'The Merrimack: River at Risk' highlights threats facing watersheds
At just over 5,000 square miles, the Merrimack River is part of the fourth-largest watershed in New England.
The Merrimack: River at Risk poses the question: if more than 2 million Americans rely on the Merrimack to live, work and play — why is its welfare at risk?
Vermont Public's Jenn Jarecki recently spoke to director Jerry Monkman about the film. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Okay, Jerry, there's a pretty striking description of the Merrimack River early in the film. Let's take a listen.
"About 150 years ago, this became an open sewer, really. So while it might have looked okay, at the surface, there were probably times when it was pretty darn nasty, especially after a rainstorm. It would have been frothy with human waste."
That was Ted Diers, with the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services, bringing some real poetry to public service. Jerry, how did we get to this point where the Merrimack is one of the most endangered watersheds in the country?
Jerry Monkman: I will say Ted's phrasing there was quite visual, for sure. And he was actually talking about the Merrimack sort of in the '50s and '60s — before the Clean Water Act. Part of what we talked about in the film is how we really have cleaned up rivers a lot since then, which is why when the Merrimack was listed as one of the 10 most endangered rivers in the country in 2016, Jack Savage, the president of the Forest Society in New Hampshire, and I thought it'd be interesting to explore why. Why is this river considered endangered when we've made so much progress since the Clean Water Act?
Jerry, why should we care if the Merrimack River is at risk for greater pollution? And expanding on that a bit, Why should people elsewhere care whether their local rivers are polluted?
Well, the river is used for drinking water by a couple of million people every day in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. So, right there having clean, unpolluted water is just good for us, for drinking water purposes. But it also is an amazing resource for fish and wildlife. By continuing to protect the river and ensure that its waters stay clean and cold, we'll be better suited for our growing population here in southern New Hampshire, as well as for our wildlife and fish as climate change changes their habitat and their need to sort of find out and seek new places to survive.
Well, speaking of habitat, the exchange between forests and rivers is clear in the film, Leah Hart — our guide throughout the film — works in forest conservation. Can you say more about the kinship between rivers and forests?
Rivers seem to be a theme of my work the last few years and it looks like it's going to continue.Jerry Monkman
Yes, river water is very dependent on the surrounding forest cover for its quality. The forests filter pollution and particulates from the air and keep the water clean, from that perspective. It also keeps the water cool. So, it's very important for our coldwater fish that we have forests so that these rivers stay at a proper temperature for them to survive.
Jerry, your film is quick to introduce the landmark 1972 Clean Water Act. And there's a sort of shocking moment when we learn that we're still falling short of goals set for 1982. Fast forward to this past August when the U.S. Supreme Court rolled back protections in the Clean Water Act and curtailed the EPA's power to regulate waterways and wetlands. What are your thoughts on the ruling?
I did not appreciate that ruling. The more I see how we're struggling to keep up with cleaning up these rivers. Like you said, the goal of the Clean Water Act was to have them fishable and swimmable by 1981. And we're not quite there yet — I think is how Ted Diers portrays it in the film. To roll back those protections was really frustrating and concerning to me.
Well, sticking with the theme a bit, development and environmental protection appear at odds and parts of the film. In the midst of housing and environmental crises, how does your film represent the tension between the two, and what do you see happening there moving forward?
Yeah, I think it's a struggle that is happening all over the country. And the Merrimack — particularly in the southern Merrimack — in the I-93 corridor is one of the fastest growing places in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. And yeah, we're facing a housing crisis, as you know. There's not a lot of affordable housing in our state. So, we need development; we need ways to house people more affordably so they can live where they work — and that is at odds, sometimes, with forest conservation. I'm not sure we had the answer in the film. We wanted to kind of just show this situation so that people are aware that these things are at odds, and we need to look for solutions that can solve both problems in a balanced way.
One last question for you, Jerry. What's next?
Yeah, the last couple of years, I've been doing a lot of shorter films on river and stream restoration, a couple in Maine, I'm working on a 15-minute short film in Connecticut right now and it's all about right-sizing culverts, and removing dams that are no longer needed and to both improve fish passage for fish and wildlife but also to improve the resiliency of our built infrastructure so that we are better able to withstand larger rain events, which I know you folks in Vermont are very aware of how that can affect our built communities. Rivers seem to be a theme of my work the last few years and it looks like it's going to continue.
'The Merrimack: River at Risk' premieres on Vermont Public's main TV channel at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 28