Column: A way to speak up for Massachusetts' rivers

File photoA kayaker approaches the Willowdale Dam on the Ipswich River before paddling over it.

At long last, a recent weekend presented one of those pristine days that remind us here in Massachusetts why we endure those winters. With warm spring weather finally here, many of us hit the water for the first time this year, visiting local rivers. With more than 10,000 miles of rivers traversing the state, we had many choices. Sail boats blossomed on the Charles. Rowers huffed and puffed on the Mystic. Fishing rods sprouted along the Swift. Bikers and kayakers explored the Sudbury. For many people, the beautiful day meant a chance to spend on, in and around the rivers of Massachusetts.

Fittingly, June is National Rivers Month, a 30-day gala celebrating our waterways. Whether you kayak past important Revolutionary War sites on the Concord River, hike over the Bridge of Flowers on the Deerfield, draw water for local crops from the Connecticut, or depend on drinking water from the Merrimack, National Rivers Month is a time to celebrate the gains we have made in protecting these important public recreational, economic and historic assets.

National Rivers Month, however, is also a time to reflect on what remains to be accomplished. The Massachusetts Rivers Alliance, the voice for Massachusetts rivers, is a statewide environmental advocacy non-profit that helps those whose lives are touched by these Massachusetts waterways (and we would argue, that’s all of us). Consider, for example, pending legislation regarding sewage overflows around the state.

Very old stormwater and wastewater systems serving municipalities in the state have what are called “combined sewage overflow” (CSO) systems. Through these CSOs, stormwater and wastewater systems are physically interconnected. At times of high precipitation, stormwater run-off goes into the wastewater system and overwhelms the water treatment plants.

To prevent these backups, wastewater – the sewage from your homes and businesses – is dumped directly into Massachusetts rivers. Approximately 200 of these CSO connections exist throughout the state. In Massachusetts, an estimated 3 billion gallons of raw sewage gets dumped into the state’s rivers each year. Swimmers, canoeists, and pets exposed to CSO contaminants are vulnerable to gastroenteritis, respiratory infections, eye or ear infections, skin rashes, hepatitis and other diseases. Children, the elderly, and people with suppressed immune systems are especially vulnerable. Wildlife are also adversely affected by CSO pollutants which lead to higher water temperatures, increased turbidity, toxins and reduced oxygen levels in the water.

Everyone recognizes the problem. But it takes money to fix it, more money than is now available. Over the past two decades, Massachusetts communities have spent more than $1 billion to eliminate CSOs. The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates, however, that an additional $4.2 billion is needed to finish the job.

In addition to supporting efforts to increase state and federal funding to eliminate CSOs, Mass Rivers is championing a simple sewage notification bill now pending before the Massachusetts legislature. Disturbingly, there is currently no state requirement to notify the public about the presence of sewage in the water when these discharges occur.

The legislation supported by Mass Rivers would require the operator of a CSO to notify local boards of health, in addition to the state Department of Public Health, within two hours after a sewage spill begins. In addition, the public could sign up to receive these notifications, by text, e-mail, phone call or tweet. The state Department of Environmental Protection would be required to centralize all sewage spill data and make it available on the internet. Signage would be required at all public access points (for boating, fishing, beaches) near CSO outfalls as well.

National Rivers Month is a time to shake off those indoor blues and enjoy Massachusetts’ bounty of rivers. Whether you go to look for great blue herons, to fish for trout, to take your family and the dog on an afternoon paddling adventure, or simply to seek calm and quiet, our state’s rivers are there for you. To preserve these friends, and to ensure the safety of those who use our rivers, National Rivers Month should also be a time for towns and cities to insist that our legislators enact a requirement that when the waters are despoiled with sewage spills, we know about it.

Julia Blatt is executive director of the Massachusetts Rivers Alliance, the voice of Massachusetts rivers. The alliance is a statewide organization of 77 environmental organizations in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The Ipswich River Watershed Association and Essex County Greenbelt Association are among its local members.