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Land Area: 65.8 square miles
Primary Municipalities: Fitchburg, Leominster and Lancaster
% Permanently Protected Land Area: 1453 acres or less than 1%
% Limited Protection Land Area (Chap. 61, etc.): 57 acres
River length: 19.9 miles
Feeder Streams: Baker, Falulah, McGovern, Ponakin, Punch and Spectacle Brooks
# of Dams: 10-8 in Fitchburg 2 in Leominster

% Imperviousness: ~ 23%
Land Use: 70% forest, 12% residential, 5% ag/open
# of MA NHESP* Priority Habitat Sites: 1
# of discharge permits: 2 Minor NPDES, 4 Major NPDES
Most Threatened Waterbodies: North Nashua River
ACEC*: Central Nashua River Valley ACEC
Location within the Nashua River Watershed Water Resources Habitat Analysis
Open Space Water Resources Natural Heritage
Limited Protection Water Resources Recreation

Geographic Overview and Ecosystem Characteristics: This subbasin1 lies in the communities of Fitchburg, Leominster and Lancaster with a very small part extending into Lunenburg. Located in the Southern New England Coastal Plains and Hills ecoregion2 of central Massachusetts, this area drains into the South Nashua River at "Meeting of the Rivers" in Lancaster to form the Mainstem Nashua River.

The North Nashua River begins at the confluence of Whitman River and Flag Brook in West Fitchburg. It flows southeasterly through the cities of Fitchburg and Leominster, where it is affected by urban influences, including ten dams. Route 2 travels through the center of this subbasin and Routes 31, 2A, 70, 117 pass through a portion as well. The Fitchburg-Boston Commuter Conrail line crosses the subbasin.

Streamflow, as in most of New England, has significant seasonal changes3 . Baker, Falulah, McGovern, Ponakin, Punch and Spectacle Brooks are feeder streams to North Nashua River. [Some of these feeder streams are considered to be separate subbasins and are discussed in their own subbasin narratives elsewhere in this plan.]

This subbasin begins at higher elevations in Fitchburg (for example Flat Rock Sanctuary) then descends into the North Nashua River valley and floodplains. Nearly half of the 13,000 acre Central Nashua River Valley Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) — the only ACEC in the Nashua River watershed - is located within the southeast portion of this subbasin: primarily in Lancaster. Forested areas of Cook Conservation Land border the river in eastern Leominster and western Lancaster.

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Land Ownership and Land Use4 Patterns: The land-use pattern is approximately 70% forest (hardwood mixed with softwood) or wetland. Low- medium- and high-density residential settlement as well as strip development located along major roads account for a total of approximately 12% residential. Approximately 5% of total land area is agriculture and/or open land. Commercial operations, industry and other developed land uses are significant.

A rather high percentage (23%) of total impervious surfaces5 — namely, paved areas such as streets, driveways, and parking lots — for this subbasin indicates that concerns of compromised stormwater and other non-point sources of contaminants (for example: pesticides, fertilizers, oils, asphalt, pet wastes, salt, sediment, litter and other debris) are a pressing concern. Primary pollutants of concern in stormwater are suspended solids, nutrients, metals, oil and grease (PAH), temperature and bacteria. The sources of bacteria in urban settings are typically human and other animal litter left on driveways, lawns, commercial and residential streets, parking lots and rooftops.

Indeed, a shoreline survey of the North Nashua River within the Fitchburg City limits
conducted by the Fitchburg Stream Team in fall of 1999 and repeated in 2000 noted "slimy, sludge, biofilm substrate in various sections which need remediation."
6 Although several problems were noted including evidence of an old oil spill, storm drains, trash and some debris the river was generally described as having a good buffer and was "aesthetically pleasing" in its upper reaches. In its lower reaches the Fitchburg Stream Team described many aesthetically objectionable conditions and multiple problems were identified including channelization, sewage odors, evidence of cyanide spill (odor)7 , moderate turbidity (grayish tinge of the water column), abandoned transformers, several dump sites, storm drains, trash/debris, erosion, sedimentation, and discharge pipes. The DWM's habitat assessment identified a sewer manhole structure with signs of overflow (toilet paper). Finally, increasing urbanization leads to diminished groundwater recharge and to declining stream flow as well as stream channel shoaling, widening and downcutting.

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Major Water Resource Issues: The North Nashua River is classified as a Class B waterbody, and a warm water fishery. Other than the river itself, the largest waterbodies are Spectacle and White Ponds. There are two water withdrawal permitees:

  1. Munksjo Paper Décor, Inc. is permitted to withdraw 1.08 MGD from their water intake station with actual withdrawals averaging somewhat higher in past years;
  2. Simonds Cutting Tools is registered to withdraw a total 0.26 MGD from their eight wells.

