Merrimack River task force gets second chance

RYAN HUTTON/Staff photoFishermen cast lines into the Merrimack River near the Rocks Village Bridge in Haverhill.

State lawmakers are moving ahead with plans to create a commission to study how to improve the health of the Merrimack River by reducing sewage discharges.

The state Senate has approved a proposal to create a Merrimack River District Commission to study contamination from sewage treatment plants and report back to the Legislature with recommendations for dealing with it. The commission must also be approved by the House and Gov. Charlie Baker.

"We are looking for ways to update infrastructure and need to make sure we receive help from the federal delegation while also working for funds at the state level," said state Sen. Diana DiZoglio, D-Methuen, primary sponsor of the bill creating the commission. "We need to bring together the stakeholders to address the river pollution, including discharges from combined sewer overflows."

Lawmakers set aside $50,000 in the current budget to get the commission up and running, but the amendment creating it didn't survive budget negotiations.

The panel, operating under the Merrimack River Planning Commission, would include representatives from health and environmental groups, as well as state agencies.

Last year, five sewage systems along the 117-mile Merrimack River discharged nearly 800 million gallons of sewage and stormwater runoff — double the amount from the previous year, according to state data.

The sewage came from overflow pipes that are part of decades-old sewer and stormwater systems designed to overflow when they are inundated, usually because of heavy rain. While a permanent fix is years away, lawmakers and environmental groups are pushing for quicker, more widespread public notification of overflows.

Environmentalists say such large, frequent overflows pose health risks to those who use the river for recreation and drinking water. An estimated 600,000 people get their drinking water from the Merrimack.

Untreated sewage carries pathogens such as fecal coliform and bacteria that can cause dysentery, hepatitis and other gastrointestinal diseases. The sewage also causes algae blooms, which can be toxic to people and deprive water bodies of oxygen, killing fish and other marine life.

Gabby Queenan, policy director at the Massachusetts Rivers Alliance, said the new commission will be helpful to "put a spotlight" on the ongoing problem of river contamination.

"This will mean a more formalized process for stakeholders to discuss new ideas and figure out how to move forward with proposals to increase the health of the river," she said.

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