Alewives dimpling the surface of the Taunton Great River above Titicut St

 

In the near future we will be adding much more info on the upper Taunton Great River. For the time being the following provides a general overview, along with some of our insights and concerns regarding the upper watershed

 

River Issues

The following are our public comments submitted to the MA Department of Environmental Protection regarding their assessment (or non assessment of the upper Taunton Great River). They reflect some of our concerns and thoughts on the state of our Great River today.

 

The following are my questions and comments regarding the proposed 303d listings now out for public comment. For these comments, my primary area of concern is the Salisbury Plain, Matfield and upper most segment of the Taunton Great River. The first part of my comments may or may not be relevant to this process, I do not know? However I do think they help to provide a framework within which we can begin to establish some goals and direction for our efforts.

Regarding the restoration of our Great River and its watershed, we may be behind the times. For too long we have treated it like disabled people were treated years ago. We assume that it is what it is and can never be much more than that. Rather than reaching out to seek the watersheds true potential, we turn our backs on its filthiest tributaries in disgust, and patronize it with the lowest possible restoration standards. In order for our rivers to reach their full potential we must raise our standards and clearly define what restoration means.

What is a restored river? What are we restoring it from and where are we restoring it too? What was it before it needed restoration? We must restore what to it? What does restored mean? Restore (ristawí) to bring back to a former state, to repair, to reconstruct; this is how the dictionary defines restore. Using this definition, we can begin to define river restoration.

What former state should we try to bring our Great River and its tributaries back to? We would not want to go back fifty years or one hundred or even two hundred years. For this long our river has been a dump and a draft animal. Its primary purpose being to sluice away our waste and serve our industry. Therefore, we must travel back still further in history. Most would agree that ideally we should see our river as the Wampanoags saw it before European settlement.

Towering white pines reaching for the clouds along the high banks through Titicut, Bald Eagles perched in their contorted wind blown tops. The snort of a rutting Bull Moose mixes with the cry of a Loon along the shores of Monponsett. Timber Wolves, hackles raised sniffing frosty air in the false dawn along Coweeset. The Pileated Woodpecker pausing briefly as clouds of Passenger pigeons descend into the spreading crowns of American Chestnutís along Salisbury Brook.

In spring at a place then called Cohanett the water churns and froths, as countless alewives push up stream to their birthplace. Oblivious to the surging masses around them, sea lampreys go about their masonry duties. Picking up stones one by one, piling them carefully below the nest they are building. At Muttock, Nunkatetset and Satucket similar scenes would be taking place. Shortly after, our Great Rivers tea colored water turns silver, bulging with blue back herring and American shad. Through the riffles at the place called Titicut striped bass would tear into their masses. Those that survived the carnage would then make way up to Ahquannissowamsoo (Matfield River), the river of their birth.

Above Titicut, in the quiet of the long still water a brownish gray shape glides along the bottom over dense beds of freshwater mussels. Thick bony plates along the ridge of its spine run down to its massive armor-plated head. With a sudden powerful thrust of its scythe shaped tail this prehistoric apparition rockets toward the surface. Its fourteen foot long one thousand pound body clears the water and hangs in the air for a moment. Twisting half around it falls back down to strike the water with a thunderous clap. The sound of this collision echoís along the shore and throughout the waterís of our Great River announcing the annual spawning runs of Atlantic Sturgeon.

The most common reply to this would be, wishful thinking we cannot turn back time and have things as they were five hundred years ago. From a land perspective this is true. The moose, wolves, passenger pigeons and American chestnut trees that once graced our Great Rivers shorelines are gone. In tombed forever in brief paragraphs, squeezed from our collective consciousness beneath the weight of painfully long ecclesiastical and industrial history chapters of musty local history books. Unfortunately we as conservation minded people can do little today to restore what once was here from the land perspective. Land conservation today is more often than not a preservation effort, constantly keeping us on the defensive. As we scramble to preserve isolated fragments of our already broken land-based ecosystems, we overlook the restoration potential that patiently awaits us in the water of our rivers.

