The Merrimack River Watershed Council is applauding Gov. Charlie Baker's signing into law a bill that requires sewage treatment plants to quickly notify the public when they release raw sewage into the river.
Matthew Thorne, the watershed council's executive director, said the law marks an important step toward the council's goal of ending the sewage discharges, which contain bacteria and other contaminants that are a threat to public health.
The long-awaited alert system is expected to be in place by this summer, when tens of thousands of people will be using the river for boating, fishing and swimming.
Thorne said in a prepared statement, “We’ve heard many comments from the Statehouse that the Merrimack Valley was the squeaky wheel that got this legislation passed. The MRWC took a leadership role in pushing for this legislation, and we are so happy to see that it’s finally become law.”
In the Merrimack Valley, plants in Haverhill, Greater Lawrence and Lowell are permitted to release sewage into the Merrimack. Plants in Nashua and Manchester, New Hampshire, are also permitted to release sewage into the river, but they aren't subject to the new Massachusetts law. Watershed council officials are hopeful that New Hampshire lawmakers will file similar legislation.
Thorne said the new law applies to all Massachusetts rivers, but "it's a huge victory for the Merrimack in particular" because of the pollution from the sometimes massive raw sewage overflows.
Thorne said the state Department of Environmental Protection will be in charge of the notification system. In turn, Thorne said the watershed council will be able to use the data collected by DEP to more accurately chart the health of the entire river.
"We'll be able to more easily aggregate the information that's been reported to the state," he said. "Right now there is not one standard. Different cities are reporting different statistics at different times that mean different things" after a combined sewage overflow, or CSO, which occurs in older cities where street drains are connected to sewer lines.
With DEP's data "we will much more easily have a full picture of our river and what's happening to our river in a timely manner," Thorne said.
He said quickly reporting sewage spills will allow people "to make decisions in their lives about their public health risks" from the river.
Thorne said getting the notification system signed into law was the first goal of the watershed council and aggregating the data will be the second phase. The third step comes in the spring when the watershed council and the Lawrence-based Elevated Thoughts arts organization produce a short video that will make the problem of CSOs "easily understandable."
The ultimate goal, Thorne said, involves advocating for federal money to fix aging storm water and sewer lines in cities so raw sewage doesn't have to be released into the river during heavy rainstorms or snow melt. That infrastructure work is predicted to cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
This past year saw movement toward that solution when Manchester, New Hampshire, announced it would spend more than $230 million upgrading its stormwater system and treatment plant to reduce or eliminate CSOs.
"Those are the types of investments that will allow these municipalities to dig up their streets and bring water infrastructure up to 21st century standards," Thorne said.
The bill requiring public notification of spills first surfaced nearly a decade ago, but failed to gain momentum until a major sewage release in late 2017 prompted questions about the practice of not requiring public notification after a discharge.
The watershed council credits "an extraordinarily strong push by Merrimack Valley residents, political leaders, and media" with providing the impetus that catapulted this issue to the public spotlight and led statewide leaders to act, according to a statement from the council.
The legislation requires plants to use emails, text messages, websites and “reverse 911” phone calls.to quickly alert the public whenever they untreated sewage is released into the river.
The amount of sewage released annually into the Merrimack varies, depending on the amount of rainfall in a given year. According to data collected by the watershed council, over the past five years an average of 550 million gallons of sewage was released into the Merrimack River annually. Typically, there are 40 to 60 releases per year.