Keeping Up the Good Work on Great Bay

Jeff Barnum

Until recently, Peter Wellenberger served as the Great Bay-Piscataqua Waterkeeper. The program, with a full-time water advocate dedicated solely to protecting Great Bay, Little Bay, the Piscataqua River and all the waters comprising the Great Bay estuary, was an important new undertaking for Conservation Law Foundation. Realizing that the estuary really needed a visible clean water advocate, CLF created the position, which is affiliated with the international Waterkeeper Alliance, an association of folks dedicated to protecting and improving the health of waterbodies worldwide. In early 2012, Peter jumped in, energized people, networked, and created a coalition of local non-profit, business and municipal stakeholders called Rescue Great Bay in an effort to bring the pollution and nutrient issues to the fore. Peter retired earlier this summer.

I have assumed the Great Bay-Piscataqua Waterkeeper role and feel that I have found my calling. My association with the Coastal Conservation Association of New Hampshire and the Great Bay chapter of Trout Unlimited has galvanized my belief that we all deserve clean water to live, work, and play, and that everybody and everything downstream deserves the same. How elementary!

Great Bay, the Piscataqua River, and the estuary as a whole have not been so great of late. The City of Portsmouth operates an antiquated sewage treatment plant that provides only the most basic level of treatment (“primary treatment”) – a level that fails to meet the standards of the Clean Water Act and Portsmouth’s 2007 permit. In fact, Portsmouth’s plant is one the few remaining facilities in the country to provide such minimal treatment. Another five sewage treatment plants discharge into tidal rivers within the estuary. Two require total rehab and all, including Portsmouth, do not yet have the ability to remove adequate nitrogen, a key culprit in the estuary’s decline. In total, there are 18 sewage treatment facilities affecting the estuary, which drains 52 communities, including ten in Maine.

Progress is being made in New Hampshire. Durham is proactively dealing with the problem of nitrogen pollution. Newmarket and Exeter have accepted final permits from the EPA to upgrade their outdated sewage treatment plants and greatly reduce their nitrogen discharges. Portsmouth seems to be committed to upgrading to secondary sewage treatment and nitrogen controls, though I remain concerned about the time they are demanding to do so. Unfortunately, Dover and Rochester (regretfully, with help from Portsmouth) continue to aggressively oppose efforts by regulators to reduce nitrogen pollution from their sewage treatment plants. I hope time is on our side.

The sewage treatment plants are not the only causes of decline in the bay and river. Other pollution sources like dissolved nitrogen coming from lawn fertilizers, and storm runoff sweeping oil and chemicals from roads and parking lots are certainly issues of major concern, among others. The combined effect of this pollution on the bay includes a profound loss of filter-feeding oyster beds, an extraordinary loss of essential eelgrass, algae growth, inadequate oxygen to support life in some rivers, and shellfish harvest closures.

We, collectively, have a social responsibility to respond before it is too late.  I’m extremely pleased, as CLF’s Great Bay-Piscataqua Waterkeeper, to be able to do something about the major challenges facing our estuary, and I look forward to working with others who care about protecting this remarkable water resource. You can reach me at, or follow me on Facebook and Twitter.

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