Amherst gets $276K grant to improve health of Fort River

  • Freshwater mussels are among the protected species found in the Fort River. Freshwater mussels are among the protected species found in the Fort River.

Staff Writer
Thursday, October 31, 2019

AMHERST — Limiting the pollutants that end up in the Fort River, the longest free-flowing tributary of the Connecticut River, is an objective of a grant recently awarded to Amherst by the Baker-Polito administration.

Town officials announced this week that Amherst is receiving $276,549 to improve the Fearing Brook as a portion of $1 million in grants coming from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for six projects, including another in Amherst on the University of Massachusetts campus.

An urban stream that takes the stormwater runoff from about half of downtown Amherst, including areas around the town common, College Street and Main Street before it flows into the Fort River, the Fearing Brook will be enhanced through a project that will restore and reconnect it to its floodplain on town conservation land in East Amherst village center near the Fort River School.

The goal of the project is to increase nutrient and sediment retention, decrease bacteria and reduce erosion by slowing the flow of runoff, and mitigate flooding before the water gets to the Fort River.

Fearing Brook has long been considered a nonpoint source of pollution for the river.

Assistant Town Manager David Ziomek said the Fort River contains a number of state-listed species of mussel and one federally listed endangered species, the dwarf wedgemussel, and is a unique and important riverway because it is a core habitat for native fish and invertebrates.

Beth Willson, formerly the town’s wetlands administrator and now an environmental scientist for the Amherst Department of Public Works, and Ziomek were instrumental in obtaining the grant, said Town Manager Paul Bockelman.

Bockelman said the town will have to provide in-kind contributions when the work is done.

State Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Kathleen A. Theoharides said in a statement that these grants will help local officials and regional groups to protect and enhance watershed resources from nonpoint source pollution.

“Comprehensive watershed protection efforts like these are critical in order to keep our communities safe and healthy,” Theoharides said.

Amherst officials have been trying to improve Fearing Brook for several years. In 2014, the town received a $36,000 grant to do an assessment and water monitoring of the Fearing Brook to identify contaminants in the brook and their source, and to develop strategies to improve and maintain the water quality.

Also, the town previously purchased 1,300 feet of land along the Fort River and 500 feet along Fearing Brook through a $105,665 state Local Acquisitions for Natural Diversity grant that permanently protects the watersheds.

And in 2016, the town placed catch-basin markers throughout downtown, with the green and blue medallions serving to remind people about the dangers of dumping contaminants into them and polluting Fearing Brook.

Much of the brook runs underground through pipes and culverts, though there are sections along the south side of College Street, including portions in the sanctuary on the Amherst College campus, where it flows aboveground.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.