The North River Commission has received full funding of $30,000 for this fiscal year, after a meeting with the state Department of Conservation and Recreation proved the merit of the funds.
Part of the North and South River Watershed Association (NSRWA), the commission has struggled for the past two years, especially as state funding has become increasingly more difficult to obtain.
“We’ve had two budget cycles where the commission has been defunded,” said State Representative James Cantwell. “Last year we were able to work from another account to save the funds. This time is was more serious; it looked as if the funding would be eliminated as of Jan. 1.”
With $15,000 – the funding for the second half of the fiscal year – on the line, local officials sprung into action, requesting that newly appointed commissioner of the Department of Conservation and Recreation, Edward Lambert, Jr. come for a visit along the river.
According to Cantwell, the North River is protected by the North River Protective Act, which attaches a “scenic” designation to the waterway.
Authorized in 1978, the designation required that all communities along the river, as well as every property owner on the water’s edges, agree to the restrictions - thus placing a protective order on the area 300 feet opposite both banks as well as a deed restriction to properties along the corridor.
As such, the North River Commission oversees the implementation of that protection, with the $30,000 a year going to pay for a personnel position for the commission as well as summertime boat patrols.
“It pays for a craft that monitors the North River. We have someone who goes beyond where the harbormasters can, and that parting with police power is to prevent people from water skiing or doing large wakes than can cause damage, or to help people if a boat is broken down,” Cantwell said.
“There is a public safety aspect to the funds, and it helps pay for staff who record all the minutes and write the decisions for this board that oversees development along the river.”
The result is a water’s edge that looks the same way it did in 1978.
Yet the nature of that protective body was threatened when newly appointed DCR Commissioner Lambert cut the funding mid-way through this fiscal year.
“Every time there is a new commissioner, we have to educate them, [because] it’s a bit of an anomaly…there is no type of river protected like this…so we educate them about how important this resource is and why it has this designation,” said Samantha Woods, executive director for the NSRWA. “This is a coordinated effort. This is all of the towns overseeing it together… It’s made a huge difference.”
DCR Commissioner Lambert agreed that, after seeing the upkeep of the river, the funding made sense. Long term, however, something will have to change.
“The firsthand view I was able to get when I went out to see the work of the commission, but also in terms of our own budget to be able to find the flexibility …warranted that announcement,” Lambert said. “We still need to work with those towns to see if there are ways in which we can come up with alternative funding sources.”
According to Lambert, the North River Commission used to be a line item in the state budget, which has since been eliminated. Since then, DCR has had the financial burden imposed on their department.
Although it is important work, it isn’t how something of this nature should be funded, Lambert said.
Additionally, it’s important that the entire state be able to use this asset, especially as the upkeep is coming from state funds.
“It requires us to think of ways in which all the commonwealth’s residents can benefit from that resource,” Lambert said. “Our mission is geared towards everyone is able to appreciate some of the great places in Massachusetts. We look forward to having those conversations with the towns…to help relieve some of our budget pressure while keeping that project going.”
Despite the fact that budgetary pressures may be tight, Cantwell said he is cautiously optimistic about keeping the project in place.
“We satisfied the policy leaders that you could not easily replicate the service that they provide and especially not for such a small amount of money,” Cantwell said. “But we had to go out and defend this appropriation to show it’s worthwhile. The fact that we had the commissioner there, and it’s an eye-opening experience, I’m optimistic we can come up with a long-term solution.”