New Hampshire Oil Spill Practice Deployment

Nov 5, 2015 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

What happens if there is an oil spill at a power plant or distributor on the Piscataqua River in Portsmouth or Newington, New Hampshire? If the first responders at these facilities fail to immediately control the spill, who responds as that oil moves upriver and into Little Bay and Great Bay? Enter the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services’ (NH DES) Coastal Oil Spill Response Team. Led by Coordinator Carroll Brown, NH DES will be on the scene in short order to prevent the migration of oil into the estuary on the incoming tide. To ensure that they are ready to respond effectively and efficiently, they conduct annual practice exercises like the one just completed in late October. Several observers, including me, were aboard the command vessel to view the effort.

Staggered boom deployment across Little Bay

Staggered boom deployment across Little Bay

The objective of the practice effort was to deploy more than a mile of orange-colored, rubberized, containment booms that are permanently stored on strategically positioned barges in Little Bay – the northern portion of Great Bay – as quickly and competently as possible. Smaller vessels pull the boom from those barges and anchor it to the shore on both sides of the bay. Larger boats then pull it taught before connecting it to anchored buoys already in place. In a little more than two hours (slightly longer than the two-hour goal), several booms were successfully deployed – meaning a moderate spill would have been prevented from moving into Great Bay proper. Using the tide and currents in the bay to advantage, the intent is to divert any surface oil to the Newington side where surface skimmers can collect the spill for removal.

Coordinator Carroll Brown explaining the boom deployment exercise to Assistant NH DES Commissioner Clark Freise

Coordinator Carroll Brown explaining the boom deployment exercise to Assistant NH DES Commissioner Clark Freise

Directing the exercise from the command vessel, Carroll Brown fielded questions from the onboard observers, noting ways to improve the effort for the future. The exercise was not complete until all the boom was stored back on to the barges – ready to be deployed in the event of a real spill.

In addition to preventing oil from entering Great Bay, the NH DES has boom deployment planning scenarios for the Oyster River, Bellamy River, and the Upper Piscataqua. But make no mistake, if the tide was out-going, the considerable strength of the tides in the Piscataqua River would negate any effort to deploy booms in the down-river portion of the river. A spill could travel several miles to the Atlantic Ocean. What the NH DES has planned and practiced is very close to the best that anyone can do for Great Bay. The best scenario, of course, would be no spill at all.

Great Bay is Cleaner Today

Sep 2, 2015 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

On August 13th, Seven Rivers Paddling of Newmarket and Timberland of Stratham teamed up with Jeff Barnum, CLF’s Great Bay–Piscataqua Waterkeeper, to patrol several areas of the estuary, picking up whatever refuse they could find. “Great Bay is an estuary of national significance – one of only 28 in the U.S. – and deserves our stewardship,” said Barnum.

Clean Water Advocate Mike McDonnell and Great Bay-Piscataqua Waterkeeper cleaning up the Bay. Photo credit: Peter Sawtell

Clean Water Advocate Mike McDonnell and Great Bay-Piscataqua Waterkeeper cleaning up the Bay (Photo credit: Peter Sawtell).

Barnum added, “I really did not expect to find a great deal of trash, but in just a few hours we filled the 20-foot Waterkeeper vessel twice. And there’s much more to do. The folks from Timberland and Seven Rivers Paddling were just great.”

Peter Sawtell, owner of Seven Rivers Paddling, had this to say about the day’s efforts: “Growing up on the seacoast and learning to kayak on Great Bay showed me how important it is to help keep the Bay clean. When asked to partner in this cleanup, I was thrilled for the opportunity.”

Brianne Wood, Community Service Manager at Timberland noted, “Timberland aims to operate at the intersection of commerce and justice. We believe in providing our employees with the opportunity to make a difference in the communities where they live and work. As an outdoor company, we feel it is extremely important to invest in and protect all facets of the outdoors to ensure there are places to explore and enjoy, both now and in the future.”

