Once controversial fish ladder quietly attracting species to Manhan River

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  • Easthampton Public Works Director Greg Nuttelman, left, Easthampton Utilities Supervisor Clay Weglarz and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Melissa Grader chat near the bottom of the fish ladder at the Manhan River Dam in Easthampton on Wednesday. The three, along with U.S. Geologic Service engineer Alex Haro, were on site to set up the video monitoring system for the spring migration. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Melissa Grader, a fish and wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Migratory Fish/Hydropower Program in Sunderland, points out light baffles in the viewing vault of the fish ladder at the Manhan River Dam in Easthampton, where a video camera, at right, records fish migration, on Wednesday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Alex Haro, left, an engineer at the U.S.G.S. Silvio O. Conte Anadromous Fish Lab in Turners Falls, and Melissa Grader, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Migratory FIsh/Hydropower Program in Sunderland, wait for a computer to boot up as they do the spring reset of a video monitoring system that tracks activity through the fish ladder at the Manhan River Dam in Easthampton on Wednesday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Melissa Grader, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service New England Field Office in Sunderland, descends into the viewing vault of the fish ladder at the Manhan River Dam in Easthampton to set up the video system for the season on Wednesday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Melissa Grader, left, Easthampton Utilities Supervisor Clay Weglarz and Easthampton Public Works Director Greg Nuttelman look through a grate at the bottom of the fish ladder at the Manhan River Dam in Easthampton on Wednesday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • A view of the Manhan River Dam and fish ladder from the north side of the river in Easthampton on Wednesday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Melissa Grader, right, chats with Easthampton Utilities Supervisor Clay Weglarz, background left, and Easthampton Public Works Director Greg Nuttelman on the fish ladder at the Manhan River Dam in Easthampton on Wednesday. The three, along with U.S. Geologic Service engineer Alex Haro, were on site to reset the video monitoring system for the spring migration. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • This video camera within the submerged viewing vault at the Manhan River Dam in Easthampton is equipped with infrared light so it can record activity night and day as fish migrate through the fish ladder. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Easthampton Utilities Supervisor Clay Weglarz, right, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Melissa Grader, left, approach the bottom of the fishway at the Manhan River Dam in Easthampton, where fish enter to migrate upstream, during a visit to the dam on Wednesday. The structure takes two hairpin turns and leads up to the left side of the dam where a video camera can track their movement and numbers. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • From top, Easthampton Utilities Supervisor Clay Weglarz, U.S. Geologic Service engineer Alex Haro, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Melissa Grader and Easthampton Public Works Director Greg Nuttelman head to the lower part of the fish ladder at the Manhan River Dam in Easthampton on Wednesday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • A view looking downstream of the fish ladder at the Manhan River Dam in Easthampton on Wednesday. The dam is just east of Northampton Street (Rt. 10). STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • A camera detects a fish passing through the Manhan River’s fish ladder. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 4/15/2021 8:36:12 PM

EASTHAMPTON — Once a controversial project in Easthampton beset by delays and unanticipated expenses, the city’s fish ladder, which allows fish to pass through the dam on the Manhan River off Northampton Street, quietly entered its seventh season in operation last week.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials say that the “Denil” fishway, named for the Belgian scientist who created the design, has performed well in attracting species that were once absent from the Manhan, a Connecticut River tributary, for more than a century. Public access to the fish ladder remains limited on a drop-in basis, though according to the city, the facility is readily accessible upon request.

The fish ladder went into use in 2014 after years of setbacks, with construction itself stretched out over four years and its price tag nearly doubling. While the project drew backlash from some residents, proponents, including officials with U.S. Fish & Wildlife, said that the facility would increase biodiversity in the Manhan River and serve as a potential tourism draw and educational opportunity for the community.

Fish passage engineers with U.S. Fish & Wildlife have characterized the ladder as “one of the better performing Denil type fish ladders that they have seen,” according to Melissa Grader, a fish and wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s New England Field Office. Between 2014 and 2017, at least eight different fish species were documented passing through the ladder, according to Grader.

Before the fish ladder’s installation, the dam at the site “pretty much eliminated access to that upstream habitat” for certain fish species, including American shad and river herring. Wildlife officials target these species, as well as American eel, sea lamprey and the white sucker in reintroduction efforts. The program previously targeted Atlantic salmon, which were also seen using the ladder in 2015, though this tracking has since been discontinued.

Some of these target species are making a slow return to the Manhan, according to Grader. While no shad or river herring were found upstream of the dam before the fish ladder’s installation, some have now been detected passing through the structure. These numbers remain very low, but Grader said this level of progress is typical for reintroduction efforts.

“There’s a lag time from when you start your restoration effort to starting to see results,” she said, noting that some fish species only migrate upstream after periods of several years.

Additionally, Ken Sprankle, a project leader with the Connecticut River Coordinator’s Office, stocks the upstream area with pre-spawned river herring to assist the introduction effort.

Originally planned to cost $750,000, with this funding provided by American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds, the project’s price tag increased to over $1.35 million due to unanticipated complications at the worksite. Additionally, an abutter filed a lawsuit over the city’s use of an easement, further slowing the project’s progress. Ultimately, the fish ladder’s construction was completed more than a decade after it was first proposed.

Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle said that while the fish ladder isn’t often in the city’s spotlight, the project makes important contributions to the regional ecosystem.

“It’s one of those quiet and subtle but super important helping hands that the city of Easthampton provides,” LaChapelle said.

Public access to the fish ladder remains limited, according to Greg Nuttelman, the city’s Department of Public Works superintendent. The site itself has two parking spaces, and the fish ladder is located in “not a very accessible spot,” he said, making it hard for people to get close to it.

But the city has been setting up the fish ladder for use every spring since its introduction, Nuttelman said, with the exception of last year, when the process was paused due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The fish ladder does include features that prime it for public access, according to Grader, such as a handicap access ramp with safety railings that overlooks the ladder. The structure also includes a video cave with a viewing window, where viewers can see camera footage of fish passing through the ladder. The recording equipment, which officials set up for this year’s season on Wednesday, uses motion-sensing technology to capture video of fish as they use the ladder.

But the video cave is “not really really set up as a public viewing window in that respect,” Grader said, and it is typically gated off.

“It would only be accessible when the city unlocked the gates and provides public access,” Grader said, though she added that the fish ladder “has all the facilities in place for ecological and public outreach.”

The city typically gates off the area because it is a safety hazard for members of the public to visit unattended, LaChapelle said. The two parking spaces also limit access, and the small side street can be hard to locate. Visitors need to drive through private property to access the fish ladder, though easements allow this passage.

While this location can complicate public access, it serves as the most beneficial area for the fish ladder to serve its purpose, LaChapelle said.

“It’s built for the fish, and not the people,” she added.

But the city is “always happy to open it and get some folks over there to make sure it’s safe,” LaChapelle said, noting that a handful of environmental groups and classes have requested and been granted access to the fish ladder for educational purposes in the past.

In 2018, U.S. Fish & Wildlife gained permission from the city to use the ladder to host a World Fish Migration Day event, where the public was invited to see the ladder in operation and view video clips of fish passing through. LaChapelle hopes to see the site host this event again in the future.

Requests to access the fish ladder increased surrounding this event, according to LaChapelle. But she is surprised that the city does not typically receive more requests.

The only continuous expense shouldered by the city is the facility’s monthly electricity bill, according to LaChapelle, who said that this expense averages about $80 per month.

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.


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