November Community Member Spotlight: Barbara Skuly
The Monadnock Region is home to stunning natural resources, including rivers and streams which are found in our woodlands, alongside roadways, and bypassing farm fields. We cool off in them in the summer, fish from them, and paddle; although it was not always clean to do so.
In the past few decades, policies have diverted waste and chemicals from our rivers. Programs such as the Superfund program have cleaned up toxic sites. Dedicated community member volunteers have spent hours of hard work manually cleaning and monitoring nutrients in our region’s waters. One of those dedicated community members is Barbara Skuly.
Skuly did not always call the Monadnock Region home. Growing up in Ohio, Skuly’s passion for nature was instilled from an early age. She grew up alongside the Emerald Necklace, a network of conserved land that she explored with her family and Girl Scout troop.
In the summer of 1976, Skuly had just graduated nursing school in Cincinnati and visited a friend in New Hampshire. She immediately was drawn to the community and beautiful landscape. That same year, she moved to Westmoreland to officially call the Monadnock Region home.
Skuly smiles while working on the Ashuelot River. Image Credit: Barbara Skuly
Prior to retiring, Skuly was a nurse for 47 years, working at Cheshire Medical Center’s PACU and prior to that school nursing and Vermont Public Health.
Later moving to Swanzey and looking for ways to become involved in the community, she joined the Swanzey Conservation Commission where she met Steve Stepenuck. Steve introduced her to bacteria monitoring on the Ashuelot River, thus beginning her interest and volunteer work on the river.
Skuly recalls the experience of paddling on the river and collecting samples, “It’s really interesting the perspective you get being on the water and looking up at the land, versus being on the land and just seeing water passing through”.
She quickly became a dedicated volunteer and member of the Conservation Commission. Looking for a potential career change in natural resources, she pursued a Master's degree in Resource Management and Administration from Antioch University New England. For her Master’s project, she focused on the nomination of the Ashuelot River into the NH Environmental Rivers Management and Protection Program, which protects designated rivers for their natural and cultural resources. Each protected river has a local advisory committee to oversee and steward the river on a local level.
Upon graduation in 1992, she decided to continue with her career of nursing on a part time basis. This allowed for Skuly to utilize her time outside of work on environmental projects, including the newly formed Ashuelot River Local Advisory Committee (ARLAC). Skuly stepped away from her role on the Conservation Commission in 2006, to devote her service to ARLAC as the committee chair.
Since ARLAC’s formation, the group has produced and updated river corridor management plans, adopted by the corridor towns. The management plan is an important tool to balance community interests with the protection of the river, streams, woodlands, and the ecosystems within them.
ARLAC also organizes an impressive volunteer river water quality monitoring program which has collected data on the river for 22 years. This data includes E.coli, total phosphorus, pH, dissolved oxygen, conductivity and temperature records since 2001. This data is crucial in informing ARLAC’s comments on major development projects on the river, and tells an impressive story of how our rivers have changed from protection policies, and how they are beginning to change due to climate change.
Skuly explains that all volunteers follow stringent protocols, and data is also used by the state to report to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on the status of the river. The river data tells a story of improvement. The river has come a long way from the days where its color would change depending on the dye being used at the textile mills upstream.
Volunteers paddling on the Ashuelot River during the Source to Sea River Cleanup
Skuly notes that the rivers still have a long way to go, with trash and chemicals from storm water run-off impacting water quality. She encourages us all to take a closer look at our rivers. Although there are no longer active textile mills along the river, there are wastewater treatment plants in Swanzey, Keene, Winchester, and Hinsdale. All of the plants discharge treated wastewater into the Ashuelot River. Skuly remarks, “If you didn’t have that river what would you do for your wastewater? The river is a working river taking care of that need, while also providing hydro-electricity,.. it provides a fishery… it provides a boating experience, it provides just a quietude and sense of being out in nature… a solace, it provides bird habitat, animal habitat, there’s so much”.
River pollution is classified in two ways: point source pollution and nonpoint source pollution. An example of point source pollution is the old textile mills which directly discharged polluted water into the river. Today’s biggest source of pollution on the river is nonpoint source pollution, which comes from run-off.
