Alarms Over Health of the Merrimack
LOWELL - The Merrimack River is generating headlines -- and they’re not positive -- as local, state and federal authorities grapple with dirty water which communities along river’s banks create by discharging millions of gallons of raw sewage into the 117-mile waterway whose headwaters lie just south of the pristine White Mountains of New Hampshire.
In 2018, 800 million gallons of sewage were discharged into the Merrimack, mostly from Manchester, N.H., and Lowell, the two largest cities in the watershed.
The enormity of the discharge numbers caught the attention of the Lowell National Historical Park, and prompted a discussion this weekend called “River Health, River Wealth.”
Residents of the Merrimack Valley, on both sides of the state line, need to hold elected officials accountable for “leading the charge” to make the necessary fixes, according to Brad Bushur, director of Groundwork Lawrence, who led the discussion with about 10 local residents.
Other evidence of concern about the Merrimack’s status includes:
* A challenge to the Lowell City Council to fund the Clean River Project’s efforts to clean up along the river banks
* State Sen. Ed Kennedy’s support of legislation to study the health of the river
* Action in the state House of Representatives to require communities to provide notification of sewage spills
* U.S. Reps. Lori Trahan and Seth Moulton supporting a river clean-up bill
Stormwater collection systems in Lowell, Manchester and Haverhill, and other locations, also double as sewer pipes. During heavy rains, the systems can’t handle the sudden deluge of run-off and sewage heading to water treatment plants. In such instances, the untreated sewage, albeit diluted by the run-off, is discharged directly until the river until the treatment plants can catch up.
When more than 600,000 people in two states rely on the river for drinking water, the discharges pose a public health threat.
Buschur, whose grassroots organization focuses on quality of life issues and the environment, warned that water quality degrades when heavy rain forces local treatment plants to spill stormwater and sewage overflows into the river.
More frequent and heavier rainstorms are a large part of the Merrimack’s problem. Consumers are often unaware of overflows. Bills in the state legislature would address this problem, if enacted.
The cities near the Merrimack use old single-sewage systems. These combine groundwater and raw sewage into one system. This means “the Merrimack Valley is off the charts with its combined sewage overflow” after heavy rain storms, according to Buschur.
“The problem is very difficult to solve,” said Buschur. “We need money to study the Merrimack system.”
Many variables are involved and “we don’t know about all the public health risks,” he added.
A more comprehensive solution will take many years to complete and comes with a high price tag, according to Buschur.
In response to a question about recreational use of the Merrimack, Bushur said the river is a resource that area residents “should absolutely engage with.”
“People want to be close to the water,” he said, noting that participants in the discussion talked about a connection to the river when they introduced themselves.
Lowell residents can still go swimming at the Rynne Beach. He wryly observed, however, that if Manchester receives two inches of rain, Lowell residents should use their judgment about swimming in the river for a few days after the storm. In such instances, the color of the water is transformed from a deep blue to a sickly looking brown.
He advised that public health officials need to be held accountable for proper testing of the river after heavy rains.
Lowell National Historical Park Ranger Allison Horrocks, who moderated the discussion, posed this question to the group: “Are we a victim of our own success?” Efforts that began in the 1970s changed the river’s quality, upgrading it to suitable for recreational use.
“Is there a level of complacency now around being a Class B river,” she asked. Horrocks said she was impressed by the number of Cambodians who attended the National Park’s “Meet Me on the River” summer programs. Then she learned that water is sacred in the Cambodian culture.
Buschur mentioned Lady Bird Johnson, first lady of the U.S. from 1963 to 1969, and her efforts to beautify America.
“Perhaps, we need another Lady Bird to lead us,” he suggested. “Elected officials need to lead the charge. It has to start from the top. And we also need enforcement.”
“Sewage overflows are not the only challenges to the Merrimack’s water quality,” he said.
Other risks include the suburbanization of the southern New Hampshire stretch of the river. More impervious surfaces -- mall parking lots and streets in new developments, for example -- lead to more chemicals being washed into stormwater drains, sending them into the sewage pipes, down the river and into the Gulf of Maine.
In dry weather, the river is usually clean. But wet events produce e-coli contamination.
Responding to a new resident of Lowell who expressed disappointed about the condition of the river, Buschur again emphasized that the work to fix the Merrimack’s problems “starts at the top.”
“We seem to have lost our way (regarding litter),” he said.