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Subbasins - Phillips Brook
Geographic & Ecosystem Characteristics | Land Ownership & Land Use Patterns
Major Water Resource Issues | Recreation & Priority Habitat Areas
Resource Protection Goals & Recommended Actions

Land Area: 15.8 square miles
Primary Municipalities: Ashburnham, Westminster and Fitchburg
Permanently Protected Land Area: 1040 acres or 15%
Limited Protection Land Area (Chap. 61, etc.): 481 acres
River length: 8 miles
Feeder Streams: Browns and Laws Brooks

% Imperviousness: approximately 7%
Land Use: 75% forest, 9% residential, 10% ag/open
# of MA NHESP* Priority Habitat Sites: 1
# of discharge permits: 1 Minor
Most threatened waterbodies: Lake Winnekeag

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: Most of this subbasin1 lies in the communities of Ashburnham, Westminster and Fitchburg with a very small part extending into Ashby. Located in the Upper Worcester Plateau ecoregion of central Massachusetts, this area drains into the North Nashua River at Mill Number 3 downstream of the West Fitchburg Wastewater Treatment Plant and upstream of downtown Fitchburg. Route 12 travels through the center of this subbasin and Route 101 passes through a portion as well.

The Worcester Plateau (or Monadnock Highland) ecoregion is an area with cool climate and bedrock geology (glacial tills and outwash deposits) and generally similar soils, vegetation, and shape of the land. Streamflow, as in most of New England, has significant seasonal changes2. Browns Brook and Laws Brook are feeder streams to Phillips Brook. Lake Winnekeag is the headwaters of Phillips Brook and is in turn feed, in part, by Lincoln Pond. There are prominent north-south ridgelines along both the eastern and western boundaries of this subbasin. Topography is generally hilly (notably Mount Hunger and Russell, Jewell, Brown, Buck, Alpine Hills) encompassing numerous flatter wetlands and floodplains.

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Land Ownership and Land Use3 Patterns: The land-use pattern is nearly 75% forest (hardwood mixed with softwood) or wetland. Low-density residential settlement as well as concentrated settlements and strip development located near town centers and along major roads account for a total of 9% residential. 10% of total land area is agriculture (notably diary and hay). Gravel extraction, commercial operations, industry and other developed land uses are less significant.

A very low percentage (7%) of total impervious surfaces4 — namely, paved areas such as streets, driveways, and parking lots — for this subbasin indicates that issues of compromised stormwater and other non-point sources of contaminants (for example: pesticides, fertilizers, oils, asphalt, pet wastes, salt, sediment, litter and other debris) is not a pressing concern. Indeed, a shoreline survey of the brook from Lake Winnekeag Dam to Jewell Hill Rd was conducted by the Phillips Brook Stream Team in summer of 1999. Their shoreline survey indicated that the brook was in good condition overall. Some threats to water quality, however, were identified including beaver activity, increasing development of "marginal" lots, storm drains (near Rt. 12/Main St. bridge), uncovered DPW sand and salt storage pile, lawn waste disposal practices, and road run-off/ erosion at bridge crossings such as where Route 12 and Route 101 intersect the brook.

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Major Water Resource Issues: Phillips Brook is classified as a well-oxygenated, Class B waterbody, and a warm water fishery. There are no wastewater treatment plants in this subbasin. There are two NPDES minor discharge permits, both in Ashburnham: one site permitted for industrial effluent is Cushing Academy, and the other is Flo Chemical Corporation.

According to the NRWA's 2000 Volunteer Monitoring Water Quality Report, many samples at the mouth of Phillips Brook — upstream of the confluence with the North Nashua River at Route 12 — had fecal coliform colonies too numerous to count (TNTC). It is possible that these sites are affected by Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) which, at times, dump untreated wastewater directly into the rivers. Two sites in Phillips Brook in Ashburnham — at the former swim pond and at Lake Winnekeag's outfall — were relatively free of coliform bacteria. These two sites fell below the state standard for pH. Low pH at these sites is likely the normal background condition, though a sampling of lake water from Winnekeag may be helpful for comparison. All other parameters measured indicate clean water.

Fecal coliform is a major problem on Phillips Brook in Fitchburg. If Combined Sewer Overflows are the major contributing source, ameliorating the problem is likely to take a long time. Human contact in these areas should be limited and/or cautious. In the past there had been unfenced cattle access in to Phillips Brook, but this situation is no longer present. In the summer of 2000, the NRWA conducted benthic macroinvertebrate biological monitoring at three sites along Phillips Brook the results of which are being tabulated.

