What a difference a generation has made for rivers

We have seen the waterways go from catching fire to running clear and clean


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Many of us can still remember in 1969 watching TV broadcasts of the Cuyahoga River in Ohio on fire. The toxic pollution that ignited in that river wasn’t unique to the Cuyahoga – rivers across the nation were heavily polluted, including many right here in New Hampshire. But that image of a river afire was seared into our collective conscience and helped to change the way our nation thinks about our waterways and the environment in general.

In 1972, Congress enacted the Clean Water Act, and the cleanup of rivers across the country commenced. By the time the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services was formed in 1987, the state Water Supply and Pollution Control Commission had already worked with many communities and industries to implement river water quality improvements including more effective wastewater treatment technologies.

Additionally, the New Hampshire legislature, recognizing that our rivers are significant economic and aesthetic assets, created the New Hampshire Rivers Management and Protection Program in 1988, just one year after the formation of DES.

A distinctive characteristic of the rivers program is the partnership created between and among state government, local citizens and their towns through the formation of a local advisory committee for each designated river. These local groups have worked to successfully designate 18 rivers or river segments into the rivers program.

The committees develop and implement a local river corridor management plan and advise local, state and federal agencies of activities that may affect the water quality or flow of the designated river.

While we have made real progress cleaning up our rivers and the water quality is generally good, they continue to be polluted by wastewater discharges, failed septic systems, rain and snow that carry airborne pollution and agricultural and urban stormwater discharges containing bacteria, road salt, oils and other pollutants.

Recognizing the need to document river water quality and wanting to engage interested and concerned individuals and groups, DES established the Volunteer River Assessment Program in 1998.

Since DES has limited staff available to conduct water quality monitoring, it is the data collected by these volunteers and other professionals that DES uses to make informed decisions to correct water quality problems.

VRAP now supports 28 volunteer groups and 200 volunteers who monitor 250 stations on numerous rivers throughout the state.

Another component of the Rivers Program is the Instream Flow Program, whose goal is to ensure that the water within our rivers will support human and natural uses. Currently, the program is working on pilot projects on the Lamprey and Souhegan rivers to determine how to best meet the needs of water users and not harm the river ecosystems.

Given our historic relationship with our rivers, we will continue to expect our rivers to sustain our lives by providing us with safe drinking water, boating and fishing opportunities, flood protection, and hydroelectric power, while ensuring the health of plant and animal life. We must keep our rivers clean and healthy in order to sustain our economy and quality of life.

Thomas S. Burack is commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Services, which this year celebrates its 25th anniversary.

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