Saturday, September 13, 2014

Assabet River - Low Water

Sept 13, 2014: Certificate for telling river stories
A river with next to no water excites the viewer far less than a flood – no sandbags, no roads impassable, no sense of invasion. Plus, understanding cause for high water is as simple as “rain runs off,” while comprehending the causes of low water leads to eyes-glaze-over nuances about groundwater, wastewater, evaporation, evapo-transpiration, aquifers, etc. And yet, and yet, there are things to know when the Assabet River slows to a trickle.

The March 2010 flood saw 2,500 cubic feet per second (cfs) rushing through downtown Maynard. That’s 18,700 gallons a second, 1.1 million per minute, 67 million per hour, or 1,616 million gallons of water per day. For comparison, Maynard’s water usage pumped from aquifers is roughly 900,000 gallons per day, much of which gets returned to the river as processed sewage.

The river's year-round average is 200 cfs. This summer's lows at times touched 20 cfs. U.S. Geological Survey records show summer months average under 50 cfs – not enough to float a kayak through downtown. Boaters need enough water to float, but not so much as to be banging heads on the water and sewer pipes that run under the bridges.

Low water at the footbridge in Tobin Park. Click on any photo to enlarge.
Summer's low water on the Assabet River is not due to less rain. The watershed averages close to four inches of precipitation every month. Even allowing for a snowmelt contribution to spring peaks, summer flow is lower than might be expected. The reason is that in summer more surface water evaporates, or only replenishes local groundwater without reaching the river. Plants contribute by taking up water, and via evapo-transpiration release that moisture into the air. A single large tree can release several hundred gallons of water per day, an acre of grass far more.

Low water reveals trash. Downstream of the Elks building there are still dozens of old car tires visible in the river despite OARS (Organization for the Assabet, Sudbury and Concord Rivers) having conducted annual clean-ups removing literally hundreds of tires from just that section. Clearly, once upon a time someone in the tire business thought dumping in the river meant “away.” This year’s OARS clean-up, the 28th, is scheduled for September 20. Information is posted at Volunteers welcome.

Tobin Park's shoreline is littered with broken glass. Clean up glass, rake a bit, more glass. Rake more, more glass. It’s glass all the way down. Recent finds there were an unbroken “Hans Eriksen” pint bottle for milk or cream, circa 1940's, and a glass, 6.5 ounce Coca-Cola bottle with “LOWELL  L  MASS” on the bottom, date unknown.

Low water reveals fish. Maynard’s section of the Assabet is home to white suckers, golden shiners and various types of sunfish. Late morning to early afternoon are good times for fish sightings from the Main Street bridge or the footbridge. Spotting fish from above can be difficult. One trick is to scan the bottom for a moving shadow, then look above the shadow for the fish. Great Blue Herons stalk these shallows for frogs, fish and crayfish.

Ben Smith Dam, photo taken standing in the river below the dam
Back in the day when mills operated on water power some rivers were shut off nights and Sundays. These no-flow times allowed mill ponds to refill with water to power the next work shift. With multiple mills operated on the Assabet and its tributaries there had to be cooperation among the mill operators so that everyone had water when they needed it.

A not-so-secret secret about the Assabet River is that by mid-summer much of the water flowing through Maynard is cleaned water that was discharged by three upstream wastewater treatment plants. Maynard’s cleaned discharge is added to the river just before it enters Acton.

A version of this column was first published in the Beacon-Villager in August 2010. The river is cleaner now than it was four years ago, but has room for improvement.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Fire Station Horn as History

One hundred years ago, the Town of Maynard Annual Report mentioned in passing that the fire department was responsible for conducting a daily 12:10 PM test blast of the fire department's steam whistle, located at the woolen mill. That's historic, but the full history of 12:10 is older.

Down the years, the means of sounding an alarm for the Maynard fire department went through several evolutions. Originally, a battery-powered system triggered a striker to hit the school bell at the Nason Street School (current site of the Library). The year 1903 added a steam whistle at the woolen mill. Both systems operated until the school burned to the ground in 1916. Makes you wonder if the school bell was ringing to signal its own demise?  

Two compressed air horns date to 1950
The late 1930s saw installation of a diaphone horn at the fire station on Nason Street, but until the mill closed in 1950 the steam whistle was still used in addition to the horn. Later, the fire station bought a pair of compressed air powered horns for the Nason Street station, transferred to the roof of the current fire house in 1955. Yes, the horns are that old.

Why 12:10? The great majority of towns with a fire horn system conduct daily test blasts. According to "A History of the Maynard Fire Department, 1890-1970" an unpublished manuscript written by Henry T. Hanson, Maynard's 12:10 dates back to the 1890s. W.W. Oliver, a jeweler with a store in the Odd Fellows Hall (next to the Nason Street fire house) was paid $12 per year to conduct the daily test.

Oliver would walk to the train station to set his pocket watch to "Washington time," then walk back to Nason Street. As the walk was about five minutes, the daily test was set to ten minutes after the hour. He had this responsibility because there were no full time fire station employees back in the day.

A differently told story is that because the mill's lunch whistle blew at noon, the town's whistle was offset by ten minutes. Regardless of origin, the 12:10 tradition continued long after any need for either a daily time check or subservience to the mill. It's a tradition, one captured by the fact that the Seal of the Town of Maynard shows the clock at 12:10 on town documents, vehicles and street signs.

All this is prelude to the observation that the fire horn no longer sounds at 12:10. The decision was made by the fire department. According to former fire chief Stephen Kulik, the horn was still operative up through his retirement in June 2011. Anthony Stowers, the current fire chief, stated that the practice had stopped before he came aboard in February 2012. The timing puts the onus on the temporary, non-resident fire chief who filled in between Kulik and Stowers. Apparently, the town's government was not involved.

Truth to tell, the fire horn system is in poor repair and perhaps heading toward obsolescence. According to Kulik, "The horn stopped working now and then, and it was hard to get parts. Every time we triggered the fire signal we had our fingers crossed."

Stowers acknowledged the horn still works but has a tendency to stick. He said, "we have made the decision to restrict the use to actual emergencies in the effort to keep it functional for as long as possible." 

The historic purpose of fire station horns was to alert volunteer firefighters. In an increasing large number of locations this function has been replaced by cell phones and pagers. Same for reaching the salaried firefighters who are off duty. Across the country, many newspapers have run articles on debates about whether to continue, discontinue, or even resurrect the tradition of a working fire horn system. And separately, continue or discontinue a daily test blast.

Some towns are also getting rid of their outdoor
fire alarm call boxes, as most people reach
for a phone to call 9-1-1 rather than think
to run to the nearest alarm box.
Given that Maynard is on the cusp of abandoning its fire horn system, can the 12:10 daily blast be resurrected solely as part of town history?  One means of doing this would be to install a new system on Clock Tower Place property, perhaps near the intersection of Walnut and Main Streets. As a bonus, fire department staff would no longer be subjected to a daily tooth-rattling blast from their own rooftop. A new system of horns and control box from Sentry Sirens would cost between $3,000 and $12,000 depending on whether the town wants a sound heard only in the downtown area or a blast loud enough to wake the dead in Sudbury, Stow and Acton.

Can sounds be history? Three-quarters of a century ago, life in Maynard was punctuated by a chorus of steam whistles on trains, the mill, and the fire alarm. School snow days were broadcast by five blasts at 7:15 AM. None of that is coming back. But in this writer's opinion, Maynard deserves its 12:10. 

Thursday, August 28, 2014

You've Been Droned - Is there a Law?

Internet download of Phantom with camera
Maynard, MA 2014: August, toward the end of the James Montgomery Blues Band concert at Memorial Park, a drone showed up, hovering some 50-100 feet above Summer Street. It looked like a four-rotor Phantom with a built-in remote control camera. These models allow about 25 minutes of flying time, and are smart enough to automatically return to the launch location if the control signal is lost. On newer models operators get a real-time view of what the camera is capturing. Hobbyist drones are available for $100 to $2,000.

The proper term is unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), which covers fixed wing and helicopter type vehicles from toy-sized up to jet-powered and missile-armed. Image the latter equipped with facial recognition software and pre-approval to fire a missile if it decides it has the right person.    

Federal law on what civilian drone owners can and cannot do is WAY behind the curve of development. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules date back to 1981, and were written to cover radio-controlled model airplanes and helicopters operated within line-of-site of the operator. Non-binding advisory rules included not flying higher than 400 feet (because airplanes are not supposed to fly lower than 500 feet), and notifying an airport if intending to operate within three miles. The FAA hopes to have more comprehensive rules in place by the end of 2015.

Until then, no mention of whether it will be legal or not to hover over a concert. Or your neighbor's backyard pool. Or have drone races. Or drone Fight Club, aka Game of Drones.

On June 23, 2014 the FCC took a first step by banning - for the present - any commercial use of UAVs. Take that, Amazon speedy delivery! This would also include a wedding photographer's aerial shots, or a post-midnight delivery of a fifth of Johnnie Walker Blue. OK, I thought I was joking, until I saw a news item about a brewery in Minnesota experimenting with delivering beer to ice fishermen. Meanwhile, other countries are exploring using drones to deliver emergency medication and equipment into hard-to-reach regions. For security purposes, a delivery drone could incorporate fingerprint recognition before delivering, for example, a replacement passport.

Got paranoia? UAVs are the next big thing in law enforcement. These machines can help with search and rescue efforts. But many Fourth Amendment (right to privacy) questions have not yet been court-tested. If police can follow you or your car without a warrant, can they sic a drone on you 24-7? There is a proposed law in Congress that people not be droned without a warrant (and no weaponized drones).

Locally, Massachusetts is also considering a law to prohibit government use of drones for surveillance without a warrant. But at present there is no privacy law that prohibits civilian drone snooping. So you may have good reason to worry about UAVs being TFCs (tiny flying cameras).   
Can't we just shoot them? An interesting question, and one that was raised in 2013 when a Colorado town tried to pass a law making it legal to shoot UAVs, and furthermore, proposed payment of a bounty for turning in drone parts as evidence. As it turns out, federal law makes it a crime to in any way damage an aircraft (including UAVs on government business). Whether that applies to civilian operated drones is not clear. Historic law says you own your property and the air above it - this allows cutting of branches from a neighbor's tree which are overhanging your property. But the FAA states that it owns all air higher than 500 feet above the ground. Below that is a grey zone. Still, wiser to call police rather than reaching for the shotgun.

For the moment, all that protects individuals from low-level snooping is a patchwork of local and state privacy laws. Many of those are in the process of being amended. National Parks have declared a ban on all UAVs, citing concerns about visitor safety and impact on wildlife, but the legality is being questioned. Individual towns are considering laws banning any use of UAVs in residential areas without the landowners' permissions. California is considering an anti-paparazzi law to protect the privacy of celebrities and their families. Per current Massachusetts law it is illegal to film someone who is nude or partially nude in a place where that person has a reasonable expectation of privacy. But not illegal if they have clothes on. See below:

Massachusetts law Chapter 272, Section 105(b): Whoever willfully photographs, videotapes or electronically surveils another person who is nude or partially nude, with the intent to secretly conduct or hide such activity, when the other person in such place and circumstance would have a reasonable expectation of privacy in not being so photographed, videotaped or electronically surveilled, and without that person’s knowledge and consent, shall be punished by imprisonment in the house of correction for not more than 2.5 years or by a fine of not more than $5,000, or by both such fine and imprisonment.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Woodchucks Are Hermits

My resident woodchuck, August 2014
The woodchuck/groundhog, a rodent, is native to New England. And much of the rest of the eastern half of the United States. And well into Canada. The name is derived from Algonquian Indian: wu-chak. If pups survive the first year's risks, lifespan is three to six years.

Woodchucks are by nature hermits. Each establishes its own system of burrows within its territory: a modest winter burrow for hibernating, a larger, multi-entrance burrow for the three other seasons, and often a few small holes scattered about its territory as places to duck into if pursued by a predator. The major burrow can include 20 to 40 feet of tunnels, and will include a sleeping chamber and an indoor toilet. Males establish territories which will overlap with one to three females, but the only visiting time is a few weeks in early spring.  

Litters of two to six pubs are born in late May. "Mom time" is short. By early July these younguns are weaned and then evicted to wander until they can find a territory unclaimed by a resident female or male. What they are looking for is 'edge' terrain, meaning woodland and brush near open meadows. This preference matches up with suburbs. What we like, i.e., property with borders of perennials and annuals, a lawn, and perhaps with a vegetable garden, they like, too. Given that an adult woodchuck can consume up to a pound of vegetation per day, this can make a big dent in a lettuce patch!

Woodchucks are diurnal (most active during the day), particularly in the early morning and late afternoon hours. They stay close to their burrows when feeding and typically only stay above ground a couple of hours per day. Despite their heavy-bodied appearance, groundhogs are accomplished swimmers and excellent tree and fence climbers. Websites offer tips on how to set up garden fencing to be woodchuck resistant.

Woodchucks are winter hibernators. They gain thirty percent in body weight, almost entirely as fat, before entering a den in late October to begin a months-long state of torpor: body temperature dropped to 40F degrees, heart rate dropped to about five beats per minute and breathing rate decreased to less than one per minute.

Roughly every two weeks the hibernating animals rouse to full awareness, go to the bathroom and undergo a day or two of normal sleep in order to catch up on their dreaming (as confirmed by rapid-eye-motion sleep). If this coincides with February 2nd, then it is Groundhog Day. One puzzle not yet resolved by naturalists: what late summer signal triggers the beginnings of over-eating to gain all that weight?

