Column: It’s time to invest in modern water and sewage infrastructure | Opinion

As the Baker-Polito administration celebrates Climate Week in Massachusetts, we recognize that extreme weather events across the country last year demonstrate the need to act on resilience to protect public health.

Locally, the intense rainfall the Commonwealth has experienced in recent months highlights the threat to public health caused by climate change and the need to upgrade outdated and aging water infrastructure.

A good example is the combined sewer overflows in several communities in Massachusetts.

The Commonwealth, like many states across the country, has older urban towns where historically combined sewer and storm sewer systems have been constructed. These systems were designed with discharge points, CSOs, to combine and discharge wastewater and stormwater into local water bodies, such as rivers, to prevent the backflow of wastewater into properties. or on the streets when the capacity of the system has been exceeded during a storm.

CSOs pollute local watersheds, including the Merrimack River, affecting water quality, recreation and, most importantly, public health.

CSOs also include large volumes of stormwater with untreated or partially treated wastewater and can contain many types of contaminants.

One of the primary concerns with CSO releases is the health risks associated with these releases, especially when the body of water where the release occurs serves as a source of drinking water, is used for recreational purposes. or is used for harvesting shellfish.

There are 19 CSO communities in Massachusetts with 229 active outlets.

Sadly, the record amount of precipitation we have seen in the Commonwealth this year has led to more than 1 billion gallons of untreated sewage flowing into Massachusetts water bodies since May 2021.

To illustrate how important this problem is, even before Tropical Storm Ida crossed Massachusetts earlier this month, dropping 5-6 inches of rain in some areas, the Merrimack River had already seen more than 35 CSO events this past. year. These had allowed more than 200 million gallons of untreated sewage to flow into the river.

On the south coast, we have seen more than 100 million gallons of untreated sewage pouring into the Taunton River Watershed, New Bedford Harbor and Buzzards Bay since May 2021, with similar volumes in d ‘other communities.

To take a big step forward in addressing these concerns, Gov. Charlie Baker introduced a legislative proposal directing $ 400 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds to modernize water and sewage infrastructure in Commonwealth and help solve issues such as CSOs.

CSO communities, in conjunction with the United States Environmental Protection Agency and Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, continue to move forward with reduction plans; however, given the high costs and technical challenges of this work, implementing CSO controls can take many years.

As of February 2021, the Massachusetts Clean Water Trust had funded more than $ 1.4 billion in drinking water sewer projects, with $ 255 million in CSO reduction projects across the Commonwealth since 2015.

But additional investments are needed to minimize the risks associated with the release of untreated waste, toxic materials and stormwater from water sources, which will occur when climate change results in more frequent heavy rains, such as rainfalls. tropical storms Elsa and Ida.

That is why Governor Baker proposed to direct a significant portion of the state’s ad hoc federal assistance to this critical problem.

It is important to note that in January 2021, Governor Baker signed a law to raise public awareness of sewage in public waters.

To implement the law, MassDEP will soon be proposing rules requiring systems with CSOs to publicly report on the start and end of these CSO events and the volumes associated with these releases.

We expect the reported volumes to give us a better picture of the state of our systems and more information about our obsolete infrastructure.

The Baker-Polito administration has been a leader on this issue for many years, and Governor Baker has recognized the state’s ARPA dollars as a unique opportunity to leverage our investments, to allocate significant funding to CSOs and help our communities make urgent and necessary improvements to critical water and sewage infrastructure.

As recent weather events show, there is no time to wait.

Martin Suuberg is commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.

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