New state sewage notification law marks progress in the fight for clean river water

Having fun at the boat launch at Neponset II Park near Granite Ave. Neponset River Watershed photo

World Water Day is observed each year on March 22.

Since it was first designated as a marker by the United Nations in 1993, the date has served as a time to think about, and take action to address, the international water crisis. Clean water is not something to take for granted.

Here in Massachusetts this year, our state’s communities have particular reason to celebrate. The Legislature recently enacted, and Governor Baker signed into law, a state sewage notification bill, important new legislation that has been a long time coming.

Massachusetts Rivers Alliance has led advocacy efforts with many partners—including the Neponset River Watershed Association— to pass this state law requiring sewer operators to establish a notification system that will let the public know when there is a discharge into a public waterbody, allowing residents can avoid contaminated waters. 

Fecal bacteria pose many public health threats, including ear and eye infections, skin rashes, hepatitis, and inflammation of the intestines. Emerging research also suggests that fecal bacteria can spread Covid-19. 

Many cities in the Northeast combine sewage and stormwater collection systems, a relic of long-ago urban engineering.  These systems are designed to bypass wastewater treatment facilities if the volume of water is too much for the facilities to handle.

For these aging systems, heavy rain sends a mixture of untreated sewage and stormwater into local waterways. Until now, there was no way for the public to know when these discharges occurred, leaving people downstream at risk of contact with contaminated waters. ​

In 2018, an especially large volume of sewage pollution was discharged into the Merrimack River. As a downstream community, Newburyport bore the brunt of all this sewage winding up in their waters.

The problems experienced in Newburyport, however, are not unique. ​Sewage discharges regularly harm water quality in our state, including in the Neponset River in Dorchester and Mattapan.

In Massachusetts, there are 181 combined sewer overflow (CSO) outfalls, and 24 CSO permittees. In a typical year, Massachusetts waterways receive almost 3 billion gallons of untreated and partially treated sewage mixed with stormwater from CSOs. These outfalls are concentrated in urban areas, like Fall River, Lawrence, and Lowell, making CSO pollution an environmental justice issue, as the closest waterways to residents of urban neighborhoods may be contaminated without their knowing about it. 

The Massachusetts sewage notification bill was filed during five consecutive legislative sessions. Finally, last summer, the bill passed the Massachusetts House unanimously, and was sent to the Senate, where it sat until the final hours of the legislative session in January of this year. In quick succession that night, the Senate voted to pass it, the House agreed to Senate modifications, sending the bill Gov. Baker, who signed it on Jan.12.

Raw and partially treated sewage should never be discharged into our waters. Public notification of sewage discharges is an important first step and Mass Rivers hopes the new law will lead to a greater public willingness to invest in much needed water infrastructure, including separating these combined sewer systems.

These are expensive projects, but these investments are critical to protecting our environment, public health and safety, and ensuring environmental justice and climate resiliency.  On World Water Day 2021, Mass Rivers encourages all Massachusetts residents to pledge themselves to the goal of clean, safe water for all.

Julia Blatt is executive director of Massachusetts Rivers Alliance, which includes 80 organizational members across the Commonwealth. Founded in 2007, Mass Rivers works to strengthen statewide river policies in four areas: water quality, streamflow, wildlife habitat, and investment in green infrastructure.

3 2.png