Given all the attention over the past two years on the massive sewer spills from upstream treatment plants into the Merrimack River, most people might assume there is an active water testing program in place that has been tracking water quality over the years. That assumption would be wrong.

Some local boards of health do test river water quality near beaches during the summer, but it looks like the regular testing and tracking of the evidence of sewage in the Merrimack is just now getting underway, thanks to the Merrimack River Watershed Council, based in Lawrence.

As reporter Bill Kirk noted in coverage of the program this week, about 650 million gallons were released last year in combined sewage overflows, or CSOs, when stormwater overwhelms any of the five sewage treatment systems upriver from Newburyport and Amesbury. That polluted water contains bacteria that can be harmful to people and animals, making swimming or wading in the river potentially dangerous.

MRWC’s new executive director, Matthew Thorne, called the project an effort “to develop a high-precision approach to gauging the water quality of our Merrimack River.”

He also highlighted the news out of Manchester, N.H., last week, with the announcement that city had reached an agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to invest $231 million in coming decades to bring Manchester’s sewer and stormwater infrastructure into modern standards. Manchester is one of the cities whose treatment system releases CSOs into the Merrimack.

Thorne said the water testing project will track the flow of bacteria down the river after a CSO release, with the information used to shed light on how bacteria levels change along the river. The data also will aid the notification system being set up to alert the public when the river water is unsafe – a notification system that is just getting out of the starting gate. A similar system, based on collected data and a mathematical model, now alerts the public to high bacteria levels in the Charles River, and one could imagine a day when similar monitoring occurs anywhere a combined sewer overflows, including Gloucester Harbor.

These are important steps – setting up regular water testing and long-term data collection; Manchester and the EPA moving forward with eventual upgrades to curtail sewage release; and a reliable public notification system to keep people informed and safe when dealing with the Merrimack River. As Thorne said this week, “We have to be vigilant and build on this momentum” or the might Merrimack will never be cleaned up.

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