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Recreation and Priority Habitat Areas: The DEM recently purchased land surrounding the wholly undeveloped Lincoln Pond's eastern edge where an unbuilt residential development was abandoned some years ago. This is an important acquisition as it is a fine example of a Spruce-Tamarack Bog and as it is to be added to Ashburnham State Forest serves as a further buffer of protection for a very large area centered around Little Watatic Mountain. The only other significant permanently protected parcel in this subbasin is Town of Westminster's Muddy Pond Conservation Area and the adjacent Westminster State Forest in addition to a few Agricultural Protection Restriction (APR) farms. There are a number of Chapter 61A-enrolled properties in the subbasin as well including a large farm with frontage on Phillips Brook, which is presently for sale.

Moran Playground and McTaggarts Pond are other local recreation destinations, which are prominent in being very close to densely populated Fitchburg neighborhoods. The impoundment of Phillips Brook creating Bresnahan Pool, which is the only public beach facility in Ashburnham, was closed several years ago due to irreparable damage. 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 (NHESP) Priority Habitat area centered on the lower fifth of Phillips Brook. There is one MA NHESP Rare Wetlands Priority site in Lake Wampanoug and another two in the High Ridge WMA area. There are four habitat areas identified in the Nashua River Habitat Assessment Report (MAS, 2000) which encompass parts of this subbasin:

  1. Mt. Hunger-Russell Hill;
  2. Lincoln Pond;
  3. Muddy Pond; and,
  4. Parker Hill.

Conservation protection priorities recommended for this subbasin include Mt. Hunger and the Russell Hill ridge.5

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Resource Protection Goals and Recommended Actions

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

  • 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 for natural resource/ habitat inventories.
  • Encourage citizen certification of vernal pools.
  • Monitor beaver activity and impacts.

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*.
  • Work toward ideal of at least 25-50% protected open space in each municipality.
  • 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 by-laws.

GOAL: Increase recreational opportunities throughout the subbasin.

  • Work toward securing trail easements on sections of the Mid-state Trail.
  • Improve canoeing, fishing, and swimming opportunities by removing weeds from water bodies and educating the public about the spread of invasive plants.
  • Educate municipal departments (especially Public Works Depts.) on efforts relating to invasive species identification and removal.

GOAL: Improve water quality in the subbasin including assess and eliminate contamination of surface and ground water caused by human activities.

  • 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 in Fitchburg (Fitchburg is under a Consent Order from the EPA to eliminate CSOs).
  • Identify the major sources of fecal coliform and nitrate-nitrogen inputs to the river and work with communities to address the problem.
  • Identify the degree of threat from potential faulty/ illicitly discharging septic systems, which may result in bacterial and nitrate contamination of nearby streams and groundwater.
  • Identify leaking residential underground storage tanks (USTs).
  • Monitor effects of increasing urbanization to prevent diminished groundwater recharge and to declining stream flow as well as stream channel widening and downcutting.
  • Help develop and disseminate BMPs for small-scale, hobby type agricultural operations.

GOAL: Reduce negative effects of development in this subbasin.

  • Monitor uncontrolled runoff from construction sites to prevent sedimentation of streams.
  • Track increased imperviousness and both direct and indirect riparian zone alterations that may increase stream temperature and cause sedimentation.
  • Help local volunteer board members responsible for development and land-use rulemaking and enforcement get technical assistance and information regarding fundamental and innovative techniques to control and guide land use and development balanced with adequate resource protection (e.g., Citizens Planner Training Collaborative6 workshop offerings).
  • Increase or establish staff hours of municipal conservation agents to more effectively monitor runoff from construction sites and assist with the preparation of relevant bylaws.
  • Write and implement stormwater, erosion, and sedimentation bylaws/controls.

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* See glossary.

1 For this Plan, subbasins were delineated and analyzed using USGS defined boundaries which sometimes are truncated at the gaging station and may not appear to be consistent with topographically determined drainage areas.

2 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)

3 "Land Use" description at

4 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. (Based on the Center for Watershed Protection's "Rapid Watershed Assessment Handbook" protocol). 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.

5 Focus Areas for Wildlife Habitat Protection in the Nashua River Watershed 2000.

6 Citizen Planner Training Collaborative (CPTC)

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