Watershed Council Hails Federal Consent Decree Curbing Lowell Sewage Discharges into River

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

The Merrimack River Watershed Council is hailing a new agreement between the City of Lowell and state and federal environmental agencies that will immediately curb a quarter of its raw sewage discharges into the river.

Lowell agreed Monday to a consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department to reduce the amount of combined sewer overflows—blamed for 41% of annual river pollution—and address other problems in the city’s sewer system.

“The financial burden on the City of Lowell will be enormous, $195 million in its initial stages and a much larger cost as more projects are added,” said Curt Rogers, executive director of Merrimack River Watershed Council. “Now is the time for all stakeholders in the region to step up and work together to help the City of Lowell meet the daunting requirements of the decree which, in the end, will profoundly benefit the entire downstream community. This decree is not an end point, but the beginning of a positive transformation.”

Combined overflows are the result of street drains connected to sewer lines. During storms, the extra water overwhelms treatment plants that clean the water before entering the river. In 2023, according to the Watershed Council, there were a record two billion gallons of discharges with Lowell responsible for 850 million gallons.

Under the consent decree, Lowell will separate sewer and street drain pipes in the Centralville neighborhood, located on the north side of the Merrimack River, which accounts for about 25% of Lowell’s combined sewer outflow volume. Lowell must also develop plans to significantly reduce overflows in several neighborhoods on the south side of the Merrimack River, accounting for about 65% of Lowell’s volume; find and fix malfunctions and illicit discharges; tighten stormwater regulations; and reduce the amount of phosphorus that enters the Merrimack. Phosphorus, commonly found in lawn fertilizers, fuels the growth of algae blooms.

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