Smoke over the city

A powerboat cruises up the Merrimack River with a smoky view of the downtown Manchester skyline as a backdrop in this June 2021 photo.

NEWBURYPORT, Mass. — Calling all users of the Merrimack River: The Alliance of Climate and Environmental Stewards needs help gathering different perspectives from those who frequent the watershed for recreational and commercial purposes.

Rick Jacques, founder of EbbTide Rowing in Haverhill, Mass., and a member of ACES, has been one of the key people working to distribute the survey.

The alliance has received about 270 responses since launching the survey in late June. About a third of those responses have come from Newburyport residents, but the group wants to reach as many river users between New Hampshire and Massachusetts as possible.

This is not limited to boaters, swimmers, kayakers and marina residents.

It also means bird-watchers, landowners and the more than 500,000 people in the Massachusetts communities of Lowell, Methuen, Andover, Tewksbury and Lawrence who get their drinking water from the river.

The survey looks to gain insight on how people use the river, what they see through their unique perspectives, and what they understand about combined sewage overflows.

As Jacques explains, it’s pretty common to see brown rings around the sides of boats, “especially on a tidal river like ours where the levels are going up and down and up and down, picking up natural debris or particles from vegetation, animal life and all the things that are normal to see in a river.”

Though the river has visible signs of pollution, it’s actually the bacteria that a person cannot see that is of real concern, he said.

“What makes the river dirty, you actually can’t see it,” Jacques said.

“How many people really even know it’s dirty?” he said, explaining the goals of the survey. “How many people know that it rained like crazy last night and how many hundreds of millions of gallons of sewage flowed from Manchester, (New Hampshire) into the river? How many from Lawrence, Lowell and Haverhill?”

Though there are plenty of other pollutants such as microplastics, chemicals and storm runoff that are of concern, Jacques believes CSOs provide a starting point for addressing the health of the Merrimack.

CSOs occur when there is a power outage or too much rain for a community’s sewage system to handle, discharging untreated sewage into the water.

Though there is increasing awareness of this problem, there are still many who do not realize that it might be best to stay out of the river after a heavy rainstorm.

With this survey, ACES hopes to gain an understanding of what people are actually seeing and experiencing when they use the river, whether it is someone who paddles in the Merrimack every day or someone who just happens to live nearby and may have questions about their drinking water.

In 2019, ACES conducted a pilot survey of adult masters-level rowers using the Merrimack between Newburyport and Manchester.

This provided the alliance with useful information about what rowers know about the Merrimack, but this new survey hopes to garner a much wider reach.

Anyone who can help ACES reach a broader audience is encouraged to reach out. The alliance is looking for ways to connect with as many Merrimack users as possible.

In 2016, the American Rivers Association listed the Merrimack as one of the country’s 10 most endangered rivers. The U.S. Forest Service has ranked the watershed as the most threatened due to forestlands development, the fourth-most threatened due to water quality issues, and the seventh due to loss of habitat for at-risk species.

To learn more or to participate in this 10- to 15-minute survey, visit www.aces-alliance.org/post/merrimack-river-users-survey.

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