My view: The Merrimack River can bring us together to make our communities more livable

By Karen Conard, Merrimack Valley Planning Commission

As one of the hosts of the Merrimack Valley Smart Growth Summit, I want to personally invite you to join us on October 29 and tell you what the tagline “The River, Our Water, Our Land” means to us at MVPC.

The Merrimack ties our region together, from mill cities to rural landscapes. It provides renewable energy, recreation, and valuable habitat. It’s an incredible asset even for those towns that don’t lie upon its banks. But it’s been our back door for throwing out storm water, and worse at times: sewage, illegal dumping, and industrial and agricultural waste.

The River is a window onto larger issues facing our communities, including climate change, water supply, and growth management. A coordinated effort to protect and enhance the River and the land around it will ensure that we can be better prepared for the increasing severity of storm events that we’re already experiencing, and make sure that all our residents, especially the most vulnerable, remain safe. Yet despite being a water-rich region, we don’t have a firm handle on our water quality and supply.

We can improve our environment while growing sensibly, including housing options for families at every stage of their life, vibrant downtowns and villages with jobs and amenities, transportation improvements, access to open space, and preservation of natural resources, including farms, forests and wetlands.

We’ll talk about many strategies at the Summit on the 29th, but I want to call your attention to one that we’ve already begun. You may have heard about the new Merrimack River District Commission that met in a packed room in Haverhill last week.

The Merrimack River District Commission was proposed by State Senator Diana DiZoglio and included in the FY2020 budget this past summer.  Its mission:  to study and make recommendations about addressing water quality issues, particularly Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) discharges.  Our planning commission is receiving $50,000 in funding to staff this work. 

To bring together Merrimack Valley leaders in a creative way, Northern Essex Community College President Lane Glenn organized a 117-mile kayak trip along the entire length of the Merrimack River in August.  He and some of the other trip participants opened last Monday’s meeting by describing what they learned by navigating the River from its headwaters in New Hampshire down to the Atlantic in Newburyport. 

Relationships are critical in getting things done, said State Representative James Kelcourse, and the trip was a great way to meet and bond with leaders working on Merrimack River issues.  Other trip participants at the meeting agreed, including Heather McMann from Groundwork Lawrence, Derek Mitchell of the Lawrence Partnership, State Senator DiZoglio, State Representative Christina Minicucci, and Dougan Sherwood of the Greater Haverhill Chamber of Commerce.

The trip highlighted the need to involve New Hampshire leaders, as well as the River’s natural beauty, its value as a recreational asset, and (cue the picture of cows in the water) rural character for much of its passage to the sea. 

Our legislative delegation brought news of a bill close to enactment that would fund a $100,000 pilot flagging program based in Newburyport.  Mayor Donna Holaday, who has been a staunch supporter of the formation of this Commission from the outset, was at the meeting and is a major proponent of this pilot.

Flagging, as we heard from Julie Wood from the Charles River Watershed Association, is a system of alerts about water quality.  It literally involves flags at places like boat houses and  bridges—but is also online.

Four sections of the Charles River have had a flagging program since the early 2000s.  The program uses a water quality model to predict health risks based on weather and other factors and does twice a week sampling to confirm the predictions (even daily sampling takes too long to give river users the information they need). 

Red flags mean there are potential health risks, i.e., a high chance of bacteria.  Green flags mean you are good to go!

Finally, our Commission meeting included a presentation from researchers at Boston University’s Institute for Sustainable Energy who are launching a major study of Combined Sewer Overflows (or CSOs, where storm events discharge sewage into the river) and their impact on health, environment, and economy in the watershed.  Dr. Jacqueline Ashmore & Pauliina Swartz (Finnish, not a typo!) explained they have gathered a team to assess CSO events and evaluate solutions, including green infrastructure projects.

The next steps for the Commission are to form working groups on key issues and meet again in November.

We’ve put a selection of the slides from the meeting presentations on the summit landing page and you can peruse them here.

Our strong interest in protecting and enhancing the Merrimack River has become more compelling with climate change and the way it magnifies risks.  And it is not just limited to CSOs.  New pollutants, stormwater discharges, water quality and supply issues throughout the watershed are all part of it.

But our work is not new, as I was reminded when looking through MVPC’s files as we recently celebrated our 60th anniversary.  We have been worried about water quality in every decade and, with federal and state help, have rallied when needed to make important progress. 

The Merrimack Valley Smart Growth Summit is an important opportunity to have a larger community conversation with our Regional Planning Agency colleagues to the west, the Northern Middlesex Council of Governments, about these issues and build momentum for the Merrimack River District Commission and the relationships we need in order to solve the challenges of climate, sprawl, and inequity as they play out in the natural and built environment.

It’s time to rally again!

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