Robert H. Russell: The Merrimack River is cleaner than it was, but there is still much work to be done

  • A man fishes along the banks of the Merrimack River as a Clean River Project recovery boat is offloaded in Chelmsford, Mass., on June 7, 2017. AP file

For the Monitor
Published: 4/28/2018 12:19:56 AM

The recent Earth Day weekend, however low-key, was a great reminder of the power of individuals to change the way we look at the natural world.

Upward of 80 percent of us now consider ourselves to be environmentalists. This has spawned a huge public benefit: our air and water are far cleaner than they were on that first Earth Day back in 1970.

I was a junior then, and celebrated the new event by walking to high school – making the three-mile trek on foot for the first and only time. Along the way, I crossed a small brook whose colorful, foul-smelling waters had been harnessed into service by a notorious paper mill (appropriately, its commercial output consisted of toilet tissue).

And just a year before, for our final project in second-year biology, a friend and I had put together a “state of the waters” assessment of our town’s streamscape. The high point was a visit to the municipal health department. Although the health agent graciously accepted our jar of carefully chosen effluent, he nonetheless informed us that the local inspectors were not set up to test the quality of local streams, brooks and ponds. It was not on the regulatory menu.

Flash forward five decades to the Merrimack River, a waterway that in the 1970s was considered one of the 10 most polluted in the nation. Today, the Merrimack is, by all accounts, far cleaner than back in the day when it served the region as an all-purpose disposal canal for industrial waste and household sewage. And that is very good news for our ecology and our economy. In fact it’s good news for earth’s entire household.

But the laid-back approach to Earth Day in 2018 may obscure the fact that, when it comes to the Merrimack, we still have a ways to go. True, the river is far cleaner now than it was a mere 30 years ago. But it is still not clean.

For starters, the Merrimack River does not meet federal Clean Water Act standards. Major sections are contaminated by mercury, PCBs and disease-causing bacteria. It also suffers from large dollops of raw sewage. Combined sewer systems (CSOs) served by six urban sewage treatment plants dump their waste into the river whenever we have a heavy (or even prolonged) rainstorm. This results in the discharge of more than 300 million gallons of untreated sewage every year.

A significant percentage can be traced to the sewage plant in Manchester. But, given the glacial pace of compliance with federal consent orders, the problem won’t be substantially addressed for two decades and probably longer. Other combined sewer systems that affect the Merrimack can be found in Nashua, Lowell, Lawrence, Haverhill and Fitchburg.

Projected development over the next 30 years, particularly in southern New Hampshire, will intensify another ongoing challenge – untreated stormwater. This is the polluted runoff that seeps into the river from our roads, driveways, lawns and parking lots.

Between CSOs and polluted runoff, the news isn’t particularly good for the more-than 600,000 people who get their daily drinking water from the Merrimack.

This is not to claim that, on many days (particularly in central New Hampshire) the Merrimack isn’t an attractive recreational destination – it is. But unless a core of concerned citizens continues to push for the resolution of problems that, though less visible to the eye, remain dangerous legacies of our polluted past, we will never achieve the ultimate triumph — a Merrimack River that, as promised by the Clean Water Act, is fishable and swimmable 24/7, 365 days of the year.

What we need now is comprehensive water quality testing of the entire river (particularly for nutrients and bacteria, as well as a better understanding of how bacteria released by sewage plants affect the downstream river system), greater knowledge of the health impacts of the complex chemicals sewage plants are not able to remove (there are 45 plants that dump treated waste into the Merrimack or its tributaries), and more data on the impacts of polluted stormwater and how much it will increase as development spreads. All of these issues are ripe for citizen involvement.

As a former EPA official once noted in reference to Ohio’s infamous Cuyahoga, which is another great river in long-term rehab, “we can’t honestly say that all of our waters are fishable and swimmable, but at least they’re no longer flammable.” That’s good news. But it is not the excellent result that awaits if we all continue to work together for a clean Merrimack River.

(Robert H. “Rusty” Russell is executive director of the Merrimack River Watershed Council. Headquartered in Lawrence, Mass., MRWC serves the entire river and its large watershed, nearly three-quarters of which lies in New Hampshire.)

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