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Congressional lawmakers are calling for more federal funding to fix aging outfalls that spew sewage into the Merrimack River and other waterways.

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Funding sought to stop pollution

BY CHRISTIAN M. WADE Statehouse Reporter

BOSTON — Congressional lawmakers are calling for more federal funding to fix aging outfalls that spew sewage into the Merrimack River and other waterways.

In a letter to legislative budget writers, Massachusetts Reps. Lori Trahan and Seth Moulton joined New Hampshire Reps. Chris Pappas and Ann Kuster in calling for $280 million for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Sewer Overflow and Stormwater Reuse Municipal Grant program.

“The Clean Water State Revolving Fund has been a useful tool to make improvements to the region’s wastewater infrastructure,” they wrote. “However, the scale of need to protect the Merrimack and the communities in its watershed requires a major investment of federal grant support.”

The lawmakers pointed out that nearly $50 billion is needed, according to recent federal estimates, including nearly $1.6 billion in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

Funding through the program, which was created by Congress more than two decades ago, is provided to states on a weighted formula that takes into account population and the average amount of rainfall over the past decade. Last year, both states got about $50 million through the program, according to the EPA.

Every year, hundreds of millions of gallons of untreated and partially treated sewage pour into the 117-mile Merrimack River from 229 active CSOs, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection. Sewage treatment plants in New Hampshire also contribute to the problem.

Designed long before the Clean Water Act was written into law in the early 1970s, the treatment systems collect storm water in the same pipes as sewage and are designed to overflow when they become inundated, usually because of heavy rain.

CSO systems are still in place in nearly 860 municipalities nationwide, most of them in the Northeast, according to the EPA.

Public health officials say large and frequent overflows pose health risks to those who use the river for boating and swimming, as well as communities that draw drinking water from it.

An estimated 600,000 people get drinking water from the Merrimack River.

Raw sewage also causes algae blooms, which can be toxic to people and deprive water bodies of oxygen, killing fish and other marine life.

Sewage treatment plant operators have been making upgrades to reduce CSO discharges, but the price for dealing with the problem is beyond most budgets.

In January, President Joe Biden signed a two-year reauthorization of the $38 billion Water Resources Development Act, which included $100 million for several communities along the river that have struggled to fix combined sewer overflows.

On Beacon Hill, lawmakers also diverted federal money toward dealing with frequent overflows from the combined sewer systems.

A $3.76 billion economic development bill, approved by the Legislature and signed by then-Gov. Charlie Baker in November, featured $115 million for drinking water and sewer system upgrades, including $15 million specifically for projects in “nitrogen sensitive” areas along with states’ waterways.

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at

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