The year 2020 could be a good one for the Merrimack River.

With increased public awareness of ongoing pollution of the river and creation of a commission focused solely on the Merrimack, items on the “to-do” list might finally get some attention.

For starters, Brown and Caldwell, an Andover environmental engineering company, has drawn up a “scope of work” for the new Merrimack River District Commission which will help commissioners decide what data to compile and how to use it, among many other things. The scope makes a statement of regional goals and will encourage communication about and support of regional objectives for people, agencies and businesses along the Merrimack. 

There have been studies of the Merrimack in recent decades, but the idea behind a new river commission is to push forward ideas with data that’s useful and accessible to all the stakeholders. 

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the EPA and New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services have done studies but those were focused on specific issues and were “not helpful toward making informed decisions regarding future improvements to the river,” state Sen. Diana DiZoglio, D-Methuen, said this week in a press release. The river commission, with members to be appointed from various conservation groups, watershed associations and municipal governments along the Merrimack should be able to bring the ongoing problem of pollution from upstream sewage treatment plants and municipalities into the public eye – and keep it there.

On top of that, a group of more than 140 community leaders from across the state – including the mayors of Newburyport and Amesbury, the Salisbury town manager, select board members from Andover, Salisbury, Newbury, Ipswich, Merrimac, West Newbury and more; city councilors from Salem, Mass., Methuen and Haverhill; and government leaders from as far away as Longmeadow, Whateley, Worthington and Yarmouth  – signed a letter urging the Massachusetts House to act quickly on a bill that would make prompt, public notification about upstream sewage releases into the Merrimack a reality. As it stands today, certain municipal officials downstream are notified, but this bill would allow all citizens to opt in for quick notification whenever there is a release of untreated sewage – called a combined sewer overflow, or CSO, along the Merrimack or its tributaries.

The scope of work outlined by the environmental engineering firm lays out many targets, but a key element is getting groups and individuals along the river to work together for their common cause.

In particular, the scope cites four main goals: consistent integration of regional priorities, unified advocacy for funding and research, data-driven decisions, and a focus on uses of the Merrimack River.

Lane Glenn, president of North Essex Community College, and one of the organizers of the kayak trip last summer that went from the source of the Merrimack, in New Hampshire, to the mouth in Newburyport and Salisbury, noted that nearly 700,000 people live in the cities and towns along the Merrimack in the two states, “all contributing to the region’s workforce and economy.”

He said the work of the commission will be “bringing together partners in both states to look at the best scientific research available and create strategies to clean up and preserve this incredible natural resource for future generations.”

There are many people and organizations who share Glenn’s excitement about the future of this mighty river. It will take consistency, focus and communication to make things happen to improve and preserve this important regional resource. 2020 should be the continuation of good things for the Merrimack River. 

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