METHUEN — Growing up on the banks of the Merrimack River, Rocky Morrison had a front-row seat to the many environmental issues plaguing the 115-mile waterway.
In 2004, he decided to take serious action and founded the Clean River Project, a non-profit organization at 1022 Riverside Dr.
With the Merrimack being such a major target for pollution, making progress has been a daunting task.
“It’s a lack of attention,” Morrison said of years of contamination.
He said a significant amount of pollution came from Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs), especially after heavy torrential rains. Despite violating the Clean Water Act, CSOs are still allowed to operate under consent agreements with the US Environmental Protection Agency.
However, social media platforms have allowed the organization to shed light on the dire state of the river, which provides drinking water to more than half a million residents of the Merrimack Valley.
“After 18 years we have more eyes on the river,” Morrison said. “We are a big part of the river, keeping it clean.
In 2020, an individual, known only as Mattress Bandit, threw more than 30 mattresses into the river from a bridge on Rt. 110 in Haver Hill. Although the person was never officially identified, exposure through social media and various media put an end to this particular problem.
“The person pulled over, they knew they were being watched,” said Kristin Bachmann, office manager for the Clean River Project.
Also in 2020, the organization removed 67 abandoned homeless encampments and more than 7,400 hypodermic needles along the coastline in Lowell, Lawrence and Haverhill.
“It was a huge undertaking,” Bachmann said.
Additionally, 84 cars have been removed from the depths since 2005. Three more vehicles are expected to be removed later this month. One is submerged in 20 feet of water just before the Interstate 93 overpass in Methuen.
Bachmann said it usually takes two to three days to get a car out of the river. Once a vehicle is found using Sonar, the location is marked with a buoy. A team of divers then descends to ensure the car can be pulled out in one piece. If so, they will pressure wash the vehicle and use lift bags to bring it to the surface.
Overall, the organization removes around 100 tonnes of waste from the river every year. Bachmann said the Clean River Project recycles everything that comes out, setting it apart from similar organizations.
The Clean River Project also has seven custom-built boats that are used during cleanup events as well as a series of dams that are still in use.
“It collects whatever floats on the surface,” Bachmann said, adding that a larger boat, known as the River Monster, is used exclusively for cleaning dams.
Looking back through history, the river was once home to Merrimack Park. Opened in 1921, the attraction rivaled the size of Canobie Lake Park. Merrimack Park’s trademark was the wooden roller coaster that towered 200 feet above the river. However, the park was destroyed by the Great Flood of 1936 which caused the river to rise 68 feet – 10 feet higher than the Mother’s Day flood that occurred in 2006. A few concrete pillars are all what remains of a roller coaster.
The concrete foundations of a dance hall which was destroyed by fire are also visible behind the Muddy Waters Pub & Restaurant.
In addition to environmental cleanups, the Clean River Project also organizes boat trips.
The last educational tour of the season will take place on September 16 at 5 p.m. A donation of $25 is requested per person. The remaining musical tours will take place on September 10 at 5 p.m. and September 25 and 17. A donation of $35 is requested per person. Please call 978-857-6680 for reservations.