The budget signed by Gov. Charlie Baker on Wednesday was disappointing for communities north of Boston. A task force meant to look into the health, safety and future of the Merrimack River was baked into the $43 billion spending plan by the Senate but didn’t survive budget negotiations afterward, even if $50,000 set aside to pay for it did. So, Baker put his name on a budget that, as far as the Merrimack is concerned, was all money and no task force.
It’s disappointing but shouldn’t be a deterrent. The river faces major challenges in continued outflows of untreated sewage, usually during heavy rains — more than 800 million gallons worth last year. Those are more than a nuisance, they threaten the welfare of people who turn to the Merrimack for recreation and drinking water.
The good news is the river and its concerns also seem to have renewed interest from a lot of quarters.
Start with the Merrimack River Watershed Council. The group is hoping to turn the page on a contentious breakup — its board fired longtime director Rusty Russell back in March — with a 117-mile journey downriver to raise its profile and call attention to the problems affecting the river. Dan Graovac, president of the council’s board of directors, is leading a group of paddlers that includes Lane Glenn, president of Northern Essex Community College, and Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera.
More critical to the safety of those in communities near the river are plans to vastly expand notification of sewage outflows when they happen, so boaters and swimmers get fair warning at points along the river, on the web and via mobile app. The state budget that was lacking a task force did set aside $100,000 to pilot that program — the result of an amendment sponsored by Sen. Diana DiZoglio, D-Methuen.
Prompt notice is also the focus of legislation filed by the region’s two members of Congress, Reps. Lori Trahan and Seth Moulton. The Democrats want to force public notice of overflows of untreated sewage within four hours — a standard that would apply to bodies of water nationally, not just for combined sewers on the Merrimack.
There’s a much bigger issue at play here, of course, which is redesigning and even rebuilding the antique stormwater and sewage systems that are rigged to spill into the Merrimack and other bodies of water. Doing that — for the Greater Lawrence Sanitary District and in Lowell, Haverhill, Manchester and Nashua — is a far more intensive, costly proposition than simply telling people when the water’s bad.
But it’s an issue that Trahan is confronting, at least in hope of expanding a federal grant designed to help communities pay for that work. She and Rep. Darin LaHood, a Republican from Peoria, Illinois, filed a bill in May to increase the grant fund to $500 million per year, stretch it out through 2030, and give priority to helping communities that endure the most sewage overflows. Trahan talked about her plan during a meeting she put together in Lowell in the spring with officials from communities along the river and a representative of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
During a tour of the region’s infrastructure needs this spring, Trahan said, “I’m eager to be an advocate so we can put the attention back on this river.” As far as the Merrimack and its future are concerned, Capitol Hill is not a bad place to have such an advocate.
Which isn’t to say we should forget about a task force — an idea hatched and marshaled through the state Senate by DiZoglio. Bringing together people from various agencies and disciplines to assess the health of the river and devise ways to improve it is more than a good idea, it’s a necessity. And it shouldn’t get left on the floor of the negotiating room where House and Senate lawmakers pounded into form a final version of the state budget.
DiZoglio has recruited other lawmakers from the area in an effort to resuscitate her idea. For the sake of the river, we hope she succeeds. But even without such a task force, there’s a lot of good flowing downstream these days, and a lot of signs of life for the Merrimack.