Bill calls for alerts on river sewage spills

Massachusetts State House. (Photo by Aaron Ye/BU News Service)

By Elise Takahama
BU News Service

BOSTON — A combination of old sewage systems and increasingly intense rainfalls has left the Merrimack River filthy.

Lawmakers are working hard to not only come up with a permanent fix, but also pass legislation to require treatment plants to warn the public about water quality.

The Merrimack, a 125-mile river that winds through Massachusetts and New Hampshire, serves more than 200 communities and provides drinking water to 600,000 people, but it’s consistently in danger of contamination. Last year, about 800 million gallons of sewage were dumped into the water, said John Macone, a spokesman for the Merrimack River Watershed Council — and the majority of the public had no idea.

The spills are always worse after a big rainstorm, Macone said. Because the cities near the Merrimack were built with old single-sewage systems, which combines groundwater and raw sewage into one system, the plants completely overflood when there’s a high volume of rain, he said. But a new system would mean extremely high costs.

Because Massachusetts sewage plants are not required to notify the public when there’s been a combined sewer overflow in waterways, lawmakers are pushing for legislation that would change that. One bill, proposed by Rep. Linda Campbell, D-Methuen, would require plants to send out a public advisory within two hours of a spill.

“I felt this was really the time where we had some momentum to get a notification bill out. … This will coordinate the efforts.AdvertisementAnd we’re going to work with all the sanitary districts to make sure this is common sense and it can be executed by them in a timely manner,” Campbell said.

Fitchburg has already implemented a dual sewage system, which separates groundwater and raw sewage, said Martha Morgan, the water programs director at the Nashua River Watershed Association.

“We’re in favor of notifications to have the public alerted of spills,” she said. “We understand that it can be costly … but people should be aware of what they might be swimming in.”

The Nashua River, which encompasses 32 communities in north central Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire, used to be one of the top 10 most polluted rivers in the nation, Morgan said. Last month it was designated a Wild and Scenic River by the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.

“We have data that shows water quality has gotten better in the last two decades,” Morgan said. “There are fewer combined sewer overflows, fewer chances of raw sewage getting into the river. We have a river report card and the quality has been improving, but there’s always room for improvement.”

One improvement, she said, would be to introduce a system to alert the public of sewage spills in the river.

“It’s going to improve safety for people, but it’s also going to make them aware of what’s going on with the river and what we think is going to happen is that when people are aware, they’re going to want to see change,” Campbell said. “They want to see a bad situation fixed. This is a first step towards that.”

Campbell’s bill would also do more than increase public safety, she said. The Department of Environmental Protection would finally have a record of sewage overflows, she said, and the bill would have a positive economic impact.

Many companies involved in the fishing industry are looking to the Merrimack watershed to set up camp, she said, but the water quality and lack of public awareness are making them think twice.

Rep. Tami Gouveia, D-Acton, said a public alert system is long overdue. People should know when the river water could make them or their pets sick, she said, or when there’s possibility that kayakers could paddle through human feces.

“As we get more extreme weather conditions, more flooding, more downpours and more rain per hour, we’re going to experience these issues even more than in the past,” Gouveia said. “But the solution is very costly and it’ll take a long time to really make infrastructure upgrades and repairs to prevent the overflows.”

The treatment plant that generally contributes the most sewage into the Merrimack River is in Manchester, N.H., Macone said. The Manchester plant is designed to treat an average daily flow of 34 million gallons of wastewater per day, according to the Manchester’s Wastewater Treatment Plant’s website.

The Lowell plant comes in second, discharging nearly 200 million gallons of wastewater into the river.

“Between those two plants, you’re talking about 75 percent of all the sewage that goes into the river,” Macone said. “But the Lowell plant has been very progressive and really on the ball. … Since this issue came up, Lowell made changes. They hadn’t been reporting a lot of what they were dumping into the river publicly. Now, they’re sending out email alerts — that was something they did on their own. They’re trying to do their part.”

But officials say the sewage spills are only going to get worse.

“Now, we’re getting higher than normal rainfalls, so we’re seeing a big surge in CSOs,” Macone said. “(Officials) predict that New England is going to see more rain events and it’s going to be heavier because of climate change. This is a trend that’s going to continue.”

Until officials can solidify a long-term solution, Macone said it’s important that the public is updated on the river water quality.

While Sen. Ed Kennedy, D-Lowell, sees the bill as a positive change, he said it’s key to reach out to communities outside of Massachusetts.

“In order for it to be effective, you have to require the cooperation of the New Hampshire communities as well,” Kennedy said. “You can do that in Massachusetts, but if New Hampshire isn’t going to do it, what’s the point? What I’d like to see in that legislation is some link to New Hampshire.”

This article was previously published in Sentinel & Enterprise.

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