BETHEL – Water quality issues in the Androscoggin River from New Hampshire to Lewiston-Auburn, dominated talk during the first part of Wednesday’s watershed conference.

But, when the sessions ended, the information conflicted on several points, raising more questions than were answered. Some of it even lifted more than a few eyebrows among the 30 people present.

For instance, it quickly seemed evident that the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services lags behind its Maine counterpart when it comes to assessing and sampling water quality in the Androscoggin.

Paul Currier, of that department’s Watershed Management Bureau, said it assesses the water quality of New Hampshire water bodies every two years, but have yet to create baseline data for much of the Androscoggin.

That’s why they’re seeking lots of volunteers.

Currier passed around the state’s latest assessment information, the 2004 New Hampshire list of attainment status for the river.

Water was tested at several dam ponds varying in size from 10 to 100 acres. According to the report, pollution found at many places included industrial point-source discharge, atmospheric deposition of toxins like mercury, illicit connections and hookups, and storm sewers.

Several sampling sites that didn’t support fish consumption due to the presence of dioxins and other pollutants were not assessed for risks – or contained insufficient information – to measure support for things like swimming, drinking water after adequate treatment, and aquatic life.

One question asked was whether or not it’s safe for people to swim in the river. The answer varied depending on the speaker.

“Berlin doesn’t support swimming because of high bacteria connections,” Currier said.

“There is some raw sewage getting into the river, but the town of Berlin knows this, and is working on fixing that. But, for the rest of our assessing units, we don’t have enough data. We lack data from the river to properly assess it,” he added.

Berlin, he said, has a municipal sewer system, but when it was installed, several houses were missed.

Currier said little testing has been done regarding mercury deposition, but the department will take fish from volunteer collectors to do that, using newly-acquired laboratory capabilities for in-house testing.

Currier’s statements were tempered by panelist Bob Milne, a registered New Hampshire guide with 50 years experience, who said that in the river’s murkier past, the stretch from Berlin to Maine “was a dead area.”

“Twenty-five to 30 years ago, you wouldn’t walk in it with waders on because you’d be afraid you would come out without the waders,” Milne said.

Flash forward to the present. Milne said the Androscoggin “is not a polluted river.”

He sees the river as a world class fishery for trout that’s remained undiscovered.

“This river is just an astronomical place for people to come to,” he said.

Currier’s counterpa

rt, Carl Mancuso of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, said the river is still polluted, just not as bad as it was in the past.

But, Mancuso said, the department’s goals of zero discharge, and the river being fishable and swimmable, has yet to be met.

In his opinion, the 22 dams on the Androscoggin have affected its water quality, especially at Gulf Island Pond in Auburn.

Mancuso also said he isn’t worried so much about the affect of paper mills on the river, but rather, future sprawl and increasing development.

Additional threats include aging wastewater treatment facilities, nonpoint-source pollution, urban runoff, municipal growth and climate change.

“I don’t think that in 30 years we’ll have the paper mills to worry about anymore,” Mancuso said.

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