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

Land Area: 39.3 square miles or 23,401 acres
Permanently Protected Land Area: 8,778 acres (13.6 sq miles) or 47%
Limited Protection Land Area (Chap. 61, etc.): 3126 acres (4.8 sq miles)
River length: 9.9 miles
Dams: none

% Imperviousness: ~ 8%
# of MA NHESP* Priority Habitat Sites: 1
# of NPDES* discharge permits: none
Most threatened waterbodies: Bartlett, Quag and Stuart Ponds. East Wachusett and Waushacum Brooks
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 primarily in the communities of Sterling, Princeton and West Boylston with parts extending into Holden, Leominster, and Westminster. Located in the "fuzzy" zone encompassing parts of both the Upper Worcester Plateau and the Southern New England Coastal Plains and Hills ecoregions2 of central Massachusetts, this area drains into the Wachusett Reservoir: the largest body of open water in the greater Nashua River watershed.

Topography is generally hilly, encompassing numerous flatter wetlands, broad valleys, and floodplains. This subbasin has a large amount (49%) of permanently protected undeveloped open space owned by Metropolitan District Commission (MDC), the municipalities, and others: particularly along the lower Stillwater. Another significant portion of private lands are classified as Chapter 61, 61A or 61B.*

A low percentage (less than 8%) of total impervious surfaces3 -- namely, paved areas such as streets, driveways, and parking lots-- for this whole subbasin indicates that concerns of compromised stormwater and other non-point sources4 of contaminants (for example: pesticides, fertilizers, oils, asphalt, pet wastes, salt, sediment, human litter and other debris) is not a pressing concern. As the Stillwater watershed becomes increasingly developed, there will be more threat of water quality deterioration from risks associated with urbanization, including thermal pollution, over-fertilization of lawns, improper handling of hazardous wastes, septic system leachate, street runoff, and the like.

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Land Ownership and Land Use5 Patterns: The land-use pattern is predominantly undeveloped forest (hardwood mixed with softwood) or wetland plus low-density residential settlement in the hilly upland areas. Concentrated settlements and strip developments are located near town centers and along major roads. Heavily traveled Interstate 190 runs through this subbasin. The highway which connects Worcester and Leominster has led to and will continue to lead to increased development pressures, primarily of single-family residences. Agriculture (notably "hobby farms" and backyard horse paddocks), commercial operations, industry and other developed land uses are less significant. However, sand and gravel extraction operations are contributing to sedimentation and land use change.

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Major Water Resource Issues: Streamflow, as in most of New England, has significant seasonal changes6. Existing flows for the Stillwater River are considered to be under "medium stress". The Stillwater River system is an important water supply (that is, overlying a major aquifer). The River - and the very extensive wetland system bordering it-- feeds the Wachusett Reservoir (12% of the reservoir's total) and is in turn fed by numerous streams including: Ball, Babcock, Bailey, Connelley, East Wachusett, Houghton, Keyes, Rocky, Scanlon, Washacum and Wilder. There are no wastewater treatment plants nor NPDES permitees in this subbasin. The majority of residents have on-site septic systems although a number of homes will be serviced by the new Holden-West Boylston Sewer Project.7

As for specific areas of concern, there is streambank erosion along Crowley Road in Sterling which can lead to siltation/sediment deposition, higher instream temperatures, and threatened habitat. Further, Bartlett Pond in Leominster, and the Quag and Stuart Pond in Sterling are eutrophic and are heavily vegetated with noxious* plants. East Wachusett Brook in Princeton-Sterling is considered to only partially support recreation due to high bacteria (fecal coliforms) during both wet and dry conditions; otherwise, it has high quality habitat and limited disturbance. Waushacum Brook, however, is considered a "moderately septic polluted stream".

On a positive note, Justice Brook in Sterling is very clean and has particularly low bacteria levels. The River and several of its tributaries are stocked with trout and self-reproducing populations of native brook trout are found throughout the subbasin. According to the 1998 Nashua River Watershed Report Card, the Stillwater is rated as on alert8 for aquatic habitat. Beavers, on the other hand, have capitalized on the present environmental conditions and proliferated to the point of being considered a "nuisance" species*. The most serious damage beavers are causing in this subbasin, in addition to increased localized flooding behind their dams, is from bacterial contamination of wellwater. There are no 303(d)-listed impaired water bodies in this subbasin.

