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Western Massachusetts farmers say dam operators could have limited damage from July floods

Western Massachusetts farmers were hit hard by severe rainstorms in July. Their losses from flooding are estimated to exceed $15 million.

Some of the worst damage happened on farms along the Connecticut River. Impacted farmers are asking if dam operators upriver could have done more to limit the damage.

On a recent morning, Joe Czajkowski stood inside a warehouse on his farm in Hadley, Massachusetts, talking to two of his employees about vegetable orders they had to get ready to ship. His customers include the Boston Public Schools, UMass Amherst and Trader Joe's.

Czajkowski said his family has been farming in the area since 1916. He grows crops on about 400 acres in Hadley, Greenfield, Gill and Amherst.

"We lost almost all of our parsnips," he said. "We lost a lot of our carrots. We lost some tortilla corn. We lost a lot of crops. And it also set up some of the other crops, like the squashes, to have more disease and more rots come in."

He estimates his losses from the July rainstorms will exceed $1 million. He thinks less damage would have happened if operators of dams on the Connecticut had done more.

"When you have storm events like this, it would be good if they could act proactively to maybe lower the water levels, to give more capacity to accommodate some of these flooding events," he said.

Bernie Smiarowski agrees. He owns a farm in Hatfield with his three brothers and said they lost 200 acres of potatoes to the July storms. He said dam operators could do a better job coordinating.

"There's multiple owners," he said. "When they see a heavy rain coming, they don't work together at all. If they're all holding back water at the same time and then they all have to release at the same time, then that's much more detrimental to us downstream."

But an official at a company that operates a dam in Montague, Massachusetts, said there's little they can do to limit the impact of big storms.

"There is no flood control capability here," said John Howard, vice president of operations for First Light Power. "We just pass what we receive and we either put it through our hydroelectric stations or we start to pass it over the dam."

The company operates two hydroelectric stations south of the reservoir.

"We have one that was built in 1905, [a] small station," Howard said. "Then downstream from that about a mile is our Cabot hydroelectric station. It's the largest conventional hydroelectric station in Massachusetts."

Howard said a key reason First Light can't be more responsive to extreme weather is that the company is limited on how high and low it can keep the water in the reservoir.

"Our federal license allows us to fluctuate this pond from a minimum of 176 feet above sea level to a maximum of 185," he said.

That license is from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which oversees hydropower plants.

On a day in late August, Howard said the water on the Connecticut was flowing past in Montague at about 10,000 cubic feet per second. When the July 10 storm hit, the rate was more than 10 times that.

"Even if the regulations weren't in place and we went and we just drained this right down to the mud, within hours at those kind of flows, we would have filled it up and we would be discharging," he said.

Another dam operator farther upriver said it was able to be more responsive.

Great River Hydro operates eight reservoirs on the Connecticut River in Vermont and New Hampshire, and eight on the Deerfield River, which feeds the Connecticut.

Spokesperson Brandon Kibbe said the company tracks the potential impacts of storms through the Northeast River Forecast Center, which is part of the National Weather Service.

"Anything that looks like it's coming our way, we prepare for," he said. "And we did in fact move water earlier to make room for the flows that we had predicted in advance. The difference with this July storm, of course, is the predictions had changed tremendously because the storm intensified and it stayed put basically over a single location for a very long, extended period of time in a way that it wasn't predicted."

Kibbe also said the company can only be so responsive to the weather because their licenses include water level requirements to meet recreational and environmental needs, including fish spawning.

A big player in what happens in the nation’s rivers is the Army Corps of Engineers. It’s the flood control agency for the federal government, and it’s actually been digging into what the farmers are asking for.

The agency owns and oversees more than 25 dams in Massachusetts and Vermont. With more severe weather events happening and better forecasting available, the Corps is looking at changing the rulebooks for some dams.

Cary Talbot is with the Corps' research division.

"How much flexibility can we give those operators so that when they do see something coming, then they have time to get rid of that water before the rain arrives?" he asked. "We don't want to be releasing water into a flood. We want to release it before a flood so that there's plenty of time for that water to be released safely and then clear the system before that potential rainfall might arrive."

The research project also aims to give dam operators out west the flexibility to hold onto more water after big storms to help maintain an adequate water supply.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which dictates water levels for hydropower plants like those on the Connecticut, said it's watching the Corps' initiative with interest.

In the meantime, Czajkowski said the July storms could change how he farms.

"Maybe I would not plant my carrots in the lowest lying field because I don't want that water touching the carrot," he said. "One field got seeded down to triticale for for my neighbors to feed cattle rather than replanting it into vegetables. But that's not really the choices I want to make. I'd rather be able to raise the crops that I need for my customers.

A fundraising effort to help Massachusetts farmers impacted by the July rainstorms has raised more than $3 million. The state also set up a grant program to compensate for some crop losses.

But climate change means severe weather is an issue farmers in the region will be dealing with long beyond this year's harvest.

Before joining New England Public Media, Alden was a producer for the CBS NEWS program 60 Minutes. In that role, he covered topics ranging from art, music and medicine to business, education and politics.
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