On May 17th, students from Cambridge’s Fayerweather Street School rallied to end the sewage pollution that is destroying our environment. They marched from their school to the Alewife Brook, where the 3rd & 4th Grade students leading the year-long watershed project had installed an educational public art exhibit.
Students also wrote letters to state legislators asking for their support of pending CSO bill House.886, and Representative Steve Owens was at Fayerweather to hear the speeches and singing, which preceded the students’ march to the river.
Photos courtesy of the Fayerweather School
Students Produced Powerful Messages
The signs that students carried on their march said:
Be the Solution, Not the Pollution!
This Stinks, Literally!
Stop the Sewage!
Fight for the Fish!
Save the Alewife Brook!
Make the River Clean Again!
Make the World a Better Place!
No More Sewage in the Alewife Brook!
Students Created Educational Environmental Art
The students installed an art exhibit near Cambridge’s worst Combined Sewer Outfall, CAM401A, behind the Alewife T parking garage. This space is owned by Green Cambridge, who generously offered it to the Fayerweather Street School for their inspiring project.
Thank you, Fayerweather Students!
Following the Fayerweather Street School’s March and Art Installation, Save the Alewife Brook has received many new signatures for our Petition to End Sewage Pollution.
he State of Massachusetts, through its agency the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, unfairly uses Alewife Brook poor water quality to justify not spending money to end sewage pollution.
How does this make any sense? Well, it doesn’t. So here’s an analogy which might help the reader to better understand the MWRA’s poor thinking on the matter:
Imagine that it’s a rainy day and the city of Cambridge is driving a car on Route 16. Cambridge comes to the stop light at Mass Ave, rolls down the window, and throws a bag of stinky diapers onto the side of the parkway. MWRA is driving in a car behind them, sees Cambridge’s pollution and thinks, “Hey, why should I pay to properly dispose of my stinky adult diapers when I can just toss them out the window? There’s already some pollution here!”
This is how the Alewife Brook’s poor water quality has been weaponized by the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority. The MWRA’s spurious argument against investment in improving public health conditions in the Alewife has been that the Brook is polluted and eliminating untreated sewage pollution will not yield a great enough improvement in water quality.
The Alewife Brook Concrete Open Overflow Sewer. Photo courtesy of MWRA.
Contaminated Sediments accumulate and compound the problem over time.
Stormwater Runoff includes fertilizer, oil, pesticides, bacteria and other pollutants.
The major causes of poor water quality in Alewife Brook are combined sewer discharges (which contain untreated sewage), stormwater runoff, stormwater outfalls (which may also contain sewage), and accumulating contaminated sediments. The sediment contamination comes from sewage, stormwater, and discharges from local industry. It accumulates in the Alewife Brook’s concrete channel, and compounds the problem over time. Further upstream, pollution from Belmont flows from Winn Brook to Little River to Alewife Brook.
These factors all contribute to poor water quality, but their relative importance is not clearly understood. Some observations can be found in the MWRA water quality report of 2014.1 Figure 4-9 of that report shows that the CSO and stormwater control work performed from 1989-1991 and from 2000-2014 has significantly reduced E. coli counts in all conditions, especially in heavy rain.2 But on average, wet weather level counts are about ten times those of drier conditions. Dry weather counts are down some but are still above the violation threshold. It does not appear that stormwater is the only problem, rather that it is more complicated, and improvements are needed in many areas.
Solutions to Improve Alewife Brook Water Quality
The cities of Cambridge and especially Somerville need an aggressive plan to separate stormwater from sewage.
Virtual Elimination of CSOs (25-year Level of Control) or a CSO Treatment Facility
The MWRA needs to come up with a plan to achieve what they call “Virtual Elimination of CSOs”, using alternatives including underground stormwater storage tanks on State land. Alternatively, the MWRA could build a CSO treatment facility for the Alewife CSOs to treat the sewage before it is discharged into the brook.
Green Stormwater Infrastructure
The cities of Cambridge and Somerville, the Department of Conservation and Recreation, and the Department of Transportation, need to use GSI to biologically improve stormwater water quality before it enters the brook.
Dredging, Dechannelization, Bank Restoration
In 2022, the EPA wrote to MWRA, asking the agency to work with the Department of Conservation and Recreation to remove sediment from the brook. Currently, water quality remains poor even on dry weather days when a lack of CSO and stormwater discharges should mean better water quality. Dredging sediment would improve water quality by removing contaminants and reducing bacterial counts in the water on dry weather days.
Because the Alewife is such a small and slow-moving river, nothing more than a narrow concrete channel in some places, it has accumulated several feet of CSO-contaminated sediment. During most conditions, the sediment lies beneath a foot of water. During last summer’s drought, however, there were only a couple of inches of water above the sediment in places, and the stench was unbearable. High bacterial counts likely exist because the sediment contributes to the poor water quality.4
Alewife Brook dechannelization and restoration sketch from the Department of Conservation and Recreation’s 2003 Alewife Master Plan.
1 “Summary of CSO Receiving Water Quality Monitoring in Upper Mystic River/Alewife Brook and Charles River, 2014”, MWRA Report 2015-06. https://www.mwra.com/harbor/enquad/pdf/2015-06.pdf 2 Note that the vertical graph scale is logarithmic with each marker being ten times greater than the one below it. 3 The dotted line shows the state geometrical mean standard for recreation of 33 counts/100 ml.The state single sample limit is 235 counts/100ml. It is that later standard that is used in determining the water quality grades. 4 Ibid.
