NH Water and Watershed Conference: Water Quality, Aquatic Habitat and  Fragmentation Highlights

Photo Credit: Paige Schoppmann, Plymouth State University

Article by Dennis McFadden, NRS 2018

The broad range of voices at the 2019 New Hampshire Water and Watershed Conference offered clear evidence, were any needed, of just how varied and complex issues around understanding and caring for the state’s extraordinary water resources are.

On a March day when temperatures thankfully reached well above freezing and the afternoon brought some bright sunshine, a capacity audience of 180 gathered at Plymouth State University for the 2019 New Hampshire Water and Watershed Conference.

The program for the day was a rich and varied one. Beginning with a plenary talk by David Neils, Chief Aquatic Biologist at the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services, it included 21 presentations organized in seven concurrent thematic tracks during morning and afternoon sessions. The day wrapped-up with a panel discussion. In addition, there was a poster session in the conference meeting area where several organizations also displayed information about their work. Lunch and breaks during the day offered opportunities for attendees to network, talk with presenters, and catch up with colleagues.

How good is NH water?

David Neils’ presentation, “The Million-Dollar Question: How are New Hampshire’s Lakes and Rivers Doing?” provided a great start. Recounting a dinner party query, “So Dave, you work for DES, just how good is New Hampshire’s water?” Neils talked about what he considered in coming up with his answer to that question:

  • the programs and the science currently being deployed to evaluate water quality in the state
  • Improvements in water quality to date
  • challenges posed by high concentrations of chloride, exotic species andclimate change

After reviewing the evidence, Neils proposed as a short answer to the dinner party question that New Hampshire water is pretty good now and has gotten better over the last couple decades by several measures. Looking to the future he suggested that we have reason for guarded optimism, especially if we continue to monitor our water and look for ways to guard its quality. The data were interesting and the summary encouraging, but Neils’ presentation also offered a great demonstration of the challenge facing those who take on the responsibility of making complex environmental issues comprehensible to the public. A simple declarative sentence rarely captures the whole story.

Following Neils’ talk, attendees faced the challenge of deciding which of the morning and afternoon presentations to head for. While you might have found two or three presentations of interest scheduled at the same time, making it impossible to hear everything you wanted to, it was possible to move between tracks for successive presentations. Conference organizers and session moderators did a great job setting and maintaining a timetable that allowed one to move from a presentation in one track, to a presentation in another track.

Attendees chose from three presentations in seven tracks:

  1. Economy of Water
  2. Community Conservation Partnerships
  3. GIS and Remote Sensing for Environmental Science and Management
  4. Water Quality and Quantity Regulations
  5. Fish and Freshwater Fragmentation
  6. Roles & Concerns of Sediment: From Land to Water
  7. Use of New Technology in Water Resources

In some cases, the three presentations approached the subject of a track from different perspectives. Others tracks hewed more closely to a single line of inquiry with each presentation bringing additional information to it.

Community Conservation Partnerships Track Highlights

County Conservation District representatives Stacy Luke from Merrimack County, Pamela Gilbert from Grafton County, and Donna Hepp from Belknap County, joined together to describe the work of New Hampshire’s ten County Conservation Districts. Each described programs and projects their respective districts have undertaken in their efforts to maintain water quality and improve aquatic habitat. The presenters all stressed their role as matchmakers, bringing together public agency resources and stakeholders to address a variety of needs in their communities.

Emily Greene, who described the Saco Watershed Collaborative and its work to secure the future for the 136-mile-long Saco River and its 1700 square mile watershed, said the Collaborative is a multi-state project working with 23 communities in a watershed which begins in the White Mountain National Forest and extends to the Gulf of Maine where the Saco empties into it. Greene stressed the importance of officials, citizens, and environmental professionals working together to develop a strategic Action Plan for the watershed. She also described the value the Collaborative has discovered in offering regular field trips. It has found that taking members of the public out to see the river is a tool for building awareness of the river and support for efforts to protect it as a multifaceted community resource.

Hayley O’Grady, a water resources engineer with Geosyntec Consultants, described how Geosyntec worked with dam operators in the Stony Brook watershed in eastern Massachusetts to develop a Streamflow Restoration Plan and to create a web-based decision support system that would provide them with information to make timely decisions in accordance with the plan. O’Grady stressed that collaboration to set project goals was a crucial part of the effort.

Research on Brook Trout Habitat Needs

The afternoon track on Fish and Freshwater Fragmentation brought together reports on research projects that focused on better understanding the habitat needs and preferences of New Hampshire’s brook trout populations. Brook trout, an important indicator species in the state, have been and continue to be the subject of extensive research on numerous fronts. It is now understood that within their home range and at different points in their lives, different times of year, and under different climatic conditions, trout need to be able to move between locations, each of which offers distinct conditions. Research to identify those needs -- and the impact of features of the New Hampshire landscape, natural and manmade, on the ability of fish to meet those needs -- has been especially revealing. The impact of stream crossings like bridges and culverts has been of particular interest and was an element in the three presentations in the track.

