Senators work and vote on a wide range of issues, and being informed, up-to-date and ready to deal with them is an important part of being in the legislature. As I have often said, being a legislator is like going back to school.
The learning goes on even when the legislature is out of session. And there are more ways of gaining knowledge than just reading reports and attending public hearings and meetings.
On-site education is important, too.
Readers may remember last Monday, Columbus Day, because it was a perfect New Hampshire October day. There was vibrant foliage, clear skies and warm temperatures.
I joined two other Senators and two House members that morning for a boat tour of the Great Bay Estuary. The host was the Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Resources, Tom Burack, and we were on the 35 foot William A. Healy oil response vessel which is docked at the Great Bay Marina in Newington.
While any boat ride in this beautiful part of New Hampshire on such a perfect day would always be fun, there was plenty of learning to be done, too.
Before leaving the dock, the first presentation was from a contractor employee who explained the state’s federally supported effort to pump out the sewage from private boats. While some marinas pump out the holding tanks of customers, there are other boaters who benefit from the state providing an on-call service for a small fee.
The goal is to keep boaters from dumping sewage into the harbors and estuaries even though that is prohibited by law. Statistics show that more and more boaters are using the state’s sponsored service each year. At sea and more than three miles off shore, there are no prohibitions on boaters dumping sewage.
Out of the marina, the Healy headed toward Little Bay to meet with three oyster aquaculture farmers. We pulled up and the Healy was tied to two of the farmers’ boats and Dr. Ray Grizzele from the University of New Hampshire made a presentation on oyster farming. In addition to his academic interest, he also is an owner of a four and a half acre oyster farm.
There are two aspects to shellfish farming. First, it is a major industry in other parts of the world and since 2007 there has been oyster farming going on in New Hampshire. It takes a two year cycle for oysters to be ready for market. One farmer is now operating a hatchery to save expenses and shorten the time needed to raise the oysters. It is an emerging business that needs the encouragement and simplified state regulation to succeed.
The second element of oyster farming is what it does for water quality. The histories of our seacoast, Portsmouth and the Piscataqua River and Little and Great Bays are filled with references to oysters. They were a staple of life and an economic feature of the region for generations.
By the early 1990s, 90 percent of natural oysters were gone. Water quality suffered as oysters help sea weed production, take nitrogen and sediment out of the water and help the growth of eel grass, which is important to shellfish, waterfowl and other animals. It helps to sustain the life of the water resource. Having successful oyster faming not only benefits the economy, it helps the environment, too.
The third part of our trip was to learn about the prevention and response capabilities of the state to an oil spill. If you look at a map, the Piscataqua River going upriver from Portsmouth, has several major oil terminals with names like Sprague and Irving. It is mostly heating oil that is stored there and any leak or spill would be serious as the Piscataqua is the third fastest flowing navigable river in the world.
The Healy, captained by Carroll Brown, a 23-year DES veteran, would be our "oil response platform," and on-water command post, should an oil spill occur. Carroll explained the prevention and detection training that is part of his daily, year-round responsibility, along with the co-ordination of efforts with Maine and local and federal agencies.
Most intriguing to me was the boom system that would be put in place to protect Great Bay from a spill. Sections of boom, long flexible pipe-like devices, could be stretched more than a mile across the water and would hopefully contain the spilled oil. Putting the boom sections in place, depending upon the weather, will be difficult because of the tidal currents.
As we discussed New Hampshire’s preparedness, I thought of how Carroll Brown this month operates quietly, out-of-the press. With the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico still on our minds, you could easily envision Carroll being front and center at press conferences should we have a disaster in our state. You can be assured that is the last thing Carroll Brown wants.
We regularly have bills and budget issues before us dealing with pollution, shellfish and estuary management in the Great Bay region. I always try to be informed but although I grew up in New Hampshire and lived most of my life here, the boat trip last week was my first time on the Piscataqua River and Great Bay. I now know more about the geography and huge impacts our actions can have on those water bodies.
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