In the historical Annual Report of the State Board of Health, published in 1907, it was determined that the Alewife Brook was the most polluted stream in the Mystic River watershed. It advised the city of Cambridge to implement a solution: “separate the sewage from the storm water in these combined areas.”
This document reads like it was published yesterday. It states that during wet weather, the capacity of the metropolitan sewer system is reached, and “mingled sewage” overflows into the Alewife Brook. The report repeats three times that the combined sewers should be separated, as though its authors understood that their wise advice might be ignored.
Let’s consider what the northern branch of the metropolitan sewer system looked like in 1907. The system was a series of connected pipes that carried untreated sewage flows to be discharged in Boston Harbor, diluted by sea water and carried away by the tides. But, even before 1907, the amount of sewage that was deposited in Boston Harbor exceeded what the tides could carry away.
There were warnings of the deleterious impacts of sewage pollution in the Alewife prior to 1907. An example is the State legislature’s 1874 law, enacted to allow the construction of tidal gates in the Alewife Brook in Somerville, at Broadway. Concern was expressed for the fish in the brook, as the indigent residents living at the Almshouse in North Cambridge had fishing rights in the Alewife. Note the comment, “Sewage not to be discharged into brook.”
In the 19th century, germ theory was not widely accepted. Many still believed that disease was spread through “evil smelling vapours and gases in certain atmospheres”. And, by 1885, the smell from sewage in the Boston Harbor was so bad, that Boston’s Board of Health was quoted as saying,
“Large territories have been at once, and frequently, enveloped in an atmosphere of stench so strong as to arouse the sleeping, terrify the weak, and nauseate and exasperate everybody.
It has been noticed more in the evening and by night than during the day; although there is no time in the whole day when it may not come.
It visits the rich and the poor alike. It fills the sick-chamber and the office. Distance seems to lend but little protection. It travels in a belt half-way across the city, and at that distance seems to have lost none of its potency, and, although its source is miles away, you feel sure it is directly at your feet
The sewers and sewage flats in and about the city furnish nine-tenths of all the stenches complained of.
They are much worse each succeeding year; they will be much worse next year than this.
The accummulation of sewage upon the flats and about the city has been, and is, rapidly increasing, until there is not probably a foot of mud in the river, in the basins, in the docks, or elsewhere in close proximity to the city, that is not fouled with sewage.”Main drainage works of the city of Boston (Massachusetts, U.S.A.) : Clarke, Eliot C. (Eliot Channing), 1845-1921 : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive
The resulting foul odor from the “sewage flats” was considered not only a grave health threat, but also an economic worry. By 1919, sewage pollution in Boston Harbor was so bad, that it forced the closure of its clam beds. As a result, in that year, the Massachusetts Legislature formed the Metropolitan District Commission, to oversee Metropolitan Sewerage.
It was not until two decades later, in 1941, that the State legislature passed Chapter 720, as part of an Emergency Public Works program, and earmarked $3.8 million in funding for the creation of the area’s first water treatment plant at Nut Island, which would be completed a decade later, in 1952. Included in the scope of that work was the construction of a storm overflow conduit along the Alewife, which came to be known as the Alewife Brook Conduit. The Alewife Brook Conduit, constructed in 1948 and still in use today, increased capacity and provided hydraulic relief to the system during storm events by – you guessed it – discharging more sewage into the Alewife!
In 1985, the Conservation Law Foundation won the famous Boston Harbor Cleanup Court Case, after the EPA partnered with them on the issue. Winning this landmark court case ultimately created billions of dollars of work, lasting decades, throughout the Boston Area. The work associated with the CLF’s lawsuit would be be incomplete 37 years later. To date, the results we’ve seen are a miraculous success for the beaches around Boston Harbor. However, the clean-up programs have not been successful for the flood-prone Alewife Brook.
2022 – Sewage Pollution Problem Accelerates Due to Climate Change
Despite the passage of the Clean Water Act four decades ago, the problem of sewage pollution continues to plague area residents: in 2021, more than 50 million gallons of combined sewage was discharged into the Alewife Brook. Somerville’s Alewife CSO is not in compliance with the law. And, if we analyzed and used the metered CSO discharge volumes in the Alewife Brook over the last four years, in order to assess performance, we’d determine nearly all of the Alewife CSOs are also not in compliance with the law.
The 1907 State Board of Health’s advice to separate all combined sewers has been ignored now for 115 years! Now, as it did in 1907, the sewer system in the area reaches capacity during many storm events, which results in more sewage pollution.
The State’s sewer system in the Alewife serves Cambridge, Somerville, Belmont, Arlington, and Lexington. This regional sewer system is the responsibility of the Massachusetts Water Resource Authority (MWRA). Here exists clear failure and present danger to the Environmental Justice communities who live along the flood-prone Alewife Brook.
There are, today, 5000 residents living in the Alewife’s 100-year flood plain. During major flood events, the Alewife Brook overflows and its flood water enters the yards, parks, and homes of area residents. Climate Change predictions anticipate an increase in storm events and sea level rise, leading to more flooding.
But flooding is not the only problem that Climate Change poses in the Alewife. Climate Change will bring more inches of rainwater and faster rainfall, which will result in more sewage pollution. The volume of combined sewage discharge in the Alewife is exponentially worse with increase in rainwater. This is because there is only so much capacity inside the pipes. And once capacity is reached, the system is designed, sadly, to discharge sewage as a means of hydraulic pressure relief.
The Alewife pump station is now over-capacity in many storm events. Downstream, the Chelsea Creek Headworks becomes overwhelmed. Sometimes the water treatment plant at Deer Island reaches capacity. A regional solution at the state level is required to address this failing system.
Lack of awareness and cost stand in the way of getting this desperately needed work done. Folks are in absolute disbelief that untreated sewage from Somerville, Cambridge, and Belmont is discharged into the flood-prone Alewife Brook. We must use state and federal funds to modernize the Alewife sewer system. And if we don’t do this work now, it will cost even more money in the future. We have to stop kicking the can down the road.
The Commonwealth and the regulatory agencies must protect the health of Alewife area Environmental Justice communities by revisiting the 1907 State Board of Health’s solution to the hazardous sewage pollution in the Alewife.
The remedy is an Alewife Emergency Public Works Program that includes improving conveyance and capacity throughout the system in the Alewife and downstream, full sewer separation, elimination of all sewage pollution, and ample green and grey infrastructure to clean stormwater and reduce flooding in the area. We must prepare not only for the effects of Climate Change, but also for a growing population.
Thank you to Don Seltzer and Ellen Mass for their historical research contributions.
This post is dedicated to Christine Bongiorno, Sam Lipson, and the other Alewife area Directors of Health, as well as Marina Atlas, who is running for Belmont’s Board of Health.