LAWRENCE — A financially strapped nonprofit that is one of the Merrimack River's leading advocates has fired its executive director for allegedly neglecting the agency's fundraising and focusing too narrowly on a single mission – preventing sewage overflows into the river – the president of the organization's board of directors said Monday.

Rusty Russell, the executive director of the Merrimack River Watershed Council since October 2016, was fired by the board on March 26, just weeks after the board elected Dan Graovac, a Plum Island health care consultant, as its president.

The board voted 8-0 to dismiss Russell, Graovac said. He delivered the news to Russell day or two later, over coffee at Pamploma Cafe in Cambridge.

“'It's because we're running out of money and you haven't been able to raise the money we need,'” Russell said Graovac told him. He said he was fired one day after a hearing on bills to improve the Merrimack River by the state legislature, when he said several legislators cited his work to curb sewage discharges.

“I don't want to publicize that we're struggling financially,” Gravoac said Friday. “But that's the truth.”

The Watershed Council was founded in 1976 and has been unable to balance its books in recent years. The federal tax return it filed in 2017, the most recent available, shows it raised $230,708 and had expenses of $198,396 that year, leaving it a surplus of about $32,000. But the agency had a $22,000 deficit the year before, and an $8,000 the year before, its tax returns show.

Russell said the Council is $90,000 short of what it needs to operate through the end of its fiscal year on June 30. 

The council has just two paid positions, including executive director, which earned Russell $66,000 annually. Its other employee is John Macone, a former editor of The Daily News of Newburyport who was hired a year or two ago as a media specialist to elevate the organization's profile. Macone will take over as acting executive director while the organization searches for a new one, Graovac said. 

Macone will share the duties of executive director with Christina Eckert, a Boxford resident who joined the Watershed Council's board in 2018, when she also ran unsuccessfully for state representative as a Democrat.

While the Watershed Council continued to struggle financially under Russell's leadership, it also helped put a spotlight on the so-called combined sewage overflows by six treatment plants in Massachusetts and New Hampshire that discharge untreated sewage into the river during heavy rain, when the plants and their municipal sewage systems can't handle the combined loads of sewage and stormwater.. The Merrimack begins in Franklin, New Hampshire, and flows 117 miles to its mouth between Salisbury and Newburyport.

The Watershed Council has aggressively monitored the discharges in recent years, a task made difficult by the fact that some of the plants in Massachusetts take longer than a month to report how much they spilled in any storm and plants in New Hampshire report their spills just once a year. Last year, the six plants – including one in Haverhill and a regional one in North Andover — released a total of more than 800 million gallons of raw or partially treated sewage into the river, according to data that the Watershed Council helped to compile.

Beyond counting the gallons, the council under Russell held meetings around the watershed to organize a public response to the threats posed by the sewage overflows and pressure legislators to do more. In Boston, the council has lobbied for bills to improve the Merrimack's water quality and to require treatment plants to make broader and more timely notifications when they dump sewage.

“We put the council in the public eye,” Russell said. “We built consensus around an important water quality issue – combined sewage overflows – that no one was focused on. Now the Massachusetts legislature is jumping all over each other to sponsor bills to make rivers healthier.”

Russell acknowledged that fundraising has stalled while he focused on policy and programs. But he noted that he recently mailed letters to 250 businesses and corporations in the watershed soliciting their support. He said board members themselves have contributed little to the fundraising effort.

“They need to raise money in a hurry,” Russell said. “I can't say I've been very successful in that respect, but the board has been useless in that regard.”

“We can't survive without contributions and grants,” Graovac said. “Rusty fell short.”

Graovac said Russell also neglected other environmental issues in the watershed, including improving public access to the Merrimack, while he focused narrowly on sewage overflows.

“Rusty has done a great job in terms of getting visibility on the (sewage) issue,” Graovac said. “That's one part of what we do, keeping the river clean. But our mission is broader than that."

Russell, 65, lives in Cambridge. He has a law degree from Harvard University and was a lawyer with the Conservation Law Foundation and then a full-time lecturer in environmental law at Tufts University before joining the Watershed Council. 

The Watershed Council is headquartered at 60 Island St. in Lawrence.

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