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Organization for the Assabet River
Damonmill Square
Concord, MA 01742

Tel: 978-369-3956
Email: oar@assabetriver.org

 





 
Assabet Issues

Centuries of strain on river add up

HudsonLike most New England rivers, the Assabet River flows through a landscape that bears the imprint of human activity. Roads, houses, and other human uses of the land affect both the river's water quality and its flow. Home to a watershed population of 177,000 (and growing), the river and the aquifers beneath provide both wastewater disposal and water supply for watershed residents.

As the business, industrial and residential population grows, these demands on the river increase. However, initial results of the Assabet River TMDL (Total Maximum Daily Loading) analysis provide strong evidence that the capacity of the region's water resources to sustainably meet those demands has already been exceeded. 

As the Assabet watershed struggles with the challenge of continued growth despite the limits of its natural resources, it is OAR's goal to make sure that the river has a strong voice in decisions that will affect it. 

 

Eutrophication and water quality

In the summer, parts of the Assabet River are as green as a well-watered lawn. The green is a blanket of floating duckweed and algae, and, beneath that, hides a forest of aquatic plants rooted in the shallow sediments. This condition, termed "eutrophication," is caused by an over-abundance of nutrients (mainly nitrogen and phosphorus) in the river acting as fertilizer for the aquatic plants. During the growing season the over-growth of plants creates problems for fish and other aquatic creatures by affecting dissolved oxygen concentrations and pH in the water column. After the growing season, the plants and algae decay, lowering dissolved oxygen levels and producing that distinctive bad odor you probably associate with late summer along the Assabet if you've walked by the Powdermill dam on Rte 62 near the bait shop in Acton or lived along the Ben Smith impoundment in Maynard.

The excess of nutrients and the effects of eutrophication means that the river fails to meet state water quality standards for "fishable and swimmable" waters. The bulk of the nutrient loading to the river comes from the seven wastewater treatment plants that line its banks and from nonpoint sources (carried by stormwater). Storm water runoff and the recycling of nutrients trapped in river sediments also contribute to the river's excess of nutrients. Dams all along the river create large, slow moving sections (impoundments) where nutrient-rich sediments have accumulated over many years. Before the river can meet "fishable and swimmable" standards nutrient loads from the wastewater treatment plants and nonpoint sources will need to be dramatically reduced.

For more information about water quality, and what OAR is doing about it, click over to our WQ program or our Nutrient Outreach project. 

 

Water quantity

Ben Smith Dam, Maynard"Quantity" or "flow" simply refers to the amount of water in the river. The river needs not only good-quality water but also enough water to provide habitat for a healthy population of fish, to support recreational uses (canoeing, kayaking, fishing) and to dilute pollutants in wastewater discharges and storm water. The river's problems are exacerbated by low flows. During the natural low flow periods in the summer and early fall, upper sections of the river can consist largely of treated wastewater. Summertime flow in the river depends on "baseflow," the cool, clean water coming from aquifers and tributaries in the watershed. When an aquifer is tapped for water supply and the water taken is not returned to that aquifer, the water is not available to the tributary streams or river. If the aquifers are depleted, the river suffers and water supply in the region is threatened.

For current flow conditions or more information on baseflow, water use and conservation, or fish habitat and populations, click over to our StreamWatch project. As part of OAR's efforts to protect flow in the river, OAR comments on water withdrawal permits, has advocated for a hydrologic study of the watershed, holds water conservation workshops, and participates in an ongoing discussion of minimum flow recommendations in the state.

To learn about OAR's programs that target the Assabet's issues, check out OAR Programs.

Sat, Nov 22, 2003