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Federal Grant Will 'Green Up' Banks of Merrimack River To Guard Against Floods, Pollution

Annie Ropeik

A new federal grant aims to protect the Merrimack River from climate change, pollution and development pressures in New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

The U.S. Forest Service says the Merrimack River watershed is one of the most threatened in the country due to forest loss and increasing water quality risks. 

The Merrimack also provides drinking water to about 600,000 people, one of the biggest populations relying on any surface water body in New England.

Demand for water is on the rise from cities like Nashua, Manchester and Concord, which want to diversify their water sources as droughts and population growth strain current supplies.

That's according to Matt Thorne, the president of the Merrimack River Watershed Council. At the same time, he said, development is decreasing the riverbank vegetation that's needed to filter pollutants from stormwater runoff, and absorb flooding. Both could increase with the heavier rains of climate change.

“Plants are really our friends in trying to keep the climate somewhat balanced,” Thorne said. “That’s really the heart of what this program is trying to do.”  

The new $250,000 grant from the Forest Service’s Landscape Scale Restoration Program will help create a model for riverbank buffer strips, made of native plant species that will thrive as the region warms. Those buffers will be installed on public and private riverbank properties in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

Credit Matt Thorne / Merrimack River Watershed Council
Merrimack River Watershed Council
Trees are planted in a riverbank buffer strip in one of the Merrimack River Watershed Council's previous projects, similar to ones the new grant will fund.

“Having more vegetation can reduce the flashiness of our waterways and minimize flooding,” he said. “On the flipside … in times of drought, they will keep more moisture locally, and help protect some of these water bodies from heating up as much and from losing and evaporating as much water.”

Thorne said he hopes many private property owners will join in this "climate-adaptive forestry," which he said is a “nature-based” complement to existing, built flood- and contamination-control infrastructure.

“There’s a lot of places that are already developed, and you couldn’t de-pave fast enough to get our river back to a semi-natural state. We do what we can to take advantage of green spaces and parks and kind of abandoned, vacant areas that can be transformed,” he said. “We just have so much work to do to really green up the system and be able to absorb more of this water.”

His group and its government partners will also use the new grant for pollution protection work at the headwaters of the river in the White Mountains.

Work on all the projects begins this fall, and Thorne said it will include opportunities for public participation in clean-ups and planting projects. The grant will span three years.

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Annie has covered the environment, energy, climate change and the Seacoast region for NHPR since 2017. She leads the newsroom's climate reporting project, By Degrees.
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