By Hiroko Sato
GROTON — More than four decades after Groton’s legendary environmentalist Marion Stoddart successfully pushed for the cleanup of the Nashua River that was brimming with feces and factory discharges, the river could be recognized as one of the nation’s most treasured waterways.
On Monday, area environmental organizations and community leaders celebrated the passage of the Nashua River Wild and Scenic River Study Act with U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas, a Lowell Democrat, who filed the bill and spent five years to garner bipartisan support for it. The act will provide funding for a study to determine whether the Nashua River and its two tributaries would qualify to become a part of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System — a designation that would give further protection for these streams.
Environmental advocates thanked and praised Tsongas for her steadfast outreach to both sides of the political aisle.
“From the onset, she has been a great champion of natural-resource issues,” Elizabeth Ainsley Campbell, executive director of Nashua River Watershed Association (NRWA), said of Tsongas as she addressed a roomful of the legislation’s supporters at the organization’s headquarters in Groton Monday.
Tsongas, the 3rd Congressional District representative, said tenacity is the key in getting work done in Congress. She credited all those involved in the initiative, including Ainsley Campbell, who testified in Washington in support of the bill and U.S. Sens. Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren for their roles in pushing the legislation forward.
“I was just a vehicle (to move the initiative forward). And, I was happy to be the vehicle,” Tsongas said.
“But, Niki, you really took the lead on it,” Lucy Wallace, Harvard selectman who serves as president of NRWA, told Tsongas.
The efforts to pass the legislation began in 2009 after Tsongas approached the NRWA, according to Ainsley Campbell. Knowing the Assabet, Sudbury and Concord rivers are designated as part of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, Tsongas wanted to know if those who work to protect the Nashua River were interested in pursuing the national protection status, as well. The answer was yes, Ainsley Campbell said. Eight communities — Lancaster, Harvard, Shirley, Ayer, Groton, Dunstable, Pepperell, Townsend — endorsed the legislation.
Tsongas, who serves on the House Natural Resources Committee, said she repeatedly talked to her Republican colleagues. Many lawmakers recognized the rivers were important to the communities and the issue would not go away. The bill passed the Republican-controlled House 300-119 on Dec. 4 and was signed into law by President Barack Obama on Dec. 19.
Tsongas’ accomplishment is “no small feat,” state Sen. Eileen Donoghue, D-Lowell, said at the celebration, congratulating Tsongas for her leadership.
The study involves the 19-mile “mainstem” of the Nashua River from the confluence of the North and South Nashua Rivers in Lancaster to the New Hampshire state line, except for a 4.8-mile section from Route 119 in Groton downstream to the confluence with the Nissitissit River in Pepperell. The Squannacook and Nissitissit rivers, which are tributaries of the Nashua River, are also part of the study.
The study will examine environmental factors as well as the river’s historical and recreational significance to determine if these rivers deserve the national status, according to Jamie Fosburgh, manager for the Wild and Scenic Rivers Program in New England at the National Park Service. The National Park Service will administer the funding for the study.
Fosburgh said the study will be used to develop a plan for maintaining the quality of the rivers. Because it takes commitment on part of the communities to implement the plan, each of the towns must decide whether they want the national protection status for the river through Town Meeting or some other measures.
Once the national status is granted, it would provide the communities with necessary funding to implement the plan, Fosburgh said.
Alison Field-Juma, executive director of OARS — the Concord-based organization for the Assabet, Sudbury and Concord Rivers — was one of the speakers at Monday’s celebration and said the national status would provide extra protection for the river.
“(The status) elevates your river to the point where it provides park-service presence,” Field-Juma said.
Wallace reminisced over the decades-long effort to protect the Nashua River, starting with Stoddart’s work in the 1960s that led to the enactments of the state Clean Waters Act and the federal Water Pollution Control Act. The Study Act will be another step toward further protection, Wallace said.
“We are very excited and happy” about the Act, Stoddart said Monday.