On Saturday, April 22, 2023, Save the Alewife Brook volunteers met for an Earth Day Clean-up and environmental tour. We collected trash near three of the Alewife’s Combined Sewer Outfalls.
The event began with a reading of Governor Maura Healey’s message to the volunteers. We distributed t-shirts and Kolsvart Swedish Fish. We then began the clean-up at Cambridge’s CAM401A, which is one of the worst sewage-spewing CSOs in the Alewife. It is located behind the deteriorating MBTA parking garage.
In 2021, the CAM401A CSO discharged over 21 million gallons of untreated sewage pollution into Alewife Brook. We stopped for a moment to reflect on this. Greg Harris from Green Cambridgeand Friends of the Alewife Reservation was one of the Earth Day volunteers. He talked about the potential for replacing the deteriorating parking garage with Green Stormwater Infrastructure. There could be a stormwater wetlands there! A stormwater wetlands would clean and slow down stormwater during large storm events.
We proceeded to clean up trash in the area and on the other side of the path over by MWR003, the MWRA’s Alewife CSO. In 2021, the MWRA discharged over 6 million gallons of untreated sewage pollution from that CSO. Here we met Rene Morin from Department of Conservation & Recreation. Rene was there to make sure we had a great Earth Day / DCR Park Serve Day and dispose of the trash we collected, including any hazardous materials. Sadly we needed his sharps container for the multiple syringes we found in the area.
Guess what we found on Earth Day!
Volunteers found a discarded bra!
We then walked north along the Alewife Greenway towards Mass Ave, picking up trash along the path in Arlington. BABAM (Boston Area Brigade of Activist Musicians) marched up the path with us, playing protest songs.
BABAM crossed the brook with us to Cambridge and played, while we picked up trash over by David Stoff’s GHOST FISH art installation.
It was a wonderful event – we made new friends! And Rene Morin from DCRhauled away two big truckloads of trash... and quite a few syringes that he picked up!
Thanks to the Volunteers!
Alex Simmons * Ann McDonald * Annie Thompson * Audrey Bennett * Beth Melofchik * Betty Widerski * Bob Tosi * Brian McBride * Claire Odom * Clare Nosowitz * Cody Casanave * Courtney Gurll * Daniel O’shaughnessy * David Stoff * Ed De Moel * Elizabeth Burke * Erin McLaughlin * Gene Benson * Greg Harris * Gwen Speeth * Harvey Fenigsohn * Ian Forsythe * Imanuela Costiner * Jennifer Ingram * Jessica Kinner * Joel Snider * Judy Lyons * Kate Schell * Kristin Anderson * Lida Junghans * Lizzie Linn Casanave * Luchy Roa * Maeve Whitty * Mark Jewell * Mark Paglierani * Marsha Turin * Meredith DiMola & Family * Michael Cerone * Michael Everman * Peter Frumhoff * Rebecca Behizadeh * Robin Johnson * Ruth Loetterle * Samantha Barth * Sara Billingsley * Shaina Blitt * Steve Forrest * Sumita Austen * Suzanne McLeod * Toby Karlsson * Vincent Baudoin & Family * Zach Forrest * Zoe Simmons
Thanks to the band!
BABAM (Boston Area Brigade of Activist Musicians)
Special Thanks to Department of Conservation & Recreation!
Matthew Perry for helping to set up the Alewife Park Serve Day and to Rene Morin, who removed two DCR truckloads of trash!
Save the Alewife Brook Steering Committee Members:
Gwen Speeth, David Stoff, Gene Benson, Kristin Anderson, David White
The Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, Cambridge, and Somerville have done it again, issuing a new press release about “progress” made in the Alewife Brook through their Sewage Pollution Control Plan. There’s been no progress for the Alewife! The untreated sewage pollution in the Alewife Brook has gotten worse, not better. And unless MWRA increases the capacity of its undersized regional sewer system, the problem of dumping untreated sewage into the Alewife will only get worse with climate change.
In their new press release, MWRA, Cambridge, and Somerville continue to put forward the bizarre idea that because the Alewife Brook is already polluted, they should not have to stop dumping sewage in it1. The truth is that, over the decades, the brook has become badly polluted because its narrow concrete channel has accumulated more thanhalf a million cubic feet of CSO sediment containing human and industrial waste, including PCBs, PAHs, and heavy metals. The presence of this trapped sediment is one reason why water quality in the Alewife Brook can be awful even during dry periods when the MWRA, Cambridge, and Somerville are not dumping untreated sewage there.
MWRA Unfairly Allows Too Much Untreated Sewage Pollution in Alewife Brook
The Alewife Brook is a tiny waterbody in comparison to the Boston Harbor, and the Charles & Mystic Rivers (which, by the way, MWRA also pollutes with nasty sewage!). Still, at least most of the Harbor and River sewage discharge is treated. 100% of the sewage dumped in the Alewife Brook by MWRA, Cambridge, and Somerville is untreated. Compared to the rest of their system, MWRA unfairly allows too much untreated sewage pollution to be dumped into the Alewife Brook.
EPA Provided Guidance to MWRA in 2022
The Federal Environmental Protection Agency has already provided MWRA with guidance. But, according to their new press release, it appears that MWRA is not listening!
Provide real public participation in the early stages of planning and throughout.
Improve water quality.
Implement flood control measures.
Dredge and remove the Alewife Brook concrete sewage channel, which currently exacerbates area flooding.
Implement significant gray and green infrastructure work on DCR property, including at Dilboy Park.
Create an equitable funding structure so the costs do not fall upon lower income residents who cannot afford it.
