As is the case with all watersheds, the Millers River and its watershed are affected by a wide range of human practices with the potential to adversely effect human health and the health of aquatic organisms. In the Millers River Watershed a number of issues have an impact on water quality:
- Point source pollution
- Non point source pollution
- Stormwater pollution and flooding
- Flow alteration
- Invasive species
- NED Pipeline
When human practices cause minor impacts, damage to public health and the environment may be limited. However, as the scale of one or more negative impacts increases, so does the threat to the health of plants, animals, people and the surrounding environment. The environment and the myriad forms of life it supports are in general incredibly resilient, with a great ability to cleanse and heal themselves–however, at some point human and environmental health inevitably suffer from too much of a bad thing. Our quality of life is directly connected to our ability, as individuals and as communities, to prevent serious harm–and, in cases where significant damage has occurred, to repair it. Learn more about how MRWC is addressing some of these issues.
Point source pollution is the pollution flowing out of the pipes from factories and sewage treatment plants.
An excellent example of people repairing serious damage to the Millers River is the long-term effort made by watershed residents, businesses and local, state and federal government to reduce this type of pollution. By the 1960s, such pollution had turned the Millers River, which had long been considered by many anglers (including Boston Red Sox star Ted Williams) to be “the best trout stream in Massachusetts,” into a smelly and mostly dead river. Many rivers suffered similar fates. Since then, all major pipe (point source) discharges are carefully closely regulated by permit and carefully treated to avoid excessive water contamination. As these permits come up for renewal every five years, the general public and watershed groups like MRWC and the Connecticut River Watershed Council (CRWC) have the opportunity to provide detailed comments on proposed permit changes.
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Non-point source pollution. Unlike the contaminants flowing out of pipes, the large variety and volume of contaminants accumulating on land surfaces that can be flushed downhill during rain storms into streams, lakes and rivers–known as non-point source pollutants– are much harder to control. NPS contaminants include:
- fertilizers and pesticides
- pet waste
- sand and salt applied to roads in winter
- eroded soil from farms, logged forests and construction sites
- sediment from sand and gravel operations
- leaking vehicle fluids and particles (metal, rubber) lost from constant abrasion
- mercury, a toxic substance generated by coal-burning power plants in the midwestern U.S. that is carried hundreds of miles by air currents before settling out and being deposited throughout New England and washed into local waterways by rain storms.
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Stormwater pollution and flooding. The contamination of local waters by NPS pollutants is made possible by the large amounts of water that flow downhill across the land during and after a large storm. Stormwater pollution has become the single greatest water quality issue in New England and throughout the United States. Commercial development and homebuilding reduces or eliminates naturally draining “open space” land and replace it largely with structures covered by asphalt, pavement and other impervious surfaces that don’t allow water to infiltrate back into the ground. Reduced infiltration means increased surface water flow, or runoff, which scours the land, washes contaminants into streams, increases erosion, and can contribute to local flooding. Reduced infiltration also adversely affects groundwater recharge, leading to a reduced volume of available groundwater.
Sedimentation. In the eastern half of the watershed, many towns have significant sand and gravel deposits. Such deposits are highly concentrated in the Otter River sub-basin, and are used as materials for construction projects and fill. MassDEP has reported that the Otter River suffers from excessive sedimentation, which can adversely effect numerous aquatic organisms at various stages of their life-cycles.
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PCBs. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are a large class of toxic industrial chemicals, formerly in wide use nationally, that have leaked into the environment at large, sometimes in large amounts. PCB pollution of the Millers River and watershed has been known since the 1980s, when it was detected in fish and sediment samples behind Birch Hill Dam in Royalston. The “exact” source of river contamination remained unknown for many years, but has since been determined to be the former Baldwinville Paper Products plant in Baldwinville, a village of Templeton. The plant is located on the Otter River, upstream of its confluence with the Millers River. The plant is currently owned by Erving Industries, parent company of Erving Paper.
The Otter River flows into the Millers River in Winchendon. The main PCB contamination is in sediment of both the Otter River itself, and in the Millers River downstream of where the Otter River joins it. The further downstream the Millers River one goes, the lower the levels of PCB pollution generally found.
According to the MassDEP, Erving Industries (which filed for bankruptcy in early 2009), has submitted a Phase II Site Characterization & Risk Assessment, which is now being reviewed by the agency. After a determination by MassDEP that the Phase II report is satisfactory, the company would then be obligated to prepare a Phase III Feasibility Report addressing how to deal with the contamination risk.
The MDPH has issued warnings since at least 2002 –due to the presence of both PCBs and Mercury– that for all towns on the Millers River from Winchendon to Erving: 1) nobody should eat Brown trout and American Eel; 2) the general public should limit consumption of other, non-affected fish species to two meals per month per person; and 3) pregnant woman, nursing mothers and children under 12 should not eat any kind of fish.
Flow alteration. The MassDEP (2004) reports that the alteration of the natural flow regime, and ultimately its effect on instream habitat and biological integrity, in the Millers River and several tributaries are of concern. There are numerous activities that affect the timing, magnitude, frequency, and rate of change of natural flows including, but not limited to, the operation of flood control projects, hydropower operation(s) and outlet control practices at dams.
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Invasive species. Rivers contain a wide variety of plants and animals that are essential parts of a river ecosystem. Many species originated here in New England and are well adapted to our climate and to the other species that live here. Other species have been brought here from other parts of the country and the world. When they are introduced into our region, these imported species are called “exotic” or “non-native”.
Because the local ecosystem did not develop natural controls (animals or other plants to limit their growth and spread) for exotics, their populations may increase very rapidly. When a species is able to dominate or significantly alter an area’s ecology, it is considered an “invasive species”.
Many native plants cannot compete for space or food with invasive species and are crowded out or eliminated from the area. And, since the invasive species often does not provide an ideal source of food or nesting areas for native animals, the area can lose its original variety of plants and animals.
Mass Nature has published a list of invasive plants in Massachusetts. Some of these effect the plants on the land in the watershed, while others are aquatic and impact the rivers and streams directly. The Department of Conservation and Recreation provides photographs of some invasive aquatic species in the state and publications on specific problematic species are also available.
The Millers River watershed has been effected by many invasives such as Japanese knotweed, variable milfoil, purple loosestrife, to name a few. MRWC hopes to initiate programs to begin to deal with these unwelcome transplants.
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