This cleanup collaboration is a small but significant way of shining a light on Great Bay. The estuary is faced with many challenges – too much nitrogen, the loss of eelgrass and oysters, and stormwater pollution. But progress is being made on many fronts. Cleaning up the visible debris is just one way of showing how many people care about and value this extraordinary resource.


Peter Sawtell, Owner of Seven Rivers Paddling.

Peter Sawtell, Owner of Seven Rivers Paddling.


Clean-up crew finished for the day (Photo credit: Peter Sawtell).

Cleanup crew finished for the day (Photo credit: Peter Sawtell).

Childhood Lead Poisoning Bill Signed into Law

Jul 14, 2015 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

On July 13, Governor Maggie Hassan signed a new law to better protect New Hampshire kids from the tragic and avoidable problem of lead poisoning. Passage of this important legislation is the culmination of a strong bipartisan effort, as well as the hard work of a broad group of stakeholders, including CLF.

In New Hampshire and elsewhere, the threat of childhood lead poisoning is very real. While lead paint was banned in 1978, the fact that we have a large proportion of older housing means that it remains on and in many of our homes throughout our state and region. And when that paint deteriorates (i.e, when it flakes, peels or chips), or is subject to abrasion from the friction of windows or doors being opened and closed, or is disturbed through unsafe painting or renovation activities, kids are at risk.

Each year, more than 1,000 kids are diagnosed with lead poisoning in New Hampshire. And because even low levels of exposure can result in permanent, irreversible harm – such as loss of IQ, and cognitive and behavioral impairments – it’s essential that we address this problem. SB 135, the legislation just signed into law by Governor Hassan, takes the following important, much-needed steps in doing so.

  1. Ensuring more kids are screened.

As I discussed in a prior blog, not nearly enough kids in New Hampshire are being screened for lead poisoning. In 2013, for example, of the 23,554 one- and two-year olds who should have been tested (because they live in high risk communities), only 10,830 actually were. That’s less than 40 percent. To prevent kids from falling through the cracks, and to provide kids the treatment and protection they need, New Hampshire can and must do better. Recognizing this fact, the new law establishes a screening rate milestone of 85 percent to be achieved by 2017, and requires state rules to be developed if the milestone is not achieved. It also establishes the Childhood Lead Poisoning & Screening Commission, which will explore ways to ensure the state’s screening goals are met.

  1. Getting critical information to parents and landlords.

When a child is found to have lead in his or her blood, it’s essential that steps be taken to prevent further exposure to lead hazards. Under prior law, the State was required to reach out to the parents of children with blood lead levels of 10 micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dl) or higher. As a result of this new law, the State will now be providing important information to the parents of children with much lower blood lead levels (5 mcg/dl or higher), to ensure they understand the consequences of lead poisoning and the steps that can be taken to avoid lead hazards. Information also will be provided to landlords, to enable them to take action to eliminate lead hazards when a tenant’s child has been found to be poisoned.

  1. Tackling the need to prevent poisonings from happening in the first place.

Of course, the most important strategy in addressing childhood lead poisoning is to prevent poisonings before they happen. As previously discussed, New Hampshire’s approach for addressing this problem is largely reactive – allowing children to be poisoned (at a blood lead level of 10 mcg/dl or higher) before action to eliminate lead hazards is required. Importantly, the Commission established by the new legislation will explore new approaches to eliminating lead hazards, such as an Essential Maintenance Practices program that would ensure that rental properties are maintained in a way that eliminates lead hazards. It also will explore new approaches to ensure that contractors and property owners are aware of lead-safe painting and renovation practices, including the federal Renovation, Repair and Painting program addressing lead-safe practices.

We’re very pleased to see SB 135 signed into law and to have been part of the effort to make this legislation happen. It’s an important step toward protecting more and more New Hampshire kids from this unfortunate and entirely preventable disease. To learn more about the problem of childhood lead poisoning, visit my other blogs on the topic:

Local Engagement, Local Waters

Jul 2, 2015 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

As Great Bay–Piscataqua Waterkeeper, I consider local public engagement to be key to restoring the health of the Great Bay estuary, and it’s a major part of my work. But even for those already aware of the value of our local waters and the challenges of achieving clean water, getting engaged often is not easy. People have less and less time, it seems.

