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New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services

Designated Rivers
Saco River

II. The Saco River Nomination

A. Description

The Saco River flows for approximately 40 miles through east-central New Hampshire. Beginning high in the White Mountains at Crawford Notch, the river drops in elevation from 1887 feet to 395 feet as it passes through the towns of Harts Location, Bartlett, and Conway and then crosses into Maine at Fryeburg (see map). Major tributaries to the Saco River in New Hampshire include the Dry River, Sawyer River, Rocky Branch River, Ellis River, Swift River, and the East Branch of the Saco River. Another major tributary, the Ossipee River, originates in New Hampshire and then flows into Maine before joining the Saco River. With the exception of two small dams on the upper river that do not influence its flow, the Saco River is free-flowing for its entire length in New Hampshire.

The drainage basin of the Saco River upstream from the New Hampshire-Maine border is approximately 427 square miles, of which 80 percent is within the White Mountain National Forest. Land use along the river and throughout the watershed is predominantly forestland. In the upper portion of Harts Location, the Saco River flows through the narrow valley of Crawford Notch State Park and is closely paralleled by Route 302 and an abandoned railroad line. Below the boundary of the state park, the river flows past both federally and privately-owned lands. With the exception of some scattered residential housing, private lands in the river corridor are generally undeveloped. Further downstream, in the intervals areas of Bartlett and Conway, the river meanders through floodplains used for agricultural purposes. The town centers of Bartlett, North Conway, and Conway are located near the Saco River, but land use along the river has remained a mixture of agriculture and low-density residential uses.

B. River Values and Characteristics

The Rivers Management and Protection Program Act (RSA Ch. 483) lists nine river values and characteristics which may qualify a river for designation into the program. The Saco River supports many of these natural, managed, cultural, and recreational resource values and characteristics at a level of either statewide or local significance. The resource values which qualify the Saco River for designation are: geologic resources; wildlife, plant and fish resources; water quality; scenic values; historic and archaeological resources; community resources; and recreational resources.

1. Natural Resources

a. Geologic Resources: In Harts Location, the Saco River flows through Crawford Notch, a spectacular, narrow, steep-sided valley with exposed rock cliffs. The upper Saco River is characterized by fast-moving water, tumbling over rocks and boulders with frequent cascades. Near the mouth of Nancy Brook, the river has cut a narrow gorge into the bedrock, forming a short turbulent waterfall. A number of steep, sheer cliffs or ledges are also present near the river, including Frankenstein Cliffs, Humphrey's Ledge, Cathedral Ledge, and White Horse Ledge.

b. Wildlife and Plant Resources: Because the Saco River flows primarily through the White Mountain National Forest, the presence of a large forested habitat surrounding the river is assured. Three breeding pairs of the federally-endangered peregrine falcon are known to be nesting along the Saco River. Under the state Endangered Species Act (RSA 212-A), the Department of Fish and Game lists a number of endangered and threatened birds, one endangered mammal, and one threatened mammal which are known to occur in the Saco River watershed. A 1983 Saco River Basin Study by the US Department of Agriculture listed 56 species of mammals, 165 species of birds, 32 species of amphibians and reptiles, and 36 species of fish which are supported by the Saco River Watershed.

According to the New Hampshire Natural Heritage Inventory, a state endangered plant species, the Inflated Sedge, occurs near Saco Lake at the headwaters of the Saco River. A rare natural community, the New England riverwash hudsonia barrens, is located in five different places along the river. Within this community is a shrub, the hairy hudsonia, that is critically-endangered at the state level. Also found along the Saco River is a small, state threatened perennial herb, the White Mountain silverling.

c. Fish Resources: Historically, the Saco River was one of the premier trout fishing rivers in New England. The natural reproductive capability of native fish populations has been exceeded by angler demand, and stocking of hatchery-reared brook, brown, and rainbow trout is carried out each year by the Fish and Game Department and the local chapter of Trout Unlimited. The Saco River supports extensive spawning habitat for anadromous fish (fish that live in saltwater, but return to freshwater to spawn), but seven dams in Maine currently prevent the salmons return to New Hampshire. An effort is underway to require fish passage facilities on the dams in Maine, thereby restoring anadromous fish runs to the New Hampshire portion of the river.

