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Merrymeeting watershed identified as a key focus

Recent cyanobacteria blooms trigger discussion

by Mark Foynes
Contributing writer - The Baysider
April 25, 2017
NEW DURHAM — A crowd of some 50 local residents, regional town leaders and other stakeholders recently gathered in the New Durham School gym to discuss the potential impacts of how contaminants are affecting water bodies such as Downings Pond, which is part of a larger system that connects Lake Winnipesaukee and Merrymeeting Lake.

Frequent travelers of Route 11 know that the two lakes are joined by a waterway consisting of a meandering river, marshland, and a series of small ponds. The April 13 meeting was a first step in a process that could lead to a "comprehensive solution" to address cyanobacteria outbreaks that have placed the region on the EPA's radar screen.

The session was led by Fred Quimby of the New Durham Milfoil and Invasive Aquatic Weeds Committee. He said a key objective going forward will be the formulation of an application to the EPA to provide guidance and support - and to develop a mission statement for an ad hoc group devoted to addressing cyanobacteria outbreaks. These events can create an increase in the amount of algae, pose threats to aquatic wildlife and cause skin irritation for people coming in contact with affected water.

NHDES issued water quality advisories in the summers of 2015 and 2016, singling out Downings Pond as being unfit for recreational use. While this is a matter of concern unto itself, some fear that contaminants could seep into adjacent waterways within the system.

Quimby said the area under consideration involves over 36 square miles of critical watershed.

He added that the waterway represents a "huge tax base for each of our two communities," acknowledging the presence of Alton State Reps Peter Varney and Raymond Howard, as well as selectmen and other concerned citizens from the neighboring town. He said the matter represents a "regional impact" for both Alton and New Durham.

The meeting notice stated, "In 2015 and 2016 New Durham experienced cyanobacteria blooms in the Merrymeeting River which caused...NHDES to post beach closures."

Initially confined to the Downings Pond area near the junction of Main Street and Merrymeeting Road, the statement continued, "In 2016, the cyanobacteria bloom extended into the Merrymeeting Marsh Wildlife Management Area on the New Durham/Alton border. As a result, New Durham residents, together with members of the Lay Lake Monitoring program, and with assistance from the Fresh Water Biology Laboratory at UNH, conducted water quality surveys of the New Durham section of the Merrymeeting River."

The statement continued, "The purpose of these surveys was to try to identify point sources for the introduction of phosphorus into the river. You and other members of your group are invited to listen to the results of this survey and the subsequent actions taken by New Durham" and the EPA.

While not a sexy substance in and of itself, phosphorus would find itself as a central player in the evening's discussion. A peer-reviewed white paper issued by the NIH recently noted, "Anthropogenic [that's to say 'man-made' for us non-scientists] loading of nitrogen and phosphorus to freshwaters and coastal marine systems is a global environmental problem that generates social and financial costs for human populations. One of the more unpleasant consequences of eutrophication is an increase in the occurrence of unsightly, odorous, and sometimes toxic cyanobacterial blooms. Control of cyanobacteria is thus a major concern in freshwater management."

While a matter of global concern, local leaders are looking to get a handle on how to control its impacts close to home in the Merrymeeting system.

Quimby said, "Cyanobacteria is a toxin-producing bacteria," which normally rests dormant in the sediments of New Hampshire's fresh water bodies. When a certain mix of warm water temperatures, sunlight, and elevated phosphorus levels are present, the bacteria will be triggered to rapidly reproduce - resulting in a toxic bloom. The production of toxins can result. At a BOS meeting last summer, a Downings Pond resident complained of a skin rash she attributed to contacting the water.

The introduction of phosphorus into the waterbody is critical for a cyanobacteria bloom to occur, Quimby said during a slide presentation.

Once under way, cyanobacteria blooms prevent most recreational activities in the affected waterbody. Resulting toxins also put aquatic wildlife at risk.

Quimby said that the Downings Pond section of the Merrymeeting waterway was "completely green in color." To illustrate key points, Quimby walked participants through his slide deck that included a photo of Downings Pond, whose surface waters were marred by a layer of green sludge he attributed to cyanobacteria.

Quimby said that cyanobacteria thrive on phosphorus and deplete aquatic oxygen levels. Algae species requiring less oxygen can thrive in a phosphorus-rich and oxygen-poor ecosystem while other life forms die off.

Adding to the problem, Quimby noted, is that when the bacteria die, their remnants settle to a waterway's sediment, adding to elevated phosphorus levels - ensuring that the cycle continues. He said that fish die-offs often result.

