In the News
The Merrimack River: A treasure worth protecting
Washington, July 19, 2020
By: Congresswoman Lori Trahan
Infrastructure is more than roads and bridges, it’s investment in clean water. And it’s an investment in the people who stand to benefit from such improvements. Last week, the House of Representatives passed a major infrastructure bill which includes an area which is sometimes overlooked – water infrastructure.
Across the globe, great waterways contribute to a community’s identity and provide a source of civic pride and unity. This is especially true for the cities and towns of the Merrimack Valley. Fed by Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, the “mighty” Merrimack River flows down through Concord, Manchester, and Nashua; crosses into the commonwealth and bends east near Lowell before flowing through Lawrence and Haverhill – and out to the Atlantic.
No natural feature is more tied to Lowell’s history. The Merrimack was the force powering the Lowell Mills where my grandmother once worked and is now the heart of the busy downtown area where the people’s 3rd Congressional District office is located.
The Merrimack also provides drinking water for well over half a million people. However, the river and its watershed communities have suffered immensely over many years from repeated releases of untreated wastewater and stormwater.
These communities are among hundreds nationwide that have outdated sewer infrastructure which combines waste from homes and businesses as well as stormwater. Equally importantly, these sewer systems are designed to channel effluent – “combined sewer overflow” (CSO) – into nearby bodies of water. This happens whenever precipitation volume exceeds sewer system capacity. Unfortunately, volume exceeds capacity all too often; and the cost to fix these systems is enormous. These challenges will only be exacerbated by the growing effects of a warming climate.
According to the EPA’s Clean Watersheds Needs Survey, the price tag to fix CSOs nationwide is $50 billion. In Massachusetts alone, the price tag may be a billion dollars or more.
For many years, the federal government – through the so-called “construction grants program” – supported communities’ wastewater infrastructure needs. However, in the 1980s, these grants were largely eclipsed by loans. Consequently, cities and towns have, ever since, shouldered a greater share of the burden of improving their wastewater infrastructure in order to comply with the Clean Water Act.
Grant funding is absolutely vital when the scale of wastewater infrastructure projects is so large. It is especially crucial for those communities that are the least able to afford such improvements.More than a year ago, a few months after taking office, I convened a group of Merrimack River stakeholders at Lowell’s wastewater treatment plant. We met to share information about the problem and generate solutions.
Among the key takeaways from our meeting was the need for stable, reliable, and robust federal funding for wastewater improvements. Communities with these needs deserve the assurance that the federal government intends to be a partner with them over the long term.
Days after that meeting, I testified about the Merrimack Valley’s CSO challenges before the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. Next, I filed bipartisan legislation designed to ease the burden on cities faced with the enormous costs of ending CSOs and cleaning up their rivers.
Our Stop Sewage Overflow Act was designed in close consultation with state and local officials from across the Merrimack Valley who I met with at the Lowell wastewater treatment facility. The bill increased funding for the EPA’s CSO grant program and extended its period of authorization.
Perhaps most notably, the bill incentivized the federal government to invest in wastewater infrastructure projects in financially distressed communities. Under our bill, for every $1 a community contributes, the government must contribute at least $3.
The core elements of our bill were incorporated into The Moving Forward Act, major infrastructure legislation, which passed the U.S. House on July 1st. The CSO grant program will be authorized to provide $400 million annually for the next five years; and the provision to incentivize the federal government to make this much needed investment in our communities was also included. The bill is now pending before the U.S. Senate, which should pass our infrastructure bill for many reasons – not the least of which is the fact that cities like Lowell deserve the support of the federal government when it comes to cleaning up our rivers.
The CSO problem is one that has been many decades in the making, so it will not be solved overnight. However, the House-passed infrastructure package will make tremendous progress in restoring our own great waterway.