The Merrimack River is one of the great assets of the Merrimack Valley. But several years ago it was named by American Rivers, a national advocacy organization, as one of the most vulnerable waterways in the country. Sometimes it appears to be getting dirtier, not cleaner.
I have written a book about this situation titled “Merrimack, The Resilient River: An Illustrated Profile of the Most Historic River in New England.” The publication is an examination of a valuable resource that is in trouble. It is not facing disaster. Residents use kayaks, canoes, motorboats and sailboats to enjoy the Merrimack. People fish. Some swim, though they should not do so after a heavy rain. Thousands each day walk along the waterway or view it from the road. Close to a half-million people get their drinking water from it.
But the health of this historic river is too important to ignore, as it once was.
The Merrimack River has numerous credentials that qualify it as the “most historic” waterway in the region.
Its creds include the following: the birthplace of the U.S. Coast Guard (Newburyport, 1790); the start of the industrial revolution (hydro-powered mills in Lowell, 1820s); one of the first planned industrial cities (Lawrence, circa 1847); the discovery of a technology to produce cleaner drinking water (Lawrence, circa 1890); and the site of one of the first victories in organized labor (Lawrence, 1912).
In addition to being a river of historical dimensions, it is also one of the most resilient rivers in the country. For two centuries, it was seriously polluted. Because of discharges from textile mills, its waters often turned orange or green depending on the dye being used at a given mill. Some who used it for drinking water got sick.
For many decades, a community’s wastewater would be sent almost directly into the river. That would include effluent from residential toilets and industrial waste from factories. Until the early 1970s, many communities possessed only the most rudimentary of sewage-treatment plants.
Considering that the European discovery of the river was by Samuel de Champlain in 1605 and that the (Newbury) region was settled in 1635, this river has a long history of surviving the manmade elements.
Check the roster:
Newburyport, building on its revitalized brick downtown and its location at the intersection of the Merrimack and Atlantic, is thriving.
Salisbury is a haven for campers and fried-dough consumers alike; Amesbury is enhancing its location on the river each year.
Haverhill, Lowell and Manchester, N.H., have made remarkable commercial and residential comebacks. Nashua and Concord, N.H., are prosperous. Lawrence, too, has launched a civic drive to improve the downtown, upgrade housing and enhance education.
Scores of smaller communities are also thriving.
Contemplating the admirable Merrimack, it is noteworthy to realize that most Americans didn’t advocate for the environment until the ’60s.
Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” rang a bell in the early ’60s. And the Cuyahoga River (Ohio) fire in 1969 was an outrageous wake-up call for political action to halt destructive polluting. The resulting Clean Water Act of 1972 kicked off a mandated and federally funded approach to cleaner water. That was about 50 years ago. Because of federal funding and supervision, the Merrimack is one American river that has been made healthier.
Still, users must be wary. In 2021, some who boat, fish and hike the Merrimack have seen effluent in the water after rainstorms. Dogs that romp in the river have developed sores. Needles that once conveyed dangerous drugs have been found on its shores.
But recreation is not the only concern. Combined sewage overflows (CSOs) are still a problem. This occurs as a result of rainwater coming into sewage-treatment plants through municipal pipes. After large, fast-moving storms, an abundance of rainwater mixes with effluent in the plants. They can’t accommodate both effluent and stormwater, so the entire amount is discharged into the river. Millions of gallons of effluent enter the Merrimack each year.
In addition to minimizing CSOs, advocates hope they can limit the entry of chemicals released by some companies near the river. And they want to slow the residential and commercial development that threatens wetlands, streams and tributaries.
Nearly 50 years since the Clean Water Act legislation engineered by Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine, the Merrimack has made a significant comeback.
Also, amendments to the Clean Water Act in 1987 may have saved rivers such as the Merrimack. In the ’80s, President Ronald Reagan wanted to abolish federal grants for sewage treatment. But proponents, led by Sen. George Mitchell of Maine, were able to work out a compromise with the president. As a result, low-interest loans were made available for the construction of sewage-treatment projects.
Towns and cities along the river are seeking these low-interest federal loans once again. Local elected officials are developing an alert system that will notify communities downstream when CSOs have occurred upstream.
And the Merrimack River District Commission was created in the 2019 to provide more governmental attention.
Thus, more help is in the pipeline for one of the region’s most glittering assets.
[Author Dyke Hendrickson’s most recent book, “Merrimack, The Resilient River: An Illustrated Profile of the Most Historic River in New England,” was published by America Through Time and is carried by local retailers and online booksellers.]