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Diving into the threats to the Merrimack River

(Photo courtesy of American Rivers) The Merrimack River runs through the city of Lowell, stretching over 100 miles from New Hampshire through Massachusetts. 

Max Campo
Connector Contributor

The Merrimack River runs through the city of Lowell, stretching over 100 miles from New Hampshire through Massachusetts. The Merrimack River can be considered the heart of Lowell, flowing directly through the city. The river could be the heart at least, but it isn’t necessarily treated as such.

According to the American Rivers organization, the Merrimack River is significantly polluted and has been placed on the top 10 of the most endangered rivers in the United States in 2016.

A variety of environmental challenges are responsible for the current state of the Merrimack. The primary three challenges listed by the EPA being stormwater, various pollutants, and combined sewer overflow (CSOs).

In January 2021, Governor Charlie Baker signed a bill into law requiring a notification system to be formed to inform Massachusetts residents of when the quality of public waters is suffering due to CSOs from heavy rainfall. Notifications with alerts about CSOs in Lowell can be received by signing up on the Lowell government website.

Additionally, the six sewer systems responsible for the CSOs have entered into agreements with the EPA to overhaul their infrastructure to eliminate their CSOs.

Another one of the significant pollutants of the river is litter. Plastics are a significant contributor to the litter portion of pollution in the Merrimack. According to the EPA, litter and trash are a significant concern in some sections of the Merrimack, even being listed as one of the primary concerns for stakeholders in Lawrence.

With these pressing issues threatening the health of the Merrimack River, determining how to best combat the issues may seem daunting. There are several cleanup programs in Lowell and around the Merrimack that help remove plastics from the river. One of these river cleanup programs is run here at UMass Lowell.

Kevin Soleil is the Assistant Director of Outdoor & Bicycle Programs who helps run the River Cleanup program. When asked why he wanted to get involved with the program, Soleil said, “It’s about trying to be a part of the solution. It seemed like an obvious choice to get involved. The full picture of the river is not just a happy face–it’s multifaceted.”

That doesn’t mean that the only news is bad news for the Merrimack River. Soliel said the state of the Merrimack has improved in recent years, “but it’s still an endangered river.”

The U.S forest service attributed the worsening quality of the Merrimack in 2016 to development of previously forested lands. With the added paved areas, more litter on the streets of Lowell is being swept into the rivers when it rains. While these problems all end up existing in the Merrimack, they are not all originating on the Merrimack.

For those who are passionate about the environment and would like to get involved with improving the health of the Merrimack River, there are resources from programs and organizations such as the River Cleanup program at UMass Lowell, the Clean River Project or the Merrimack River Watershed Council.

In order for the Merrimack River to continue to improve, consistent effort is required from a variety of groups and individuals.

Improvement of the Merrimack River will come gradually, as long as there are people dedicated to working on its issues.

Soleil says, “It’s important for people to understand the river is not going to improve automatically”.



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