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

Land Area: 28.25 square miles
Primary Municipalities: Ashburnham, Westminster
Permanently Protected Land Area: 3,299 acres or 26%
Limited Protection Land Area (Chap. 61, etc.): 1,516 acres
River length: 8.4 miles
Reservoirs: Whitmanville, Mare Meadow, Meetinghouse Pond

% Imperviousness: approximately 9%
Land Use: 72% forest, 10% residential
# of Priority Habitat Sites: 3
# of discharge permits: none
Most threatened waterbodies: Partridge and Round Meadow Ponds
Dams: 4, Ashburnham, Fitchburg, 2 in Westminster
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 and Westminster with parts extending into Gardner and Fitchburg. Predominately located in the Upper Worcester Plateau ecoregion2 of central Massachusetts, this area drains southeasterly into the North Nashua River in Fitchburg just below Snow Mills Pond. Streamflow, as in most of New England, has significant seasonal changes3. Topography is generally hilly, encompassing numerous flatter wetlands, broad valleys, and floodplains.

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Land Ownership and Land Use4 Patterns: The land-use pattern is 72% forest (hardwood mixed with softwood) or wetland plus 10% residential (low-density settlement as well as concentrated settlements and strip development located near town centers and along major roads). Less significant are agriculture (notably "hobby farms" and backyard horse paddocks), gravel extraction, commercial operations, industry and other developed land uses. This mix gives rise to a number of existing and potential conflicts with potential pollutants including sediment, nutrients, and oil/gas.

A low percentage (less than 10%) of total impervious surfaces5 — namely, paved areas such as streets, driveways, and parking lots — for this whole subbasin indicates that issues of compromised stormwater and other non-point sources of contaminants (i.e.: pesticides, oils, fertilizers, asphalt, pet wastes, salt, sediment, human litter and other debris) are not an immediate pressing issue.

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Major Water Resource Issues: The amount of permanently protected undeveloped open space in the subbasin has meant that the water quality in the subbasin remains high. Regarding water withdrawals: one water withdrawal permit is for the Westminster Golf Course which draws its water from Burnt Millpond; another is for Intercontinental Recycling Corporation which averages approximately 1.25 million gallons per day (MGD) of surface water withdrawal from Snows Millpond.

This subbasin features a network of unnamed streams and swamps with the exception of the large Tophet Swamp just to the northwest of Westminster center. Notable waterbodies in the subbasin include: Lake Wampanoag, Whitmanville Reservoir, Crocker Pond, Muddy Pond, Burnt Millpond, Partridge Pond, and Round Meadow. The last two are characterized as eutrophic with noxious plants*; Patridge Pond is also somewhat turbid.

According to the NRWA's 2000 Volunteer Monitoring Water Quality Report, the Whitman River — sampled near the Vocational-Technical school behind the sewage pumping station — was relatively free of coliform bacteria. The river is well-oxygenated. This site fell below the state standard for pH, but low pH is likely the normal background condition. All other parameters measured indicate clean water.

As for specific areas of concern, according to the 1998 Nashua River Watershed Report Card, the Whitman River is rated as on alert for aquatic biology. When the state Division of Water Management last sampled in summer of 1998, vast amounts of an algae were present, which is indicative of the presence of elevated levels of nutrients. Likewise, the rocks in the streams were covered with algae typically associated with abundant nutrients. Given the abundant algal community and other indications that the surface waters may be responding to a stressor — possibly nutrients — the River is considered to be on "Alert Status". Finally, there is considerable suspended sediments in the River, possibly from road sanding operations run-off.

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Recreation and Priority Habitat Areas: More than 5 miles of the long-distance Mid-state Trail pass through the Town of Westminster Muddy Pond Conservation Area, Westminster State Forest and private holdings in this subbasin; although it may be noted that there are no trail easements thereon. There is great potential for a Rail-to-Trail project along the old B & M line as it runs north through Westminster and Ashburnham to join the existing Rail-to-Trail line in Winchendon and on into Rindge, New Hampshire.

