Merrimack River Watershed Council Lauds Enactment of Sewage Notification Law

The Merrimack River from Haverhill to Newburyport. (Creative Commons.)

The Merrimack River Watershed Council is hailing a new law that requires residents be quickly alerted when untreated sewage enters the waterway

Gov. Charlie Baker signed the measure that is expected to have a public alert system in place by this summer when people will be boating, fishing and swimming in the Merrimack River. Council Executive Director Matthew Thorne said the bill was first proposed nearly a decade ago, but failed to attract momentum.

“We’ve heard many comments from the state house that the Merrimack Valley was the squeaky wheel that got this legislation passed,” said Thorne. “The MRWC took a leadership role in pushing for this legislation, and we are so happy to see that it’s finally become law.”

A major sewage release into the Merrimack River in 2017 caused public concern and began raising questions about the state’s decades-long practice of not requiring that the public be notified when sewage discharges occur. The Watershed Council credited a “strong push by Merrimack Valley residents, political leaders and media with providing the impetus that catapulted this issue to the front page and led statewide leaders to act.”

The legislation requires sewage plants throughout the Commonwealth to quickly alert the public whenever they release untreated sewage into a river, via a variety of means such as emails, text messages, websites, and reverse 911 telephone calls.

The Council explained sewage releases, known as combined sewage overflows or CSOs, occur in older cities where street drains are connected to sewer lines. When heavy rainstorms occur, the sewage pipes fill rapidly and sewage plants must release excess volume into the river to prevent sewage from backing up into homes or flooding and damaging the sewage plant itself.

Untreated sewage contains bacteria and other contaminants that can be harmful to public health. Generally, it takes about two days for bacteria levels to decline to safe levels.

The legislation requires sewage plants to issue a public alert within two hours that reports where the discharge is occurring, when it began, an estimate of how much sewage was released, areas that are expected to be affected by the discharge and precautions that the public should take. The public alert must be updated every eight hours during an ongoing discharge. Once the discharge ends, the public must be alerted within two hours.

Thorne said the Council’s long-term plan is to help sewage plants end the practice of releasing untreated sewage into the Merrimack, which provides drinking water to 600,000 people. He added the solution is to help cities get the money they need to fix the problem, and that can only be done with financial help from the federal government. Years ago the federal government paid 85 percent of the cost of building sewage systems, but now pays nothing.

In the Merrimack Valley, three plants—in Haverhill, Greater Lawrence and Lowell—are permitted to release sewage into the Merrimack River. On the New Hampshire side of the border, plants in Nashua and Manchester are allowed to release sewage into the river. The Council said it is hopeful New Hampshire lawmakers will file similar legislation.

The amount of sewage released annually into the Merrimack varies, depending on the amount of rainfall in a given year. According to data collated by the Council, over the past five years an average of 550 million gallons is released into the Merrimack River annually. Typically, there are 40-60 releases per year.

The highest total in recent years occurred in 2018, when 850 million gallons were released.  That year had unusually heavy rainfall, about 125% above average. Data compiled by the federal Environmental Protection Agency predicts that New England will experience more frequent heavy rainstorms due to climate change, which is expected to increase the number of CSO sewage discharges.

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