North Nashua River Restoration

One of DER’s first Urban River restorations, work on the North Nashua River in the City of Fitchburg was ground breaking in several ways.

North Nashua River, Fitchburg

Before and after river restoration
Right: North Nashua Enhancement before restoration; Left: Flood wall removed, terracing starting

The North Nashua River has had a very public and impressive renaissance over the past 5 decades. The river once appeared on the cover of National Geographic as the embodiment of polluted condition of many of the nation’s waterways. The picture from the 1970’s showed a river running red. Studies showed only one species, a sewer worm, lived in the North Nashua. The picture 50 years latter is remarkably different thanks to many pioneering river advocates including Marion Stoddart. The North Nashua River is now home to over 20 species of fish and the river looks clean and inviting- if you can get a glimpse of it. Tall flood walls bookend and block miles of the river and old mills that once harnessed the river’s considerable power further prevent access to this river the community worked so hard and long to improve.

Not surprisingly, the community embraced the possibility of increasing their access to the ‘reborn’ North Nashua River. Working in partnership with the City, DER hosted a day-long community visioning session led by trained facilitators, urban landscape architects and planners. The community’s priorities were compiled and translated into a River Master Plan crafted to blend with the city’s own master plan. The River Master Plan identified places for trails, viewing points, redevelopment and parks. This plan proved to be a catalyst for a pilot river access project right in the busy downtown area of Fitchburg.

Capitalizing on a recent brownfield conversion of an old mill site into a pocket park adjacent to the river and downtown, a design to remove a portion of flood wall separating the park from the river was created with the intention of improving in-stream conditions and establishing direct access to the river’s edge from the park. To accomplish these goals the tall concrete and granite block flood walls would need to be shortened. Removing a portion of an Army Corps flood walls proved to be a bold proposal and one without precedent in Massachusetts. Fortunately the design replicated the function of the flood wall by increasing the height of a berm running along the rear of the park.

The reduction of the flood wall opened up access not only for park visitors but also for the heavy equipment needed to sculpt the river bed to create pools and riffles that would improve habitat for aquatic organisms. The finishing touches to the plan were an ADA compliant pathway to the river’s edge and a stone amphitheatre built into the newly terraced slope. Within two weeks children could be seen playing at the river’s edge and fish spotted within the new pools in the river.

Vital Statistics

Town: Fitchburg
Major Watershed: Nashua
Subwatershed: North Nashua
Contact: DER
Partners: City of Fitchburg, Fitchburg Greenway Committee

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