By: Julia Blatt, Executive
Director, Massachusetts Rivers Alliance
At long last, a recent
weekend presented one of those pristine days that remind us here in
Massachusetts why we endure those winters.
With warm spring weather finally here, many of us hit the water for the
first time this year, visiting local rivers. With more than 10,000 miles of
rivers traversing the state, we had many choices. Sail boats blossomed on the Charles. Rowers huffed and puffed on the Mystic. Fishing rods sprouted along the Swift. Bikers and kayakers explored the
Sudbury. For many people, the beautiful
day meant a chance to spend on, in and around the rivers of Massachusetts.
Fittingly, June is National
Rivers Month, a 30-day gala celebrating our waterways. Whether you kayak past important
Revolutionary War sites on the Concord River, hike over the Bridge of Flowers
on the Deerfield, draw water for local crops from the Connecticut, or depend on
drinking water from the Merrimack, National Rivers Month is a time to celebrate
the gains we have made in protecting these important public recreational,
economic and historic assets.
National Rivers Month,
however, is also a time to reflect on what remains to be accomplished. The Massachusetts
Rivers Alliance, the voice for Massachusetts rivers, is a statewide
environmental advocacy non-profit that helps those whose lives are touched by
these Massachusetts waterways (and we would argue, that’s all of us). Consider, for example, pending legislation
regarding sewage overflows around the state.
Very old stormwater and wastewater systems serving municipalities in the
state have what are called “combined sewage overflow” (CSO) systems. Through these CSOs, stormwater and wastewater
systems are physically interconnected. At times of high precipitation,
stormwater run-off goes into the wastewater system and overwhelms the water
treatment plants. To prevent these
backups, wastewater – the sewage from your homes and businesses – is dumped directly
into Massachusetts rivers. Approximately
200 of these CSO connections exist throughout the state. In Massachusetts, an estimated three billion
gallons of raw sewage gets dumped into the state’s rivers each year. Swimmers,
canoeists, and pets exposed to CSO contaminants are vulnerable to
gastroenteritis, respiratory infections, eye or ear infections, skin rashes,
hepatitis and other diseases. Children,
the elderly, and people with suppressed immune systems are especially
vulnerable. Wildlife are also adversely affected by CSO pollutants which lead
to higher water temperatures, increased turbidity, toxins and reduced oxygen
levels in the water.
Everyone recognizes the
problem. But it takes money to fix it,
more money than is now available. Over the
past two decades, Massachusetts communities have spent more than $1 billion to
eliminate CSOs. The federal
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates, however, that an additional
$4.2 billion is needed to finish the job.
In addition to supporting
efforts to increase state and federal funding to eliminate CSOs, Mass Rivers is
championing a simple sewage notification bill now pending before the
Massachusetts legislature. Disturbingly,
there is currently no state requirement to notify the public about the presence
of sewage in the water when these discharges occur.
The legislation supported by
Mass Rivers would require the operator of a CSO to notify local boards of
health, in addition to the state Department of Public Health, within two hours
after a sewage spill begins. In
addition, the public could sign up to receive these notifications, by text,
e-mail, phone call or tweet. The state Department of Environmental Protection
would be required to centralize all sewage spill data and make it available on
the internet. Signage would be required
at all public access points (for boating, fishing, beaches) near CSO outfalls
National Rivers Month is a
time to shake off those indoor blues and enjoy Massachusetts’
bounty of rivers. Whether you go to look for
great blue herons, to fish for trout, to take your family and the dog on an
afternoon paddling adventure, or simply to seek calm and quiet, our state’s
rivers are there for you. To preserve
these friends, and to ensure the safety of those who use our rivers, National
Rivers Month should also be a time for towns and cities to insist that our
legislators enact a requirement that when the waters are despoiled with sewage
spills, we know about it.
Julia Blatt is Executive Director of the
Massachusetts Rivers Alliance, the voice of Massachusetts rivers. The Alliance is a statewide organization of
77 environmental organizations in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.