Watershed group releases new video on sewage overflows in Merrimack River

Monday August 16, 2021

LAWRENCE – Merrimack River Watershed Council has released a new video and web page explaining why sewage is frequently discharged into the Merrimack, and what is being done to help solve the problem.

The 8-minute ‘explainer’ video, narrated by MRWC Environmental Science Fellow Jose Tapia, looks at the causes of the Merrimack’s sewage discharges — known as Combined Sewer Overflows or CSOs for short. The video also provides interviews with regional leaders who are trying to address the problem, as well as tips on what concerned residents can do to help. It can be viewed by subscribing to the Merrimack River Watershed’s Youtube account, or by going to the following link: youtube.com/watch?v=hS6ACfygDU4&t=152s

While there are several videos available on the Internet that explain CSOs in general terms, this is the first video that specifically addresses CSOs in the Merrimack River. The video was produced by Elevated Thought, a Lawrence-based art and social justice non-profit.

The CSO Explainer Video is paired with the release of a new educational webpage merrimack.org/cso, which further highlights important data points, and describes the pathways to solving the problem.

CSOs have become a frequent news headline in the Merrimack Valley, and have fueled much discussion and debate on social media platforms.

“We field many questions from the public about sewage overflows. There is a lot of concern and outrage over this problem, but there are also a lot of misunderstandings about the facts of CSOs. This video is intended to give people an accurate overview of the CSO problem in the Merrimack,” said John Macone, MRWC’s policy and outreach specialist.

Combined Sewage Overflows often occur during moderate to heavy rainstorms. They happen in five of the Merrimack Valley’s cities — Haverhill, Lawrence, Lowell, Nashua and Manchester — where street drains are connected to sewer lines. During rainstorms, too much water enters sewer lines, and so excess quantities are discharged into the river to prevent damage to sewer plants and sewage overflows into homes and businesses.

“CSOs are a relic of 19th and early 20th century sewer systems that were built in the Merrimack Valley’s industrial cities,” said Macone. “Those old sewer systems were designed to dump all sewage into the river, and they are very expensive and complicated to replace.”

On average, about 500 million gallons of CSO wastewater is discharged into the Merrimack in a typical year. That’s a significant drop from 20 years ago, when an average of 780 million gallons were discharged in an average year.

The reduction is due to drought conditions in recent years, and also work being done in cities to replace their sewer lines and upgrade infrastructure. This work is required by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The cost of these upgrades can be in excess of $100 million, and progress can be slow because they are paid for almost entirely by sewer fees collected from city residents and businesses. However, lawmakers in Massachusetts are considering a plan which could provide up to $400 million in American Recovery Plan Act funds for water and sewer projects. That funding will greatly increase the speed of CSO-related upgrades.

The year 2021 has already proven to be an unusually active year for CSOs. In the month of July — one of the rainiest Julys on record — over 160 million gallons of CSO waste have been discharged into the Merrimack, according to data from the region’s sewer treatment plants.

Scientists have predicted that climate change will result in heavier rainfalls in the Northeast, which will increase the likelihood and frequency of CSOs.

Merrimack River Watershed Council is a non-profit organization that focuses on improving the health of the Merrimack River through scientific research, advocacy, and education. MRWC also encourages residents to explore and appreciate the river, and provides recreational paddling trips. For more information, visit merrimack.org.

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