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Irwin

More and more people living near Great Bay are getting involved in protecting the waters in their own backyard. Photo courtesy of Cynthia Irwin

But throughout the Seacoast, something is happening – residents concerned about their local waters (waters in their backyard, so to speak) are becoming active and tackling important issues. It’s a great thing to see, and it bodes well for the future of our Great Bay estuary and all the rivers, streams, and bays that are part of it.

In Exeter, for example, Exeter Citizens for Responsible Growth became concerned (as did I) about a local ballot question attempting to reduce the size of wetland buffers in order to fast-track development. Having won that battle in the voting booth, the group turned its attention to fertilizer use town-wide and is moving that initiative forward, since what happens in the Squamscott River sub-watershed impacts water quality in Great Bay. I’m very pleased to be working with this group – offering help and ideas.

In Dover, a significant number of residents living on the Bellamy River have become concerned with a number of local issues, including water quality in the Bellamy and in the portion of the Great Bay estuary right in front of their homes. They’ve organized themselves into the Lower Bellamy River Collaborative, and speakers – including me – have provided information on fertilizer use, current water quality impairments, oyster restoration, and more. These folks want change and are willing to spend time to make that happen. I’m confident that they’ll identify the sources of bacterial infections in that part of the Bellamy, and I look forward to working with them.

The Winnicut River Watershed Coalition, with support from the NH Rivers Council and the NH Department of Environmental Services, has convinced all the towns in this sub-watershed of Great Bay, as well as groups already working there like Great Bay Trout Unlimited, that applying for funds to support a watershed management plan is the optimum way to identify the pollution hotspots driving poor water quality and bacterial impairments. The whole effort was initially driven by the energy of just one person – but now there are many players at the table. As Waterkeeper, I’m pleased to be one of them.

Each of these efforts has success written all over them. Why? Because they’re bubbling up from within communities, engaging people in issues close to home. Folks are getting energized to tackle the challenges facing their local waters. And as that happens more and more, that’s a great thing for the estuary.

If you live on the Seacoast (or even if you don’t) and you want to get involved, please get in touch with me at We’re always looking for folks to join our Clean Water Advocates for Great Bay group. And if you want to get involved in one of the local efforts described above, I’d be happy to help connect you with the people leading those efforts. No matter how you choose to help, your voice matters and will be heard.

Portsmouth to Proceed with Long-Awaited, New Sewage Treatment Plant

Jun 22, 2015 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

The Portsmouth, New Hampshire, City Council recently reaffirmed its commitment to build a new sewage treatment plant at the site of the present antiquated facility on Peirce Island. Completion of the long-awaited upgrade may still be a few years away, though it could have happened sooner if the City had elected to shift its plans to a location at the Pease Tradeport. But the decision to rebuild at Peirce Island is still good news for the Piscataqua River and Great Bay estuary, which can’t afford further delay.Google PI

Portsmouth’s current sewage plant at Peirce Island is still failing to meet one of the most basic requirements of the Clean Water Act – so-called “secondary treatment” to reduce suspended solids and other pollution. While EPA has provided a ramp-up period to achieve that standard, until the upgrade is completed, it continues to exceed Clean Water Act discharge levels by 475 tons per year of total suspended solids and 877 tons per year of biological oxygen-demanding pollution. And, the plant’s potentially high discharges of bacteria and viruses have resulted in the closure of the shellfish beds in Little Harbor and along the Atlantic coast south to Odiorne Point. Upgrading Peirce Island to modern standards, and addressing these and other pollutants, is critical to restoring the health of our estuary.