High Ridge Wildlife Management Area (WMA) is a more than 2,000 acre habitat for wildlife designated as a Watchable Wildlife Viewing Area. This WMA includes extensive open meadows managed for hay their associated bird communities and which therefore have or have the potential for threatened grassland nesting bird habitat. Wetlands within this area provide habitat for state-endangered American bitterns, a strong indicator of low human disturbance. MassWildlife staff report moose and bear activity in the area which is consistent with the presence of open lands providing undisturbed habitat for large mammals ranging south from the Mt. Watatic area. Protection of the wetlands east and west of Overlook Road at the southern end of this focus area, and the lands west of Murray Road at the northern end are the conservation priorities.

Massachusetts Audubon Society's (MAS) Lake Wampanoag Sanctuary consists of 360 plus acres of woodlands and wetland habitat, notably a "spruce/ moose" habitat rarely found in Massachusetts. Lake Wampanoag itself is one of the largest contiguous open space and relatively undeveloped waterbodies in the watershed. The entire lake is identified as a Priority Habitat by the MA Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program (NHESP). It is important for its size, its large amount of interior, and its location on the western edge of the watershed. According to the Nashua River Habitat Assessment Report 2000 (MAS), it should be considered another cornerstone of a reserve design for the Nashua River Watershed. Important targets for habitat protection include all of the Priority Habitat areas, especially undeveloped shoreline on Lake Wampanoag, and parcels along the Old County Road which could possibly allow access for development in the long term. Similarly, The NRWA 2020 Plan recommends acquiring conservation land along Whitman River and Lake Wampanoag.

In addition to Lake Wampanoag, there are two MA NHESP Priority Habitat sites in the High Ridge WMA area. There are four habitat areas identified in the 2000 MAS Habitat Report, which are:

  1. High Ridge (wholly within this subbasin);
  2. Lake Wampanoag;
  3. Muddy Pond; and,
  4. Parker Hill: # 2, 3 and 4 are approximately 50% within this subbasin.

This past summer of 2001, Muddy Pond was the location of a more in-depth ecological inventory: the results of which are still in draft. The unprotected sections of Muddy Pond — one of very few wholly undeveloped waterbodies in the watershed — is another recommended conservation priority.

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Resource Protection Goals and Recommended Actions

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

  • High Ridge WMA includes extensive open meadows managed for hay. Manage portions of the meadows expressly for success of grassland nesters by delaying the first cut until after August 1st.
  • Land protection efforts to focus on undeveloped shoreline on Lake Wampanoag and parcels along the Old County Road in Ashburnham.
  • 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.

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 the Nissitissit 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.
  • Encourage municipalities to adopt and enforce "Scenic River Protection" type bylaws.

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.
  • 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.

  • Because of the indications that the river may be responding to a stressor, possibly nutrients, additional monitoring should be conducted. These investigations should include biological (benthic macroinvertebrate), and physio-chemical (nutrients, DO, pH) monitoring.
  • Identify the major sources of phosphate inputs to the river and work with communities to address the problem.
  • Identify WMA withdrawals in the Whitman River subwatershed. Evaluate compliance with registration and/or permit limits. Determine potential impacts of withdrawals on streamflow/habitat.
  • Assist Fitchburg, Gardner and Westminster with their 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.
  • Help develop and disseminate BMPs for small-scale, hobby type agricultural operations.
  • Identify the degree of threat from potential faulty/ illicitly discharging septic systems, which may result in bacterial and nutrient contamination of nearby streams and groundwater.
  • Inventory, monitor and improve stormwater drainage structures.
  • Identify underground storage tanks (USTs) and work to have them removed.

GOAL: Reduce negative effects of development in this subbasin.

  • Review the turf maintenance practices of area golf courses near Burnt Millpond to determine potential non-point source pollution from fertilizer use.
  • 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 Collaborative6 workshop offerings).
  • Monitor increased imperviousness, both direct and indirect riparian zone alterations, and uncontrolled runoff from construction sites to prevent increased stream temperature and sedimentation through macroinvertebrate sampling performed by volunteer stream team monitors.
  • 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 which sometimes are truncated at the gaging station and may not appear to be consistent with topographically determined drainage areas.

2 The Upper Worcester Plateau (or Monadnock Upland) ecoregion is an area with cool climate and bedrock geology of granites and schist, and generally similar soils, vegetation, and shape of the land.

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)

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 Citizen Planner Training Collaborative (CPTC)

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