Baker aide Zooms in on sewage overflow problems
During heavy rains, sewage flows into Merrimack River
FORGET THE CAREFULLY curated Zoom office background or the blank white wall. Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Kathleen Theoharides testified before the Legislature on Thursday sitting at an outdoor table next to a sewage outfall pipe on the Merrimack River.
Theoharides was in Lawrence, and she used the setting of the combined sewer outfall system to call attention to a vital environmental problem affecting the Merrimack, but one that is largely unknown elsewhere in the state.
The way a combined sewer overflow system works is the system collects rainwater runoff, domestic sewage, and industrial wastewater in a single pipe, then brings it to a sewage treatment plant. But when there’s heavy rainfall or snowmelt, the volume of water can exceed the capacity of the system. Untreated water then discharges directly into nearby rivers or streams.
In her presentation to the Joint Committee on Ways and Means – part of a series of hearings on Gov. Charlie Baker’s plan for using federal American Rescue Plan Act funding – Theoharides said there are 229 combined sewer overflow systems in Massachusetts that have funneled 1 billion gallons of untreated sewage into Massachusetts waters since May 2021. In the Merrimack River alone during that time, before the recent overflows stemming from Tropical Storm Ida, there were 35 combined sewer overflow events resulting in over 200 million gallons of untreated sewage flowing into the river. Ida spilled another 130 million gallons into the Merrimack over two days.
With climate change causing more extreme weather, the overflows are likely to get worse. The State House News Service recently reported that from January through August of 2021, combined sewer overflows in the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority service zone (which does not include the Merrimack River) discharged more than twice as much sewage and runoff into public waterways than was expelled throughout all of 2020, driven by heavy rains and storms.
The issue has long been a serious problem in the Merrimack Valley, with sewage discharges causing health dangers to those who use the water for recreational purposes or drinking water. There are ways to abate combined sewer overflow discharges, like building separate pipes for sewage and stormwater. But updating the systems takes money.
US Reps. Lori Trahan and Seth Moulton, whose districts include Merrimack Valley communities, have tried to get federal money to improve the systems and prevent overflows.Theoharides said she hopes lawmakers will use ARPA money – potentially combined with the federal money that area municipalities get for water projects – to improve water and sewer infrastructure. Baker has proposed spending $400 million on water and sewer projects.
“This has been a long-term problem that we have worked hard to address – but CSO abatement projects require significant investment,” Theoharides said in her testimony. “The funding provided by the American Rescue Plan provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity to address this longstanding, urgent issue for this critical natural resource in the Merrimack Valley.”