NEWBURYPORT — Massachusetts Rivers Alliance Policy Director Gabby Queenan stressed the importance of updating water infrastructure across the state, saying regional precipitation could increase up to 70%.

Queenan, who has worked at the Cambridge-based nonprofit for nearly four years, spoke about her role and why people should pay attention to what's happening with the Merrimack River during her appearance Saturday on the Local Pulse internet radio with host Joe DiBiase.

With climate change on the rise, New England is "expecting about a 70% increase in precipitation," Queenan said. "When you add that kind of increase in precipitation, you are going to trigger these combined sewer overflows more often."

Combined sewer overflows, or CSOs, occur when there is a power outage or too much precipitation for a community's sewage system to handle, so untreated sewage is dumped into places such as the Merrimack River.

Communities are working to fix this outdated infrastructure, but it could cost "around $4 billion," she explained.

"We're kind of in a race right now to make whatever infrastructure improvements we can, so that we're dealing with this before it gets even worse with the rain."

CSOs and other water pollutants are not limited to the Merrimack. More than half of the rivers in Massachusetts are considered "impaired" by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Queenan said. 

In Massachusetts, there is pending legislation that would require the public be notified within two hours of a CSO taking place and also where it originated. These notifications would be posted online, sent by phone or email, and announced through the use of colored flags near the river. 

A similar bill was proposed a year ago, but it did not pass. Fourteen other states have implemented such notification systems, Queenan said.

The current bill, An Act promoting awareness of sewage pollution in public waters, is before the House Committee on Ways and Means.

"Over the last two decades, it's communities on their own who have invested about a billion dollars, which is great," she said. "They've reduced dramatically, but we're still seeing about three billion gallons of sewage go into the water and that is not OK."

Queenan believes the notification bill could give people a reason to pay attention.

"I think, until every resident knows that this is an issue, communities are wary about trying to do things like raising new revenue to actually get water infrastructure improvements," she said.

"We want to make sure that we can use this bill to really leverage some pressure on the state and honestly, on the feds as well," she added. "We need a lot of dollars to fix this problem, so we're going to need some help outside of just your individual city and town."

Queenan said if people want to support this legislation, they should call House Ways and Means Chairman Aaron Michlewitz at 617-722-2990.

"There's a lot of competition at the Statehouse now," she said, adding that about 6,000 bills have been filed this legislative session. "They only have so much time before the session will come to a close. So, we are in a race to make sure that our bill gets to the forefront of that line."

Also on the show, Rep. Jim Kelcourse, R-Amesbury talked about the Student Opportunity Act. Lisa Hutchings of Mass Audubon’s Joppa Flats Education Center provided details about the Merrimack River Eagle Festival on Friday.

Local Pulse broadcasts live from 9 to 10 a.m. each Saturday from the newsroom of The Daily News. To listen live or download previous shows, go to www.NewburyportNews.com/LocalPulse.

Staff writer Heather Alterisio can be reached via email at halterisio@newburyportnews.com or by phone at 978-961-3149. Follow her on Twitter @HeathAlt.

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