Examine which MWRA sewer facilities are nearing the end of their life cycle and take advantage of opportunities for expansion of sewer system capacity.
Provide major upgrades to the MWRA regional system, including a new pump station, possible expansion or rebuilding of the Caruso Pump Station, the key connection point for the MWRA North System.
Consider the Environmental Justice communities along Alewife Brook and protect them from flooding.
MWRA Should Provide Economically Achievable CSO Elimination
If they cannot provide a “25-year level of control”2 of their sewage pollution, MWRA, Cambridge, and Somerville should provide CSO treatment for the Alewife. That is the solution set forth in House Bill 886, filed by Representatives Dave Rogers and Adrian Madaro. We are staunch supporters of that legislation. It requires that, within ten years, CSOs must have treatment (which already exists for other water bodies) or stop dumping, except in very large, >25-year storms (as has been engineered elsewhere by MWRA).
Cambridge, Somerville, and the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority dump hazardous untreated sewage into the flood-prone Alewife Brook. Our federal and state governments have the authority to stop this dumping of pollution, yet they have allowed it to continue for decades. The brook is owned by the state*, so we need the state to work with us as a partner in funding and implementing solutions to protect and restore the brook.
That is why we are excited to announce the filing of two new state budget amendments requesting funding for the brook: Dredging and Flood Mitigation Study (#1019) & Update to theAlewife Reservation Master Plan (#1020). Thanks go out to wicked awesome Representatives Dave Rogers, Sean Garballey, & Christine Barber for filing these funding requests. Thanks also to Dave’s fabulous aides Kira Arnott & George Armstrong for their hard work and support.
Alewife Brook Concrete Sewage Channel has accumulated three feet of hazardous CSO sediment. The CSO sediment contains poop, PCBs, PAHs, & heavy metals. Photo courtesy of MWRA
* For clarification: The state owns the land beneath the Alewife Brook. But the water in the brook belongs to the people of the Commonwealth, held in trust by our government.
Alewife Brook, which borders Arlington, Cambridge, and Somerville, regularly overflows its banks, inundating residential areas that are home to multiple environmental justice communities. Untreated human and industrial waste discharged into the brook from combined sewer overflows exacerbates the public health threat from flooding. Climate change is making this situation worse. EPA recommends that Alewife Brook be dredged and its concrete channel removed to increase stormwater capacity and decrease surface flooding. Modeling and analysis of current hydraulic conditions is the required first step, urged by flood mitigation and river restoration experts. The hydraulic study will identify the specific actions needed to protect affected communities from sewage-contaminated flooding, providing the information required to secure federal and state funds for implementation of the measures identified. Given the protected wetland landscape, sediment depths, and storm water and sewage inflows, an acceptable study will cost at least $150,000 according to the multiple experts consulted. Funding would go to the Mystic River Watershed Association, which has a long history of work in the area.
Twenty years ago, the MDC released the Alewife Reservation & Alewife Brook Master Plan, intended to improve the MDC-owned reservation and brook corridor. It envisioned restoring habitat, improving hydrological function, enhancing recreational and educational opportunities, and improving connections to other natural areas. Since then, a greenway and stormwater wetland were constructed, but climate change and widespread development have exacerbated both flooding and combined sewer overflow discharges of sewage into the brook. It is time to update the Master Plan to assess and reprioritize recommended projects based on current conditions. The update should result in Green Stormwater Infrastructure and Indigenous historical signage. Preliminary cost estimates for selected projects will allow DCR and the advocacy groups active in the Alewife area to secure funding to implement the improvements needed to protect and maintain this popular open space for the residents who live near the brook, those who depend on the park for recreation, and the thousands who commute through it daily, including multiple densely populated Environmental Justice Communities.
The Rindge Ave Greenway Plan Proposed by Friends of Jerry’s Pond
Music * Bangladeshi Dance * Food * Arts & Crafts * Native American Fish Weir * Activities for Kids & Adults!
Meet your neighbors to celebrate the planned reopening of Jerry’s Pond! Meet members of the IQHQ team and community groups. Make art, see Audubon’s animals, remove invasives, weed native gardens, clean around pond.
Meet at Russell Field Parking Area 1:30-2:00 Music, Food & Art 2:00-2:30 Bangladeshi Dancing, Gathering & Intros 2:30-4:30 Projects & Activities 4:30-5:00 Back to Parking Area & Wrap Up
Sponsored by: Friends of Jerry’s Pond facebook.com/jerryspond Cosponsors: Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui, IQHQ, Mass Audubon Society, Green Cambridge, Mothers Out Front, Just-A-Start Inc., Devine Native Plantings, History Cambridge, Many Helping Hands 365, North Cambridge Arts, Cambridge City Growers, Highlands-Quad Neighborhood Association, Fresh Pond Residents Alliance, Save the Alewife Brook, Alewife Study Group
Join us Saturday morning, April 22nd, for an Earth Day Alewife Greenway Path Clean-Up and CSO Tour! We’ll be working to gather trash along the path next to the brook. While we’re there, we will provide a tour of the Concrete Sewage Death Channel and the CSOs. Come see GHOST FISH art and listen to Babam the brass band!
Bring gloves, water, & garbage picker, if you have one. We’ll provide bags.
Exciting news! New state legislation, HD3316, has been filed that would greatly improve water quality in the rivers and streams throughout the Boston area as shown on this map. It would limit the dumping of untreated sewage pollution and potentially leading to the building of new treatment facilities.
