What Would Noah Do?

Significant insight into Newbury's sewage and rivers

Allies and Partners
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Editor’s note: This is one in a continuing series of educational columns about fostering environmental stewardship and leadership coordinated by ACES — The Alliance of Climate and Environmental Stewards.

In mid-November the Boston Globe ran an article about something we in the lower Merrimack River valley are all too aware of. 

Quoting John Macone, a policy expert with the Merrimack River Watershed Alliance the article talked of record rainfalls and record amounts of sewerage overflows into our riverine region. In fact, the amount was 1.5 billion gallons so far this year. Part of that sewage overflow was driven by the amount of rain itself, the largest since 2011. Part of that number reflected both growth of population and land clearing, mostly in NH as well as the aging infrastructure of treatment plants and storm water management systems.
And on December 11th MRWC noted in a CSO Alert that: The rainstorms that passed through the region Sunday night and early Monday morning triggered discharges of partly treated and untreated sewage into the Merrimack River in Haverhill, Lawrence, Lowell, and Manchester. The discharges came from overburdened sewer systems in Haverhill, Lawrence, Lowell and Manchester that are not able to handle the amount of effluent that flows into combined sewer/street drain pipes during heavy rainstorms.
With climate scientists speaking of more frequent and larger rain events in our future, how can the cities and towns of the Merrimack valley prepare for inevitable, predictable flooding when arrives at our doorstep ? 
Maybe our title reference to Noah might be able to help us figure that out. The Genesis flood story is among the best-known stories of the Bible. In this account, Noah was inspired and labored faithfully to build an Ark, ultimately saving not only his own family, but mankind itself and all land animals, from extinction when the flood came. In other words Noah came to understand a flood was coming and built an Ark, a really big boat, to save mankind and all its animals. Expressed in modern terms he understood the threat and he responded by building the technology needed for human survival. And he included all the animals in his planning. 
In the Merrimack valley we are slowly realizing the threat of more frequent flooding and leaders from both states are trying to figure out long and short term responses. At the Federal level with 4 US senators and 5 Congressional Representatives serving communities in the Merrimack valley there is an emerging recognition of the long term threats and money is beginning to be allocated for rebuilding sewer systems for example in Manchester NH. 
State politicians have been aware of the problems and have been leading the work for a number of years. For example in 2019 then State Senator, now MA Auditor Dianna DiZoglio and NECC President Lane Glenn and State Reps from along the river kayaked and camped from the start of the river in New Hampshire to its end at Plum Island to draw attention to environmental conservation of and recreational access to the Merrimack. 
Locally Newburyport Mayor Reardon and Senator Tarr have been participating in meetings with The Merrimack Valley District Commission along with ACES Board member and river expert Lon Hachmeister. They are developing concepts that can be funded to get going on the evermore urgent task of preventing river flooding and sewer overflows.
Its big complex of ecosystems with many tributary rivers and streams like the Pow Wow and Shawsheen it will take holistic planning to prevent loss of life and property from climate induced flooding. The Merrimack River watershed covers 5,010 square miles across 200 communities, with almost 2.6 million people. It’s big and needs big bold ideas to protect it.
So how do we build our equivalent of an Ark? First, we need planning boards to slow down development occurring close to the river along with setting aside more conservation land. Second, we should consider expanding natural water storage systems. Maybe by subsiding farmers and other landowners to dig or expand farm ponds and wetlands. Of course, longer-term we have to fix our aging municipal water and sewer systems. 
The biblical flood story is one of several similar flood stories passed down from fertile crescent cultures. Maybe ancient stories last so long because they have kernels of insight that people refer back to for guidance. So it may be old advice, but the Merrimack valley needs to start plan and building its equivalent Ark. And sooner rather than later. Our Youth Corps team member ask that you share any other observations with us about ways to help rescue the river and send us a note at To learn more about ACES and its Initiatives, visit

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