MANCHESTER — Members of Congress from two states, federal, state and local environmental stewards got a progress report Wednesday about the ambitious, expensive campaign to one day end the discharge of untreated sewage into the Merrimack River.
At the briefing, the city showed off the first overflow manhole wired to send notifications when storm water and sewage are discharged into the river.
City Engineer Frederick McNeill said the job looks to be a $400 million task that will take 40 years to complete unless federal funding returns to levels not seen since the 1970s.
After Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972, Washington was covering 75 percent of these costs.
Today the federal contribution to replace and upgrade this ailing infrastructure is more like 5 percent, according to environmental groups.
U.S. Reps. Chris Pappas, D-N.H., and Lori Trahan, D-Mass., co-sponsored the briefing at the city’s wastewater treatment plant Wednesday to draw attention to their legislation that would double the annual federal grants to communities for this improvement work.
“This is literally the front line of environmental stewardship,” McNeill said.
While schools, roads and bridges in disrepair are highly visible, the broken-down system of pipes below ground is unseen and unknown to the public, he said.
“We have 385 miles of pipe and 100 miles of it is older than 100 years old,” McNeill said. “It can fail at any time, but it is not unique to us.”
“We are at the bottom of the ladder when it comes to funding.”
In Manchester, most of the sewer lines collect both rainwater from streets and sewage from homes and businesses.
Such combined sewers exist in 800 communities across the country, including in Nashua, Berlin, Lebanon, Portsmouth and Exeter according to the Department of Environmental Services.
When it’s not raining, the wastewater flows through these lines to the city’s wastewater treatment plant before it’s discharged into the river.
But when it rains, the treatment plant can be quickly overwhelmed; then the excess combination of rainwater and sewage gets sent straight through outfalls into the river.
These overflows keep the sewage/rainwater mixture from backing up into streets and basements, city officials said.
Last year, a total of 800 million gallons of sewage and untreated storm water — from all sources — was released into the Merrimack and then out to sea. Discharges in Manchester and Lowell, Mass., accounted for more than half that volum,e according to federal officials.
Manchester officials reported in 2018 there were 177 distinct discharge “events” that let 364,000 gallons into the river.
McNeill showed those attending the briefing a milestone, so-called “Manhole 1.” That manhole has been hard-wired to notify city officials and the public when discharges into the river occur from it.
McNeil said the city is working to create a wireless notification network that will report all places where the discharges occur.
The city is spending $200,000 a year to come up with that notification system which springs from a 1999 Environmental Protection Agency administrative order that required the city to come up with a plan to eliminate combined sewer overflows.
Over the past decade, the city spent $58 million on Phase 1, which reduced discharges to the west side of the Merrimack River by 99 percent, officials said.
The city has proposed a Phase II, costing $165 million over a 20-year period to substantially reduce discharges on the east side of the river.
Then there’s a Phase III to eliminate all the combined outflows, McNeill said.
“For 20 years, the City of Manchester has spent $100 million to mitigate combined sewer overflow activations, largely without assistance from the federal government. I am grateful to Congressman Pappas and Congresswoman Trahan for requesting their Municipal Grant Program be funded for this work,” Craig said in a statement after taking part in the briefing.
EPA Acting Regional Administrator Deborah Szaro said federal officials are still negotiating with Manchester counterparts on the final notification system but said the work is critical.
“There is no doubt this is a pressing public health issue. We’ve got citizens swimming in this river and unaware a short time earlier that sewerage was deposited into it. That’s not acceptable,” Szaro said.
Pappas said he remains optimistic that these wastewater grants could become part of an omnibus infrastructure package that President Trump has called for since his election in 2016.
“We are talking about making upgrades to protect the public health and assure the quality of our drinking water,” Pappas said.
“We are putting energy into trying to get support for a bipartisan campaign to make investments in infrastructure.”
After the Manchester visit, Rep. Trahan brought Pappas, Szaro and other officials for a boat tour on the river in Lowell.
“There was a time when the Merrimack River was pristine and clean. It became polluted and a lot of money was spent to clean it up but now it’s again at risk and we have to act,” Trahan said.