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Water quality testing reduced on local lakes and rivers due to pandemic

  • The Souhegan Watershed Association won’t be testing for water quality this year, president George May said. (BEN CONANT / Monadnock Ledger-Transcript) Copyright Monadnock Ledger-Transcript. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to news@ledgertranscript.com. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • The Souhegan Watershed Association won’t be testing for water quality this year, president George May said. (BEN CONANT / Monadnock Ledger-Transcript) Copyright Monadnock Ledger-Transcript. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to news@ledgertranscript.com. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • The Souhegan Watershed Association won’t be testing for water quality this year, president George May said. (BEN CONANT / Monadnock Ledger-Transcript) Copyright Monadnock Ledger-Transcript. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to news@ledgertranscript.com. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 6/5/2020 11:06:22 AM

Several organizations are suspending water quality monitoring this summer due to volunteer safety and budget concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it doesn’t necessarily spell disaster for river and pond swimmers.

The Souhegan Watershed Association won’t be testing for water quality this year, president George May said. Typically, volunteers convene every two weeks to hand in water samples that have to be taken from 20 locations simultaneously, May said, and he didn’t see a way to collect usable data while maintaining physical distancing. A hiring freeze means  the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services won’t sample lakes for E.coli this summer, and they’re cutting back on the Volunteer Lake Assessment Program. The public is usually most interested in E.coli counts, May said, bacteria that comes from fecal matter that can cause pink eye or swimmer’s ear.

No sampling isn’t necessarily a cause for alarm, May said. “You can pretty well predict when E.coli blooms will happen,” on the Souhegan, he said, and typically staying out of the water for three days after a rain storm is enough to drop the threat level. E.coli bacteria is most likely to wash into the river when a heavy summer rain comes after a drought period, May said. “The smaller the stream, the higher the impact. The Souhegan is not a big river,” he said, but the bacteria only have a lifespan of about three days.

“Gernerally, the Souhegan is a pretty clean river,” May said. There are swimming holes all throughout the test area. Most frequented are Watson Park, at the mouth of the river in Merrimack, and the Horseshoe in Wilton, which is currently closed to the public. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Wilton Town Administrator and Health Officer Paul Branscrombe said he and police have gone up to the Horseshoe multiple times to disperse crowds that violate the state’s emergency orders. The property’s new landowners spent Memorial Day in their deck chairs, telling would-be swimmers to go home as they arrived, Branscombe said.

Mostly, May said he’s concerned that the halt in testing might divert the public’s focus on local water quality. “Rivers that have strong watershed associations generally get attention,” he said, and people regularly stop him in the grocery store to ask about the river’s water quality, even if their only interaction is driving over it on a bridge. Interest and awareness leads to public mobilization for better water quality, May said, when a relevant decision comes before a community.

The Souhegan’s biggest contaminator is lead, May said, from traffic along Route 31 in the days of leaded gasoline. “It will be there for a long time,” he said. There are no special restrictions on eating fish from the river, he said. Up to a couple years ago, it was the hot river for reintroducing salmon, he said. “We did our best,” he said, but the number of dams, even with fish ladders and elevators, were ultimately too much of an obstacle for the salmon to surmount and the 30-year initiative ended a couple years ago.

May has been monitoring the Souhegan for 25 years. Seven years ago, monitoring efforts succeeded in detecting a Port-a-Potty that had fallen into the river from a park in Milford. Another time, a volunteer reported a shark in the water near the Merrimack. “I came out and saw it – a dead shark,” May said, and he suspected it had been dumped after someone had removed the jawbone and fins. He called the DPW to bring a truck over and pull it out. “They’re probably still talking about it,” he said.

Testing may be off, but the watershed association is still looking into the potential for sponsoring canoe trips on the river, May said. “Everybody ought to get out on it,” he said, even if there are no organized trips this year. “It’s easy to kayak or canoe,” he said, even when water levels are low. “Speak up for it’s quality. And let me know, too,” he said.

The Norway Pond Committee in Hancock and the Gregg Lake Watershed Plan Committee in Antrim are both making plans to subsidize the reduction in state testing with volunteer labor. Gregg Lake volunteer Joan Gorga said she didn’t see fewer testing events posing much of a threat to public health. “We haven’t had a high [E.coli] sample since 2012 anyway,” she said. Both organizations are in talks with the Harris Center about cyanobacteria monitoring throughout the summer.


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