Contrary to what you might have heard, most Massachusetts residents do not, in fact, love that dirty water. So when raw sewage spills into rivers where children swim, boaters sail, and dogs fetch, residents ought to get a timely warning so they can stay away.
Sewage spills still happen with disturbing frequency in the Commonwealth, a legacy of its antiquated water infrastructure and cash-strapped municipalities. At last count, back in 2011, there were 181 outfall locations in the state where sewage can enter water bodies. Nineteen sewer systems in Massachusetts have permits allowing them to discharge sewage. On particularly rainy days, they may slosh untreated waste into rivers including the Charles, Mystic, Merrimack, and Connecticut. Such hard rains are falling with greater frequency in a warming climate.
Altogether nearly 3 billion gallons of sewage enter the state’s waters every year from “combined sewer overflows,” old pipes that were built before modern water systems that handle sewage and stormwater separately.
Long term, localities need to eliminate the outfalls. But that will cost billions of dollars and require ripping up streets across the state. For now, the least that municipalities can do is issue public alerts. It’s a common-sense idea that would protect public health, but the Massachusetts Legislature can’t seem to get it done. A bill that would require Massachusetts municipalities to issue alerts by email or text and to the press within two hours of an event has been stalled in the House Ways and Means committee since July. (Similar legislation, with a four-hour notification requirement, has been introduced at the federal level.) Meanwhile, 14 other states already have such notification requirements.
According to the chief of staff for Ways and Means chairman Aaron Michlewitz, “We’re still taking a look at it and will continue our research on it in the coming days.”
Massachusetts municipalities do have to notify regulators of overflows, but in some cases only once a quarter. Those kind of reports are useful to spot long-term trends. But they do nothing for a family deciding whether to go kayaking on a hot summer day.
Apart from the odor, there’s good reason swimmers and boaters might choose to avoid contaminated rivers if they’re alerted to outfalls. Exposure to sewage can cause intestinal inflammation, eye and ear infections, skin rashes, hepatitis, and other ailments. A 2015 paper found that emergency room visits in Massachusetts due to gastrointestinal illnesses for elderly patients rose 32 percent after heavy rainfalls.
Public notification might also serve to remind the public about the importance of water infrastructure, which is usually out of sight and out of mind. The United States has a staggering backlog of water infrastructure needs, estimated at $105 billion by the American Society of Civil Engineers. If voters were more frequently made aware of the dangers of disrepair, it might help build political will to fix the pipes.
Since the 1960s, when the Standells tagged Boston with the “dirty water” reputation, the state has made major strides to clean up its rivers. But the work isn’t done. The fact that it’s now safe to swim and boat on many days of the year only makes it more important that at times when the water is hazardous, the public gets a heads up. It’s also worth putting cities and towns on notice to invest in shoring up water infrastructure for the future.