Moulton & Trahan: Congress Must Address Combined Sewer OverflowOriginally Published in Wicked Local — Salem.
Written by Rep. Moulton and Rep. Lori Trahan.
Imagine you live in a community where everything that goes down your toilet, and everything in the gutters on the street outside, flowed into the bodies of water that supply your drinking water.
You’d probably want your government to do something about that, and you’d definitely want to know about it.
In our state, any time we get a hard rain or heavy snow melt, 200 pipes in 18 cities carry stormwater and wastewater into rivers and watersheds that supply Massachusetts residents with drinking water. Last year, an estimated 770 gallons of sewage flowed into the Merrimack River, which supplies drinking water to more than 600,000 people.
If you’re reading this in Lynn, or along the Charles or Mystic Rivers, this is a problem for you, too. Using data from the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, WBUR recently reported that “the Charles River has 10 outfall pipes that released more than 29 million of gallons of sewage in 2017, and the Mystic River/Chelsea Creek has eight outfalls that discharged more than 78 million gallons.”
This phenomenon is called combined sewer overflow, CSO for short. It’s a consequence of our region’s centuries-old infrastructure. The network of pipes that carries water from your house and our region’s businesses flows to a centralized wastewater treatment facility. Along the way, water from your street’s gutters and roads joins the combination of sewage and wastewater.
On a sunny day, it’s no problem — the treatment facilities are built to handle the work. The facilities clean the water, and eventually pump the final, clean result into the rivers. But, in severe weather, the system is overloaded — and, because of an outdated design, the pipes push waste water into our rivers, watersheds and other bodies of water.
State and local lawmakers are working hard to fix this problem. The group includes state Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, state Sen. Diana DiZoglio, state Rep. Linda Dean Campbell, state Rep. James Kelcourse, state Rep. Lenny Mirra and Newburyport Mayor Donna Holaday. They’re pushing for state and local legislation that would alert the public.
However, to truly fix this problem, Congress must step up. Rivers like the Merrimack wind through multiple states, which means that the water flowing into the river is subject to a wide range of very different state laws. So, stronger state and local laws in Massachusetts won’t solve the problem if states upstream aren’t on board with the plan.
That’s why we’re pushing in Congress for two things: federal investments in new infrastructure that protect our drinking water from Combined Sewer Overflow, and a quick-response public alert system so we know when CSO events happen.
For years, the Environmental Protection Agency has required state and local governments to report CSO discharge events in a timely manner. Current technology allows that to happen within four hours of an event’s occurrence. But there’s no federal law requiring that data to be made public.
Over the last month, we have written and introduced two bills to tackle this issue. The first would increase federal funding for stormwater infrastructure in the parts of the country like ours where CSO is a problem. The second would mandate that the public be informed within four hours of a CSO event to increase public safety and awareness.
This is a big deal. Everyone in America deserves clean drinking water. And a healthier Merrimack means a healthier economy. We want more people to visit our region to boat and fish, and spend money here.
This problem also touches on something bigger—Washington’s repeated failure to fix our nation’s aging infrastructure. From dangerous gas pipelines to grueling commutes full of traffic jams and trains that seem like they’re always late , to the health of our rivers and economy, this failure threatens our families’ health and causes our communities to miss out on new jobs.
We’re committed to focusing Congress’s attention on this from every angle. And we’re going to keep working on this issue until Congress builds a new generation of infrastructure that better serves our region.
Seth Moulton, a Salem resident, represents Massachusetts 6th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives. Lori Trahan, a Westford resident, represents Massachusetts 3rd Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.