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Commissioner's Column: NHDES marks 35 years of environmental protection

Date: January 10, 2022

This year, NHDES celebrates 35 years as an organization. The department was created legislatively by pulling together a number of independently operating programs and agencies under one umbrella, including the Water Supply and Pollution Control Commission, the Water Resources Board, the Air Resources Agency and the Office of Waste Management. As a practical matter, the four separate agencies responsible for environmental permitting and regulation were merged to create a single department that would operate in a more coordinated and consistent manner to benefit stakeholders and customers. The law to create the agency was, coincidently, signed into law by another Governor Sununu, John H. Sununu, the father of our current Governor, Chris Sununu.

Early in its history, NHDES responded to environmental challenges that would be difficult for many of us to think of today. Thirty-five years ago, portions of New Hampshire had unacceptably high levels of carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, small particle and ozone air pollution. With the passing of the Clean Air Act and the efforts of NHDES to address sources of the pollution, New Hampshire has much better air quality throughout the state. Clean air doesn’t just clear the skies, improving visibility of our beautiful scenery, but it also improves our health and quality of life. Today, all portions of the state now meet federal standards for clean air.

In 1980, the average annual fecal bacteria count in the Merrimack River were nearly 20,000. That was down from over 200,000 in the 1970s. Today, the only time we find fecal bacteria counts that are worthy of mention are after large rain storms; annual averages are miniscule. Similarly, Lake Winnipesaukee used to turn green and had to be treated repeatedly with harsh chemicals. Today, the lake is in relatively good shape. These improvements are the result of huge investments by communities, the state and federal programs. Some of these gains are now at risk. We are seeing a rise in cyanobacteria blooms across the state due to increasing development pressure around waterbodies and warming temperatures. After 35 years, it is time again to focus on water quality to protect our hard-won gains.  

Over the years, science and technology have developed and grown to help us to be able to advance our knowledge and treatment of environmental problems. In no area of our work is that more evident than our efforts to ensure that New Hampshire residents have clean safe drinking water. Thirty-five years ago, we were analyzing contaminants in the tens of parts per billion and now we are looking for them in orders of magnitude lower in the parts per trillion. Our drinking water and wastewater plants have needed to evolve with the times, and today we stand on the precipice of unequalled investment into our drinking water and wastewater infrastructure, the likes we haven’t seen since the environmental revolution of the late 1960s and early 70s. Between the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and the bipartisan InfrastructureInvestment and Jobs Act, NHDES stands to offer more than half a billion dollars to our cities and towns to help them to modernize their systems, many of which are woefully out of date.

Many of the original goals set out by the enacting legislation that created NHDES are still at the heart of our work today. We strive to provide excellence in customer service to all, whether a multinational business looking to relocate to the state or a homeowner looking for a copy of their septic system plan. We work to provide real-time information to the public on the things that impact their daily lives, such as the quality of the air we breathe and the water we drink, the water testing results at a favorite public beach, or the status of a permit application.

While we are busy at NHDES working to address the environmental challenges of today and tomorrow, it is important to stop and to recognize the wide-ranging accomplishments of the past 35 years of environmental and public health protection, as well as the dedicated, professional staff and our many partners in our communities, businesses and nonprofits who have helped bring these successes about. We look forward to the challenge of ensuring that New Hampshire will be an even better place to live, work and play 35 years from now.