d. Water Quality: The water quality of the Saco River is generally good to excellent. The General Court has designated the Saco River a Class B water and the river is supporting the standards of this water quality goal. The upper portions of a number of the river's tributaries are Class A waters. The Saco River Basin is the only river basin in the state which is currently meeting all of the surface water standards of the federal Clean Water Act. The maintenance of a high level of water quality in the Saco River is significant: although none of the towns along the mainstem of the river withdraw water directly from the river for public water supply, many wells withdraw water from the large groundwater aquifers associated with the river. Aquifers supply water for the Lower Bartlett Water Precinct, the North Conway Water Precinct, the Attitash Ski Area, and a number of residential developments.

e. Scenic Values: The natural beauty of the Saco River has been attracting visitors to the region for over 150 years. After cascading through the peaks of the White Mountains, the river widens and meanders quietly through pastoral scenes. Outstanding visual characteristics of the river include waterfalls, rapids with rock-strewn bottoms and banks, large clear pools, and slow meandering bends. Surrounding these river features are a variety of forest types, including spruce-fir, mixed northern hardwoods, and aspen birch intermingled with open meadows and fields in a mosaic pattern. A regional boater's guide describes the Saco River Watershed as the "most impressive in all New England." The guidebook further describes the "majesty of this view" as "breathtaking" on a clear spring or summer day.

2. Cultural Resources

a. Historic and Archaeological Resources: The Saco River Valley was inhabited by Indian peoples as early as 1642. Major Indian trails are known to have existed along the river and the potential for further archaeological discoveries exists. In the early 1800s, small farmsteads dotted the valley, particularly in lowland areas adjacent to the river. Numerous stone fences, dug wells, cellar holes, and the famous paddleford style covered bridges remain as evidence of early settlers. Two sites along the Saco River corridor are listed on the National Register of Historic Places: the Crawford Depot and the Crawford Artists Studio.

b. Community Resources: The Saco River is one of the major natural resources that attracts visitors to the Mt. Washington Valley, providing opportunities for canoeing, swimming, sightseeing, fishing and camping. The protection and management of the Saco River is of major importance to the both the quality of life of river communities and the health of the regional economy.

3. Recreational Resources

a. Boating: The Saco River and its tributaries are used by thousands of people annually from throughout the Northeast for canoeing, kayaking, and rafting. In early spring, the upper section of the river offers one of the most exciting whitewater runs in all of central New England. Between the Gorge at Notchland and the center of Bartlett, five miles of continuous rapids and occasional drops require whitewater expertise to navigate. From Bartlett to Conway, the river offers a popular run of medium difficulty with quickwater and intermittent rapids. From North Conway to the Maine border, the river is primarily smooth water with the exception of a few rapids between Conway and Center Conway.

b. Fishing: The Saco River and its tributaries are trout streams. The cold, clear, fast-moving water between Crawford Notch and Conway was one recognized as one of the premier trout fishing streams in the Northeast. Fishing for trout is the most popular recreational fishing activity on the river. On weekends, anglers congregate in the fly-fishing only section of the Saco River from Humphrey Ledge pool to Artist Brook.

c. Other Recreation: The presence of clear, clean water and sandy beaches along the Saco River provide excellent opportunities for swimming, tubing, and other water-based recreational activities in all sections of the river throughout the summer. Campgrounds are located along the river from Crawford Notch State Park to Conway; both private and publicly owned facilities provide a full spectrum of camping experiences. Wilderness camping is available within the White Mountain National Forest and on isolated sandbars and private lands along the river.

d. Public Access: Route 302 runs along the entire length of the Saco River and provides numerous access sites to the river. Canoeists and fisherman frequently use bridge crossings over the river as access points. The town of Conway maintains three public access sites and the town beach in Bartlett is located on the river.

NH Department of Environmental Services | 29 Hazen Drive | PO Box 95 | Concord, NH 03302-0095
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