Let’s get the indelicate part out of the way up top: This column is about poop.
Specifically, Belmont’s poop, which a new federal report points to as an especially big culprit in the Mystic River’s poor water quality. Despite years of warnings from state and federal regulators, and millions spent on the town’s stormwater system, too much of the wealthy suburb’s sewage continues to leak into waterways and surrounding communities. Unless the town tidies up, it may be time for regulators to crack down.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Belmont’s municipal stormwater system has been in “significant violation” of the Clean Water Act for the last three years, based on bacteria levels recorded at storm-drain outfalls. Belmont is currently the only municipality in Greater Boston under such a warning. The town’s environmental rap sheet also includes state water-quality violations in 2000 and 2007, the result of sewage leaking into storm drains. Those drains empty into tributaries of Alewife Brook, which in turn flows into the Mystic.
The town has spent more than $8 million on upgrades over the last 12 years. But that investment hasn’t translated into much progress, according to water quality tests. The town’s spending also trails Cambridge, which has put more than $100 million into stormwater upgrades, and even much poorer cities like Revere, which agreed to make $50 million in investments to their stormwater systems.
A new report from the EPA and the Mystic River Watershed Association puts the problem in sharper focus. The Mystic River has historically received low water quality marks; last year, it got a D. But that river-wide grade masked geographical differences that the new report lays bare. For instance, the stretch of river near Somerville’s Assembly Square is now clean enough for swimming on most days; in the new report card it earned a B+.
Belmont’s Winn’s Brook, in contrast, got an F. On many days, just getting splashed with the water coming out of the culvert flowing into Little Pond, which in turn flows into Alewife and the Mystic, poses a health hazard. (The town’s director of community development, Glenn Clancy, didn’t return a phone call or e-mail.)
To be fair, Belmont is not the only problem area the report highlighted in the Mystic River’s watershed. Like most municipalities in Massachusetts, Belmont has aging pipes that are costly to repair. Island End River in Everett and Mill Creek in Chelsea got Fs too.
Sewage pollution is a problem that can be solved if municipalities make it a priority, adding enforcement to close illegal hookups to storm drains, or spending more on upgrades. Meanwhile, the EPA could help prod communities along by referring them to the Department of Justice, as it did with Revere before that city signed a consent decree in 2010 to improve its system. An EPA official, Todd Borci, said legal action is “always one of the tools that we look at” to bring communities into compliance.
In the long run, though, towns and cities may need to find different ways to finance stormwater-system improvements, so those unglamorous projects don’t have to compete for funding with more politically popular programs. A few cities in Massachusetts, including Newton, have set up separate stormwater utilities, which assess fees on businesses and homeowners to maintain the drainage system. Although it’s been slow to catch on in New England, the idea makes a lot of sense, in part because it lets municipalities charge by the amount of stormwater that property-owners generate.
By identifying weak links instead of giving the entire Mystic one grade, the new report sought to focus attention where it’s most needed. It shouldn’t take another EPA report card to drive home the point that when it comes to Belmont — and its downstream neighbors — the current arrangement stinks.
Alan Wirzbicki is a Globe editorial writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.