UMass, USGS researchers get grant to test out new fish ladder


For the Gazette 

Published: 09-22-2023 4:06 PM

AMHERST — Researchers at the University of Massachusetts and U.S. Geological Survey are teaming up to address the impact of hydropower installations on fish migration patterns, thanks to a $750,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy they received last week.

The team of researchers will test two fish ladders — which help fish swim upstream past dams, waterfalls and other obstacles that generate electricity — to see whether fish respond better to their prototype ladder compared to the industry standard. Funding for the project comes through the support of the federal Department of Energy’s $6.3 million grant program to support labs across the country studying ways to reduce the environmental impacts of hydropower.

“Fish passages help to enable connectivity,” said Dana McCoskey, an environmental technologies manager at the DOE. “We need solutions like improved fish passage to ensure our electric power is sustainable so people and fish can coexist.”

UMass and USGS researchers are developing an alternative to the standard Denil fish ladder, which consists of a series of v-shaped baffles that slow the velocity of water, allowing strong-swimming fish from the West Coast such as salmon to move upstream.

Among fish found in New England, many are not as strong as salmon, and they struggle to traverse a Denil ladder because the water moves too fast for them. Scientists at the Eastern Ecological Science Center’s S.O. Conte Research Laboratory in Turners Falls have found a way to further slow down the water, building a D-cylinder ladder with baffles shaped like quartered cylinders. This structure increases the choppiness of the water, which in turn decreases the speed at which it travels.

In partnership with civil and environmental engineers at UMass, USGS scientists at the S.O. Conte Research Lab will spend two years testing the Denil and D-cylinder ladders side-by-side in a 125-foot long simulated fishway. Four species of fish will attempt to swim through the ladders during their actual migratory periods in the spring: sea lamprey, American shad, blueback herring and white suckers.

“We’re hoping after the next two years of testing, we’ll have come up with a ladder that we feel is an improvement over conventional designs, and it’s ready for the field,” said Kevin Mulligan, the lead scientist for this project.

The DOE grants follow the White House announcing earlier this month that it will will spend $13 million on projects to harness energy at tens of thousands of dams in the U.S., most of which do not produce power, the DOE reports.

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“We’re not in an era of building more dams,” said John Tobiason, head of civil and environmental engineering at UMass. Rather, engineers are interested in expanding hydropower as a more reliable source of clean energy, compared to wind and solar power, which produce varying amounts of electricity every day.

If the researchers confirm the effectiveness of the D-Cylinder ladder, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services could identify sites where species would benefit from it.

“Ideally, we’d have something right now that we could just put up there and let it go, but it’s just a matter of testing all the fish species and getting enough time to run all of our tests to see what actually works the best,” Mulligan said. “The faster we can get this out there, the better.”