Unlike our broken land-based ecosystem our Great Rivers water-based ecosystem is still intact. The course it follows today is the same course it followed a thousand years ago. Its indigenous fish species along with myriad other macro and micro invertebrate species are also still with us. Most of these existing as remnant populations, persisting despite the havoc we have wreaked on their environment. Given this fact, we must not approach its restoration from the defensive, preservation minded, land-based perspective. We must recognize that rivers provide us with a rare opportunity to go on the offensive in our conservation efforts. To bring back something that once was and pass it onto the future. Perhaps the best example of this can be found between Augusta and Waterville Maine on the Kennebec River.

As I made my way up the rocky bank of the Kennebec, not far above Augusta, a small wake appeared on the surface. It raced toward the bank just inches from the shore. Creeping closer to get a better view, I spied several large striped bass lurking in the deep water behind the smaller fish. This small fish was a brook trout about ten inches long. It had beached itself on a small clump of grass, so that its back was out of the water. Like a pack of hounds the bass circled in the deeper water, unwilling to venture into the grass where the brookie sat. After several minutes of milling about the bass lost interest, backing off out of sight, into the deep water offshore. At this turn of events the brookie flopped off his perch, bolted down the bank on a bee line and disappeared.

Further up the bank I came to a boulder-strewn point at the base of a wide riffle. Taking a seat on my favorite rock, I glanced around at the scattered fragments of flint and fire rocks that covered the ground. Remnants, left behind by the Norridgewock Indian culture who had fished and lived on this point for 8,000 years. Below the riffle schools of blue back herring sprayed up from the water, forced out of their element by schools of hungry striped bass. Two bald eagles circled thirty feet above the melee, shrieking as they waited for a clear shot at an easy meal of bass or herring. Moments later the quiet flat water above the riffle parted as one then another six-foot long Atlantic sturgeon leaped high into the air.

Before 1999 the rock I sat on in this ancient fishing village was under twelve feet water. These fish along with the eagles could not be found here. Until 1999 the Kennebec had been like a long scenic country road. Pleasant enough to travel down, its surroundings pretty enough to look at. Unfortunately like the asphalt of a country road the Kennebec also lacked the pulse of life that I now witnessed. What made this new pulse of life possible was the removal of the impassable Edwards Dam in July of 1999. Since then the Kennebec has drawn a fresh breath from the sea each spring, exhaling a fresh breath of life into its waters. With each passing year these breaths grow deeper and the indigenous life that is the essence of a river grows stronger and stronger.

Although our Great River has no dam of concrete and timbers, it does have a dam of a different sort, no less limiting to the river. It is a dam built of indifference and misperception. Three hundred years of use and abuse has taken a heavy toll on life in our Great River and our perception of that life. So much so that we have come not to recognize many of its indigenous species at all. Or, we see them as window dressings, rather than as the living force that once breathed life into water. Shad, Blue Back Herring, Striped Bass, Atlantic Sturgeon are but a few of these species. Unlike the great alewife runs that spawn and complete their juvenile life cycles in the pristine waters of Assawompsett these species must do the same in the river itself. Why are they not with us today in significant numbers? They have access to most of their historic habitat and have had it for quite sometime now. Some might look to Mount Hope Bay and the power plant there that devours life with an insatiable appetite. If it were the culprit, with the shad and blue back herring, then why do one million alewives return to the Nemasket each year? Their juveniles all go to sea simultaneously and have similar habits once they arrive there. The primary difference between them is shad and blue backs spawn and grow in the river. Alewives only swim through it to get to the ponds.

