Maritime Log #47 Major Effort Launched To Clean Historic Merrimack River

By Dyke Hendrickson, Outreach Historian for the Custom House Maritime Museum

The Merrimack has a long history of pollution, and now a commission composed of city, state, federal officials and private citizens has formed to seek solutions to clean the 117-mile river.

Beginning in the 1820s, the banks of the Merrimack have been populated with mills and factories.

Textile, paper and shoe industries, especially in Manchester, N.H., Lowell, Lawrence and Haverhill, employed thousands.

But the facilities dumped tons of raw sewage into the river.

Also, some communities let effluent drain into the Merrimack, which is shown here.

Even in the 1950s and 1960s, many local residents avoided the smelly, discolored river.

However, the Clean Water Act of 1972, championed by Sen. Ed Muskie, D-Maine, earmarked billions of dollars for river clean-ups.

The Merrimack River benefited in the ’70s and ’80s, in large part because sewage treatment plants were constructed. Mills and factories had to add equipment to cleanse their releases.

The result is that Newburyport today draws boaters, fishing parties and boardwalk pedestrians. A clean river is a huge economic and social asset, and Newburyport has close to 30 restaurants and numerous cultural attractions frequented by enthusiastic visitors.

Other North Shore communities enjoy benefits as well.

But in recent years, sewage treatment plants have been discharging raw sewage. This occurs because subterranean pipes bring rainwater as well as sewage into the plants.

The plants can’t take the volume, and must discharge both rainwater and effluent.

Climate change has fostered heavier, more intense rainstorms in spring, and the overflow is expected to continue.

In recent months, the Merrimack River District Commission has been created to seek strategies to halt the pollution.

State Sen. Diana DiZoglio, D-Methuen, has been a key leader in creating the commission, as  has been Newburyport Mayor Donna Holaday.

At a commission meeting in Haverhill drawing close to 75 on Sept. 30, Sen. DiZoglio announced that $50,000 in state funds have been secured so the commission can meet regularly.

Also, $100,000 in state funding has been approved to create a “flagging” system that will inform boaters, fishermen, jet-skiers and Plum Island swimmers that a significant discharge has been made upstream.

That initiative will be managed in Newburyport, under Mayor Holaday’s leadership.

Members of the commission agree that the Merrimack links an entire river valley by offering recreation, economic opportunity and natural beauty. It also offers a history that includes the birth of the Coast Guard in Newburyport.

The river has been fouled before – and it recovered.

The Merrimack River District Commission is working to clean it once again.

History shows that this is a resilient river.

If you would like me to speak to your organization, I can be reached at dhendrickson@thechmm.org