There are three wastewater treatment facilities (WWTF) in this subbasin: Leominster WWTF and the Easterly8 and Westerly Fitchburg9 WWTFs. These account for the subbasin's three NPDES major municipal effluent discharge permits. Two additional NPDES minor industrial discharge permits are: Simonds Industries in Fitchburg10 and River Terrace Healthcare in Lancaster.

On a historical note, it has been since the WWTFs were built in the 1970's that the North Nashua River has been designated as able to Class B status. Prior to this the river was classified as "U" or unfit for any designated uses. Indeed, it was considered one of the ten worst rivers in the entire nation given regular releases of untreated sewage and industrial wastes into the river and its tributaries. The only living aquatic organisms were sludge worms and the water was so full of paper industry effluents that it was solid enough for small mammals to cross over. It also regularly changed color, taking on the color of the paper mill dyes that were released and was generally so offensive as to render riverfront property worthless.

Things have dramatically improved and recovered aquatic and riverine habitat sustains much life. Still, according to the 1998 Nashua River Watershed Report Card, the North Nashua River from the Whitman River intersection to the Fitchburg Paper Plant is rated as partially-supportive of biology and toxicity and non-supportive of swimming and boating. From the Fitchburg Paper Plant to the Easterly Wastewater Treatment Facility it is rated as non-supportive of aesthetics, biology, toxicity, swimming and boating. From the Easterly WWTF to the Leominster WWTF it is rated as partially-supportive of biology and non-supportive of aesthetics, toxicity, swimming and boating. From the Leominster WWTF to the Mainstem Nashua River it is rated as partially-supportive of aesthetics, biology, nutrients and boating and non-supportive of swimming. The entire 19.5-mile length of the North Nashua River was assessed as non-support for both recreational uses. Toxicological support is most affected by chronic effluent from municipal point sources, while swimming and boating support is most affected by bacteria and other pathogens from Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs)11 and Dry Weather Overflows (DSOs).

According to the NRWA's 2000 Volunteer Monitoring Water Quality Report, all of the sites in Fitchburg exceed the state standard for fecal coliform. Both of the sites on the North Nashua — at McDonald's parking lot and Depot Street bridge in West Fitchburg — had many samples in which fecal coliform colonies were too numerous to count (TNTC). Fecal coliform is a major problem on the North Nashua River in Fitchburg. It is possible that these sites are effected by municipal wastewater discharge(s), combined sewer overflows which dump untreated wastewater directly into the rivers, and other urban runoff. If combined sever overflows are the major contributing source of pathogens, ameliorating the problem is likely to take a long time.12

In sum, aquatic life is impacted in the urbanized reaches of the subbasin due to instream toxicity, pathogens, and aesthetic degradation (sewage odor and turbidity in the water column). Human contact in these areas should be limited and/or cautious.

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Recreation and Priority Habitat Areas: More than 5 miles of the long-distance Mid-state Trail passes through this subbasin; although it may be noted that there are no trail easements thereon.

There is one state-designated Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Project (MA NHESP) Priority Habitat area centered on Spectacle Brook on the South Post of Fort Devens. There are two MA NHESP Rare Wetlands priority sites: one overlapping the Spectacle Brook area and another centered on the North Nashua River downstream of Ponakin Brook to the junction with the South Nashua River. There are three core areas identified in the Nashua River Habitat Assessment Report (MAS, 2000) which encompass parts of this subbasin:

  1. Squannacook Headwaters;
  2. Leominster/Lancaster Forests; and,
  3. South Post/Devens.

The three habitat protection focus areas in this subbasin are:

  1. McGovern Brook;
  2. Ballard Hill; and,
  3. Devens/Oxbow.

The McGovern Brook focus area, including White Pond and a stretch of the North Nashua River, is high quality habitat in its own right, but is of utmost importance as a buffer between downtown Leominster and the Oxbow focus area (as is Ballard Hill). The combination of wetlands and gravel pits could provide ideal habitat for turtles looking for sandy deposits for their eggs. The north bank of the North Nashua includes low-lying land that could develop as floodplain forest, an uncommon natural community type in the watershed. Priorities are to ensure that abandoned gravel pits are not converted to another intensive use, and land on the south bank of the North Nashua River. Devens/Oxbow is a large focus area which, together with McGovern Brook and Ballard Hill focus areas, creates a wildlife habitat anchor in this section of the watershed. The clear protection priority in this focus area recommended in the MAS 2000 Habitat Report is the continued and long-term management of Devens South Post in ways that are conducive to maintaining wildlife habitat.

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Resource Protection Goals and Recommended Actions

GOAL: Protect wildlife habitat and migration corridors in the subbasin.