A quotation from the Taunton River Wild and Scenic River website reads "In the end we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, we will understand only what we are taught." Today our Great River is like the Kennebec was, a long scenic road winding through the country side, we love it but do not understand it. We do not understand it because we do not know it. No one can teach it to us because those who truly knew it have been gone now for two hundred years or more. Therefore it is up to us to educate ourselves, to find out what this river truly was. If our goal is simply to conserve it as a scenic country road, then our work may be nearing completion. If however our goal is truly to restore it than our work has just begun.

Back on the Kennebec, I sat on my archaic perch among the spirits of our most ancient peoples. Framed between the tall granite steeples of Augusta, and the water worn rubble left by ice age glaciers, I looked on as the elements of nature joined together as one to become a river. It became clear then that the definition of restoration regarding our rivers would not be found in vague guidelines construed within the confines of a cubicle filled office building. Nor would it be found in bottles of water at a testing lab. Although these are important tools to achieve some measure of success, they should not be the final measure of it. In the end restoration is perhaps best defined, and our success is best measured by scenes such as these.

Beginning with the upper, most segment of the Salisbury Plain ( ma62-05 2002) which is listed for siltation, pathogens and suspended solids I will work down stream. The segments below here down to and including the upper Taunton Great River segment should also be listed as impaired by siltation. Most of the river bed in the lower segments (ma62-06 2002, ma62-32 2002, ma62-01 2002 ) consists of deep shifting sand and sediments, except at the few spots that contain high gradient rocky riffles. The cause of this seems to be extreme flows from excessive storm water run off which cause large portions of the stream banks to slump into the river. Large trees also topple into the river from these high flows, exasperating the problem by creating dams that slow the flow of the river, preventing the water from moving the sediments down stream. Why is siltation not listed as a cause of impairment on these lower segments?

This seems one of the simplest impairments to recognize because it only involves taking a canoe trip down the segments mentioned. Also, we have been unable to find any sign of freshwater mussels on the Salisbury Plain or the Matfield Rivers. Even the more tolerant species such as Eastern Elliptios and Eastern Lamp Mussels seem absent. Whether this is due to shifting sediments or disgusting water, I do not know.

It also appears that suspended solids should be listed as an impairment on these lower segments. According to testing done by the Taunton River Watershed Alliance these lower segments consistently tested higher for suspended solids than the upper Salisbury Plain. TRWA year 2000 test results show that there were only two months when suspended solids were higher in segment ma62-05 2002 than in the lower segments. Once during April and only in the case of the upper Taunton Great River segment in December. What information was used to determine that suspended solids were a cause of impairment in the upper segment (ma-05 2002)? It seems logical that if the lower segments consistently tested higher for suspended solids than the upper segments then the lower segments would be more impaired than the upper segment. Why are these lower segments not listed as impaired by suspended solids?

In the case of pathogens it seems that the upper segment of the Taunton Great River should also be listed as impaired by pathogens. Both the Matfield and Salisbury Plain are listed as such. The Matfield is the largest contributing tributary to the upper Taunton Great River especially during low summertime flows. During July, August and September when the Town, Satucket and Nemasket Rivers are barely flowing the Matfield maintains strong flows. This is due to the Brockton WWTP which puts an average daily flow of twenty million gallons per day of effluent into the Salisbury Plain and on down the Matfield. This effluent combined with the already tainted water coming down from the segment above the WWTP flows down into the upper Taunton Great River without any significant dilution by clean waters.

The Matfield begins at the confluence of Beaver Brook and the Salisbury Plain, in the summer Beaver Brook barely flows, offering very little dilution. A couple miles below here the Satucket River enters the Matfield River. The Satucket is the only significant source of dilution for the Matfield. Unfortunately the city of Brockton maintains a dam at the outlet of Monponsett Pond, which is at the head waters of the Satucket. In the summer the city lets no water past this dam. The only water that goes down stream here is the water used by the cranberry bogs for summer irrigation. Therefore the Satucket flow is reduced to that of the Poor Meadow Brook which enters the Satucket below Robbins Pond. The past two summers they have reduced the flow of the Satucket to a trickle during most of the summer contributing very little in terms of dilution to the tainted waters of the Matfield. The Town River contributes some summer time flow into the system. However, the Town takes in between five and seven hundred thousand gallons per day of effluent from the Bridgewater WWTP. Nemasket River, the other major tributary takes in about one million gallons per day of effluent from the Middleboro WWTP. Sawmill Brook also enters the system below Titicut St, and is the recipient of effluent from Bridgewater Prison.

