Lawmakers seek federal money to keep sewage out of Merrimack River

MIKE SPRINGER/Staff photoRalph Basiliere of Haverhill walks his dog Elvis along the Merrimack River in Haverhill.

Four members of Congress from both sides of the border — Reps. Seth Moulton and Lori Trahan of Massachusetts and Annie Kuster and Chris Pappas of New Hampshire — are pushing for additional federal money to protect the Merrimack River.

They have sent a letter to U.S. House members who are leading negotiations on money for a federal grant program designed to decrease the amount of sewage released into the river during heavy rains.

Those sewage releases are a recurring problem in the Merrimack Valley and parts of New Hampshire along the river. Some river communities, such as Haverhill, have antiquated sewer and drainage systems that cannot handle heavy rains without releasing some sewage, often large amounts, into the river.

“In 2018, 800 million gallons of sewage and untreated stormwater were released into the river, which runs more than 100 miles from central New Hampshire, through northeastern Massachusetts, and then out to sea,” the lawmakers’ letter reads. “Combined Sewer Overflow discharges in Manchester and Lowell accounted for more than half of the volume.”

The four local congressional members who sent the letter pointed out that Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) are of particular concern to communities along the river, which supplies drinking water to more than 600,000 people. In recent years, the river has also become used by many boaters, fishermen and even swimmers.

Their letter noted that the Clean Water State Revolving Fund has helped make improvements to the region’s wastewater treatment plants and piping systems, but the work needed to protect the Merrimack and communities in its watershed requires a bigger investment of federal grant money.

For the third year in a row, the representatives wrote to the chairwoman and ranking member of a House Appropriations Committee subcommittee to request that the federal government spend more money to combat the issue of CSOs. According to the Merrimack River Watershed Council, CSOs release an average of 550 million gallons of wastewater into the Merrimack River each year.

Grants to communities needing help “should be funded at the $500 million level,” the lawmakers said in their letter. “This would allow cities with combined sewer systems, like those along the Merrimack River, to finally make the major infrastructure changes needed to prevent CSO releases.”

In September, the four lawmakers from Massachusetts and New Hampshire also submitted public comments requesting changes to the EPA’s proposed formula that, if enacted, would provide money to prevent CSO sewage releases to states partially based on population rather than using a per capita formula.

The lawmakers said the formula drafted under the Trump administration could hurt states such as Massachusetts and New Hampshire that have higher CSO funding needs than other states, despite having smaller populations. The rule-making process for that formula has since been placed under review by the Biden administration.

A digital copy of the letter sent by the four lawmakers is available at: https://trahan.house.gov/uploadedfiles/210201_epa_sewer_grants_final_2022.pdf.

 

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