Your life “should be constantly as fresh as this river,” Thoreau wrote nearly two centuries ago. “It should be the same channel, but a new water every instant.”

He was writing of our ageless liquid pathway, the Merrimack River. But the Merrimack remains a contingency, potential victim of the changing notions of its human stewards. Can its protectors remain abreast of the political domain’s daily cross-currents?

The Merrimack River Watershed Council, the river basin’s very own advocate, has been fitfully positioned for years to perform this essential role. But at regular intervals this promising nonprofit organization has been swept away by an unfortunate tide of parochial caprice.

Sometimes, Thoreau observes, human nature abandons its natural landscape and creates one all its own: “Most men have no rapids, no cascades; but marshes, and alligators, and miasma instead.”

On a hot summer day not so very long ago, “you could smell the Merrimack River all over town — the faint smell of sewage and diesel and drying mud, of dead fish and creosote.” That’s native son Andre Dubus III recounting his stormy adolescence in downtown Haverhill.

Another 45 years on, and the river’s doubtless far cleaner. But it’s not clean, especially at its palsied mouth.

Last year, a record 800 million gallons of untreated waste was dumped into its upstream waters. But that’s far from the Merrimack’s only challenge. There’s the fact that more than 600,000 people get their daily drinking water from the river, the potential seepage of carcinogenic chemicals into riparian soils, the nearly 800 dams obstructing fish passage across the watershed, the steady urbanization that increasingly contributes to polluted stormwater runoff, and miles of riverfront land that, while now unprotected, embodies the promise of the present to the future — for outdoor recreation, conservation and contemplation, as well as insurance against the chaotic march of climate change.

The Merrimack River is without a doubt one of the region’s signal natural features, whether viewed historically or as a contemporary conduit of contemplation, culture and ecological coherence. It predates the Indians and will last longer than any of our great grandchildren. It drains one of the largest river systems in New England, which, with 2.6 million souls, is the most populous.

It should be obvious that we owe this region a decent-sized organization that focuses on protecting the Merrimack and enhancing its many public attractions, current and future. Certainly, other, far more modest waterways have drawn the needed attention and — critically — consistent, adequate funding. The Charles River, the Ipswich, the Nashua, the Mystic, the Neponset — all support energized nonprofit advocates who’ve delivered impressive results for decades. Not so, the far larger (and more troubled) Merrimack.

These days, the Merrimack River Watershed Council paddles forth on a budget of under $100,000 and a staff, depending how you count, of maybe one. Contrast this with the Nashua River Watershed Association. Founded in 1970, five years before setting up its Merrimack counterpart, NRWA looks after a river half the length of the Merrimack that drains a watershed eight times smaller. Yet NRWA is 10 times better off, boasting a staff of nearly a dozen and a budget heading north of $1 million.

Or consider the nonprofit advocates looking after the Charles, Ipswich and Mystic — waterways that, at 80, 35 and 7 miles in length, respectively, drain watersheds of 308, 155 and 76 square miles — collectively barely one-tenth the area of the bi-state Merrimack basin. Yet each of these supports a staff of nearly 10 that includes aquatic scientists, community advocates, policy experts, recreation program coordinators, and urban planners – not to mention, fundraisers. At the low end, their budgets exceed $500,000 and the high end, more than $2 million. Together, their watersheds are home to 1.8 million, only about two-thirds the combined Massachusetts and New Hampshire population of the Merrimack’s.

These watershed groups are effective, efficient and essential. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ve worked with their leaders and admire what their supporters have accomplished. All rivers need champions.

What makes the Merrimack’s situation troubling is not just the size of the challenge or the fact that, aside from a besieged EPA, no single governmental eye looks after the watershed’s huge expanse, but also the sad history of the region’s effort to support its own cadre of watershed guardians. Two decades ago, for example, the MRWC's board, in its wisdom, dismissed the organization’s executive director, an individual who in 10 years had built the council from a small group of struggling volunteers to a non-governmental organization with a staff of seven and a budget approaching $1 million. Since then, however, the council has been up against a rising tide.

The solution won’t be simple, but must begin with a leadership team, particularly a board of directors, equal to the task of protecting a major watershed that’s been abused, then largely ignored, for too long. And it also must begin with broader public involvement — not just new members or even momentarily concerned politicians, but private individuals who see the enormous promise and are willing to put their money where their convictions are.

Maybe then the modern narrative of this ancient river will be written in the granite native to this place, and not on contaminated tide flats that the next cloudburst will wash into the sea.

Rusty Russell is an attorney and former executive director of the Merrimack River Watershed Council. He serves on the policy committee of the Mystic River Watershed Association, while following river issues throughout New England.


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