The Merrimack: River at Risk

By Jerry Monkman

All Photos © Jerry Monkman

Jerry Monkman is a conservation photographer, filmmaker, and writer, and while he has written ten books and directed two feature-length documentary films, you will usually find him shooting nature and outdoor lifestyle imagery (stills and video) for non-profit, editorial, and commercial clients. Based in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Jerry has received two National Outdoor Book Awards and the North American Nature Photography Association’s Mission Award.


A historic mill building on the Merrimack River in Lowell, Massachusetts.

The Merrimack River is the 4th largest watershed in New England and is best known as the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution in America. During the 19th century, mills in cities such as Manchester, New Hampshire, and Lowell, Massachusetts, harnessed the power of the river to become the largest manufacturing plants in the world. Like many rivers in America, the Merrimack was heavily polluted as a result of being used as an open sewer and from chemical pollution discharged by industry, but thanks to the Clean Water Act of 1972, the Merrimack has been cleaned up considerably over the last 50 years. However, in 2016, it was named one of the most endangered rivers in the United States by the nonprofit American Rivers.

I-93 crosses the Merrimack River in Hookset, New Hampshire.

This designation inspired me to partner with The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests to produce a film that explores why the Merrimack is at risk and why we should care. We learned that more than 600,000 people in the Merrimack watershed rely on it every day for clean drinking water; and that number is expected to grow to 800,000 in the next 20 years. It’s that growth that is the biggest threat to the river. While water quality in the river is compromised by sewage overflows and persistent cancer-causing chemicals like PFAS and PFOAs, the biggest threat to the Merrimack is an increase in non-point source pollution which is predicted to get worse as the region experiences further development.

A storm over the Merrimack River in downtown Manchester, New Hampshire.

Remarkably, despite being one of the oldest industrialized rivers in the world, more than 80 percent of the Merrimack watershed is still undeveloped and largely forested. However, the US Forest Service predicts that in the next several decades the Merrimack watershed will lose more forested acres to development than any other watershed in the country. This conversion of forests to impermeable surfaces will increase run-off into the river, rising levels of nitrogen and phosphorous, salts, and chemical contaminants, negatively impacting wildlife populations and the safety of people using the river for recreation and drinking water. And this run-off will be exacerbated by the increase of intense rain events brought on by climate change.

A wastewater treatment plant on the banks of the Merrimack River in Concord, New Hampshire.

At the turn of the 20th century, the Merrimack faced a similar threat as deforestation in the river’s headwaters in New Hampshire’s White Mountains resulted in a changing hydrology of the river. Due to the clear-cutting of the forests, siltation in the river combined with more frequent flooding wreaked havoc on the mills in the southern part of the watershed. The resulting economic losses led to the conservation efforts that established the 800,000-acre White Mountain National Forest as well as paving the way for other national forests in the eastern U.S. Today, development in the southern part of the Merrimack watershed may be causing different water quality and economic problems, but the solution is the same – protecting the region’s forests.

Whitewater rafting on the Concord River in downtown Lowell, Massachusetts.

“The Merrimack: River at Risk” premieres on New Hampshire PBS on July 23 at 8:00 P.M. For those out of state, the premiere can be watched online at http://nhpbs.org/Merrimackriver, NHPBS YouTube TV, and on NHPBS Facebook. You can see the film’s trailer here.

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