New Hampshire Estuaries Project: Protecting the Coastal Watershed

By AnnMarie French

New Hampshire boasts what is considered by many to be one of the richest coastal estuary systems in the country. In addition to 18 miles of ocean coastline, New Hampshire has 230 miles of sensitive inland tidal shoreline, consisting of bays, tidal rivers and salt marsh systems. The Great Bay Estuary System is comprised of nearly 150 miles of tidal shore land; approximately 4,500 acres of tidal waters and wetlands, along with 3,000 acres of coastal land, comprise the Great Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve.

Great Bay Estuary, the largest portion of New Hampshire’s estuary system, was recently the focus of a tour for local officials and members of local planning boards and conservation commissions. Organized by the New Hampshire Estuaries Project, the tour was designed as a means to educate attendees on the importance of protecting the valuable resource that is the estuary system.

The New Hampshire Estuaries Project (NHEP) strives to preserve, protect, and enhance the state’s estuarine resources. The NHEP services 42 communities located in the Coastal Watershed region, which extends north to Brookfield and Wakefield, and west to Candia and Deerfield, encompassing most of Stratford and Rockingham counties. Thirty-nine of the 42 watershed communities impact the Great Bay Estuary System. Five major rivers flow directly into Great Bay: Bellamy, Lamprey, Squamscott, Oyster and Winnicutt Rivers, which along with the Cocheco, Piscataqua and Salmon Falls Rivers, together comprise New Hampshire’s coastal estuary system.

In effort to improve water quality and overall health of the estuary system, the NHEP tracks 30 environmental indicators—specific measurable markers that help to assess the condition of the environment and how it changes over time—as a means of monitoring the estuary system. Indicators tracked include concentrations of toxic contaminants, bacteria levels, plant and shellfish habitats, as well as coastal development.

Early this fall, the NHEP invited officials from cities and towns located within the watershed area to attend a boat tour of the Great Bay Estuary System. The three-hour tour provided an opportunity to view the watershed and coastline from the water, and offered a new vantage point from which to consider development and land use along the coast. More than 75 city and town officials, planning board members and conservation commission members attended from the communities of Dover, Durham, Farmington, Hampton, Hampton Falls, Madbury, Newington, Northwood, Portsmouth and Somersworth. Also in attendance were representatives from the New Hampshire Department of Environment Services (DES), the Rockingham Regional Planning Commission, and various other nonprofit and government organizations concerned with the health of the watershed region.

Beginning at Fisherman’s Co-op in Portsmouth, the tour boat traveled up the Piscataqua River, passing the mouths of the Bellamy and Oyster Rivers, through Little Bay to Adams Point at the mouth of Great Bay. The tour provided an opportunity to view firsthand the contrast of the industrial working waterfront of Portsmouth and Newington, with the more pastoral coast of Maine, and observe the New Hampshire shorefront as it evolves into preserved open space, public parks and residential development.

The changing scenery provided a launching point for discussion of the impacts of development on the estuary system and the need to continue to preserve open space. According the most recent edition of the State of the Estuaries Report, published in 2003, only 8.4 percent of the coastal watershed is protected from development. The NHEP management plan for the region has established a goal of protecting 15 percent of the watershed by year 2010. The State of the Estuaries Report is published every three years, the next edition of which will be distributed in Fall 2006, and is eagerly awaited by many as a means of measuring accomplishments and establishing new goals.

The University of New Hampshire’s Jackson Estuarine Laboratory, located on Adams Point, is the primary location from which the NHEP monitors the water quality and plant life of the Great Bay Estuary. The Adams Point location and docks provided a midpoint location for attendees to come ashore for presentations on NHEP programs and current focus areas for research, and to view the various study stations at the lab facility.

NHEP offers technical assistance programs and funding to support community efforts to preserve and protect the watershed system. Through the Community Technical Assistance Program, NHEP provides funding through a competitive RFP process for projects that address issues aligning with this mission. While the majority of the grants in the past year have been awarded to conservation commissions and nonprofit environmental organizations in areas such as education and community outreach, local governments are also eligible to receive funding through this program. The City of Portsmouth was recently awarded a grant to conduct a feasibility study on the use of treated wastewater from the Pease wastewater treatment plant to irrigate the Pease golf course.

Development plays a critical role in the health of the watershed as a result of run-off—that is, water that washes over impervious services and into the river. Impervious surfaces are areas such as pavement, building rooftops and concrete, which prevent rainwater from being absorbed into the surrounding soil and replenishing the water table. Impervious surfaces are the subject of a new mapping layer that will soon be released and incorporated into the New Hampshire GRANIT system, a statewide GIS database of mapping tools to support planning efforts.

While the tour was organized as a way to disseminate information on NHEP watershed studies and assistance programs, project coordinators also used it as an opportunity to learn how they can further assist communities. The feedback was consistent in that individuals stressed the need for planning tools that were easier to work with.

“Through conversations on the boat, we learned that our outreach materials need to demonstrate the relevance of estuarine water quality issues to planning decisions occurring at the local level," said David Kellam of NHEP. “We need to communicate how the data we collect from our monitoring program applies to real world, local situations."

This feedback was taken to heart by project coordinators, who now plan to produce a series of supplemental materials to the 2006 State of the Estuaries Report that will make it a more useful planning tool for communities in coastal watersheds. This is good news for local officials and planning board members, who will soon have access to additional tools to support their own efforts to preserve and protect the precious natural resources of the estuary system.

AnnMarie French is a Communications Specialist with LGC’s Communications Department.

NHEP Programs and Technical Assistance

Community Technical Assistance Program
The NHEP is soliciting applications for projects through its Community Technical Assistance Program. This program was initiated to provide assistance to communities on a wide range of regulatory and non-regulatory approaches to natural resources protection. To assist communities, the NHEP will hire technical assistance providers to work with communities on natural resource topics of mutual interest to the community and the NHEP. Communities interested in receiving customized assistance from qualified professionals may submit applications from August 22, 2005 to December 16, 2005 (or as funds remain). The applications will be evaluated as they are received.

Stormwater Management Workshops
The NHEP is underwriting the registration fee of $40 for planning board members and conservation commissioners from coastal watershed communities to attend a Stormwater Management Workshop. The next workshop will be held at UNH on December 6.

Natural Resources Outreach Coalition
The NHEP funds and participates in the Natural Resources Outreach Coalition (NROC), a collaboration among 10 state, private nonprofit, local and regional organizations focused on assisting coastal watershed communities with natural resource-based planning approaches to managing growth pressures.