This legislation would bring the same level of sewage pollution reduction in the Alewife that is afforded along the bay in Boston Harbor, which makes recreational swimming possible on Boston beaches. This is something that the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority and the cities can do, and this legislation gives them ten years to accomplish this for the Alewife Brook.
Huge thanks go out to Representatives Dave Rogers and Adrian Madaro for introducing this legislation and to Representative Sean Garballey, for co-sponsoring!
Dave Rogers Adrian Madaro Sean Garballey
We’d also like to thank the Arlington Select Board for supporting this legislation. Co-Chair Diane Mahon, in particular, deserves our gratitude for her continued leadership on this issue.
A Huge Improvement for the Alewife Brook!
If it passes, this law would eliminate untreated discharges from CSOs except in larger storm events – meaning 25-year storms or larger. That would be a huge improvement for the Alewife Brook! To make sure the reduction in untreated CSOs can be achieved , the legislation gives the CSO permittees a decade to either reduce or eliminate CSO discharges, or to add treatment facilities.
Which is Meant to Make You Think that Alewife Brook Sewage Pollution is a Good Thing
Annotated Slides by David Stoff
Meeting materials can be downloaded from the documents tab here.
By “occasionally, excess flow”, they mean 51 Million Gallons of Untreated Sewage Pollution was dumped in the Alewife Brook in 2021.
When they say “Sanitary Wastewater”, what they really mean is hazardous untreated sewage.
When they say “sewer overflows can’t be eliminated“, what they mean is the money they saveby not fixing the problemis more important than you are.
When they say the stormwater is so dirty that it is a waste of money to eliminate sewage pollution discharges, what they mean is that they get to keep using the Alewife Brook as an open sewer until it’s so clean you could wade through it and not get sick.
The Alewife Brook and its parkland is owned by the people. It was established in 1893 by the Metropolitan Parks Commission, under the guidance of visionary landscape architect Charles Eliot. Charles Elliot’s intention was to preserve parkland connections for the public which would
“provide fresh air, scenic beauty, and opportunities for quiet repose – antidotes to the ills of urban life.”
Please join us 6 pm on Thursday night, 12/15/22, at the Alewife Sewage Pollution Planning Meeting #2 by registering here.
At this meeting, Cambridge, Somerville, and the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority will talk about the new Future “Typical Year” sewage pollution modeling which will be used for new sewer system infrastructure planning and future performance assessment. The new “Typical Year” modeling will include Climate Change Projections.
Climate Change will bring an increase in rainfall, and an increase in the severity and number of storms. Increased rainfall means an increase in Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) sewage pollution in the Alewife Brook. In fact, that increase appears to be exponential with an increase in rainfall. While Cambridge, Somerville, and MWRA should be commended for including Climate Change projections in the new “Typical Year” modeling – it’s not enough.
Why? Well, the “Typical Year” is basically an “Average” year. But modest increases above the average rainfall produce much greater CSO sewage pollution discharges. It is in the years when we experience “atypical” increases in rainfall that we experience greater amounts of CSO sewage pollution in the Alewife.
Actual CSO Discharge volumes in the Alewife Brook have often been way above the Typical Year modeled values since 2015 when Alewife CSO projects ended. Data from MWRA reports which we wrote about here.
The graph above shows the annual “Typical Year” rainfall along with actual rainfall, as well as “Typical Year” CSO sewage discharges and actual CSO sewage discharges for Alewife Brook. This chart goes back to 2015, when the MWRA, Cambridge, and Somerville completed the last of their CSO projects. Note that Alewife CSO discharges increase dramatically with increase in rainfall; the actual annual average CSO discharges over this seven year period were 15.8 million gallons, while the modeled Typical Year value was only 6 million.
The new CSO modeling for Alewife needs to represent “atypical” years. By design, the new “Typical Year” model will not reflect the actual reality of Alewife CSO sewage pollution discharges unless it includes atypical year data.
Even with Climate Change Projections taken into consideration, a Future “Typical Year” based model would not represent the reality of sewage pollution in Alewife Brook. Atypical years need to be included in the discharge and compliance analysis for the Long Term CSO Control Plan.
Untreated sewage pollution has harmful health impacts on the 5000 people who live in the Alewife’s 100-year flood plain. Therefore, an End to Untreated Alewife Sewage Pollution must be engineered for the Alewife Brook. It is not enough to include Climate Change projections in the “Typical Year” model. Gray and green infrastructure solutions must be used to end untreated sewage discharges. At the same time, the Great Cities of Cambridge and Somerville should continue the good work of separating their combined sewer systems.
If you are not sure you can attend the Second Public Sewage Pollution Meeting on December 15, please send an email to City Hall and to the department heads at Cambridge DPW and Somerville DPW. Your voice needs to be heard and your city wants to hear from you.
Alewife Sewage Pollution Control Public Meeting #2 Thursday, December 15th at 6 pm Zoom Register Here
1. EXPRESS Gratitude for Addressing Climate Change
We thank Cambridge, Somerville, and MWRA for agreeing to include Climate Change Projections in the updated sewage pollution control plan. If applied properly, this is a huge win for the Alewife Brook!
2. CALL FOR IMMEDIATE ACTIONS
Because the great cities of Cambridge and Somerville, and the MWRA are asking for an additional 36 months for their planning work, we are calling for:
An updated Alewife Master Plan, from Alewife T to Mystic River.
An hydrological, dredging, and dechannelization study to be completed in 2023. *
Department of Conservation and Recreation Maintenance work, including brook trash and fence removal.
Simple odor control.
