The state’s largest fish hatchery, accused of causing water pollution in the Lakes Region, would get $4.6 million in Gov. Chris Sununu’s proposed budget for upgrades necessitated by a new federal permit.
The Powder Mill hatchery in New Durham is facing a federal lawsuit over its discharge of untreated, nutrient-rich fish waste into the Merrymeeting River, which feeds Lake Winnipesaukee.
Neighbors like Fred Quimby spent decades swimming, fishing and boating on the river and adjacent ponds. That ended several years ago when toxic algae blooms appeared below the hatchery, and the state put up warnings against most recreation.
“And we loved the river, but once we started to notice the signs going up and the water turning green … that kind of ended it,” Quimby said. “It ended at a time when I would have introduced my grandchildren to recreational fishing, and I deliberately did not take them there.”
Quimby, a veterinarian and retired environmental toxicologist, joined local monitoring efforts that led to changes in hatchery management. Their efforts culminated last year in a years-overdue update by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to the facility’s water discharge permit.
The update includes a strict new limit on phosphorus, a key cause of the cyanobacteria blooms. The state expects to have to install a new wastewater treatment system at the hatchery in order to comply.
State inland fisheries chief Jason Smith said his agency’s initial funding estimate for those upgrades was based on a more lenient phosphorus limit. So while Gov. Chris Sununu’s proposed funding would be major progress, it probably won’t be enough in the long run.
"I don't think any idea is off the table. It may take multiple funding sources,” Smith said. “It's definitely going to take a lot of cooperation."
Ideally, Smith said, the state hopes to take some design cues from a similar, successful project on Platte Lake in Michigan, which benefited from significant private donations.
In the meantime, New Hampshire has taken short-term steps to decrease pollution from Powder Mill – changing up its fish food, and moving some species to other facilities.
Smith said they’re still awaiting a compliance schedule for the new EPA permit to see how long those measures should last, and how quickly they’ll need to build the new treatment system.
The whole process is expected to take years, and water quality improvements will take even longer.
The hatchery is still facing a federal water pollution lawsuit from the Conservation Law Foundation. A motion from the state to dismiss the suit in light of the new EPA permit was recently dismissed, and the case is expected to go to trial this spring.
Neighbors like Quimby are continuing to work with scientists at the University of New Hampshire to monitor the impaired waterways. They’re also looking into ways to remove the excess nutrients that have already settled into the sediment below the hatchery.