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Recreation and Priority Habitat Areas: Keyes Brook, a tributary to the Stillwater running northwest from West Sterling, is part of the MA Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program Priority Habitat area that connects down the Stillwater all the way to Wachusett Reservoir and is habitat for numerous listed turtle species. The area is not without some development, yet it is an important connector between the extensive habitat of focus areas to the northwest (Bartlett Swamp, Wachusett Mt. State Reservation, and Leominster State Forest) and southwest (Poutwater Wildlife Management Area in the Quinapoxet subbasin). Protection priorities should focus on Hy-Crest Pond area and south of Justice Hill Road.9

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Resource Protection Goals and Recommended Actions

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

  • Assist MDC, MassWildlife, other state agencies, municipalities, and local land trusts in consensual transactions to acquire additional open space in priority areas especially in Hy-crest Pond to south of Justice Hill Road area.
  • 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.
  • Continue MDC — Division of Watershed Management's Private Land Forestry program which encourages private forest landowners to adopt forestry practices — namely, forest management planning required by the Chapter 61 program — that protect water quality.
  • Encourage citizen certification of vernal pools.

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

  • Assure continued commitment from MDC to using Stillwater Farm as an educational resource for watershed protection as well as a eco-tourist destination.
  • Encourage the use of MA Executive Order 418* funding for "Open Space and Resource Protection Plans" for each Massachusetts community in the Stillwater River 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 bylaws.

GOAL: Increase recreational opportunities throughout the subbasin.

  • Support the Wachusett Greenways group in its volunteer efforts to link communities via multi-use intermunicipal trails and open spaces, and in particular the Mass Central Rail 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 basin.

  • Conduct more detailed inflow/outflow studies given stressed status of some waterways.
  • Encourage Town of Sterling to apply for state Aquifer Land Acquisition funds to acquire land adjacent to town wellfield (if appropriate to town).
  • Identify the major sources of fecal coliform and nitrate-nitrogen inputs to the river and work with communities to address the problem.
  • Assist the municipalities of Holden, Leominster and West Boylston in implementing EPA's 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.
  • 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 underground storage tanks (USTs) and work with communities to have them removed.
  • 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) Best Management Practices 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 Collaborative10 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 Ecoregions are areas with generally similar climate, bedrock geology, soils, vegetation, and shape of the land. The Worcester Plateau (or Monadnock Upland) has granite and schist bedrock and is cooler than the more moderate Southern New England Coastal Plains and Hills ecoregion which has glacial till and outwash deposits for bedrock. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts considers this physiographic region the "Central Upland" region.

3 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.

4 Non-point source pollution, also known as polluted runoff, is the single largest source of water pollution nationwide. Polluted runoff is the result of rain or melting snow carrying pollutants or sediments from the land to the water. Polluted runoff results in water pollution from land-disturbing activities like agriculture, forestry, mining and urban development.

5 "Land Use" description at

6 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)

7 Historically, the MDC Division of Watershed Management "has considered on-site wastewater disposal systems to be the most significant source of pathogens and other pollutants of concern within the [greater] Wachusett watershed." (Wachusett Reservoir Watershed Protection Plan Update 1998, pp. 2-29)

8 In the terminology of the 1998 Nashua River Watershed Report Card (DEP), "alert" means there is some indication that water quality impairment may exist based on any given variable, but there is not enough data to determine such. The term "threatened" is used when the use is fully supported but may not support the use within two years because of adverse pollution trends or anticipated sources of pollution. "Partial support" means a minor impairment, violation or objectionable condition with impairment being neither frequent nor prolonged.

9Focus Areas for Wildlife Habitat Protection in the Nashua River Watershed, (MAS, 2000).

10 Citizen Planner Training Collaborative (CPTC)
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