Quimby said there's the potential that water quality in sections of the Merrymeeting system are at risk of being "degraded to the point" where they "won't support life anymore."

In such a scenario, they would "kind of go to pot," he added

While degraded or "eutrophic" conditions are currently confined to a small area of the watershed, Quimby said there's a potential that the toxins could go "further and further down river" and "continue to pose problems" for more and more people living and recreating on the waterway.

Quimby said cyanobacteria require water temperatures of 77F and an ability for the sun to reach sedimentary material. A level of 10 parts per billion of phosphorus is also necessary, according to the data he cited.

Quimby noted that runoff from agricultural sites and residential lawn fertilizers can trigger blooms - but that farming operations and residential activities in the area are not the likely cause of the phenomena.

Faulty septic systems can also contribute to contamination, but testing conducted by volunteers, according to Quimby, don't appear to be a major cause.

At one point during the presentation, an elderly male resident uttered an expletive and was escorted out by a family member. He expressed frustration that water near his home was a "chocolate brown." He seemed to want action items to be adopted right then and there.

Quimby respectfully noted the gentleman's concern, saying, "This has been a pretty encharged issue for a lot of us."

Getting back to some of the volunteer testing, Quimby said septic systems in the area are "not impaired," which was "not totally surprising."

He said there was "not a single point of source" at Downings Pond itself.

However, upstream near the N.H. Fish and Game hatchery, he said that phosphorus levels, if taken to scale, were enough to fertilize 100 acres of corn. He said that the facility discharges between one to seven million gallons of water per day. While F&G uses vacuuming mechanisms to remove fish fecal matter, it is likely that some particulate matter evades these devices.

While not calling out the facility, Quimby seemed to indicate that further examination of the hatchery's impact would be a logical place to focus further investigations.

Quimby was also careful to note that in executing their operation, it doesn't appear F&G is in any obvious violation of current regulations. He praised F&G for its compliance with accepted best practices. He added that the local facility has been eager to work with town officials to investigate whether there is a cause-effect relationship - and that the state is committed to work toward a solution should one be necessary.

That said, Quimby's slide deck included the following observation, "There is no point trying to identify other point or non-point sources of phosphorus introduction (farms, run off, industry, lawn fertilizers) until the high levels at the hatchery are brought under control."

The statement continued, "However, it is time for all parties invested in maintaining [Merrymeeting River] water quality to become organized. While we can discuss the best way forward, it seems working with the N.H. F&G, N.H. DES, and U.S.EPA now would be beneficial for all parties."

It concluded, "Together with N.H. F&G personnel, we should re-evaluate and fully implement Best Management Practices of the Hatchery with the aim of reducing total suspended solids, nitrogen, and phosphorus discharges into Merrymeeting River. ...We should assist EPA and N.H. F&G in any way possible to establish daily and annual maximum thresholds of the discharge of total suspended solids, nitrogen, and phosphorus [and] [f]orm a collaborative initiative to provide coordinated oversight and strategy development/implementation to achieve [this] goal.

Quimby said he envisions a "collaborative effort." to achieve these ends.

Attending was Inland Fisheries Division Chief Jason Smith, who said he and his department are committed to the health of all N.H. waterways. He did manage expectations somewhat by noting that the types of "significant capital investments" that might be needed "don't happen overnight." Leaning forward in his chair, he seemed engaged and genuinely concerned about the ongoing health of the waterway, noting his strong connection to the area.

A member of the public, although pleased by Fish and Game's willingness to work with local stakeholders, did note that some locals have considered filing a cease and desist order on the facility.

New Durham Selectman David Swenson, speaking as a Merrymeeting-area resident, said he is hoping that the town can successfully navigate a "collaborative approach" to mitigate any excessive contaminants that might originate at the hatchery.

Going forward, the EPA will be conducting weekly tests this summer at key sites. These findings will be presented at public hearings to inform stakeholders of their findings.

Funding sources will be need to be identified to strategize and remediate existing pollution levels and address ways to prevent new toxins from entering the waterway. Quimby said that the "concept of a framework" will be done "in a collaborative fashion" involving officials from New Durham, Alton, F&G, UNH, and other interested parties.

A three-year action plan will be a goal of an ad hoc working group to identify the source of the problem, execute a strategy and verify results.

Area residents wanting to help on a volunteer basis should call the New Durham town hall at 859-2091.

Varney Smith
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