The Massachusetts Senate passed S.2617, An Act promoting awareness of safe recreation in public waterways, filed by Senator Pat Jehlen (D-Somerville) and Representative Denise Provost (D-Somerville).

The bill addresses a major problem for many areas of the commonwealth with antiquated combined sewer overflow (CSO) systems that combine sewer and rain water during substantial rainfalls, a combination that sends raw sewage directly into public waterways.


“This issue came to my attention when historic levels of bacterial contamination were found in the Mystic River, which flows through my district. Even recreational users well-informed of the CSO contamination problem may be left to guess when it is safe for them to enter the water,” said Senator Jehlen. “It is critical that residents with access to all of Massachusetts’ public waterways are made aware as quickly as possible when a discharge occurs, and continue to be informed until it is safe for recreational use.”

“It is standard medical advice to avoid contact with water containing sewage,” said Representative Provost. ”People in Massachusetts deserve information about discharges of sewage into recreational waters, so that they can protect their health and that of their families.”

This past October, there was a very large CSO discharge into the Merrimack River. The Greater Lawrence Sanitary District, which operates the plant, alerted only a few dozen people following the spill. No news organizations, social media outlets, or recreational fishermen, boaters, or swimmers from the region were notified.

“I was not notified of the October 30th discharge by the Greater Lawrence Sanitary District. In fact, I learned about it from a newspaper article published two days after the event occurred. This is unacceptable,” said Amesbury Mayor Ken Gray at the bill hearing this past December.

The Charles, Connecticut, Merrimack, Mystic, and other major rivers that wind through our communities are valuable recreational resources used by tens of thousands of residents every day. Unfortunately, residents presently have no way to know when raw sewage discharges render these rivers unsafe for boating and swimming.

CSOs typically discharge hundreds of thousands to millions of gallons of sewage per event. There are 181 active CSO outfalls throughout the Commonwealth, which collectively discharged 2.8 billion gallons of sewage into rivers and streams in 2011 alone.

The legislation would institute a statewide sewage discharge notification system so that Massachusetts residents know within an hour of CSO discharges if their rivers are unsafe for recreation or public use.

“More than a dozen other states have passed legislation similar to the proposed bill regarding public notifications of sewage discharges,” stated Gabby Queenan, Policy Specialist for the Massachusetts Rivers Alliance. “The technology and notification models for these public alerts already exist and have been successfully implemented in many New England states. If we truly want rivers to serve as community resources, we need to find a way to make interactions with rivers a positive and safe experience and that starts with this legislation.”

The bill now moves to the House of Representatives for their consideration.

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