  • Land protection efforts to focus on Devens South Post, McGovern Brook and Ballard Hill areas.
  • Sponsor local events to raise public understanding about native wildlife and the impacts of development patterns on ecosystem and habitat integrity.
  • Work with local conservation commissions to gain their backing of natural resource and habitat inventories.
  • Monitor the fishery and fisheries habitat enhancement.

GOAL: Protect high-priority open space, vistas, and community character in the subbasin.

  • Encourage the use of MA Executive Order 418* funding for Open Space and Resource Protection Plans for each Massachusetts community in this subbasin.
  • Conduct public education sessions to promote local passage of Community Preservation Act*.
  • Monitor progress of grants and projects related to "Brownfields"13 cleanup and rehabilitation.
  • Work toward ideal of at least 25-50% protected open space in each municipality. Determine which Chapter 61, 61A and 61B properties to pursue Right of First Refusal* options on if the opportunity arises.
  • Work with municipal officials to develop subdivision standards that require proponents to devote at least 50% of land (not including already undevelopable wet or steep land) for open space conservation and encourage mixed-use development and cluster zoning by-right bylaws.

GOAL: Increase recreational opportunities throughout the subbasin.

  • Remedy potentially dangerous dam fragments on North Nashua River at Leominster Italian-American Club
  • Re-examine the feasibility of developing a riparian greenway trail along the North Nashua River.
  • Educate the public and municipal departments (especially Public Works Depts) on efforts relating to invasive species identification and removal.

GOAL: Improve water quality in the subbasin.

  • If West Fitchburg WWTF continues to have problems meeting their whole effluent CNOEC (chronic no observed effect concentration) limit, the need for a toxicity identification and reduction evaluation (TIE/TRE*) should be determined.
  • The East Fitchburg WWTF needs to be upgraded in order to meet their biological oxygen demand (BOD), suspended solids and total residual chlorine (TRC) permit limits. Their new permit is currently being developed. All planning in the city including possible upgrades to the two treatment facilities (i.e., tie-in of municipal wastewater from the West Fitchburg WWTF and CSO abatement and controls) needs to be coordinated.
  • Evaluate effectiveness of Leominster WWTF dechlorination.
  • Assist Fitchburg and Leominster with its Clean Water Act-mandated MS-4 Phase II Stormwater requirements*. These municipalities will be required to obtain permits to reduce impacts to the receiving streams through the development of Best Management Practices (BMPs), elimination of cross-connections and significant public education. CSO controls and the development of a long-range control plan will be required.
  • Determine locations of combined sewer overflows (CSOs) in Fitchburg and Leominster. Continue to track progress of CSO abatement activities. Conduct additional dry and wet weather fecal coliform bacteria monitoring in most impacted segments of North Nashua River to identify potential sources of pathogens and other contaminants.
  • Because of the evidence of instream toxicity, in order to identify sources of toxicity, bacteria and nutrient impairments, an impact evaluation should be conducted throughout this subbasin to include: biological monitoring (benthic macroinvertebrate and fish), sediment quality characterization (physio-chemical and toxicity testing), in-stream toxicity testing, and water quality monitoring (i.e.: site specific contaminants of concern). Conduct SMART14 monitoring.
  • Continue to monitor nutrient concentrations in most impacted segments of the North Nashua River and evaluate the NPDES facilities compliance with their effluent total phosphorous (TP*) limits. Reissue appropriate limits for all WMA and NPDES permitees
  • Reduce whole effluent and instream toxicity in the North Nashua River.
  • Reduce impervious cover to below 20% threshold.
  • Closely monitor US Army Corps of Engineers local flood protection project in Fitchburg's North Nashua River to ensure environmental sensitivity if/when there is DPW removal of shoals and riverbank vegetation. Support and pursue 1135 River Restoration Grant through USACOE.
  • Optimize water withdrawal practices to maintain minimum streamflows, and to the extent possible, natural flow regimes.
  • Identify and rectify problems with factory floor drains that may still discharge pollutants to waterways (versus to tight tank or sewer system).
  • Inventory, monitor and improve stormwater drainage structures and implement Best Management Practices (BMPs) to reduce the impacts of storm water runoff.
  • Any plans to remove dams through the Fitchburg portion of the Nashua River must account for the effects of altered hydrology on other pollution abatement planning.
  • Identify underground storage tanks (USTs) and work to have them removed.
  • Investigate illegal dump sites identified by stream teams and public-at-large.
  • Help develop and disseminate BMPs for small-scale, hobby type agricultural operations.

GOAL: Reduce potential negative effects of some development in this subbasin.

  • Help local volunteer board members responsible for development and land-use rulemaking and enforcement get technical assistance and information regarding techniques to control/guide land use and development balanced with adequate resource protection (e.g., Citizens Planner Training Collaborative15 workshop offerings).
  • Increase or establish staff hours of municipal conservation agents to more effectively monitor construction sites runoff and assist with the preparation of bylaws such as erosion-sedimentation controls.

