When rainwater can’t soak into the ground, it runs along streets and parking lots and picks up pollutants. This polluted runoff can flow into our rivers and streams, or overwhelm local infrastructure to cause sewage overflows.
Rainfall washes all kinds of pollution from parking lots, lawns, and roads into our rivers, which can degrade the water quality and harm both people and wildlife. Stormwater runoff is recognized by the EPA as the #1 source of water pollution in Massachusetts and the primary reason why more than half of our waterbodies are considered “impaired.”
Traditionally, our water infrastructure— such as storm drains and culverts — has treated precipitation as something to dispose of, rather than something to protect and use. This infrastructure channels rainfall and snowmelt into storm drains and pipes, and dumps it into receiving waters, often far from its place of origin. The consequences are the loss of groundwater recharge, reduced base flows in streams, increased flooding, and lower water quality.
Instead of channeling stormwater into pipes and drains, nature-based methods of water management have benefits for the environment and economy. These options are often the most cost-effective ways to expand the capacity of sewer systems. Green infrastructure and nature-based solutions that mimic natural systems direct stormwater runoff back into the ground, where it belongs. Nature-based solutions may use soil and vegetation in a constructed technique, such as rain gardens or green roofs, to mimic natural hydrologic processes like percolation through soil and plant uptake and transpiration. Other options may include preserving natural features, such as floodplains with a buffer of plants along streams that can slow, filter, and store polluted runoff. Additionally, minimizing or disconnecting impervious surfaces (such as pavement), using methods such as rain barrels, narrower streets and permeable pavements can help decrease the amount of stormwater runoff entering our waterways.
How are we working on this issue at Mass Rivers? We are working with the state, federal government, and many partners to make improvements to regulations that minimize stormwater runoff, incentivize green infrastructure and nature-based solutions, and secure funding for communities to implement environmentally-friendly means for reducing stormwater runoff wherever possible. Past projects have included litigation to require the EPA to implement a long-delayed stormwater permit, and a series of workshops to help municipal staff and consultants implement stormwater utilities as a mechanism to pay for stormwater management costs.
In some parts of our state, communities still have combined sewer overflow (CSO) infrastructure. These combined systems collect both sewage and rainwater into one pipe. Under normal conditions, these pipes transport all of the collected wastewater to a sewage treatment plant for treatment, then discharges to a water body. The volume of wastewater can sometimes exceed the capacity of the treatment plant (especially during rainfall events or snowmelt). When this occurs, untreated stormwater and sewage, discharges directly to nearby streams, rivers, and other water bodies.
CSO events contain untreated or partially treated human and industrial waste, toxic materials, and debris as well as stormwater. They are considered a priority water pollution concern for the EPA. As of 2018, nearly 860 municipalities across the U.S. still have CSOs. In Massachusetts, as of 2019, 19 communities currently have CSO infrastructure.
These sewage overflows are disastrous for public health and our rivers. Untreated human sewage teems with salmonella, hepatitis, dysentery, cryptosporidium, and many other infectious diseases. Sewage releases warm waterways, impacting both water temperature and water quality while disrupting aquatic ecosystems.
Over the last decade, Massachusetts communities have invested roughly $1 billion to address these CSO pollution issues. Unfortunately even with those investments, Massachusetts is still discharging approximately three billion gallons of sewage into the water every year.
How are we working on this issue at Mass Rivers? We partner with communities as well as the state and federal government to create the best solutions to address sewage overflows. Communities will need assistance to make these critical water infrastructure investments and our rivers will benefit greatly with fewer sewage discharges. Until we make significant progress towards reducing sewage in our water, there must be strong notification programs in place that will alert the public when there is a danger of contacting raw sewage. Wastewater facilities must be required to notify the media, citizens, and environmental agencies when they release untreated sewage into the environment. These programs keep people healthy by avoiding raw sewage, but also galvanize further support for solutions to reduce sewage pollution. We continue to work with partners to improve our state’s efforts to notify the public about sewage overflow.
Emerging contaminants (including PFAS)
Emerging contaminants (also known as contaminants of emerging concern) can refer to many different kinds of chemicals, including medicines, personal care or household cleaning products, lawn care and agricultural products, among others. These chemicals eventually travel to our rivers and streams (via stormwater runoff, groundwater leaching, untreated discharges etc.) and have a detrimental effect on fish and other aquatic species. These contaminants have also been shown to bioaccumulate up the food web - putting even non-aquatic species at risk when they eat contaminated fish.
Contaminants of emerging concern enter the environment every day. To understand where these chemicals come from, we just need to think about our modern lifestyle. People use chemical-based products each day. These chemicals remain in wastewater and beyond because treatment plants weren't designed to take out these chemicals. Similarly, industrial processes that have their own treatment processes don’t remove all these chemicals, either. Eventually, they end up in our waterways.
How are we working on this issue at Mass Rivers? As new information emerges about new or existing contaminants and potential impacts to both public health and the environment, we work closely with our state and federal regulators and other partner organizations to make sure that the strongest possible protections are put into place, based on current science.