AMESBURY — Combined sewage overflows from upstream treatment plants have become a serious concern for residents along the Merrimack River, and the Amesbury Rotary Club wants to create a phone app to let them know when they happen.
Rotarian Peter Doyle said he is writing a grant proposal to Rotary International that would pay $47,000 to the Amesbury-based digital agency Imarc to develop a smart phone app to alert users when an overflow, called a CSO, occurs upstream.
CSOs sometimes occur during heavy rain or snow melt, forcing some sewage treatment plants to release untreated sewage and stormwater directly into the Merrimack.
“One of our missions is to focus on providing clean water, sanitation and hygiene,” Doyle said of the Rotary Club. “A lot of times, we are donating money to build a well in Kenya. It came to my attention that we really have a need closer to home.”
Doyle said Amesbury Rotary hopes to feature an interactive map on the proposed phone app that would alert users to sewage overflows in real time.
“In Haverhill, there are 14 pipes that will discharge CSOs,” Doyle said. “So, it will actually tell you which one of the 14 where the sewage is coming in from and at which point on the river.”
Doyle’s proposal would require a community needs assessment. A 10-question survey has been developed to gauge the public’s understanding of the situation and can be found at www.surveymonkey.com/r/HQMBGYD.
Merrimack River Watershed Council interim director/outreach specialist John Macone said his nonprofit supports Doyle’s effort to collect more CSO-related data.
“We have been providing some examples of the kind of data that the sewage plants produce so that they have an idea of what the data looks like and how they might be able to translate it and make it understandable for people,” Macone said.
Although informing people that a CSO has occurred is a good start, it’s still not enough, Macone said.
“We want people to have an idea of what is going into the river,” he said. “The reports will generally tell you how much sewage has been dumped in gallons. But they give us no idea of how dangerous that is and what kind of bacteria is involved.”
Pinpointing the location of a sewage discharge should be a key concern for local residents, Doyle said.
“When you think of the Merrimack River and its flow, it doesn’t get mixed thoroughly,” Doyle said. “Sometimes, you will have sanitation experts say they are treating over 98% of it. The river travels seven miles an hour and it gets diluted, but it really doesn’t.
“It kind of goes to where people most likely come into contact with it, Plum Island basin and along the edges of the river,” he added. “If you test in the middle, I think it will be pretty good but if you test the Plum Island basin, you’re going to find that it is pretty bad.”
Macone said the Watershed Council is working to clarify the data provided by the sanitary districts producing the CSOs.
“A lot of people are concerned about the sewage going in and they want to have more information,” he said. “They want, in particular, to know whether it is dangerous to go into the river or not. That is a hard answer to find because the bacteria levels seem to change from location to location.”
Doyle said he hopes to enlist the help of the Amesbury, Salisbury and Newburyport Chambers of Commerce to distribute the survey and has also spoken with Mayor Ken Gray.
“My first hope is raising awareness,” Doyle said. “The Clean Water Act was enacted in 1972. Here we are in 2019 and this is still happening.”
“The EPA decided Lawrence, Lowell and Haverhill can’t afford to clean up their sanitation districts, so they gave them a long period of time to try to correct it,” Doyle said. “On the other side of that, you have Amesbury, Newburyport and Salisbury, and they can’t afford to live with it anymore.”
Annual maintenance of the proposed phone app would run roughly $1,800, so Amesbury Rotary will ask Rotary International for $50,000 in total.
The survey results are due to Rotary International on Aug. 1 and the grant is expected to be awarded in September or October.
Doyle said Imarc told him the company could have an app “up and running” in 45 days.
Staff writer Jim Sullivan covers Amesbury and Salisbury for The Daily News. He can be reached via email at email@example.com or by phone at 978-961-3145. Follow him on Twitter @ndnsully.