NEWBURY -- Too much lawn fertilizer, bacterial contamination and rising water temperatures over the past 5 years are taking a toll on the ecosystem of the Parker River watershed.
According to a water quality analysis conducted during an eight month period last year by the non-profit Parker River Clean Water Association (PRCWA), a portion of the Mill River off Elm Street in Byfield frequently tested positive for higher than normal levels of phosphate and nitrogen; water sampled from Ox Pasture Brook in Rowley showed increased readings for e.coli bacteria and lower than typical percentages of dissolved oxygen levels; and a section of the Parker River running through Georgetown had low dissolved oxygen levels, while its measures for turbidity --or how cloudy the water is -- were much higher than standard.
Other “hot spot” water samples identified to a lesser degree within the report was taken from Penn Brook in Georgetown, and Little River in Newburyport and Newbury.
The report does not indicate what the precise impact of these water problems are on the Parker River. However, PRCWA officials point out that when changes to a coastal ecosystem from runoff and other pollutants occur it can drastically diminish healthy environmental diversity, leading to loss of habitat, and significant impacts on human health, tourism and the commercial fishing industry.
During a recent interview with PRCWA officials in their office at 69 Newburyport Turnpike in Newbury, Water Quality Coordinator, Lynette Leka began by noting her surprise at how few people are even aware they are living within a watershed. “And yet everything they do contributes to it,” she said.
A watershed is defined as the geographic area that drains into a particular river. In this case, the 23-mile long Parker River has a watershed that covers 82 square miles in Essex County and includes Boxford, Georgetown, Groveland, Ipswich, Newbury, Newburyport, North Andover, Rowley and West Newbury. Little River and Mill River are major tributaries and there are also numerous lakes, ponds and reservoirs within the watershed, making the area an excellent spot for fresh water trout, ocean stripped bass and bluefish angling as well as clamming in the mud flats of Plum Island Sound.
Conducted between April and November each year -- and shared with the public online as well as with local boards of health and the state -- the PRCWA report helps identify areas where pollutants and other issues within the watershed are occurring. Each month water samples from various spots are tested for levels of acidity, nitrogen and phosphorus, dissolved oxygen, and e.coli. The source is also analyzed to measure the water’s turbidity, temperature, depth, and velocity.
In the latest report, samples taken from the Mill River near Elm Street tested higher than normal for phosphates every month and for nitrates during 5 out of the 8-month testing period. High levels of nitrates were also found in samples taken from Ox Pasture Brook in Rowley during three months. Increases in these nutrients overstimulate the growth of algae, which floats to the water surface, blocking out sunlight and eventually killing the plant life below. Since the decaying plants needs oxygen in order to decompose, the amount of oxygen being used in this area is far greater than the amount being produced. Low levels of dissolved oxygen in the water are indicators of a potentially significant decrease to the health and viability of aquatic life. Failing septic systems or treatment plants and run off from fertilized lawns and agricultural fields are often the culprit when high levels of nitrates and phosphates are identified.
Evidence of e.coli colonies in greater than typical quantities appeared in 6 of the monthly water samples taken at Ox Pasture Brook --including a reading of “too numerous to count” in November 2012. Officials believe an overabundance of geese on two ponds located just above the testing site could be a factor.
Several sites along Penn Brook and a section of Parker River in Georgetown all showed high level of the bacteria in November. There were four instances of raised e.coli levels in samples taken from Little River during the testing period and one from Mill River taken last July.
Because it is not a regulatory board, PRCWA’s goal is to serve as a watchdog group that informs local health boards about any red flags so they can then implement best practice strategies on their end to address issues with water quality -- such as developing a storm water management plan or educating the public about fertilization and septic issues.
PRCWA also notes that an analysis of 5-year averages of water temperatures indicates a steady increase throughout the watershed --archival information that was recently share with the US Geological Survey.
“Higher than normal stream temperatures can have a devastating impact to the local fish communities that use the Parker River and may be an indication of how climate change is affecting the environment in our area,” explained PRCWA President George Comiskey.
Founded in 1998, the PRCWA is dedicated to “promoting the restoration and protection of the waters and environment of the Parker River and Plum Island Sound watersheds.” The group receives no state funding and relies solely on private donations and on volunteers from the towns in the watershed to collect the monthly water samples. For more information on the PRCWA’s Water Quality report or to learn how to volunteer or make a donation, visit www.parker-river.org.