Introducing nearby residents, businesses and officials to the Saugus River and encouraging them to conserve surrounding marshes, meadows and other natural resources is the Saugus River Watershed Councils mission. Founded in 1991, our membership grows yearly, and currently stands at 625 community activists, environmentalists and outdoor enthusiasts. Hundreds of volunteers help with fish counts, water quality monitoring, canoe trips and other activities designed to increase awareness of both the beauty and vulnerability of the 13-mile river.
Getting residents to view a watershed of 47 square miles as one cohesive ecosystem is key to conserving it, and a key challenge given the watersheds urban nature, says Executive Director Joan LeBlanc. Originating ten miles north of Boston at Wakefields Lake Quannapowitt (a great pond plagued by runoff from streets and lawns), the Saugus River falls 90 feet [27 meters] and flows through four communities before finding the Atlantic at the Saugus River estuary in Lynn, a densely populated commercial and industrial hub. Joined by six tributaries along the way, the tidal rivers course is peppered with commercial and residential development. Culverted and split by several roadways, and spanned by ill-conceived bridges that prevent navigation along some reaches, the rivers watershed encompasses parts of six cities and five suburbs. Industrialization of this river quickly followed the arrival of European settlers in the region. Native Americans had plied its rich fisheries for generations, and English colonists soon also saw value in the waterways alewives, blueback herring and bass. They built the areas first commercial fishery in Saugus in 1632. Soon after, the river found a lucrative use in the transport of raw materials and finished products to and from the countrys first iron works, established in 1640. It later attracted industries such as grist and chocolate mills, wool and flannel factories and a tannery.
More recently, the watershed and its inhabitants have been affected by a 1,500-ton per day trash-to-energy incinerator operated by Wheelabrator Technologies, Inc. on the edge of Rumney Marsh, a 2,274-acre salt marsh that is part of a state Area of Critical Environmental Concern. In 2003, following a six-month education and advocacy campaign by the council and other area groups, officials at the so-called RESCO plant dropped a controversial proposal to win local support for a third burner that would have increased trash burning capacity by 50 percent and nearly doubled the size of an ash landfill. In the wake of our coalitions outreach to local officials and sponsorship of two public forums on health and environmental impacts of the plant, the Saugus selectmen unanimously approved a resolution opposing RESCOs proposed expansion. RESCO shelved its plan, citing economic conditions as the reason.
While the councils No Third Burner Cam-paign is an obvious success story, there have been other, sometimes less dramatic, victories in recent yearsall contributing to a healthier watershed. Gone are pre-Clean Water Act days when industries and municipalities sullied the river and its tributaries with all manner of pollutants. Corporate neighbors such as RESCO and General Electric must now abide by state and federal regulations. Additionally, sewer treatment improvements in Lynn, and the citys agreement to limit withdrawals of water during peak fish migration periods, go a long way toward enhancing wildlife habitat. Just the past few years have seen a significant decrease in bacteria counts, and an increase in dissolved oxygen levels (a key factor for healthy fisheries), which now meet state standards over 90 percent of the time.
Still, in an urban setting, threats to ecosystem integrity inevitably occur, demanding our constant vigilance. Through volunteer action, advocacy at local and state levels and public education, we are striving everyday to protect buffer zones, increase stream flow, monitor and improve water quality, and improve habitat through cleanups, education on illegal dumping and runoff, support for a fish ladder, and the start of a new net and release fish count project this spring. Mindful that healthy aquatic populations are the best markers of overall ecosystem health, our ultimate objectives center on restoring the rivers historic fisheries and reopening contaminated shellfish beds.
With that underlying agenda, we embark on a major new initiative this year. In partnership with the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, well investigate the potential for transforming 8.2 acres of formerly contaminated, state-owned land into an educational gateway to the river. Eventually, the former Bacon Property in Saugus could host a range of activities from an environmental education center and canoe launch to walking trails and resources for estuarine research.
Its a tall order, but we look forward to working with our members, public officials and other non-profits to make it happen. Moreover, through this new project and long-established ones, we look forward to creating a future for the watershed that outshines even the bright lights of Route 1.
A free-lance writer and co-president of the Saugus River Watershed Council, Lisa Capone resides in the watershed community of Melrose, Massachusetts.
© 2005 The Gulf of Maine Times