February 10, 2017

Rainstorms and Runoff: Searching for a Solution

Keilani Lai-Hipp, Business Development Fellow

Often, Mother Nature is not very forgiving in New England. In the past year, Massachusetts has been hit with blizzards, hail and excruciating heat. One weather phenomenon that transcends all seasons is the classic rainstorm. Something you may not know about rainstorms, however, is that they often lead to sewage seeping into our waterways. When it rains a lot, stormwater flows into the primary sewage system and mixes with residential and commercial sewage. In order to prevent system overload from the increased volume of water, combined sewer overflows (CSO) – which underlie many cities and towns across the Northeast – provide outfall points in the system to allow excess stormwater and sewage to be released into the nearest body of water. This problem is common with older wastewater infrastructure in Massachusetts, and officials in the Commonwealth are actively seeking ways to fix it.

Untreated wastewater creates a variety of water quality and public health issues. Beach closings and restricted water use usually follow large storms because the water is contaminated. Nutrient levels and water-borne illnesses such as dysentery, swimmer’s ear and cholera may be elevated and exacerbated, due to the discharge of human and industrial waste into waterways. Moreover, CSOs release other pollutants picked up by stormwater along the way. Plastic debris and various toxic materials find their way through the sewer system and into the water.

In 1994, the EPA issued the CSO Control Policy to mitigate CSO pollution on a national level. Over the past two decades, municipalities with older infrastructure have put together short- and long-term approaches to address CSO pollution across the United States. New England states, which have some of the oldest sewer systems in the country, are innovating new ways to understand and address the problem. Massachusetts is no exception.

Initiatives across the Commonwealth are addressing this water quality and public health issue. Nearly 35 CSOs in the Boston area that drain into the Charles River have been closed.  In the Berkshires, the Towns of Adams, Cheshire, Dalton and Lanesborough and the City of Pittsfield are collaborating to address stormwater management in the region. Earlier this year, nearly $800,000 in federal money was awarded to help clean up “nutrient and pathogen pollution from wastewater discharges” down in Buzzards Bay. From Boston Harbor to the Connecticut River, communities continue to focus on minimizing both health and environmental risks of CSOs. Although CSOs remain an issue throughout New England, these investments and collaborations show promise cleaning, preserving and enhancing our waterways.