It appears that when the Titicut St, river gauge drops below 100 cfs the upper Taunton Great River becomes a river dominated by effluent flows. This summer 2002 the river stayed below 50 cfs for fifty days and was below 40 cfs for many of those days. Due to the hydrology of the river, long stillwater segments separated by short riffles, the upper Taunton Great River resembled a long series of waste water storage lagoons separated by short smelly riffles.

This is another case where a trip down the river would be a worthwhile exercise. One could also use mathematics to confirm this, by taking the output flow from the Brockton WWTP and figuring it against the flows at the Titicut St, gauging station. Either way the Matfield makes up the bulk of the flow into the upper Taunton Great River. Therefore, it seems reasonable that if the Matfield is impaired by pathogens then the upper Taunton Great River would also be.

Monthly testing by the TRWA in the year, 2000 also appears to support listing this segment as impaired by pathogens. At sample station TNT 250, High St Bridgewater, fecal levels were at or exceeded 200 mg/l six out of twelve months during 2000. The highest level was 25000 mg/l in July, there were four other instances when it was at or above 400 mg/L. At station TNT 158, Green St Middleboro fecal levels went above 200 mg/l six out of twelve months also. Here the highest count was 1040 in January followed by 520 in February and 680 in March.

USGS sampling at the Titicut St, gauging station also recorded high fecal readings in this segment. On 6/18/01 E Coli was 2,900 per 100 ML and coliform fecal was 5,900 per 100 ML. Why has the uppermost segment of the Taunton Great River not been listed as impaired by pathogens?

Dissolved oxygen also may be a problem in these segments. During the 1999 BSC-WAL over night Hydrolab Minisonde Study several sites in these segments had DO levelís drop below acceptable levels. On 6/11/99 at Titicut St, Bridgewater on Taunton Great River average DO was 4.27, minimum was 3.83 with an average saturation of 48.6. On 7/1/99 High St, Bridgewater Matfield River, average DO was 4.10, minimum was 3.12 with an average saturation of 46.6. On the same date Spring St, East Brigewater Matfield River, average DO was 4.73 minimum was 4.34 average saturation was 53.6. On the Salisbury Plain at Pleasant St. East Bridgewater on 7/1/99 average DO was 3.28 minimum was 2.50 with an average saturation of 37.3. It is worth noting that the Pleasant St. sample site is at the base of a very long stretch of riffles. This is just below where benthic macroinvertebrate biomonitoring surveys were done in 1996. The author of that survey said the following in his report regarding this site "With an EPT index of only 1 and a taxa richness of only 6, it would be unconscionable to place TRO3 anywhere near the nonimpaired category". There were several other instances in this 1999 study when minimum DO was below acceptable standards. High St. Matfield River 4.36 on 6/24, Titicut St, Taunton Great River 4.11 on 7/8 and Salisbury Plain River, Pleasant St, 4.42 on 8/5.

During the same study done in the year 2000 similar instances of low DO were found. High St, Bridgewater Matfield River 6/12 average DO 3.88 minimum 3.26 average saturation 39.5. Belmont St, Salisbury Plain River 7/17 average DO 4.50 minimum 3.50 average saturation 51.3. Same date Salisbury Plain River at Sewer Treatment Plant average DO 5.76 minimum 4.93 average saturation 63.5 (these numbers seem to suggest a violation of the plantís discharge permit, which states that minimum DO of discharge must be 6.0 mg/l).