Diane Timmins, the Coldwater Project Leader for NH Fish and Game, presented a broad synoptic overview of what has been learned from research of the native brook trout population in the Second College Grant in Coös County. It has been revealed, for example, that where possible, adult trout of substantial size regularly migrate considerable distances between locations in the Dead Diamond and Swift Diamond Rivers and deeper waters where they over winter. In contrast, there are many places where small streams and tributaries that have been fragmented into small sections by crossings do not provide habitats in which brook trout can survive. All this data along with other findings, such as that on the importance of groundwater upwellings in rivers which Dartmouth graduate student Keith Fritschie described in his poster presentation at the conference, are being combined in a management plan       that Timmins is compiling.

Watershed Connectivity Research

The physical separation of populations of a species in adjacent elements of a single stream network as a result of undersized or failing culverts can limit access to habitat. It can also lead to genetic isolation. Jared Lamy and Joshua Hoekwater, graduate students at Plymouth State working with Professors Amy Villamagna and Brigid O’Donnell, researched these impacts before and after a major culvert removal and restoration project in the Beebe River watershed in Campton, NH.  By capturing, gathering genetic material from, and then electronically tagging trout in different locations within the Beebe River network before the removal of undersized or blocked culverts Lamy and Hoekwater were able to identify distinct genetic clusters associated with different isolated segments of the stream system. Recapturing some of the same fish following the removal of the obstacles, they were able to track and gather data on the movement of individual fish over three sampling seasons that demonstrated the positive impact of restoring connectivity between elements of the watershed.

While the value to wildlife of removing undersized and failing culverts has been well established by research like that in the Beebe River watershed, the cost of upgrading or removing culverts is very high and limits the number of problem structures that NHcommunities have been able to tackle. As with any initiative that requires the allocation of limited resources, communities need thoughtful strategies they can use in their decision making. Kat Crowley, a Plymouth State graduate student working with Amy Villamagna and Ben Nugent, a fisheries biologist with the NHFish and Game Department, presented their work developing a tool to prioritize and rank culvert replacement projects based on their potential restoration benefit. Crowley and Nugent developed their tool for the Warner River watershed. Their prioritization tool identified 15 parameters, information about each of which was assigned to one of three categories:

  1. brook trout habitat quality and population
  2. culvert condition
  3. adjacent landscape characteristics

This data was gathered for each of the culverts under consideration for restoration. A methodology for weighting the relative importance of each parameter allowed for the development of scores for each culvert. The presenters were quick to point out that the weighting used for the Warner River watershed culverts was specific to them and that if applied in other locations it might well be modified to reflect conditions in those locations.

Panel Wrap-Up and Conclusions

To provide an opportunity for a longer and more general conversation on water and watershed issues organizers ended the day with a panel discussion titled Positive Outcomes to Address a Changing Water Landscape: One Step at a Time.

Facilitator Shane Csiki of the NH Geological Survey invited each of five panelists to speak for two minutes about their work before opening the session to comments and questions from the audience:

  • Jillian Emerson, Water Quality Coordinator for Green Mountain Conservation Group
  • Joe Fagnant, Highway Manager for the Town of Plymouth
  • Marcia Gasses, the Planner and Land Use Administrator for the town of Barrington, NH, has been active in local planning as a professional and a citizen volunteer for a number of years
  • Drew Kellner, an investment advisor in Hollis, NH, serves on the Conservation Commission in his hometown of Brookline and on the board of the Forest Society
  • Boyd Smith, Director of the Newfound Lake Region Association. 

The informative discussion that followed the panelists’ remarks touched on several topics that had come up during the day. In the panel setting the conversations about things like how best to work with your town to successfully address public works projects, for example culvert replacement, benefitted from the practical experiences panelists and members of the audience were able to informally share in detail. The conversation was also enriched by the perspectives represented in the room. Interested individuals, representatives from environmental organizations, public officials, engineers, students, teachers, researchers, all added to the discourse.

With talks that presented the findings of current research, described innovative tools for more effectively managing water, shared successful strategies for building community support for water conservation projects, and provided information about valuable resources available to individuals and organizations, the conference offered a lot. For the generalist it gave a great overview of activities in New Hampshire. For the specialist it provided in-depth information on a range of subjects. Plymouth State University’s Center for the Environment and conference organizer June Hammond Rowan, the conference committee and staff deserve thanks for putting together a great program and a well-run event.

Anyone interested in the fascinating and important subject of New Hampshire’s waters and watersheds should plan to attend next year’s conference. When information about it is available it will be posted the Center webpage (https://campus.plymouth.edu/cfe/) where you will also find information about the Center’s  Environmental Science Colloquium talks.

Dennis McFadden lives in Sugar Hill, NH. A participant in the 2018 Natural Resources Stewards program, Dennis’ interests include freshwater stewardship and the history of American environmental literature and thought.