Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

One-woman crusade to rescue a forsaken river

IN the early 1960s, the Nashua River was so polluted from paper-company waste and domestic sewage that old-timers said it was ``too thick to pour and too thin to plow.'' The river ran a different color every day, depending on what was being printed. There were reports of birds and small animals walking across yellow-orange sludge. People said the smell kept them awake at night. Enter Marion Stoddart, lover of rivers and an activist looking for a new challenge. Moving to Groton, Mass., in 1962 with her husband and three children, she found her challenge: Clean up the river and establish a protective ``greenway'' along its banks.

Today, canoeists paddle through clear water that was once contaminated with toxic, heavy-metal sludge so bereft of oxygen that it couldn't support aquatic life. Fishermen come from as far away as South Carolina for bass, perch, and pickerel in a river that was singled out in a 1966 federal report for its ``absolute worthlessness as a fish stream.''

About these ads

In the marshes, blue herons stand on spindly legs; ospreys and bald eagles flash by. More than 6,000 acres of land along the river are now open to the public. And Mrs. Stoddart's efforts have gained international acclaim: The United Nations Environment Program last month cited her as one of 90 exemplary workers for the environment worldwide.

On a canoe ride up the river earlier this month, the cheerful and unflappable Stoddart described how she went about cleaning up the 55-mile river, which meanders through central Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire.

``I identified those in the area who had power and those who cared,'' she said. With some of them, she created the Nashua River Clean-up Committee (later reorganized as the Nashua River Watershed Association). Then she contacted local, state, regional, and federal agencies to see what they intended to do about the river.

She used media-savvy techniques, like persuading Sen. Edward Kennedy to fly over the river, and presenting then-Gov. John A. Volpe with a bottle of filthy river water, which he promised to keep on his desk until the river was clean. She organized a broad-based group of citizens, labor unions, business leaders, and politicians, convincing them of the benefits of having a ``fishable, swimmable river.''

``I always tried to find ways to plug in other groups that had the same goals as we did, and tried to develop a cooperative feeling that we would all benefit from the restoration of the river,'' says Stoddart.

But persuading others wasn't easy.

The river ``was so filthy, most people felt it was an impossible task, and no one wants to associate themselves - their time, their money, etc. - with an impossible task,'' she says. Her approach was that it made good economic sense to have a clean river.

About these ads

William Flynn, a former mayor of Fitchburg, who became a supporter, says that ``the thing that made me a real believer was when I got a letter from an industrialist which said, `I came into your community with the idea of locating a facility. But after seeing your filthy river, I decided not to. Any community which allows an open sewer to run through the middle of town has so little regard for itself and its environment that I cannot in good conscience do business with anybody from Fitchburg.'

``This,'' says Mr. Flynn, ``had a most profound impact.''

One early step was new legislation: Stoddart worked to get the Massachusetts Clean Water Act passed in 1966, which provided for public hearings at which citizens could lobby for higher standards of water cleanliness. Hundreds came to the Nashua River hearing. They persuaded the state to reclassify the river to a higher rating. That meant more-expensive, heavy-duty treatment plants would be needed to reach that standard.

Paper mills cried foul. One company told its employees they would have to choose between their jobs and clean water. Other companies said they would close and move south.

In the end, they stayed. The mills wound up having to pay only a small portion of the cost of the treatment facilities; state and federal funds picked up the rest.

One of Stoddart's talents, said Flynn, was her ability to get people to work together. She got the general manager of one paper mill to sit on the board of the Watershed Association. At one point, the group put together a comprehensive plan to protect the watershed. When it came time to have it published, Stoddart got one of the polluting paper companies to donate paper, a school to print the report, and bank employees to collate it.

The base commander at nearby Fort Devens, a military installation next to the river, provided manpower and barracks for office space. In a unique partnership among federal agencies, the Army, the community, and the Watershed Association, the Department of Labor offered to fund a project to hire high school dropouts for a massive cleanup. The Army lent trucks and Green Berets to supervise the 400 youths who cleared away tons of trash.

``She could see a potential in the river none of us could see, and effectively shared her vision with a lot of people and got their support,'' says Flynn, now a senior vice-president at a local bank.

``She had the good sense to know that this was an issue where we were a bit ahead of our time. When she dealt with the City Council, she did it in practical terms; she talked their language.''

Establishing the greenway was also vital, says Stoddart. It helps protect the river from runoff pollution, prevents erosion of the river's banks, and provides a habitat for wildlife. As the river quality improved, she knew the adjoining land would suddenly become valuable to developers again. ``We felt very strongly that the people who paid for the river should be able to enjoy it. It was important to not let it fall into private ownership,'' Stoddart says.

Today, the Nashua is kept pure by six waste-water treatment facilities, and Massachusetts has since become a model for other states' treatment plans.

Walter Bickford, commissioner of the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, says: ``Of all the local efforts in river basins, this is the most action-oriented. This department is using it as a model to try to incorporate duplicate efforts throughout the 32 river basins in the state.''

When asked if the battle is over, Stoddart laughs and turns the canoe toward home.

``No, it's not over. We worked very hard, but if we stopped working now, it would go backwards. We have to defend the river classification every year.''

``One thing that I learned along the way, and that supported me as I was doing it, was that you don't have to be real smart. You just have to be committed and persistent. I think that if you're honest, and who you are, things work out well.''

Stoddart now heads a group called Outdoor Vacations for Women Over 40. After more than 20 years working to clean up the outdoors, she says she can now enjoy it.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.