Devices collect debris from river

RYAN HUTTON/Staff photoClean River Project founder Rocky Morrison lowers a boom into the Merrimack River in Haverhill as part of an effort to collect plastic trash from bends in the river.

If you're paddling a canoe or kayak down the Merrimack River where it passes behind auto dealerships on River Street, you're bound to spy orange, inflatable tubes jutting out from the riverbanks.

Stick around long enough and you might see floating debris begin to collect inside these tubes set out in the shape of an arc

That's exactly the goal of workers from the Clean River Project, who were in Haverhill recently to install two booms designed to capture floating debris such as female applicators, soda bottles, hypodermic needles and other junk that's working its way downstream from communities upriver. The boom is designed to catch the debris before it collects along the riverbanks or finds its way to beaches in Salisbury and Newburyport.

Although the booms are each 100 feet long, only half their maximum length currently extends out from the riverbanks.

"The current is so strong it would move each boom's 200-pound anchors," Clean River President Rocky Morrison said of why his group does not extend the boom to its maximum length.

Placement of each boom is critical to capturing as much debris as possible. So is the shape when the booms are set out, which can range from an arc to a U-shape, he said.

"We look for the spots along the banks where a lot of trash is pushed up, which indicates it's a hot spot for trash, then all spring and throughout the summer we'll make adjustments and move the booms to other areas," Morrison said. "We'll learn from year to year where the hot spots are and where to set up."

Morrison anchored his booms to sections of riverbank that are thick with brush and trees, and not readily accessible from land.

Once each boom collects enough debris, Morrison will remove the trash using a hydraulic lift.

"We can improve on that process greatly with a skimmer boat," he said, referring to a specialized boat that uses a conveyor belt system.

Morrison said he was able to install booms in Haverhill and maintain them with $20,000 authorized last year by city officials to spend on keeping primarily the downtown section of the river free of debris.

"We met with the City Council and the council made a request to the mayor for the money," Morrison said.

Mayor James Fiorentini said the Merrimack River is the city's most important natural asset.

"Cleaning the riverbanks and cleaning the visible debris out of the water makes our river appear very appealing, which adds to the beauty of our city," Fiorentini said. "I just read a great article that the appearance of a city is a major factor in attracting new young people to a city. We want a city where the river is clean and appears to be clean.

"The work being done by Clean River Project helps keep our city looking green and clean and is a good investment for us," the mayor added.

Morrison said he also installed booms in Lawrence and in Chelmsford, with which Clean River has contracts to maintain riverbanks in those communities.

This is the first time Morrison has installed booms in Haverhill after many seasons of removing junk from the river's bottom and from along Haverhill's riverbanks.

"We've been cleaning the riverbanks for the past 14 years, from Chelmsford to Groveland," Morrison said. "We need more communities to partner with us so we can put more booms in the river and conduct more cleanups. More booms mean a cleaner river."

The Clean River Project was founded in 2005 to help clean the Merrimack River and relies on a small number of paid employees along with many volunteers from local organizations and businesses.

Morrison said he is considering adding a third boom to Haverhill, once he locates another spot where a large amount of debris seems to be collecting.

"Every town has small tributaries dumping out into the Merrimack, which adds more trash to the river, and there are also combined sewer overflow events during rainstorms that dump huge amounts of untreated sewage mixed with plastic debris," he said." Any downstream community will benefit from whatever we capture in Haverhill."

Morrison said he's excited to have partnered with the city, where he also hopes to dock a new pontoon boat for more frequent river cleanups.

He said he would also like to buy a Trash Cat skimmer boat, for which he said funding was included in the state budget. He said he hopes Gov. Charlie Baker will release the money soon.

"This would be a game-changer for the Merrimack River, as this vessel would clean the booms faster, allowing us to add more booms," Morrison said. "What's great about this vessel is it makes it safer for our staff as it loads and unloads floating debris automatically, so no human goes near any of the deplorable stuff such as hypodermic needles and waste from the CSOs."

Morrison is seeking a corporate sponsor to purchase a new pontoon boat to add to his fleet. He would customize it at his base of operations at 1022 Riverside Drive in Methuen, just as he's done to his six existing pontoon boats.

Interested sponsors can send email to rocky@cleanriverproject.org, or by calling him at 978-590-9374.

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