Skuly notes a storm drain located off of Winchester Street and the amount of debris that can be seen behind the grates. The debris can be attributed to nonpoint source pollution. On seeing this debris she notes, “You get a sense of the impact of stormwater. What happens on the streets of Keene ends up in the river”.
The impact can also be seen in collected samples on the river. Samples in Keene, which is a more developed area, show higher levels of E.coli and conductance, while samples in less developed places upstream of Surry tend to have lower levels.
Development and litter continue to be a problem for the Ashuelot River. One way this problem is addressed is through the annual Source to Sea River Clean Up. ARLAC hosted the first clean up in October 2005, one weekend before the big flood. In 2007, ARLAC teamed up with the Cheshire County Conservation District (CCCD) and other local organizations to expand the cleanup.
The 2022 clean up took place over the weekend of September 23rd. Over the course of the weekend, over 121 volunteers pulled 1,285lbs of trash from Beaver Brook and the Ashuelot River in Keene, Swanzey, and Winchester!
Source to Sea Clean Up Volunteers pose with litter they collected.
The 2022 clean up was organized by ARLAC, CCCD, City of Keene, Keene State College, Moosewood Ecological, Harris Center for Conservation Education, NH Water Works Association Young Professionals, the Winchester Conservation Commission, and the Connecticut River Conservancy.
Skuly has also taken an interest in community power, participating in an ad hoc committee bringing community power to Swanzey. She is now a member of the newly formed Swanzey Energy Commission exploring ways to lower energy costs and increase local alternative power sources in the community. Currently there are 3 operating hydroelectric dams on the Ashuelot River.
Skuly’s work has focused on dam issues, including relicensing, certifications and removal. Three non-hydroelectric dams have been removed on the Ashuelot, changing the river for the better.
Skuly notes that with the removal of the dams, previously pooled sections of the river are now free flowing, with an improvement of fish movement, as well as improved dissolved oxygen and temperature. Fish ladders and lifts can allow for passage around the hydro dams. Skuly adds that climate change is leading to flooding and erosion issues along the river. Removing dams that do not contribute to local energy or river health is critical in rehabilitating natural processes.
Although Skuly is often found on the river, she loves that work centers around the community as well. She shares that it is important to her to keep a balance between the integrity of the river and accommodating the needs of the public. She notes the variety of understandings and connections that people have to the river; some are very familiar with the river while others are not.
She notes that no matter what connection you have with the river, caring for it is crucial, “The River provides an aesthetic, it provides wildlife habitat. It flows from up in Washington and empties into the Connecticut River. All the things that happen along that river corridor end up in that river. We need to take care of it, not only for ourselves but also for the biota, the aquatic life, and the mammals and creatures that live all up and down the corridor itself. We also have to take care of the forests along the way, because those act to help filter the water that comes from the land and flows into the river. It provides many uses… we don’t want to lose that, we want to maintain that healthy system, not only for the system itself, but for the people who are using it and surround it”.
Skuly adds that the future of our rivers is dependent on our actions, she encourages us all to take advantage of the river, “I would love people to take the opportunity to go on the river, spend time on the river, sit and watch, and take in what the river really feels like. Be aware.” She adds that when people take time to be on the river, they gain an appreciation for it.
Local high school volunteers on the river during the Source to Sea River Cleanup.
She notes that the best way to protect our rivers is to become familiar with them and their different protections. Skuly states that not everyone who lives on the river is aware of the Comprehensive Shoreland Protection Act and its provisions. She adds that what landowners and land users do on the land is significant in preventing pollution. Skuly shares a goal of ARLAC for landowners on the river to understand that they have the opportunity to help protect its quality.
ARLAC is currently working on an updated river management plan. Additions for the latest edition include making plans more pertinent with climate change, and uplifting indigenous voices in management, noting the number of culturally and historically significant archeological sites on the river. She notes a broader goal of listening and learning, while making sure that indigenous voices are included in local conservation efforts. For local conservation to have an impact, all perspectives should have a seat at the table.
Interested in volunteering to make our rivers cleaner? Learn more about the Source to Sea River Clean Up, here!