Last week brought bad news for a plan to bring more attention to the Merrimack River, but this week the tide turned and the Senate approved creation of a river commission. The measure still needs to pass the House and get the governor's signature, but the latest Senate vote keeps the issue alive.
Last week the governor signed the state budget that includes $50,000 to create the Merrimack River District Commission, but creation of that group – which would include members from environmental groups and related agencies throughout the watershed – was stalled in a House and Senate conference committee. The measure was sprung loose and approved Monday by the Senate, perhaps not so coincidentally on the day Sen. Diana DiZoglio was acting Senate chair. DiZoglio filed the legislation earlier this year to set up and fund the commission.
If it's ultimately approved, this measure would mark another important step to raise awareness – and maybe get action – about the continuing pollution of the Merrimack by some upstream sewage treatment systems, whenever heavy rains force them to dump raw sewage into the river.
The Merrimack River Watershed Council, a non-profit organization, raised the profile on the so-called CSOs (combined sewer overflows) problem last year and several lawmakers and local mayors have run with the issue. A recent measure to set up an alert system that residents along the river can opt in to whenever there's a release of untreated sewage was the first step. Although that doesn't fix the problem, which will involve millions of dollars to separate the sewage and stormwater systems at major cities all the way to Manchester, N.H., it will help inform people when they should stay out of the river.
Setting up a river district commission is a major step and, if done right, could put the important focus on upgrading treatments plants and combined stormwater and wastewater systems in New Hampshire and Massachusetts communities. It will mainly be up to the federal government to fund those improvements but the pressure a Merrimack River District Commission might apply to process could finally get things moving.