In the 1970s, the Merrimack River was one of the most polluted rivers in the country. The Merrimack River Watershed Council (MRWC), which was founded in 1976 and is based in Lawrence, has strived since then to improve the quality of the water in the river. Over the years, the MRWC has also worked to conserve green and open spaces throughout the region.
Today, the water in the river is vastly improved, but the MRWC is still tackling water pollution issues such as combined sewage overflows, illegal dumping and contaminated stormwater. We sat down with Matt Thorne, executive director of the MRWC, to discuss the current state of the Merrimack River, future priorities for the organization, and how the community can get involved.
When the MRWC was founded, the Merrimack River was one of the top 10 most polluted rivers in the country. What has changed since then?
In the 1970s, the Clean Water Act was passed, and a lot of watershed groups like the MRWC were formed to help communities have a voice in some of the regulation around rivers and waterways. Prior to that time, the Merrimack [River] was largely a dumping ground for pollutants, widely understood as an open sewer where sewage would be directly discharged at a massive scale. So, much the work over the decades focused on building regulation that made sense and helped to keep pollutants from being released into the river.
Besides the water quality issue, work has been done to protect our drinking water and ensure that it is safe and clean and up to standard, [such as] establishing conserved green spaces and open spaces for not only people to recreate and enjoy nature, but also for wildlife to thrive and for nature to clean the water that ends up in our local bodies of water — including the river. A lot of the preservation of that green space has been a massive undertaking.
What issues are we still facing?
Relating to the conservation, we are still losing green space at a really fast rate. We’re trying to keep pace with all of the rapid development that’s happening.
Northeastern Massachusetts and all of southern New Hampshire, which form the Merrimack River Watershed, has been a real hot spot for development. We’re proud that it’s such a beautiful, wonderful place to live and work, but a lot of the development has not been done sustainably. Over the next couple of decades, we need to ensure that as people move to our region, and more housing and businesses are developed and cities are revitalized, that we are thinking about green infrastructure and sustainable development, and really have an integrated vision about how equity and the environment can work together.
What are the MRWC’s top priorities for 2022?
These are the main issues we are looking to tackle in the next couple of years:
Water quality. Even though we’ve come so far since the 1970s in cleaning up our river — and it’s gone from an industrial river and open sewer to a navigable recreational river that hundreds of thousands of people enjoy — there are still some water quality concerns that we’re looking to monitor and regulate. We’re working closely with both state and federal agencies, as well as cities and towns, to close loopholes and fix infrastructure and address water quality.
Climate resilience. In this case, we work with our local municipalities and agencies to build out plans and advocate for funding to put in place infrastructure that will be resilient. We want to create planning that will help communities prepare for natural disasters. As we see the conditions [caused by] changes in the climate really stressing our ecosystems and our community, we want to be [a vehicle for] science, education and policies that can help foster more forward-thinking planning, policies and projects. We’re also addressing the threat of flooding, which we know will happen, it’s just a matter of when.
Habitat and ecological restoration. There’s a lot of old infrastructure [in the Merrimack Valley] that is impeding things like water quality. We have been working closely with the state on making sure we’re getting rid of legacy infrastructure that is aging and causing damage to our water quantity and quality. In turn, this promotes habitats for wildlife and fish, which is so important to our mission.
What is needed in the short term to fulfill these objectives?
We need people to get involved. Funding helps put resources toward our work on these issues, and [making a donation to the MRWC] is a way for people to advocate with their dollar. When we’re taking on issues like climate change, nonprofits [like ours] need resources to match the scale of the problems we’re finding.
The MRWC has hosted a number of community programs over the years. Which have found the most success?
It’s really a mix. We have a few different flavors of community engagement that have [happened] through our events. We’ve been running paddling trips, which is such a great way for people to interface with the river. We know that once people get out there, they tend to fall in love with it and become better advocates for it. We also run land-based programs like trash cleanups, invasive species removal and tree planting, which attracts volunteers who like to roll their sleeves up and have a good time.
Our advocacy program is also successful, and is supported by those who may be more focused on policy, or are not able to get out there on the ground. It’s another avenue to make change.
How did the COVID-19 pandemic affect the MRWC?
In general, it was more difficult to put on our in-person events. It took more time and forethought to accomplish our volunteer opportunities while implementing social distancing, which I know is something all nonprofits have experienced.
Interestingly, there was more attention paid to how viruses and other pathogens travel in water pollution. There is still an issue with raw sewage occasionally being dumped into the Merrimack River. With so much study around the coronavirus, it was learned that the virus can travel through sewage and can actually be traced using sewage. This science raised more alarm and awareness. We have this beautiful river for folks to swim and fish in, and studies show that if we don’t take care of our river, there could be more viruses and pathogens being placed in it than we understand. There is no specific data on the Merrimack River yet, but in general these studies are raising awareness that we need to educate our communities.
What are some other ways that people can get involved with the MRWC?
Volunteering, which can include coming to one of our many events. We usually have a couple of events a month, which range from cleaning trash out of the river to planting trees, to testing water quality. We have an active water quality testing program at 14 sites along the river, from Manchester, New Hampshire, all the way down to Newburyport. Another way to get involved is around advocacy. We have really strengthened our policy program and put out advocacy alerts and encouraged folks to get more familiar with the issues. [You can] find out how you can go from being someone who is somewhat upset about the issues, or concerned for what kind of planet we’re leaving our children and grandchildren, to taking an active role and figuring out the tools that get something done and move an issue forward.
When not volunteering, what can people do in their everyday lives to contribute to a clean river and water quality?
First, people can conserve water to help protect our water supply. The less water we use, the better it is for times of drought, which is a growing problem in our region. This also reduces the amount of water running through the system. With the continued issue of combined sewage overflows, the water that’s running through the system is contributing to the problem. Using just a little less water at home has a huge impact.
Secondly, you can plant more trees. More native trees and plants, gardens and green roofs will help to absorb rainfall. [They can also] help mitigate flooding and absorb runoff before it turns into dangerous stormwater.
Thirdly, people can get involved politically. Voting for candidates or for initiatives that protect and conserve our environment is massively important. We don’t prescribe to any party, but people can get involved on their own to support issues they really care about at the state and local level.
Finally, just by supporting local organizations you can make a huge difference, whether you’re volunteering or donating.
Visit the MRWC’s YouTube page to watch a two-minute video that provides more details on how you can positively affect local water quality.
Merrimack River Watershed Council