Testing done by the USGS at the Titicut St, gauging station also suggest there may be DO problems in upper Taunton Great River segment. On 6/18/01 their sampling recorded DO 4.5 mg/l, percent saturation 51%.

Whether this information provides conclusive evidence that low DO is an impairment in these segments, I do not know. However it certainly suggests that there is a problem, and that in the future there should be a more comprehensive effort to find out.

It also appears that high nutrient loads and organic enrichment impair these segments. Although I lack the technical expertise to go into this in any intelligent detail, my simple observations in these segments compared to my observations in clean rivers indicate to me that something is wrong here. The rocky riffle sections of these segments all sport thick blankets of algae, spongeís, scum (for lack of a better word) and other sorts of weird substances that are not commonly found in clean rivers. It would appear that these substances would be an impairment to the indigenous macroinvertabrate communities that rely on clean substrates to complete their life cycles. I have attached survey info from TRWA along with some photographs that I took this summer 2002.

Aesthetically these segments fall well short of acceptable standards. In the Salisbury Plain and Matfield Rivers, it can be best summed up by the reaction of local folks to the mention of either one of these rivers names. This reaction is best described as a brief contortion of facial expressions followed by a series of short guttural grunts. Itís quite similar to the reaction you might have if you were to step in a fresh dog crap while walking on the beach barefoot. This is unfortunate, these segments below the WWTP are two of the most beautiful river reaches in the Taunton Great Rivers basin. There are many stretches of fast flowing, rocky boulder strewn riffles, which are unusual for rivers in this area. Most of their shorelines are quite wild and undeveloped, meandering through marshes and woodlands. However due to the dominance of the flow being from Brockton WWTP these segments are too repulsive to be used for recreation. It is worth mentioning that these are not short river segments, combined they represent about eight river miles.

 

One of the most limiting aesthetic factors is the smell of the water. This odor is not limited only to Salisbury Plain and Matfield Rivers( although it is strongest there) it can be clearly smelt throughout most of the upper Taunton Great River segment. When passing through riffles, paddling or wading in the water you can smell the treatment plant all the way down to Green St, in Middleboro this is near twenty miles from the Brockton WWTP. It is not a smell of human waste, but more of a chemical odor, similar to what you might smell in a laundromat. Casual users of the river might mistake this smell for something coming from a land-based source. However once you have paddled past the Brockton WWTP and down, the upper segments the source of the odor becomes obvious. Although the Town and Nemasket Rivers both have, WWTPís neither one has this odor. This odor clearly comes from Brockton WWTP and may be a by product of the chlorination and de-chlorination process. Besides being offensive this odor hints at how dominant the flows of the Brockton WWTP are in the upper segment of the Taunton Great River.

The waters color and clarity is not what it should be in this segment either. Rather than being the rich amber color of itís contributing tributaries, it is more often than not a brownish gray, dingy color like that of the Matfield. In low summer flows the surface of the river often becomes covered with a film of brownish scum that is not aesthetically pleasing. As mentioned above, in the riffles of this segment white ish gray algae can be found growing on and under the rocks.

It is perhaps best to sum up my comments where they began, on the Kennebec. Thirty years ago the Kennebec was an open sewer, taking in waste that by today's standards would be unimaginable. Today the Kennebec is clean, in the short time since the removal of the Edwards Dam itís indigenous species of fish and invertebrates have come back with astonishing speed. When my family and I go up there our children swim in the water without reservation.

Unfortunately this is not so on our Great River. I know of no responsible parent that would allow their children to swim in this segment. In fact, this summer I went down to the riffles at Green St, in Middleboro with my mask and snorkel to look for freshwater mussels. After wading out waist deep, I could not bring myself to dive under due to the smell and color of the water.

The most frustrating and telling part of this document is that this segment of our Taunton Great River along with the Matfield segment, 25 miles as the river runs, has not been assessed by the MA DEP. This fact more than any other is evidence of how we collectively, are failing miserably regarding our Great River.

 

One parting thought?

What's an assessment?

 

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