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On the Saugus watershed

By Lisa Capone

Traveling north on US Route 1 from Boston, the town of Saugus, Massachusetts offers a steady stream of roadside fast food establishments, shopping plazas, discount motels and even a giant neon cactus. The effect is far from bucolic.

But looks can be deceiving. Less than two miles from the hair-raising traffic and commerce, a small pocket of nature awaits.

I traveled this route to the National Park Service’s Saugus River Iron Works weekly last spring. Every Tuesday for five weeks, I spent a half hour in the company of green herons and red winged blackbirds, and an occasional park ranger, as a volunteer for the Saugus River Watershed Council’s annual fish count. My charge was to stare at the Saugus River for ten-minute intervals probing its pools and rapids for alewives and blueback herring–anadromous species that clogged this river in the days of Native American fishing camps, but which now are scarce. The purpose was to collect baseline data on the number of fish that still migrate upriver to spawn, as the council strives to restore healthy fisheries to this lovely but, until recently, often overlooked river.

Lisa Capone on the Saugus River in Massachusetts
Courtesy of L. Capone

Although I didn’t spy a single fish, I came to cherish that brief time set aside each week as a respite from a hurried suburban life. And I wondered how, for 15 years, I could have resided one town away from this place and missed it.

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 Council’s 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 watershed’s urban nature, says Executive Director Joan LeBlanc. Originating ten miles north of Boston at Wakefield’s 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 river’s 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 river’s 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 waterway’s alewives, blueback herring and bass. They built the area’s 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 country’s 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 coalition’s 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 RESCO’s proposed expansion. RESCO shelved its plan, citing economic conditions as the reason.

While the council’s No Third Burner Cam-paign is an obvious success story, there have been other, sometimes less dramatic, victories in recent years–all 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 city’s 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 river’s 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, we’ll 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.

It’s 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