Whenever the Merrimack River Watershed Council announces a release of untreated sewage and storm water into the river, its social media accounts explode.

So said Matthew Thorne, executive director of the organization — and it happened again this week due to a heavy rainstorm.

"People go nuts about the release announcements," said Thorne, noting that on Thursday a Facebook post about an overflow of sewage and storm water was viewed 18,000 times and shared nearly 200 times.

"I do a fund-raising post, and nobody seems to notice," Thorne said, chuckling.

Public interest in the discharge of sewage mixed with storm water is understandable, as it dumps bacteria and other toxins into the river, making it unhealthy for people and dogs to swim in for up to 48 hours.

One of the problems with that time frame, however, is that if the river is running slow — as it is now — it could take even longer for that tainted water to clear out, making its way downstream to Newburyport and the mouth of the river.

In short, the monitoring and measuring of the impact of so-called Combined Sewer Overflows, or CSOs, is an imperfect science using imperfect data, Thorne said.

 

Storm causes complex problem

CSOs happen when heavy rain flows into a community's wastewater network, overwhelming the sewer treatment plant. The untreated wastewater then spills out into nearby waterways, in this case the Merrimack River.

During two periods of heavy rainfall Thursday, untreated storm water and sewage overflowed into the river more than a half dozen times from several different treatment plants — and that multi-overflow happened twice.

Early Thursday morning, a rainstorm caused treatment plants in four cities — Haverhill, Nashua, Lowell and Greater Lawrence — to release sewage and storm water into the river. The Greater Lawrence Sanitary District treats sewage from Andover, North Andover and Methuen, as well as Lawrence.

About 3 p.m. that same day, a heavy rain struck the region again, this time causing overflows from Haverhill Lowell and the Greater Lawrence district.

The total amount of sewage released into the river was not reported, according to the Watershed Council. Three of Greater Lawrence's five pipes that release overflows activated, and eight of Haverhill's 13 overflow pipes activated. The number of pipes that activated in Lowell was not reported, according to the council.

The fact that nobody knows exactly how much wastewater is getting into the river is one of many related problems facing the region, Thorne said.

"We pick through emails and websites, everyone reports in a different way, and it's hard to know what's happening," he said.

 

Runoff from land also pollutes

CSOs are just one problem. Thorne said another major problem is runoff from land, which often is contaminated with pesticides, dust from car brake pads, oil and other pollutants commonly found on the ground. When it rains, that material is also washed into the storm drain system or just pours off land surrounding the river.

"There's a bigger conversation about how to handle our storm water," Thorne said. "Runoff is causing a lot of problems in our water due to nutrients and other contaminants from land." 

To help bridge the data gap, Thorne said his organization recently launched a water testing program at 10 locations up and down the river.

He said that kind of information has never been collected and will provide a long-term view of the river's health. He said testing was done on Thursday, but that due to COVID-19, testing labs are unable to provide answers in a timely manner, often taking seven to 10 days to return results.

Therefore it is impossible to know how badly polluted the river really is after a discharge from the CSOs — but help may be on the way.

State Rep. Linda Dean Campbell, D-Methuen, has filed legislation that would require timely and frequent announcements of CSO discharges. The legislation would also require wastewater treatment plants to install meters to detect and measure discharges. 

The bill is co-sponsored by all other state representatives from the Merrimack Valley.

 

Federal money eyed

At the federal level, Congresswoman Lori Trahan, D-Lowell, has proposed legislation that would provide billions of dollars in grants to communities that need to modernize their storm water systems to prevent the overflow of storm water mixed with raw sewage into rivers, lakes and, in the case of coastal communities, the ocean.

In 2019, Trahan proposed the Stop Sewage Overflow Act, which would increase money for the EPA’s grant program for communities to address CSOs.

"Perhaps most notably," Trahan said in a recent column on the subject, "the bill incentivized the federal government to invest in wastewater infrastructure projects in financially distressed communities. Under our bill, for every $1 a community contributes, the government must contribute at least $3."

More recently, the core elements of the bill were incorporated into The Moving Forward Act, major infrastructure legislation which passed the U.S. House on July 1. Under that bill, the CSO grant program will be authorized to provide $400 million annually for the next five years. The bill is now pending before the U.S. Senate, Trahan said.

"The CSO problem is one that has been many decades in the making, so it will not be solved overnight," Trahan wrote in her column. "However, the House-passed infrastructure package will make tremendous progress in restoring our own great waterway."

 

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