Warner River accepted into state’s river protection program

Monitor staff
Published: 8/11/2018 8:26:50 PM

The long push to get most of the Warner River into the state’s protected river program has finally succeeded, with Gov. Chris Sununu putting his signature on the bill, adding it to 19 other rivers listed.

What does that mean, exactly? It depends on what happens in the five towns that border the 20-mile stretch that connects with the Contoocook River in Webster.

The addition of the Warner River to the River Management and Protection Program makes little immediate difference aside from preventing waste disposal within a quarter-mile of the river and limiting the construction of dams in a portion of the Warner River.

Its main effect will be to allow the creation of a Local Advisory Council made up of people from the five affected towns – Bradford, Hopkinton, Sutton, Warner and Webster. To an extent, this will formalize work that has been going for several years via the all-volunteer Warner River Watershed Project.

“We’ve been gathering data for the Warner River and some of the tributaries. Its value is really going to depend on continuation and we look at the Local Advisory Committee as the natural home for that,” said George Embley of Webster, a member of the committee that nominated the Warner River for the Protection Program. “I think there’s a lot of community support for this effort – getting the Local Advisory Committee in place takes advantage of that support and doesn’t lose any momentum.”

Among other things the Local Advisory Council can review any activities along the river corridor that require state permits, such as construction requiring wetlands permits.

The council has no legal authority to approve or block plans, and it doesn’t review plans within a single town that are overseen by municipal groups, but its local expertise is vital, said Ted Diers, administrator of the DES’ Watershed Management Bureau.

“It provides Department of Environmental Service eyes and ears on the ground to help us make better decisions, and it provides local folks a venue to interact together,” said Diers. “It’s a place for discussion about a project that might impact projects along the river.”

One of the important early acts of a Local Advisory Council is to develop a corridor management plan that can be presented to local groups such as conservation commissions and planning boards, perhaps to be included into local master plans. This is where the multi-town viewpoint is valuable, since water quality, stream flow and other attributes don’t stop at the border.

Down the road, the council can oversee or create other projects, such as monitoring river quality or running clean-up operations.

In Greater Concord, councils exist on the Merrimack River – which actually has two of them, one for the lower Merrimack and one for the upper Merrimack from Concord on north – as well as the Contoocook River. Both have been part of the program almost since the beginning, in 1990. Rivers in the protected river program range from the Seacoast, with the Lamprey River in Durham, to the North County, with the Ammonoosuc River, to the Massachusetts line with the Souhegan River.

More than 1,000 miles of river are now in the program. Diers said that virtually any river in the state is a candidate, as long it’s not too small.

The Warner River drew attention for protection because it supports breeding populations of native brook trout, a fish that has often been overwhelmed by rainbow trout and brown trout that are stocked for fishing. Various public hearings and sessions have been held on the idea since 2015.

One unexpected stumbling block was hydropower dams. None exist on the river right now, but there are at least three former dams that have been breached and might be re-established in the future, as well as a couple non-hydropower dams. The details of the designation were tweaked so that the sites are within a “community” designation that allows dams.

For details about the river protection program, check des.nh.gov/organization/divisions/water/wmb/rivers/index.htm.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313, dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)

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