• The Merrimack River has come a long way, but there's a new threat

    By: Bob Dumas

    Updated:

    NEWBURYPORT, Mass. - Over the last 50 years, the Merrimack River has made a tremendous comeback.

    Areas that were once overwhelmed with industrial pollution and human waste are now flourishing again.

    Whether it’s glistening waters along the Haverhill shoreline, or a quiet place in Newburyport where nature thrives, the evidence of the river’s renaissance is easy to see.

    “I love this river,” said John Macone of the Merrimack River Watershed Council. “This is a tremendous resource for all of us -- for boating, for swimming, for fishing.”

    It’s not uncommon to spot bald eagles, osprey, or even a bottle-nosed dolphin these days, added Macone, who likes all the changes he’s seeing.

    "You look where the river was 50 years ago, it was a mess. People didn’t want to live along it. It smelled.  You really couldn’t put your boat in it," he said. "Now it’s really beautiful most days.”

    While the Merrimack River is much better off than it used to be, a new threat is emerging for the 117-mile river, which is the source of drinking water for about a half-million people. They’re called CSOs, which stands for combined sewer overflows. This usually occurs after a storm when the run-off on the streets overwhelms a sewerage facility and sends a toxic combination of rain and human waste into the river untreated.

    "This is a public health concern. This is a public safety concern. We can’t have young children and animals going into the water when there are those contaminants,” said State Senator Diana DiZoglio (D-Methuen).

    DiZoglio has filed a bill to create a broad-based commission to oversee issues related to the river, which runs through 16 cities and towns in Massachusetts.

    “Communities weren’t really speaking with one another,” said DiZoglio. “We do need to consistently come to the table, to discuss short-term and long-term goals and this commission seeks to do just that, bring everyone to the table.”

    A healthy river is also important for the region’s economy, as the river plays a much different role now than it did many years ago.

    “It used to be a shipping port. It was very active in fishing, but no more. It’s more recreational,” said Ken Taylor, owner of Plum Island Kayak, who says the river now attracts visitors from all over the region. They come into town. They want to spend their money. They want to go out to eat and to visit the shops.”

    Although this is a Massachusetts state bill, DiZoglio hopes that this will also help coordinate efforts with officials in New Hampshire, where the river originates and flows through the state’s two largest cities.

    The stakes are high. As a source of drinking water, the Merrimack River is second only to the Quabbin Reservoir in Massachusetts.

    The bill has passed the Massachusetts State Senate and is now awaiting action in the House of Representatives.

    NH lawmakers targeting source of dangerous chemicals in drinking water

    Next Up: