AYER -- "The strategy is that there's always strength in numbers," said Becky Smith, water program coordinator for the Massachusetts Clean Water Group.

Nationally, the group is celebrating its 40th year of championing the clean-water cause. On Sept. 17, the group gathered at an Ayer home to listen to the work of a legendary local water warrior, hear an update on a legislative approach, and be energized in the campaign to protect water resources.

Smith introduced keynote speaker and Nashua River watershed warrior Marion Stoddart. Stoddart's efforts to clean the river, begun in the 1960s, continue today and have been memorialized in the film "The Work of 1,000." Stoddart's work has been honored by the United Nations, and her report on the progress has been published in National Geographic Magazine.

Eighteenth and early 19th century industry on the river included paper mills, which polluted the river with dyes, turning the river into a variety of colors downstream for decades to follow. Stoddart came to care for the river when she moved her family to Groton in 1962.

Stoddart warned that it's "so much cheaper to protect" than clean water. The state rebuffed her early requests that it purchase land along the 37-mile river, stating "it was not its policy to acquire land along polluted rivers."

The state instead focused on purchasing land for fish and game in western Massachusetts where the state "felt they'd get the most bang for their buck," said Stoddart. "Their clientele were hunters and fishers. They were interested in clean water.

"It was paradox really. The land along the river was so beautiful," said Stoddart. "The river was so polluted that no one wanted to have land along the river or have a business along the river. The water was so toxic it peeled the paint off houses and could be smelled a half -mile away." Homeowners were trapped with homes with little or no value and the living conditions were harsh.

Stoddart credited the 1960s as being "a time of great civic unrest." Whether it was the river or other injustices, Stoddart said, "people rose up and realized that things didn't need to be this way."

Stoddart said the federal Water Quality Act of 1965 sparked the Massachusetts Clean Water Protection Act of 1966, the first of its kind in the nation. "That was very important legislation for us," said Stoddart. "We really took advantage of it here on the Nashua River." The Clean Water Act followed in 1972.

"It gave people the right to decide how clean they wanted the river to be and required public hearings to be held," said Stoddart. "Previously, people didn't have any legal recourse."

Stoddart recalled the effort that went into identifying and convincing landowners along the river to attend a resulting hearing at Fitchburg State College.

"We spent a whole year contacting every single organization along the river and then identifying their president and chairman and telling them this public hearing was going to be held and how important it was for them to be there," said Stoddart. "People came to believe 'Yes, it is important for me to be there and my voice will be heard."

Classified as "unsuitable" for the transport of sewerage, Stoddart recalled the groundswell of support for the Nashua River to be restored to a condition allowing fishing and swimming and boating.

The result was that eight treatment plants were built and/or upgraded along the river and buffer zones enacted. By the early 1990s, the river was again restored to a condition considered safe for swimming.

The Nashua River Watershed Association became a watchdog for the waterway. "We've been very successful," said Stoddart. "We haven't protected all the land, but we're making good progress."

The goal remains protection of water and habitat for wildlife and public access, "for people looking to enjoy the benefits of their financial investment -- their taxes," said Stoddart.

State Sen. Jamie Eldridge is the vice chair of the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture. He shared the Water Infrastructure Finance Commission's report, which maps a long-range financing plan for the state and local water infrastructure. The work began in 2009.

"Not all the stakeholders, when we're dealing with water, are on the same page," said Eldridge. Developers and businesses "expanding their footprints in cities and towns tend to oppose water-quality initiatives" reflexively, said Eldridge.

But he said work resulted in compromise and a final recommendation to the legislature. The report can be viewed on Eldridge's website, www.senatoreldridge.com.

Four working groups were formed and focused on core concerns: water infrastructure needs, how to pay for improvements, innovation and technology required for the task, and development of best practices to safeguard water supply districts.

"Water is not a private concept," said Eldridge. On the issue of paying for the fix, Eldridge floated the $64,000 question.

"Is this the time to tax for infrastructure and finance alternative ideas like protecting open space?" said Eldridge rhetorically. One such proposal that has been floated in Ayer surfaced in the state debate, too: Should developers be charged a fee to treat storm water runoff from projects that create impervious surfaces?

Eldridge said much remains to be done in terms of public education.

Eldridge tipped his hat to Stoddart for her work, and urged the meeting participants to become invigorated in advance of the November elections and the next legislative session.

Eldridge, a Democrat, is opposed in the Nov. 6 general election by Republican Dean Cavaretta. "Presuming everything goes all right for me," Eldridge pledged to get back to drafting water-conscious legislation for the next session. Eldridge also hoped Gov. Deval Patrick would embrace water needs in the same way he's sought to retool the state's public transportation infrastructure.