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Merrimack River User Survey - ACES calls for "River Rescue"

A report on the condition of the Merrimack River

Allies and Partners
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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 3-year, opinion survey of Merrimack River users to determine how they feel about the health and condition of the river 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 it's unhealthy to be in the water of the Merrimack and to use it as a source for drinking water, which over 600,000 people currently do!

Most Merrimack River users (84% of responders) want sustainable action taken to find and fix CSO hot spots either by engineered solutions relating to modifying existing sewer facilities and storm drain structures and nonpoint source areas by natural solutions such as expanding conservation lands adjoining the river, establishing living shorelines, and planting more trees. ACES is making the Merrimack River User Survey report from our survey analyses available to you and to legislative leaders, local officials, stakeholder organizations, and the general public with the following link.

There is an increasing awareness in the Merrimack River Basin of “occasional problems” with the quality of Merrimack River water due to Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs). CSOs occur when too much rain enters an outdated combined sewer and stormwater system, and it is necessary to discharge untreated sewage into the river to prevent the system from backing up into residential homes. However, many river users still do not realize that if they are using the river downstream of one or more of the five major CSO sources along the river it might be best to stay out of the river and not fish or collect shellfish from the river after heavy rainstorms. To better understand the public perception of the health of the Merrimack River for various non-commercial uses, ACES has conducted this survey of river users to quantify what they think about the health of the river. The survey provides 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. When asked if the periodic overflow releases of sewage into the Merrimack River cause 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 the 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 to foster 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 the facts in the report will marshal the impetus needed for all the above parties to secure the grants to jump-start the process. ACES BOD and the River Survey Team

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