LAWRENCE — As the sun set over their shoulders, a group of state legislators and other local officials gathered on the bank of the Merrimack River Friday night to talk about sewage overflows, recreational boating and economic development.
Celebrating their third night on the river, the kayakers, dubbed the Merrimack River Valley Voyagers, spoke about the beauty of the river and the challenges of making it even cleaner.
"People need to get on the river," said state Sen. Diana DiZoglio, D-Methuen, one of the paddlers making the 117-mile trip from Franklin, N.H., to Newburyport, where the trip ends Saturday. "It helps with your social, emotional health."
She pointed to the Abe Bashara Boathouse and the boats tied up to the floats behind it, noting that the recreational opportunities afforded the kids of Lawrence is "really amazing. This is a great resource the community should really take advantage of."
Heather McMann, executive director of Groundwork Lawrence, said the river is "a lot cleaner than it used to be but we still have a long way to go."
In particular, she and others spoke about the problem of combined sewer overflows, or CSOs, which allow raw sewage to flow into the river along with storm water during heavy rain.
They said that these rain storms can create high bacteria counts in the river that in turn can be harmful to the health of people boating, swimming or fishing in the river.
Aside from DiZoglio, other legislators who made the trip included Rep. Christina Minicucci, D-North Andover; Rep. Linda Dean Campbell, D-Methuen; and Rep. Jim Kelcourse, D-Amesbury,
"The best part of the trip was when we turned the bend and saw the clock tower in Lawrence," said Minicucci. "We knew we were home. It was an amazing experience."
She said legislation is pending that would alert people when CSOs happen and when it's safe to go back in the water.
Dean Campbell added, "the basic function of government is to notify folks of a public health emergency. If people feel comfortable that the river is clean and safe, you'll get more people on the river."
She added, however, "we don't want to cry wolf every five minutes. Communities need to get notification of CSO events in a timely manner."
Others spoke about how businesses and communities along the river will continue economic development along the river, as long as it remains clean and gets even cleaner.