Collaborative Public Action Needed to Clean up the Merrimack

Lon Hachmeister discusses the results of the Merrimack river survey

Photo by Daniil Silantev on Unsplash
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Editor’s note: This is one in a continuing series of guest opinions about fostering environmental stewardship and leadership. The series is coordinated by ACES, the Alliance of Climate and Environmental Stewards.

ACES is wrapping up its three-year-long survey of Merrimack River users and the insights are disturbing. Survey responses show that 95% of river users are concerned to very concerned about the current and future condition of the Merrimack River and 73% of respondents believe its unhealthy to be in the water of the Merrimack and to use it as a source for drinking water, which 600,000 people already do. ACES released the results from our user survey analyses available to civic leaders and officials and the general public in November.

The survey report may be downloaded:

In 2016, the American Rivers Association listed the Merrimack as one of the country’s 10 most endangered rivers. The U.S. Forest Service has ranked the watershed as the most threatened due to forestlands development, the fourth most threatened due to water quality issues, and the seventh due to loss of habitat for at-risk species. Though there are plenty of other pollutants such as micro-plastics, chemicals and storm runoff that are of concern, addressing Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) provide a starting point for restoring the health of the Merrimack.

Combined Sewer Overflows, or CSOs, occur when there is too much rain for a community’s sewage system to handle, discharging untreated sewage into the water. Though there is increasing awareness of this problem, there are still many who do not realize that it might be best to stay out of the river or not fish or collect shellfish from the river after a heavy rainstorm in five major population centers along the river.

To better understand the public perception of the health of the Merrimack River for various non-commercial uses, ACES has conducted a three-year survey of river users to quantify what they think about the health of the river, beginning with a pilot survey of adult masters-level rowers in 2019 and a basin-wide general user survey in 2021. The surveys provide an understanding of what people are seeing and experiencing when they actively use the river, whether it is someone who paddles in the Merrimack every day or someone who just happens to live nearby and may have questions about their drinking water.

Users are demanding immediate action to control CSOs either by engineered solutions relating to existing sewer facilities and storm drain structure as well as natural solutions such as expanding conservation lands adjoining the river, establishing living shorelines and planting more trees

When asked if the periodic overflow releases of sewage into the Merrimack River causes human health hazards, 88% agreed or strongly agreed that CSO discharges into the Merrimack River do pose a hazard to human health. We also found that although over 70% of our surveyed user population say that the Merrimack is not suitable for swimming, and yet almost 10% of them regularly swim in some river sections. Regarding what actions should be taken to address declining health of the Merrimack, 66% of surveyed river users list fixing the CSO issue as their highest priority.

With recent federal funds made available to fix our county’s declining infrastructure problems, there should be plenty of financial resources to improve the Merrimack River CSO issue. It’s important that federal, regional, and local governmental, business, and organizational leaders act on this problem. As environmental stewards, we are providing this report (see link to report below) to foster the collaboration among all stakeholders and the public in the watershed to address and “rescue” the river so we have a healthy watershed. We trust that facts in the report will marshal the impetus needed for all the above parties to secure the grants to jump start the process.

Lon Hachmeister is an ACES board member who lives in Newbury and led the survey effort.

This column was coordinated by ACES youth corps member Ana Satir. To share any comments or questions, please send an email to To learn more about ACES and its Initiatives, visit

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Lon Hachmeister

Lon retired as Associate Director of Battelle Memorial Institute’s Marine Sciences Laboratory with over 50 years of experience in environmental research and multidisciplinary resource evaluations in estuarine and coastal regions. His work included serving as Program Manager for a 10-year review and update for the Missouri River Master Operations Manual including direction of 23 technical studies. He serves as Clerk on the ACES Board of Directors and leads the funding/fundraising team while contributing to overall project development/management.

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