More focus, funding needed to clean up the Merrimack

Thousands of boats and boaters on the river in the summer, and the beachgoers, the fishermen and swimmers. Newburyport, Amesbury and Salisbury have built a thriving waterfront economy on the river, based in part on a belief that the Merrimack is clean.

Merrimack river, Wikimedia Commons
Allies and Partners

A few months ago, I was walking along the waterfront path at Cashman Park. It was a sunny and warm day that drew many people to the shore of the Merrimack River.

A pair of dogs raced from the off-leash park and leapt into the water. They were overjoyed — splashing, dunking, gulping in water.

I told the owner he shouldn’t let them do that. The sewage plants upstream had released millions of gallons of untreated waste into the Merrimack two days ago, and the river was still heavily polluted.

He looked at me in astonishment. “How come no one posted anything about that?”

He whistled his dogs out of the water.

Why didn’t he know? It’s not his fault.

The upriver sewage plants in Haverhill, North Andover, Lowell and Manchester aren’t required to alert the general public when they dump untreated waste into the river, so they don’t.

What’s the impact? There have been no comprehensive studies done, but there are many anecdotal stories of how this practice is harming people and animals — dogs getting nasty rashes and stomach disorders, and people sent to emergency rooms with intestinal problems or suffering serious infections after coming in contact with sewage-laden water.

That needs to change, and it’s one of the key missions of the Merrimack River Watershed Council, a nonprofit that since 1976 has been working to make the Merrimack cleaner and healthier.

The only reason I knew that the sewage dumping occurred is because I work with the council, gathering data and reporting the information through our social media and our website. The data is frustratingly skimpy. Most of the plants aren’t equipped to give timely reports on how much sewage they dump. And one of them — Manchester, the biggest polluter on the river — doesn’t release any data at all until the following year.

That’s outrageous. Consider the thousands of boats and boaters on the river in the summer, and the beachgoers, the fishermen and swimmers. Newburyport, Amesbury and Salisbury have built a thriving waterfront economy on the river, based in part on a belief that the Merrimack is clean.

The river’s far cleaner than it was a generation ago, but on some days it’s as bad as the bad old days. Over 650 million gallons of untreated waste was released into the river in 2018.

That’s a 60 percent increase from 2017 due to increased rainfall. NOAA predicts that in the years to come, climate change will cause even heavier rainfall in our region, which will lead to more sewage overflows.

What are the solutions? For one, lawmakers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire need to require that sewage plants alert the general public quickly whenever sewage is released. A bill to do this has been filed on Beacon Hill. We are building a coalition to get a similar bill filed in the Granite State.

Courtesy photoKayaking in the canals of the Merrimack River.

In the long term, the plants need to speed up their efforts to comply with the Clean Water Act, and eliminate the release of sewage into the river. This will take years and hundreds of millions of dollars, thus our federal lawmakers have to be more focused on finding the money needed. We also have to be smarter about how we develop land. It’s crucial to limit the flow of stormwater into the river and sewage systems.

The Merrimack’s water quality also needs to be more closely monitored.

As it is now, we have an incomplete picture drawn from a hodgepodge of testing sites. And we need to look more closely at the link between sewage releases and the impact on human and animal health.

The MRWC’s goal is to make the Merrimack a cleaner river for future generations to enjoy. It’s a goal that many people share, but it will only happen if Merrimack Valley citizens demand that action be taken.

Public pressure makes a difference — talk to your local, state and federal representatives, keep up to date on the news, and make your voice known through letters to the editor and social media. Lastly, I’d encourage you to become a member of the Merrimack River Watershed Council. Help us lead the charge for a cleaner river.

John Macone is the outreach coordinator for the Merrimack River Watershed Council. He lives in Amesbury. Please visit the MRWC website for more information:

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about the author
John Macone

John has had a long fascination with the ecology of local rivers and coastlines. A former newspaper writer/editor, he is now the Policy and Educational Specialist for the MRWC. He keeps connected to the ground with a side business as an organic farmer.

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