3. CALL FOR IMPROVEMENTS IN NEW SEWAGE POLLUTION CONTROL PLAN
To date, we have collected 1000 petition signatures from good folks in Cambridge, Somerville, Arlington, Belmont, and Medford. The public demands the following improvements to the Alewife Brook sewage pollution problem:
INCLUDE IN ALEWIFE SEWAGE POLLUTION CONTROL PLAN
An end to untreated sewage pollution.
Separated sewer systems to keep sewage out of stormwater.
Green infrastructure on State Land to clean and detain stormwater.
Grey infrastructure to eliminate untreated CSOs. **
Necessary MWRA system-wide sewer upgrades.
Flood mitigation and control measures.
More extensive odor control.
* A hydrological, dredging, and dechannelization study will help determine important next steps. Sediment removal through dredging could improve Alewife Brook water quality and reduce flooding. Such a study will also lay the groundwork for applications of Federal and State funds to help restore the Brook.
In their 05/11/2022 letter to MWRA, EPA stated, “The channelized nature of Alewife Brook, as well as the amount of sediment in the Alewife constructed channel that takes up flood storage capacity (this sediment volume was estimated by USGS in 2005 to take up approximately 0.5 million cubic feet), exacerbates the flooding issue. MWRA has the technical staff and state public authority status to take a leadership role in convening additional agencies such as the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (owner of the Alewife Brook and Mystic River Reservations) to start to identify potential projects.”
** Grey infrastructure might include a CSO treatment plant at the Alewife T, underground CSO detention tanks, and improved and accurate CSO volume and flow metering.
Alewife Sewage Pollution Control Public Meeting #2 Thursday, December 15th at 6 pm ZOOM REGISTER HERE
There’s quite a lot for Save the Alewife Brook to be thankful for on these last days of November in 2022. We are especially thankful that the public’s voice is being heard and that Climate Change projections will be included in the new plan to end untreated sewage pollution in the Alewife Brook.
Massachusetts Water Resources Authority
First of all, we are thankful to the MWRA, which was created in 1984 for the “preservation and improvement of the health, welfare and living conditions of the citizenry.1” MWRA has agreed to include the projected impacts of Climate Change on precipitation in their sewage pollution control modeling. Save the Alewife Brook deeply appreciates MWRA for including Climate Change in the new plan to end untreated sewage pollution. Thank you, MWRA. ❤️
We are thankful for the city of Cambridge’s forward-thinking work on Climate Resilience. We are grateful to Cambridge DPW for their work over the last few decades to separate the city’s stormwater from their sanitary sewage, and for their construction of the 3.4-acre stormwater wetland next to Little River. This beautiful public park serves as a model for the green infrastructure needed in the new plan to end Alewife Brook sewage pollution. We are especially grateful for Cambridge’s leadership in ensuring that Climate Change projections will be included in the new Combined Sewer Overflow Control Plan modeling. Thank you, Cambridge. ❤️
We are thankful for the new fence that Somerville installed above the Tannery Brook CSO, (just north of Mass Ave), to replace the fence that had fallen into disrepair. The new fence will prevent children, adults, and pets from falling into the sewer outfall. The Tannery Brook CSO belongs to Somerville and contains Somerville sewage and storm water, but it’s located in Cambridge, and has access covers with MWRA’s logo on them. It’s quite confusing, which makes us doubly appreciative of Somerville’s responsiveness in replacing the safety fence. Thank you, Somerville. ❤️
To our dear supporters: Thank You! for your interest, support, and participation. We are nothing without you. <3
On November 21, 2022, Save the Alewife Brook sent a letter to Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. This letter is in response to the 36-month extension that MWRA, Cambridge, and Somerville have requested for completing the planning of the new Alewife Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) plan.
In our 11/21/2022 letter to MassDEP, we wrote:
“We don’t believe that the CSO parties have made a strong enough case for the requested three-year extension without taking immediate action. Nonetheless, if you determine that an extension is necessary, there are factors cited by the parties that have our support:
Including Climate Change projections in the typical year modeling used for CSO infrastructure planning and performance evaluation.
More extensive alternatives analysis.
Increased public participation with additional meetings.
Cambridge, Somerville, and MWRA preparing a common Updated Alewife CSO Control Plan.
We request that Cambridge, Somerville, and MWRA fund the updating of the Metropolitan District Commission 2003 Alewife Master Plan. Specifically, we would like an Alewife Master Planupdate to be completed in 2023. The updated Alewife Master Plan should look at river restoration and dredging as envisaged in the 2003 Alewife Master Plan. It should also consider the recommendations in the EPA technical analysis. The scope should encompass Alewife Brook from the Alewife T Station to the Mystic River.
An updated 2023 Alewife Master Plan is essential for timely application for Federal Infrastructure Law funds to address flooding and water quality issues, increasing Climate Resilience and mitigating negative impacts on the area’s Environmental Justice populations. An updated Alewife Master Plan would also help in developing the new Long-Term CSO Control Plan.
Please join us on Sunday, December 4th at 7 pm to discuss the new Alewife Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) Control Plan. The second public CSO planning meeting will be December 15th and we are very excited to strategize about it with you!
There is huge news about a new plan to make desperately needed improvements to the sewage pollution problem in the Alewife Brook. The Massachusetts Water Resources Authority has promised to include Climate Change projections in their planning of new area combined sewer infrastructure, in response to the Alewife Brook’s hazardous raw sewage pollution problem.
Including Climate Change projections in the planning of new sewer infrastructure modeling should be a huge win for water quality in the Alewife Brook and for the Environmental Justice Populations who are affected by it.
