Special to the Tribune-Star
TERRE HAUTE —
Beginning in the early 1960s, Marion Stoddart led a massive citizen effort to clean up the Nashua River, specifically the part that runs through Massachusetts. In the ’60s they had a lot of paper and chemical companies located along the river. Stoddart says their wastewater was dumped untreated into the waterway.
“Besides smelling terribly, it was different colors. It could be red, yellow, orange, green, white, gray, brown; and it was filled with sludge. This was paper waste, paper fiber. It was so thick that birds and small animals could walk right across the top of the river, without getting their feet wet,” Stoddart said.
Stoddart knew at one point the Nashua River was a beautiful landscape, and she wanted to make it her mission to bring it back to life. When she made the decision to restore the river, she didn’t know what she was going to do, she just knew she was going to do it.
“The average person really accepted the river for the way it was. They thought, this is the way it was and they weren’t thinking it could be changed. They were just in the mind-set of acceptance. When I first began my efforts to clean up the river, a lot of people thought it was impossible and that I was crazy. As the river began to be restored, then the average person began to take an interest,” Stoddart said.
Stoddart’s work set precedents for watershed/river protection and laid the groundwork for the Massachusetts Clean Water Act (first in the nation), which influenced the Clean Water Act of 1972.
“Rivers all over the U.S. were polluted. I think people just got tired of it. It was an emergency. I think often people don’t take action or don’t really react to a situation until there is a real emergency. People just got so fed up and realized it didn’t have to be this way all the time. We could have change,” Stoddart said.
Hautians connect with the Wabash
Forty years after the Clean Water Act was signed into law, Terre Haute is undergoing a movement of its own. The year 2013 is the Year of the River, a time when 40-plus organizations will be involving their routine annual projects with the theme of celebrating the river.
“It is so exciting to see how the participating organizations all came up with their own unique ideas. It has been really fun to work with so many amazing people that are thinking about the city and the river all at the same time. I think we are all learning from and inspiring each other,” organizer Mary Kramer said.
The original masterminds behind the celebration came from three local artists: Kramer, Steve Letsinger and Jon Robeson. Kramer says she is seeing an increase in artists working on public projects that have an eco-friendly theme. The hope is to bring in some of those artists to help reveal the Wabash River’s potential.
“I think it is the perfect time to bring in an artist because what you don’t want to do is bring in an artist at the very end when all you have left to show them is ‘here is this parcel, put up a piece.’ Especially this type of artist, who really gets engaged in the problem solving. When you can bring them into the discussion earlier, they can play a major role in helping you figure things out,” Kramer said.
The work is never over
Here in the Wabash Valley, we are just getting started. But after four decades, the restoration of the Nashua River is far from over. Currently, community members are working to protect the land along the river, called the greenway. The greenway acts as a purification filter, from water running off people’s yards. Their greenway also provides habitat for wildlife to move along. Stoddart says Massachusetts has a River Protection Act, which prohibits building within 200 feet of the river, except in city limits. So far the state has protected 70 percent of the land along the river and major tributaries so that the river will not be re-polluted from storm water and other sources of pollution.
“In the cities of Fitchburg, Nashua and Leominster, where the greenway is already developed, we are creating parks and walkways along the river so people who are traveling to school, work or to the local shops can walk along the river,” Stoddart said.
Now that the Nashua River is healthy again, people have restored old mills along the river. They are being turned into very attractive housing or office space. The property lining the water has become the most expensive rental property in the area.
“I have taken a couple of artists down to where the old ICON building is, that is now Indiana State University property,” Kramer said. “They love the mix with the old and industrial, somewhat falling down, but being a rehabbed look. They just go wild over things like that. While we see mud, rock and a building, they see so much potential.”
In the Wabash Valley, there is no doubt that when this many people come together with a common purpose of bringing attention to the river, all the energy and ideas will go someplace.
“I suspect it will help to connect the people and organizations that have the river and the city’s best interests at heart, and lead to a lot of great dreams and the courage and determination to implement them,” Kramer said.
To contribute or become involved in 2013 Year of the River activities, log onto 2013yearoftheriver.com for more information.
Jane Santucci is an environmental freelance writer for the Tribune-Star. Santucci is a proud volunteer with TREES Inc. and Our Green Valley. She also sits on the Wabash Valley Goodwill Industries Board of Directors. Share your environmental stories and tips with her at JaneSantucci@yourgreenvalley.com.