Take Me to the River: Marion Stoddart Proves That One Person Can Make a Difference

Dyes and paper sludge from local mills decimated the Nashua River in the mid-20th century. Image Courtesy the Nashua River Watershed Association Archives

Dyes and paper sludge from local mills decimated the Nashua River in the mid-20th century. Image Courtesy the Nashua River Watershed Association Archives.

Rivers are a vital part of nature – and commerce. Many communities have learned the hard way that what farms and mills put in a river doesn’t just float downstream; it affects the health of the river and all of the creatures who live near or within it. In the 1960s, Marion Stoddart looked at her local river, the Nashua, and saw that something was wrong – it was impossible to fish or swim in it. Factories and paper mills along the river in Northern Massachusetts had dumped so many chemicals and paper waste into the Nashua that it was clogged and literally running red. Stoddart decided to do something about it, and enlisted the help of school children to collect samples from the river and take them to local politicians so that they could advocate to get their river back. Before she was finished (and she is never finished, really, not even now) she drew worldwide attention to the need for clean waterways and made sure the Federal government made good on its promised to allocate millions to fight water pollution.

Ick. Who would want to swim, boat or fish in this? Image courtesy The Nashua River Watershed Association Archives.

The businesses that polluted the river are gone and the restored waterway is now a focal point of local recreation, redevelopment and revitalization for the communities that line it. Marion Stoddart is living proof that one person who cares can make a big difference, and her efforts prove that keeping water supplies clean is not only the right thing to do, it makes business sense, too.

The fight for clean rivers is not over. Stoddart’s efforts to clean her local river have had far-reaching consequences – her work resulted in cleaner water for everyone as well as better quality of life in the river itself and the surrounding towns. The organization she founded to preserve the Nashua and other local waterways, The Nashua River Watershed Association (NRWA), is an ideal model for environmental conservation and educational outreach groups.  Stoddart also inspired The Work of 1000 (a project created by the documentary filmmaker, Sue Edwards, during the course of her work on the film of the same name) so other activists can learn from her experience and develop the tools to advocate for environmental preservation in their own communities.

In Tumblehome Learning’s Something Stinks!, Seventh grader Emily Sanders and her friends try to solve the mystery of what is killing fish in their local river, and like Stoddard, the find themselves facing all kinds of obstacles along the way. It’s a great story of a smart, determined girl trying to make a difference and survive middle school all at the same time. It’s a great read for middle schoolers – or anyone interested in the science of keeping rivers clean.

Special thanks to the NWRA and Wynne Treanor-Kvenvold for sharing wisdom and photos.
The Nashua flooded in 2010, but by then the waters were pristine.

The Nashua flooded in 2010, but by then the waters were pristine.

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