25 for 25: New Hampshire's Rivers – What a Difference a Generation Makes
By Thomas S. Burack, DES Commissioner
Within a single generation we have seen rivers go from catching fire to running clear and clean. Many of us can still remember in 1969 watching TV broadcasts of the Cuyahoga River in Ohio on fire. The toxic pollution that ignited in that river wasn’t unique to the Cuyahoga – rivers across the nation were heavily polluted, including many right here in New Hampshire. But that image of a river afire was seared into our collective conscience and helped to change the way our nation thinks about our waterways and the environment in general. In 1972 Congress enacted the Clean Water Act, and the clean-up of rivers across the country commenced. By the time the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services was formed in 1987, the NH Water Supply and Pollution Control Commission (one of DES’s predecessor agencies) had already worked with many communities and industries to implement river water quality improvements including more effective wastewater treatment technologies.
Additionally, the New Hampshire legislature, recognizing that our rivers are significant economic and aesthetic assets, created the New Hampshire Rivers Management and Protection Program (Rivers Program) in 1988, just one year after the formation of DES. Like DES this year, the Rivers Program will celebrate its 25th Anniversary next year. A distinctive characteristic of the Rivers Program is the partnership created between and among state government, local citizens and their towns through the formation of a local advisory committee (LAC) for each designated river. Across the state, there are approximately 200 people who volunteer their time and expertise to an LAC. These local groups have worked to successfully designate 18 rivers or river segments into the Rivers Program. These designated rivers meander through more than half of New Hampshire’s cities and towns and total approximately 1,000 river miles.
The LACs develop and implement a local river corridor management plan and advise local, state and federal agencies of activities that may affect the water quality or flow of the designated river. For example, the Exeter River LAC worked to replace culverts in Sandown which were undersized and not capable of adequately passing flood waters. With these replacements, the need for road repairs will decline and the passage of fish and other aquatic species will improve.
While we have made real progress cleaning up our rivers and the water quality is generally good, they continue to be polluted by wastewater discharges, failed septic systems, rain and snow that carry airborne pollution, and agricultural and urban stormwater discharges containing bacteria, road salt, oils and other pollutants. Recognizing the need to document river water quality and wanting to engage interested and concerned individuals and groups, DES established the Volunteer River Assessment Program (VRAP) in 1998. Since DES has limited staff available to conduct water quality monitoring, it is the data collected by these volunteers and other professionals that DES uses to make informed decisions to correct water quality problems. VRAP now supports 28 volunteer groups and 200 volunteers who monitor 250 stations on numerous rivers throughout the state.
But managing rivers is not just about water quality; understanding the water quantity characteristics of our rivers is equally important. River flows are altered by human activities such as dam operation, watershed development, water withdrawals and wastewater discharges. Another component of the Rivers Program is the Instream Flow Program, whose goal is to ensure that the water within our rivers will support human and natural uses. Currently, the Instream Flow Program is working on pilot projects on the Lamprey and Souhegan Rivers to determine how to best meet the needs of water users and not harm the river ecosystems.
Given our historic relationship with our rivers, we will continue to expect our rivers to sustain our lives by providing us with safe drinking water, boating and fishing opportunities, flood protection, and hydroelectric power, while ensuring the health of plant and animal life. We must keep our rivers clean and healthy in order to sustain our economy and quality of life. As DES marks its 25th Anniversary, we look forward to another 25 years of working with volunteers, organizations and communities from across the state to make sure that rivers on fire become an ever-more-distant memory, and that our future memories of our rivers are of clean, clear waters for all to enjoy.
Author’s Note: In recognition of the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services’ 25th Anniversary, over the course of the year, I am highlighting 25 agency activities, programs, projects and accomplishments of the past 25 years. This article, the 18th in the series, is focused on New Hampshire’s rivers. All of the editorials in the series are available at http://des.nh.gov/organization/commissioner/25th-anniversary.htm.
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