Those concerned about pollution in the Merrimack River should be aware that billions of federal dollars are available now to help clean the waterway. President Biden’s infrastructure bill included close to $50 billion for communities to improve and expand their sewage treatment operations and clean-water facilities.
It is the largest amount approved to clean rivers, lakes and the oceans since the Clean Water Act of 1972.
Now is the time for elected officials and clean-water professionals in the Merrimack Valley to launch the complicated process of obtaining some of this funding.
The 117-mile-long Merrimack is regularly fouled by combined sewer overflows (CSOs) that take place after heavy rain. Communities, including Haverhill, Lawrence, Lowell, Nashua, New Hampshire, and Manchester, New Hampshire, emit CSOs.
A CSO occurs when stormwater from heavy rain reaches a community’s sewage treatment plant. The plant can’t absorb both sewage and stormwater, so the entire amount is released into the river. Hundreds of millions of gallons are sent into the river each year.
This is alarming, since the Environmental Protection Agency says that close to 600,000 residents get their drinking water from the Merrimack, including those in Lawrence, Lowell and Andover.
The EPA monitors these emissions. Indeed, the above communities are under “consent” agreements to make improvements to their riverside plants.
But with the exception of Manchester, they have been slow to generate funds to rebuild or expand their treatment plans.
Now is the time. Newburyport, Amesbury and Salisbury do not emit CSOs but they feel the effects. CSOs, which sometimes include human fecal matter, arrive in Newburyport Harbor. It is a significant detriment to summer activities like boating and fishing. (Swimming should be avoided after heavy rain). and this pollution is a threat to the prosperous tourist trade that has developed in recent years.
Regarding funding to limit CSOs, federal funds are being administered by the regional EPA through the Clean Water State Revolving Fund. Government agencies are generally the applicants.
Local residents interested in spurring the process can contact congressional representatives Lori Trahan and Seth Moulton to urge their cooperation. Trahan, who represents the Lowell area, has been especially active in working for a cleaner Merrimack.
Gov. Maura Healey, who has ties to Newburyport, can also be contacted, as can Sens. Warren, Markey and state senators and representatives.
Closer to home, Newburyport is a polluter when it comes to surface water runoff. Scores of pipes throughout the city collect rainwater with butts, oily dirt and fertilizer residue, and send it into the river. Several of these pipes are visible when one walks on the Clipper City Rail Trail.
City officials should increase their existing program to limit these streetside emissions.
Also, the EPA recently has announced that “forever chemicals” are present in American rivers, and they can cause cancer. So local officials and hydrologists should learn more about the so-called PFAs to determine if they are detrimental to those who use the Merrimack.
Many residents of the Merrimack Valley know the river is polluted but they don’t know what to do about it.
Right now is a good time to approach local, state and federal officials to urge action to obtain funding to clean the river. Billions of dollars are available for cleanup, the most since 1972.
It appears that big-time funding for clean water comes along only about twice in a hundred years. Now is the time to pursue it!
Dyke Hendrickson is a resident of Newburyport and the author of five books focusing on the Merrimack River and/or Plum Island. He is also running for the Newburyport City Council.