Stopping the uncontrolled release of stormwater mixed with untreated sewage into the Merrimack River is the focus of new legislation unveiled this week by Congresswoman Lori Trahan, D-Lowell.

Trahan, who represents the 3rd Congressional District, said the Stop Sewage Overflow Act dramatically expands and improves the Environmental Protection Agency’s Stormwater Reuse Municipal Grant program, prioritizing high-need areas like the Merrimack Valley.

Trahan unveiled the legislation Monday during a Merrimack River stakeholders’ meeting at the Lowell Regional Wastewater Utility center. The meeting included members of the local business community, river advocates, and elected leaders from Merrimack River watershed communities.

Specifically, the bill calls for increased federal funding for EPA grants, bringing the total available from the current $225 million to $500 million annually, extends the authorization of the program through 2030, prioritizes communities that have endured the most sewage overflows, and raises the federal cost-share based upon a community’s ability to fund improvements.

Combined sewer overflows are a product of combined sewer systems, which are used by more than 800 communities across the nation, Trahan said. They trigger harmful releases of raw sewage when rain water exceeds manageable levels, as is the case for the Merrimack River.

Last year alone, more than 800 million gallons of untreated sewage and stormwater were released into the Merrimack, which provides drinking water for at least 600,000 people — and that number is growing.

“The Merrimack River is a vital resource for residents of Massachusetts’ 3rd Congressional District, supplying drinking water to hundreds of thousands of people across the region,” Trahan said. “That is why the current state of contamination is so concerning.”

Massachusetts needs nearly $1 billion for improvements to combined sewer systems. Trahan said her bill would reduce the local cost-share requirement for grants and would be based upon a community’s ability to pay.

In the case of Haverhill, improvements in 2005-06 included expanding the wastewater treatment plant to accept more flow. 

“The next thing we’re looking at is separating combined sewage and stormwater by installing a second pipe so we have one pipe for stormwater and one for sewage, in a section of the system that accounts for the most CSOs we have,” said Robert Ward, deputy director of the Haverhill Department of Public Works. “Preliminary cost estimates are $15 to $20 million. We’d have to borrow or raise rates to pay for it, however, we do have money to do the design work.”

On April 16, Trahan toured five communities in the 3rd Congressional District to learn about their infrastructure needs as legislators in Washington, D.C. begin discussions on a massive infrastructure bill and how the money will be spent.

Trahan’s last stop of the day was Haverhill, where members of the Merrimack River Watershed Council highlighted problems that will require federal funding.

“I think this legislation is a positive step in the right direction, as funding will be need to solve the problem,” said Christina Eckert, interim director of the watershed council. “The congresswoman is also trying to get New Hampshire involved, which is imperative.”


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