Guest Op-Ed: World Water Day 2021: Cleaner Rivers for Massachusetts

By Julia Blatt

As Massachusetts observes World Water Day this year, our state’s communities have particular reason to celebrate.  The Massachusetts legislature recently enacted (and Governor Baker signed into law) a state sewage notification bill.  This important new law has been a long time coming. 

World Water Day falls on March 22nd of each year.  Since it first became a United Nations Observance Day in 1993, World Water Day has served as a time to think about, and take action to address, the water crisis.  In 2021, World Water Day focuses on the environmental, social and cultural value people place on water. The day provides Massachusetts residents an opportunity to consider the importance of clean water. Clean water is not something to take for granted. 

On this year’s World Water Day, Massachusetts Rivers Alliance, the Voice of Massachusetts Rivers, is celebrating a major step the state has taken toward ensuring safer rivers.  For years, Mass Rivers led advocacy efforts with many partners to pass a state law requiring sewer operators to establish a notification system. The goal was to let the public know when there is a sewage discharge into a public waterbody, so residents could avoid contaminated waters. 

Fecal bacteria poses 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. 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. 

​The Massachusetts sewage notification bill was filed during five consecutive legislative sessions. Finally, in the summer of 2020, the bill passed the Massachusetts House of Representatives unanimously, and was sent to the Senate, where it sat until the final hours of the legislative session in January 2021. In quick succession that night, the Senate voted to pass it, and the House agreed to Senate modifications, sending the bill to the Governor’s desk. Governor Baker signed the bill on January 12, 2021.

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. 

Massachusetts Rivers Alliance is an alliance of 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.

Julia Blatt is the Executive Director, Massachusetts Rivers Alliance.

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