Thanks goes out to everyone who has stood up for Environmental Justice in the Alewife Brook. Note: we need to see you all at the Second Public CSO meeting, tentatively scheduled for December 15, 2022.
Over the summer, in 2022, Somerville, Cambridge, and Massachusetts Water Resources Authority held their first Alewife CSO Control Plan public meeting. At this meeting, Cambridge resident Ann McDonald asked, “When will the Alewife Brook not smell?” Save the Alewife Brook’s David Stoff has been asking this question since the 1990’s.
When you take a walk along the Alewife Greenway Path, the first thing you are likely to notice is the stench. What you are smelling is disgusting sewage vaporescaping from the area’s terribly old sewer system! Last year, that old sewer infrastructure was responsible for dumping 51 million gallons of untreated sewage into Alewife Brook.
On our recent tour of the MWRA’s Alewife sewer system, David Stoff asked MWRA’s Stephen Cullen about odor control on the Alewife Greenway, specifically at the Alewife Brook Sewer siphon near Bicentennial Park. As a result of Save the Alewife Brook’s inquiry, the MWRA sealed the siphon access with clear caulking. This solution worked! And it could be duplicated for all such sewer infrastructure along our popular public path.
The MWRA’s Alewife Brook siphon structure, near Bicentennial Park in Arlington. Photos by David Stoff.
A silicon seal on the MWRA’s sewer system keeps sewer vapors from escaping from the old sewer system.
The nauseating odor leaking from the sewer system causes a gag reflex, ruining many nice walks and picnics in our park. That odor dramatically diminishes the quality of life for everyone who lives near, walks, or rides a bike along the brook or over the Mass Ave bridge to and from Cambridge. It affects a lot of people!
A Few Words About Sewer Odor from Technical Advisor David White:
There are three primary sources of the bad odor along Alewife Brook: (1) leaks from the manholes of the sanitary sewer lines that run next to the brook (2) leaks from some of the Combined Sewer Outfalls which are open to the air (3) from CSO sewage discharges
The manhole problem can easily be fixed, although the sewer gas has to come out somewhere. The CSO sewer vapor problem is a little more complicated but doable. The CSO sewage discharges need to be reduced, treated, and eliminated.
Afterall, on our summer tour of the MWRA’s sewer system, MWRA kindly treated our group to sandwiches, potato chips, and soda at the Deer Island Wastewater Treatment facility, where there was no foul smell at all.
Why is there no smell at Deer Island? In response to public pressure, MWRA installed a sophisticated and modern odor control system at Deer Island. And, according to MWRA, a well-managed sewer system does not smell.
The weather should be good today. Take a three minute walk from Massachusetts Avenue, north along the Alewife Brook. And check out the kid-friendly Alewife GHOST FISH art installation and Somerville’s sewer outfall!
Before there was a sewer outfall at this location (behind the Homewood Suites Hotel), there was a second brook that met the Alewife Brook. 19th Century Cantabrigians called it the “Tannery Brook“. The Tannery Brook was used to discard hog bodies and other tannery waste products which polluted the water. Nowadays, the Tannery Brook is (un)dead and buried in a pipe that is attached to the sewer outfall. In 2021, this sewer outfall dumped 17.98 million gallons of untreated sewage pollution from Davis Square into the Alewife Brook.
A century before Cantabrigians polluted the Tannery Brook, the Alewife Brook was known by the native people as the Menotomies River. And it was the best place to catch Alewife fish! So plentiful were the Alewife fish, that the fish were used mainly for agricultural purposes, to fertilize soil for growing crops. The colonial settlers sited a fish trap, which is known as a weir, at this location. The settlers likely sited their fish weir on the remains of the native Pawtuckeog people’s fish weir.
Can you see the GHOST FISH? Can you hear the Pawtuckeog people and the sound of their Menotomies River?
The native people and their lost river are here, too.
How to get to there:
Take the Alewife Greenway behind the Homewood Suites Hotel at Mass Ave and Rte 16. The brown “x” marks the spot of the Ghost Fish Halloween Installation. This is a three minute walk from Massachusetts Avenue.
I’m going to tell you a story. I have a point of view. I’m not hiding it. Depending on your point of view, this story is either history, or myth. It’s the story of the cleanup of Boston Harbor. Think it’s over? You can see the crown jewel, the Deer Island Treatment Plant, standing by the edge of the harbor. Deer Island is indeed a gem, but when it rains, the sewer systems feeding into it routinely spew out raw sewage by design. It’s one of the problems the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA) was created to solve. There’s a name for it: Combined Sewer Overflow. How this problem is solved will show us a lot about what our “climate resilient” future looks like.
The Beautiful Swan
The MWRA has a plan to control the overflows from its sewers when it rains. This is how they describe it:
“Prior to 1988 treated and untreated sewer overflows occurred in every rainfall event approximately 100 times a year. The Long-term Control Plan is intended to reduce total discharges by approximately 87%, in a typical year [my italics] from 3.3 billion gallons to 400 million gallons, and 93% of the remaining 400 million gallons is to be treated at one of four of the MWRA’s upgraded treatment facilities.”
It sounds so good, but that narrative was merely aspirational. The MWRA’s control plan has cost $911 million to date. Its goal was to minimize, not eliminate, sewer overflows, and then to change state water quality standards to accommodate the untreated discharges. Last year the MWRA’s Final CSO Assessment Reportwas supposed to give regulators the green light to make these changes, but 16 outfalls failed even to achieve the level of control required in the plan. MWRA and two other communities who operate the sewers have been ordered to draft new control plans. Problem solved? Story over? Not really.
