Return to the River Part 4: Guiding Franklin’s Future with Science
Concord Monitor | Elodie Reed |May 10, 2017
He’s a junior environmental science major, a Franklin native who grew up playing outdoors and – on the nights he spends counting water bugs – a bit of a nerd.
Max Maynard is the ideal constituent in a city looking to appeal to newcomers by keeping its rivers clean and viable for the future. As Franklin considers revitalizing its economy in large part through its natural resources, environmental scientists say it’s important for the average community member to understand how they damage or preserve their local ecosystem.
People may gain insight, for instance, if they spend Wednesday nights with Maynard and others examining macroinvertebrates beneath the microscope at “Bug Night.” That’s the weekly session where volunteers document water bugs to determine the health of the upper Merrimack River watershed.
They do so under the auspices of the Upper Merrimack Monitoring Program, created in 1995. The local organization is the outcome of a 1990 state law establishing a New Hampshire river management and protection program.
The Upper Merrimack Monitoring Program’s director, Michele Tremblay, has been there since the beginning, when the earliest water sampling sites included the Winnipesaukee, Pemigewasset and Merrimack rivers in Franklin.
In her 22 years working with volunteers, Tremblay said she’s watched people take on a whole new understanding of the rivers. They learn how they can have an impact, positive or negative.
“People are starting to appreciate their actions have consequences,” she said.
Tremblay said she has worked with about 600 volunteers since the Upper Merrimack Monitoring Program started. A number of them have been employees from Franklin Savings Bank, Watts Water Technologies and the city of Franklin, as well as Franklin High School staff and students.
That includes Maynard, who grew up fishing, canoeing and catching crawfish in Franklin. After his freshman college class at NHTI attended a “Bug Night” at a St. Paul’s School laboratory, Maynard kept coming back. Three years in, he’s also in charge of one of the Franklin rock baskets used to capture an annual macroinvertebrate sample, since the site is in his backyard.
He does it because he cares about the environment and, he said, it’s also fun counting bugs with friends.
“You can’t see most of these bugs if you’re just looking at the water,” Maynard said. “It’s just something people don’t really know about.”
Through people like Maynard, community awareness about river health is growing, Tremblay said.
“These are the people who are producing the data, so those data really come home for them,” she said. “They’re talking to their friends and their family and their neighbors.”
And this growing ecological knowledge does have a visible impact, according to Ted Diers, watershed management bureau administrator, at the state Department of Environmental Services.
“I think over time you see a higher level of sophistication of dealing with water quality,” he said.
Franklin’s site planning regulations, for example, require applicants to have a stormwater management plan and show that their project will not adversely affect natural resources.
Environmental consciousness is front and center in Franklin’s plans for its future. The nonprofit PermaCityLife – which is partnering with city officials, local businesses and the Mill City Park whitewater play park project – is incorporating permaculture principles in its development.
For its next project – a facade renovation along Central Street in Franklin – PermaCityLife has a living “green roof” planned for the top of one of its buildings.
On one of the last “Bug Nights” before summertime sampling begins, Upper Merrimack Monitoring Program’s sampling supervisor Stephen Landry dumped bugs from the Winnipesaukee River into a petri dish.
He fawned over the family members of macroinvertebrate species with Tremblay, told microscope stories and, at one point, affectionately stated the obvious:
“We’re such nerds.”
The nerd, a DES employee, used forceps to nudge one of the larger macroinvertebrates. He focused a microscope on a stonefly, which sported healthy antennae, hairy elbows, four dark body segments and a tail.
“This is one of the more sensitive organisms that we’ll find, which is good,” Landry said. “Those are in clean, moving, stony streams all over North America.”
The aquatic biologist then picked out a much smaller, tan creature. Enlarging the image on his microscope, Landry focused on what looked like a little face, cocooned in a covering made of sand grains – a caddisfly.
“The caddisflies are the most numerous organism we see through all our river sites,” Landry said. While some are more tolerant to change in their habitat, he said this particular one, which wears a portable case, is usually found in higher quality rivers and streams.
The Merrimack River water samples reflect its less hospitable habitat for delicate organisms – it’s flat, sunny, sandy – Landry said. He added, however, that both the Winnipesaukee and Pemigewasset, despite not being “natural” river stretches anymore, both have healthy water quality.
“It’s all about habitat,” he said.
The “elephants” of water pollution – like the sewage pipes going into the Winnipesaukee River basin – are gone, Tremblay said. Now there are the “ants” to contend with.
“It’s sort of a collective amount of smaller things happening at the homeowner level,” she said. “Obviously, land development is the biggest impact we have.”
Diers, the self-described nerd from DES, explained that as development creates more impervious surface, like pavement, and sustains more human activity, like farming or fertilizing lawns or road salting, water runoff becomes a source of water pollution.
“The nonpoint sources, as we call them,” he said.
And that can be problematic for the health of people recreating in the nearby river. As DES assesses the Mill City Park whitewater play park proposal, Diers said “the gut” – where microorganisms go – is an important consideration.
“We need to think with our gut here,” he said.
Diers said the other issue is whether recreation could lead to overuse of a natural resource. Rivers are where a lot of other “critters” live too.
“We’re always concerned we’re going to love it to death,” Diers said.
Both Tremblay and Diers emphasized that the future of water quality and public health in Franklin and elsewhere would depend on more people – both those in the community and those visiting it – understanding their individual impact.
“None of us really wants to be the problem, but where we’re at is, most of these things are all of our problems,” Diers said. “And all of our solutions.”