We’ve worked for years to ensure progress at Portsmouth’s Peirce Island sewage treatment plant – one of the largest controllable sources of pollution in the estuary. We’re pleased to see the City Council avoiding the further delays that would have resulted from a last-minute change of plan, and we’ll continue to work to ensure the project stays on track. As towns like Exeter and Newmarket make progress upgrading their sewage treatment facilities, it’s important that the Seacoast’s largest city does the same.

Lead Law Moving Forward in New Hampshire Legislature

May 21, 2015 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment


Photo credit: Ecophotography

While many of us believe childhood lead poisoning is a thing of the past, the sad truth is that it’s not. In fact, every year, more than 1,000 New Hampshire children are poisoned by lead, with deteriorating lead-based paints the primary cause. The impacts of lead poisoning can be devastating and lifelong. Children can suffer a loss of IQ, behavioral difficulties, and organ and nerve damage. While the problem is statewide and affects all communities and people of all walks of life, many of the children impacted come from families that are already struggling, including low-income families living in substandard housing.

It doesn’t have to be this way. A bipartisan bill, SB 135, is making its way through the New Hampshire legislature that would protect children in our state.

The bill has already passed the New Hampshire House and Senate with strong support, with potential negotiations regarding amendments taking place between the two legislative bodies before being sent to Governor Hassan for her consideration. If the bill passes the legislature and Governor Hassan signs it into law, children across New Hampshire will benefit.

SB 135 is common-sense legislation. With better education, enhanced screening to make sure New Hampshire kids don’t fall through the cracks, and improved maintenance standards for rental properties, we can prevent lead poisoning and all its tragic costs. The lead poisoning prevention bill would put us on a clear path to achieving these important goals and keeping New Hampshire children safe.

More in-depth information on addressing lead poisoning in New Hampshire can be found in the following blog posts:

A Healthy Approach to Lawn Care

Apr 2, 2015 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

Is the organic approach to lawn care and the movement against the use of chemical pesticides becoming mainstream? That seemed to be the case recently when more than 100 folks attended two events – one in York, Maine, and the second next door in Ogunquit – hosted by Scott Eldredge, owner of Eldredge Lumber and Hardware. Jay Feldman, director of Beyond Pesticides, and Chip Osborne of Osborne Organics, provided homeowners and turf professionals sound reasons to reconsider approaches to caring for lawns and gardens.

Scott Eldredge has been concerned for some time that chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilizers are not good choices for building healthy soils and assuring clean water. These concerns were confirmed by the speakers. The bottom line is that chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilizers don’t address what’s needed for a vibrant lawn or garden: healthy soils. Rather, they merely address the symptoms of unhealthy soils. While multi-step fertilizer applications and herbicides and pesticides do nothing for the long-term health of the soil (they only set up the homeowner for buying more of the same product – a sales treadmill), a system-based approach using organics gets to the root issue of healthy soils that contain plenty of organic material, lots of microbes, at the optimum pH level. This is the level where vibrant lawns and productive gardens really begin.

Ogunquit forum advocating organic alternatives

A recent forum in Ogunquit, Maine, educated homeowners about healthy, organic approaches to lawn care.

In 2014, the Town of Ogunquit became just the second community in the U.S. to enact a pesticide ordinance that covers both public and private property. In all but seven states, towns are actually pre-empted from adopting a pesticide ordinance by state statute. While New Hampshire is one of the states where communities aren’t allowed to pass a pesticide ordinance, towns here are permitted to adopt fertilizer use regulations, which New Castle and Franklin have done.

The incorrect application or overuse of lawn and garden care products compromises the health of our waters, and the Great Bay watershed is no exception. Through stormwater, tons of nitrogen are harming the fragile ecosystem of Great Bay. The side effects of herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides – even at low levels – have consequences that are not yet fully understood. Reducing their use – out of abundant caution – is a very smart move.

Scott Eldredge has already pulled some commonly sold pesticides and herbicides from his shelves at two store locations. He just refuses to sell them. It’s encouraging to see decisions based on the health of land and water and not a business’s bottom line.