The Ugly Duckling
The ugly duckling is the Alewife Brook, a narrow 2-mile-long stream that emerges behind the T stop of the same name. The MWRA control plan allows for annual discharges of 7.6 million gallons of sewage to Alewife Brook. By way of comparison, the load for the 80-mile-long Charles River is about 8 million gallons. The MWRA says that in 2019 about 9 million gallons should have flowed into the Alewife Brook because it rained more than in the hypothetical “typical year” used in the control plan. MWRA’s actual discharge volume was monitored and was more than 23 million gallons. Yet the MWRA was in compliance with regulatory requirements. You knew that was coming, didn’t you?
This is possible because, for twenty-three years, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has waived water quality standards for sewer overflows from the MWRA. The numerical limits for bacteria, solids, color, turbidity, have been replaced with a narrative standard, another story if you will. MWRA is required to work toward meeting the level of control in the plan approved by the Federal Court based on a “typical year” which would have 46 inches of rain. While MWRA is working to meet this standard, Massachusetts will not hold them accountable for what would otherwise be a violation.
The Ratepayer Rebellion & the Myth of Affordable Control of Sewer Overflows
It costs money to fix sewers. MWRA frames the choice this way: spend about twice what it cost to build Deer Island to dig up and replace all the sewers within the district that combine sewage (what you flush) with storm drainage (what falls on the ground), or live with intermittent sewer overflows because that’s what’s affordable.
“Affordable” in the sense in which the word is used here has its roots in the “Ratepayer Rebellion” over the cost of the Deer Island Treatment Plant. Because it changed the way sewer overflows are regulated nationally, the story of the Ratepayer Rebellion deserves scrutiny. There are indisputable facts. In 1993 Senator Kennedy and MWRA Executive Director MacDonald testified before the Senate Appropriations Committee. Congress appropriated funds for the Boston Harbor cleanup. Beyond that, the line between history and myth blurs depending on who’s telling the story. The MWRA tells it this way:
Massachusetts was in the grip of a deep recession. With only 6% of the nation’s population, we’d lost 30% of the jobs. Cash strapped ratepayers could no longer pay the skyrocketing water bills necessary to complete the construction of Deer Island. The specter of community default loomed so the MWRA turned to Congress for help. Senator Kennedy himself made sure funds were appropriated to continue the Boston Harbor cleanup. After that scare, regulators saw to it that “affordability” was baked into federal law. Controlling sewer overflows would be affordable to both sewer operators and ratepayers.
In this telling, MWRA was responding to angry “ratepayers.” Would you feel differently about the story if you knew MWRA and other water utilities had been lobbying to change regulations for sewer overflows before ratepayers rebelled?
The story can be told another way. In this telling, citizens were working in a complex political arena with institutional players who had their own agendas. The deep recession was still there, but this story begins with busing — Boston’s wound that never heals. Did Stanley Forman’s photo already flash across your mind? The same Federal Court that had ordered busing to desegregate the schools now asserted control over the sewer system. A massive project was needed to comply with the court order. Resentment? You decide. MWRA knew that, unlike the other big project in town, the Central Artery, the cost of the Harbor cleanup would fall squarely on the backs of communities around Boston and not on the federal government. If MWRA took money from local aid to pay off its construction bonds, as state law allowed, public support for the Harbor cleanup, and for the MWRA itself, would evaporate.
So MWRA recast itself as the defender of citizens struggling with the burden placed on them by the Court. They went to Congress with the story of a second Boston Tea Party born of high water bills. They leveraged federal support for the Boston Harbor cleanup by claiming that lack of political consensus would cause the project to fail. Everyone in the country knew what that failure would look like because of a picture from an April day in 1976. They got their money. In the process, MWRA helped create what we’ve become — the “new” Boston, with the cleaner Harbor at its heart. It’s why, whenever activists (of which I’m one) meet with the MWRA, the conversation starts with something like “what you did with the Harbor was a miracle.” The miracle is not just cleaner water in Boston Harbor. It’s that their actions helped heal a wounded city. No one can take that miracle away. No one wants to.
But if you can see that these versions of the Ratepayer Rebellion are just different ways of telling a story, can you also see how the inexorable pull of a myth blinds us to a simpler, less emotionally satisfying, view of the Ratepayer Rebellion? That’s the history of a public utility acting to lower its costs. Always. The evidence for this is right there in the Alewife Brook.
How a Myth Hides a Subsidy
The Ratepayer Rebellion is why sewer overflows are treated differently than discharges from Deer Island. Controls for sewer overflows must be both cost effective, in and of themselves, and “affordable” for the communities implementing them. The sewage is the same though, and the affordable dollars spent controlling overflows are used to remove the same three pollutants: Bacteria, Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD) and Total Suspended Solids (TSS). Two big thick books, the Final Combined Sewer Overflow Facilities Plan and Environmental Impact Report (1997) ****** ***************, and The Notice of Project Change for the Alewife Brook CSO Control Project (2001), describe how these pollutants are to be removed from overflows to the Alewife Brook. From them are drawn the pollutant concentrations in the overflows, and the cost for removal by various control alternatives. The volumes and pollutant concentrations are a mix of metric and U.S. system units. I did a calculation to put a price on the Total Suspended Solids discharged to Alewife Brook in the 2019 overflows that were above the limits authorized in the MWRA’s control plan. These were arguably illegal.
Cost of Total Suspended Solids Discharged into Alewife Brook in 2019
Not treating sewer overflows is worth millions of dollars to MWRA.
