As the Baker-Polito administration celebrates Climate Week in Massachusetts, we recognize that extreme weather events throughout the country this past year demonstrate the need for action on resiliency to protect public health.

Locally, the intense rainfall the commonwealth experienced during the course of the last few months highlights the threat to public health caused by climate change and the need to modernize outdated, aging water infrastructure.

A prime example is combined sewer overflows within several communities in Massachusetts.

The commonwealth, like many states across the country, has older, urban cities where historically combined sewer and storm drain systems were constructed. These systems were designed with relief points, CSOs, to combine and discharge wastewater and stormwater into local bodies of water, such as rivers, to prevent the backup of wastewater into properties or onto streets when system capacity has been exceeded during a storm event.

CSOs pollute local watersheds, including the Merrimack River, which affects water quality, recreation and, most importantly, public health.

CSOs also include large volumes of stormwater with untreated or partially treated wastewater and can contain many types of contaminants.

A main concern with CSO discharges is the health risks associated with those discharges — especially when the water body where a discharge occurs serves as a source of drinking water, is used for recreation, or is used for shellfish harvesting.

There are 19 CSO communities in Massachusetts with 229 active outfalls.

Unfortunately, the record amount of precipitation we have seen in the commonwealth this year has led to more than 1 billion gallons of untreated sewage flowing into Massachusetts water bodies since May 2021.

To illustrate just how significant this issue is, before Tropical Storm Ida even traveled across Massachusetts earlier this month, dropping 5 to 6 inches of rain in some areas, the Merrimack River had already experienced more than 35 CSO events this year. Those had allowed more than 200 million gallons of untreated sewage to flow into the river.

On the South Coast, we’ve seen more than 100 million gallons of untreated sewage flowing into the Taunton River watershed, New Bedford Harbor and Buzzards Bay since May 2021, with similar volumes in other communities.

To take a major step forward to address these concerns, Gov. Charlie Baker has put forward a legislative proposal directing $400 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds to modernize water and sewer infrastructure across the commonwealth and help with issues like CSOs.

CSO communities, working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, are continuing to move forward with abatement plans; however, given the high costs and technical challenges of this work, implementation of CSO controls can take many years.

As of February 2021, the Massachusetts Clean Water Trust had financed more than $1.4 billion in clean water sewer projects, with $255 million in CSO abatement projects across the commonwealth since 2015.

But additional investment is needed to minimize risks associated with the release of untreated waste, toxic materials and stormwater through water sources, which will occur as climate change leads to more frequent heavy rain events, such as tropical storms Elsa and Ida.

That is why Gov. Baker has proposed to direct a significant portion of the state’s one-time federal aid to address this critical issue.

Importantly, in January 2021, Gov. Baker signed legislation promoting public awareness of sewage in public waters.

To implement the law, MassDEP will soon be proposing rules that require systems with CSOs to publicly report when these CSO events begin, when they end, and the volumes associated with those discharges.

We expect that the volumes reported will give us a better picture of the condition of our systems and more information on our outdated infrastructure.

The Baker-Polito administration has been a leader on this issue for many years, and Gov. Baker has recognized the state’s ARPA dollars as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to build on our investments, direct significant funding to address CSOs, and help our communities make urgent, needed upgrades to critical water and sewer infrastructure.

As recent weather events show, there is no time to wait.

Martin Suuberg is commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.

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