In Exeter, Another Vote for Clean Water

Mar 20, 2015 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

By a wide margin, the citizens of Exeter, New Hampshire, recently rejected a move to reduce the size of wetland buffers in their community. As I discussed in a recent blog, buffers are an important tool for protecting both the health of our wetlands and water quality. Considering the significant challenges facing our Great Bay estuary, reducing these types of protections would have been taking us in the wrong direction.

Fortunately, a group of residents, Exeter Citizens for Responsible Growth, successfully campaigned over the last few weeks to convince voters that an ordinance change promoted by the planning board, selectmen, and the economic development office – all to accommodate new development on the Epping Road Corridor – lacked transparency and adequate public review. Kudos to the citizen’s group, and to the Exeter Conservation Committee, which advised against the proposed ordinance change.

Exeter citizens influencing the vote on March 10.

Exeter citizens stand up for clean water on March 10.

As Great Bay–Piscataqua Waterkeeper, I find it heartening to see local residents once again standing up for clean water. It was a pleasure working with local citizens and the Conservation Commission, and I’m grateful to members of our Clean Water Advocates for Great Bay group who worked with me to support the Exeter group’s effort to educate the public and to urge voters to safeguard existing wetland protections.

Buffers are essential to protecting the many valuable functions of our wetlands, such as flood control, wildlife habitat, and filtering out pollutants from runoff. Given Exeter’s pending need to comply with the EPA’s town-wide, nitrogen-control plan – part of the town’s final permit for its sewage treatment plant – a move to minimize buffers now is the opposite of what is needed to control and decrease nutrient pollution.

While the effort to reduce wetland buffer protections in Exeter is almost certain to continue, last week’s outcome is another example of what a small group of concerned citizens can accomplish, and another sign that people on the Seacoast care about clean water. Congratulations to them!

Rainbow Smelt Declining in Great Bay

Mar 16, 2015 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Are we losing yet another piece of our Great Bay ecosystem? After two winter seasons of declines in rainbow smelt, most recreational fishermen would likely say “yes.” The smelt run seems to be going the way of the Great Bay oyster – downward.

Every winter, ice fishermen haul their shacks onto the rivers feeding Great Bay to await the return of rainbow smelt, catching this local delicacy through the ice on hooks baited with sea worms. Their only concern is whether or not there will be enough ice. This year there has been plenty of ice, but for the second year in a row, there are few smelt.

Fishermen wonder where the rainbow smelt have gone. Early reports for this season have been so dismal that most fishermen have not even bothered to pull their shacks on to the ice. Only a few very optimistic anglers set up on the Squamscott River in Stratham. The local bait shop isn’t even carrying sea worms this year – not wanting to get stuck with the inventory. No one, not even the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, has a definitive answer as to why the number of smelt returning is so low.

Smelt shacks on the Squamscott River

Smelt shacks on the Squamscott River

Adult rainbow smelt typically overwinter in estuaries and bays and then spawn in early spring in pool and riffle areas above or in the head-of-tide areas of coastal streams and rivers. Juvenile smelt remain in the estuary, bay, or sheltered coastal areas through the summer, and sometimes through late fall. They stay closer to shore generally unless they need to go in search of cold waters during warm months. Their relatively small size – six to eight inches – precludes them from being netted at sea.

The geographic range of rainbow smelt has been constricting for the last few decades, no longer extending south to the Chesapeake. Is the problem ocean temperature? Are smelt abandoning Great Bay for northern waters? Maybe, but even in Maine, smelt numbers have reportedly declined by 50%. Climate change may be a factor. Temperature, dissolved oxygen, pH, turbidity, total nitrogen and phosphorus, and periphyton are also all suspected of playing a role in spawning success.

While we may not have too much immediate influence over the big picture at sea, we do have control locally—especially with water quality in the spawning grounds of Great Bay. The future of the iconic smelt run in the Great Bay estuary is yet another reason to reduce pollution and restore the health of our waters.