux wrote in an email to the Gazette.

Cadieux said she has requested that U.S. Fish & Wildlife provide the city with periodic video files showing fish movement through the ladder, so the footage can be posted to Easthampton's website.

Ladder use

The fish targeted at the Manhan River fish ladder include anadromous species such as Atlantic salmon, American shad, blueback herring, and sea lamprey that live in the ocean but spawn in fresh water. The concrete fishway also is expected to help other species get over the dam, including white sucker, largemouth and smallmouth bass, trout, carp, and the American eel, to name a few.

"We haven't seen river herring or shad use it yet, but it's not because they haven't tried," Grader said at the fish ladder last week.

The ladder works by using the flow of water to attract fish into the spillway; the velocity of the current requires periodic tweaking with the use of stop logs. The fish species make their way up the ladder from below the dam through a series of wooden oak baffles that were constructed by volunteers, including Steplar and former Mayor Michael A. Tautznik, who was a strong supporter of the project. The volunteer work was meant to provide an in-kind contribution from the city and to engage the community on the project.

The fish also move through turn and resting pools and ultimately to a small channel at the top of the dam where they are recorded on video through a viewing window before moving upstream. The ladder also includes a pipe for fish to bypass the dam as they move downstream. The water flow in the pipe also can be regulated.

"You want a nice velocity," Grader said. "It's all about the flow."

The fish are attracted to the flow of the water and, in general, the velocity of the water is kept at about 4 to 6 feet per second, which is optimal for attracting a large variety of species, Grader explained.

In addition to checking on the fish ladder operation, the federal agency continues to work on improving its video monitoring system to optimize data collection. Workers have analyzed only three days of video from last spring, detecting 54 sea lamprey, one adult Atlantic salmon and one smallmouth bass moving upstream through the fishway. Other fish also used the ladder from mid-May through June 2014, when 13 passage events were recorded; however, those species couldn't be identified.

"There's a lot of data yet to be analyzed," Grader said, adding that some days the water is so turbid that it's difficult to record and identify species from the view cave, as it is called. U.S. Fish & Wildlife does hope to analyze the remaining video from last year, she said.

"Not every day is really functionally viewable; we just do the best we can," Grader said.

Last fall, no video monitoring was done. Instead, a new video system was installed this spring that records fish species and numbers by motion rather than continuous video footage, thereby reducing the amount of labor involved with examining a 24-hour video cycle. In addition to Grader and fishway engineers who periodically collect data and check on the fish ladder's operation, a scientist from the U.S. Geological Service's Silvio O. Conte Anadromous Fish Lab in Turners Falls is providing technical assistance in setting up the video monitoring system.

The new system went online in mid-May and ran through the end of June, detecting 13 lampreys moving upstream, several trout moving upstream and downstream and schools of shiners moving downstream. The numbers were down from last spring, but year-to-year variability is expected, Grader said.

The new recording system did not capture any nighttime passages because there was a problem with the type of camera used. U.S. Fish & Wildlife continues to work on the system to detect nighttime fish passage so it can monitor eel and white sucker early next spring, as well as other species at night.

"We didn't capture a large portion of this season, unfortunately," Grader said. "We got a couple of weeks. We did not see a salmon this year — at least not in the video we captured."

Functioning effectively

In just days, the city will install stop logs and cease the flow of water in the fish ladder until the fall, when fish migration is active again. The downtime will be used for maintenance work, which is the city's responsibility.

Easthampton City Engineer James Gracia has been tasked with leading fish ladder maintenance efforts, which involve periodic checks at the facility to clear away debris that gets stuck in the ladder's baffles. Once, the debris included a dead beaver. It's not a simple task, and there are few people in the city's public works department to help him, as they're busy with other higher-priority work, he said.

"It's a little bit of a burden in one sense — not that I mind it," Gracia said last week. "There is some physical labor involved."

The city is expected to repair a small leak at the bottom of the ladder where water was seen spilling out of a crack in a concrete seam last week.

On Thursday, Grader was down in the waters of the fish ladder cleaning the algae-caked viewing window with a squeegee. Grader also pitches in with some of the maintenance work around the viewing area with trips to the ladder, and is largely responsible for the video monitoring work.

Although it's too early to say how effective the fish ladder will be in the long run to restoring populations of migratory fish to the upper Manhan River, the mechanism's first year is seeing use by at least some of the species it was intended to attract — a good sign, Grader said.

"I think in general, it's been operating really, really well, functionally," Grader said, as she looked out over the pool of flowing water at the bottom of the fish ladder. "There have been some intermittent problems with the video system. It's a trial and error."

Dan Crowley can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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