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* See glossary.

1 For this Plan, subbasins were delineated and analyzed using USGS defined boundaries as opposed to physically-determined drainage areas.

2 The Southern New England Coastal Plains and Hills ecoregion is an area with generally similar soils, vegetation, shape of the land, and especially, cool climate and bedrock geology (glacial tills and outwash deposits).

3 Corresponding to seasonal stream flow changes are notable spikes in bacteria levels during summer and fall. Seasonal cycles of high bacteria concentrations may be attributed to decreased dilution during summer months, when tributary flows are lowest. (Wachusett Reservoir Watershed Protection Plan Update 1998, pp. 2-29) indeed, at times more than 50% of the North Nashua's flow is treated effluent, that is municipal wastewater facility discharge.

4 "Land Use" description at

5 According to the Center for Watershed Protection's Rapid Watershed Assessment Handbook protocol, an area with less than 10% (8 - 12%) impervious surfaces is considered "partially threatened"; less than 8% is considered "sensitive" or what one would say is a relatively pristine environment;" 12 - 20% is considered "threatened"; and more than 20% is considered "non-supporting" or urbanized. The figures cited in the narrative are based on NRW Estimated Impervious Cover by Sub-basin based on '85/'92 Land Use: MDC '98 Methods Estimate by Bruce Bayne and Jo Anne Carr of the EOEA Nashua River Watershed Team.

6 No instream odors or color were noted during DWM habitat assessment downstream of the West Fitchburg WWTF discharge. The residual paper waste coating the instream substrates and the riparian zone vegetation, which was frequently observed during past surveys, were no longer present. The water column appeared relatively clear and the concentration of suspended solids described above (chemistry-water) was also low.

7 The Fitchburg Gas & Electric Company Sawyer Passway site is listed as a hazardous waste site because of oil and hazardous material contamination. In 1997, soils containing high concentrations of cyanide were discovered. Immediate Response Actions (IRA) were taken including removal of limited volumes of cyanide contaminated soils, evaluation of the risks associated with reconstruction of the Fifth Street Bridge, and the placement of mat of polyethylene sheeting covered with stone dust. The IRA will remain open pending completion of the Fifth Street Bridge construction project.

8 East Fitchburg Wastewater Treatment facility (WWTF) is authorized to discharge treated to the North Nashua River with a permitted average monthly flow of 12.4 MGD. The facility was designed to treat sanitary wastewater from the city of Fitchburg utilizing advanced waste treatment. According to the DEP CERO, the facility has had problems meeting their BOD, suspended solids and TRC (chlorine) limits.

9 West Fitchburg WWTF is authorized to discharge treated wastewater to the North Nashua River with a permitted average monthly flow of 10.5 MGD. The facility was designed to process paper manufacturing waste (all active paper companies are tied into it) and small loadings of domestic wastewater utilizing advanced waste treatment. The facility has also had difficulty meeting their ammonia-nitrogen limit and, on one occasion recently, with their fecal coliform bacteria limit. The plant is considering options to address these problems including upgrading their treatment or diverting the sanitary wastewater (approximately 10% of the total plant flow) to the Fitchburg East WWTF.

10 Simonds Industries is authorized to discharge non-contact cooling water and air conditioning cooling water to the North Nashua River with a permitted daily maximum flow between .25 and .49 MGD.

11 During wet weather, the East Fitchburg WWTF is authorized to discharge storm water/wastewater from 41 Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) to the North Nashua River, Philips, Baker and Punch Brooks and several unnamed streams. As per a recent EPA Administrative Order, dry weather discharges of CSOs are prohibited.

12 EPA issued an Administrative Order in July 1996 requiring the city to develop a long-term CSO control plan. The city submitted a Draft Plan and Sewer Separation Study in January 1999 and additional financial information in March 2000. This plan is currently under review but has not been approved. The City of Fitchburg will be required to implement "9 Minimum Controls" as a condition of their new Fitchburg East WWTF NPDES permit as well as to develop a long-range control plan to address abatement of impacts related to CSOs.

13 "Brownfields" are considered to be abandoned, idled, or under-used industrial and commercial facilities where expansion or redevelopment is complicated by real or perceived environmental contamination. ( /swerosps/bf/glossary.htm)

14 SMART (Strategic Monitoring for River Basin Teams) is a collection of low cost and no-cost methods for building the capacity of EOEA Watershed Teams for water quality monitoring. Project objectives include: develop a comprehensive monitoring plan for the Nashua River Watershed; better integrate monitoring data into the EOEA Watershed Initiative; and augment DEP's DWM monitoring efforts through better use of DEP staff.

15 Citizen Planner Training Collaborative (CPTC) url

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