A new federal water permit is out for a state fish hatchery in New Durham that's accused, in a federal lawsuit, of polluting waters that feed into Lake Winnipesaukee.
The long-awaited permit could prompt costly upgrades at the Powder Mill Fish Hatchery, the state’s largest, in the next several years.
The lawsuit, from the Conservation Law Foundation, claims the hatchery’s discharge of nutrient-rich fish waste has degraded the Merrymeeting River above Alton Bay – driving harmful algae blooms, depressing property values and limiting recreation.
The state Departments of Fish & Game and Environmental Services argue that the facility has been discharging that waste in compliance with a federal permit that, until now, was years overdue for an update.
The new permit lowers – by about half – the EPA’s initially proposed limit on how much phosphorus the hatchery can put into the river, from 25 to 12 parts per billion year-round.
This has been a key part of pollution concerns from people like state Rep. Michael Harrington, a Republican from Strafford who joined local experts and neighbors in submitting hundreds of pages of detailed comments to the EPA on its draft permit for the hatchery.
"These people busted their hump on this – I mean, hundreds and hundreds of hours,” Harrington says. “There were people out there... who take water samples all the time – just constant. These people are dedicated to this."
He says EPA officials told him the “quality” of those comments convinced them to lower the phosphorus limit in the final permit.
If no appeal is filed in the next month, the permit will take effect at the start of 2021. After that, Harrington says the state will be able to finalize plans for upgrading the hatchery’s wastewater system.
He says Fish & Game estimated that upgrade would cost $4 to $5 million, under the higher draft phosphorus limit. The new, lower limit may change that figure.
Harrington says he’s considering bringing back a proposal he’d made for an increased trout stamp fee to help fund the upgrades. That bill did not pass when he first filed it last year.
Either way, he expects Fish & Game to seek funding for the new water system in next year’s state capital budget, meaning design and installation could be completed within five years.
In the meantime, the state has taken short-term steps to clean up the hatchery's discharge – including changing to a lower-phosphorus fish food, moving some fish to other hatcheries, and storing waste for land application as fertilizer instead of putting it into the river.
Advocates say they’re seeing preliminary signs that this may be improving water quality.
Harrington says that’s especially encouraging given the state’s ongoing severe drought, which has meant almost all water flowing into the Merrymeeting River is passing through the hatchery.