Hunting is allowed in Massachusetts. Trapping is also allowed without any need for a license or permit, but it is against the law to relocate live animals off your property. A licensed trapper can be contracted to remove and kill nuisance animals, but if the empty burrow is not sealed at all entrances the likelihood of a new woodchuck moving in is high. 

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Maynard, MA: Churches, Closed

Maynard was once host to a dozen church congregations but four have since dissolved or relocated. Nationally, a decline in mainline Protestant churches (Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Congregational, Episcopal) has been going on for decades. Estimates are that over the past fifty years these faiths have lost more than one-third of their membership. Surviving churches often find themselves with an aging congregation and less than excellent financial health, compounded by problems associated with maintaining an aged building.

Against these trends, there is evidence that the decline in total number of places of worship and worshipers has reached a plateau or even reversed this trend over the last decade. However, most of the growth is in new churches rather than increased membership in existing churches, with many of the new congregations identifying themselves as non-denominational and biblically conservative. Those interested in learning more about worship trends should e-visit the Hartford Institute for Religious Research [].

Closed churches in Maynard:

Click on photos to enlarge
United Methodist Church (1895-2014): There is often a gestation period between initial interest and steeple - in this instance 30 years. Services began in 1867, but were held in various meeting halls until the congregation completed the existing building in 1895. May 11, 2014 was the last Sunday services at UMC, ending 119 years in the building and 147 years as a congregation. Members are joining other churches. The local Alcoholics Anonymous groups, which had used the church for their meetings, relocated within town. The future of the building has not yet been determined. The Maynard Historical Society has remarkably little information on this church's history, so the hope is that information can be passed on rather than discarded.

St. George's June 2014, quite overgrown
St. George's Episcopal Church (1895-2006): Episcopal services began in 1894. The cornerstone of the church was placed on August 10, 1895; the church consecrated as the Parish of St. George in 1897. The church had an active men's group, the Order of Sir Galahad, a women's group, the Guild of St. Hilda, also a youth summer camp program at Fort Pond. Membership declined after the Church of the Good Shepherd opened in Acton in 1962. After the Maynard church closed, the parking lot and rectory were sold separately. A remodeling project, intended to turn the ex-church into housing, is in limbo, leaving behind a deteriorating building with an uncertain future. August 2014: something going on - the brush and weeds around the building have been cleared.

Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church (1908-1967): The woolen mill attracted many immigrants from Finland. August 1894 saw an outdoor service and picnic on the banks of the mill pond - an event proposed by a traveling Bible salesman. The event served as a catalyst to start a Lutheran church. In 1902 the nascent congregation incorporated and bought land on Glendale Street. Construction started in 1907. The church was dedicated on June 6, 1908. The congregation stayed active, although over years the members and their children and grandchildren assimilated (services switched from Finnish to English). In 1967 the congregation decided to construct a new church in north Sudbury. The Church of the Nazarene took up residence for a while, them moved out around 1995. The building is currently a private residence.

St. Casimir Roman Catholic Church (1928-1999): By 1910, more than 600 immigrants from Poland live in Maynard. Even though the Mass was in Latin, these immigrants wanted to hear sermons and other aspects in their own language. The St Casimir Parish - services in Polish - was established in 1912, meeting at St. Bridget's. Fourteen years passed before the congregation bought the powerhouse building of the defunct Concord, Maynard and Hudson Railway [electric trolley], and two more years before the converted building was blessed as their own church.

Formerly St. Casimir Roman
Catholic Church (1928-1999)
In time, death of first-generation immigrants, assimilation of their descendants and dearth of new immigrants tolled on all of Greater Boston's Polish parishes. In 1995, Cardinal Bernard Law announced that 10 of 14 would stop celebrating Mass in Polish. Four years later the Beacon-Villager ran an article about the pending closure of St. Casimir. A locally circulated petition could not reverse the decision. The parish was merged back into St. Bridget Parish, although the St. Casimir building remained a consecrated space, used by the Polish community for baptisms, weddings and funerals. In 2003 the building was sold to St. Mary's Indian Orthodox Church of Boston.

CODA: Churches still open in Maynard (in color if hyperlink to website)
And once there was a synagogue in Maynard. In the early 1900s, the Maynard Hebrew Society invited a rabbi to conduct Sabbath services in rented meeting halls. September 1921, the congregation established Rodoff Shalom Synagogue in a house on Acton Street (next to where Avis car rentals is now). The congregation was active to 1980, when it merged with the newly formed Congregation Beth Elohim in Acton. In a temple newsletter, Adam Jacoby remembered, “In 1980 we built a new building and marched the Torah from Maynard to Acton under a chuppa with shofars blowing. I was one of the shofrot during the walk.”