In 2019 when the control plan failed to meet its target the excess sewage dumped in the Alewife Brook effectively generated $615,977 of free money for the MWRA. Not having to treat BOD will have generated about twice as much, while not treating Bacteria – nearly thirty times more. Not treating sewer overflows is worth millions of dollars to MWRA. If there’s a real story here, it’s the scale of these cost savings. This is why affordable control of sewer overflows to Boston Harbor is a myth. It only works because MWRA can avoid treating 7% of the sewage flowing to Boston Harbor in places like the Alewife Brook where treatment would be most expensive.
The MWRA prides itself on receiving no state appropriations. Really? Construction for the CSO control plan was substantially complete in 2017 and the MWRA capital budget zeros out construction funding for the program in 2024. It seems that MWRA intends to use untreated overflows to balance the books for a while.
If Massachusetts wanted untreated sewage overflows to end, they’d be taxed – not subsidized. Instead state regulators have granted MWRA a seemingly perpetual subsidy to pollute our rivers and streams. It gets very hard to tell if the Boston Harbor cleanup is the story of how hard-nosed choices about “affordable” pollution controls resulted in an undeniable environmental success, or a cautionary tale of how a large public utility rents Massachusetts’ waters for sewage disposal for pennies on the dollar in a successful effort to cut their own costs.
Back to the Beginning
There is an ongoing discussion about the “typical year” used in the computer model that is the heart of the MWRA Long-Term Control Plan. Nature is forcing our hand with more intense and frequent storms. These are hard to model. EPA argues that NOAA rain data that includes the effects of climate change must be used. For their part, MWRA stands by their legal obligation to achieve the level of control in a 2006 stipulation to the Federal Court, where they are still the defendant. If EPA wants the sewers to do better when it rains more, they’ll need to pay for it. It turns out that the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law has money to do just that.
The discussion about the “typical year” is a polite way of talking about how much untreated sewage will spill into Boston Harbor. It takes us back to the Boston Harbor court case, which the key to understanding whether what you’re reading is history or myth. You can believe the case was started by the Conservation Law Foundation, or that it started when a Quincy solicitor’s foot landed in a pile of human waste on Wollaston Beach. I believe it started in 1972 when the Clean Water Act became law. That’s when the citizens of the United States wrested control of the nation’s waters from polluters who thought they owned them, and could use them as they pleased.
The Clean Water Act created a permit program called the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES). Elimination is the promise of the Act. All the lobbying for regulatory changes, all the litigation by water utilities, all the arguments about what’s affordable, these all fail when you can say that there’s no path to eliminating a source of pollution. That’s when the promise is broken. That’s where we are with sewer overflows. MWRA would have us believe that the NPDES permit is a rental contract. But the waters of the United States belong to all of us, and we’ll get them back.
The fable of the Ugly Duckling
A fable is a story that teaches a lesson. The fable of the Ugly Duckling teaches us about how people make judgments. Every child knows that the beautiful swan and the ugly duckling are the same bird. Likewise the Boston Harbor is beautiful, and we want the story of how it got that way to be the same. The MWRA always tells a compelling story, backed up with their data. In this instance we’d do well to heed the squawks of the ugly duckling. The Alewife Brook teaches us how people living with sewer overflows experience them. The water smells. Your only park is degraded. You never let your kids play in the puddles. Every other nuisance is located nearby because there’s an open sewer in the neighborhood. Twenty-eight years ago I was at a permit hearing where a woman testified how sewage from the Alewife Brook flooded her home and made her sick. She was not alone. The officials in the room disregarded what she had to say. Their belief in a set of regulations required it. But those regulations are just the product of voices from the Ratepayer Rebellion. The voice in the room with you is subordinated to the echo of other voices because, in this myth, the money that’s saved is more real than some people’s lives. Is this the future you want?
The story of the Boston Harbor cleanup is still shrouded in myth, not yet a legend, because it’s ongoing. Actions we take now can affect the outcome. MWRA will need to recreate a political consensus it once enjoyed in order to secure more federal funding. The web of “affordability” regulations they’ve given us can be employed to implement any level of control for which there’s a political consensus. Our duty is to demonstrate some leadership for the rest of the country by putting the Ratepayer Rebellion behind us. We’ve subsidized enough computerized penny pinching. The Governor deciding that Massachusetts will require primary treatment, at a minimum, of any discharge from our sewers would do it. This would show that Massachusetts believes in the promise of the Clean Water Act and is willing to fight for it.
Let’s invest federal climate resiliency funds to change lives in the communities most affected by the work still left undone. In the places MWRA currently plans to use as open sewers. Adopting and enforcing water quality standards is a core function of state government. If we say sewer overflows require treatment to meet the Massachusetts standard, there’s nothing Clarence and his cabal can do about it. It’s something we can do right now.
On Sunday October 9, 2022, thirty supporters of Save the Alewife Brook marched in HONK! Fest from Davis Square in Somerville to Harvard Square in Cambridge.
Sara Peattie’s Puppeteers Cooperative marched with us, leading the way with a family of sea horses and the huge four-person puppet named Big Blue, the Goddess of Clean Water. Following the puppets was Kara Casey and her two water protectors, as the “Mermaid in Mourning”. The Mermaid was crying because she was covered in trash and other brook debris, dragging a long, clanking trail of bottles and cans. Following the Mermaid was a school of hand-made GHOST FISH swimming upstream, carried by folks in bright red shirts emblazoned with Alewife fish, chanting:
“STOP DUMPING SEWAGE IN THE ALEWIFE BROOK!”
There were thousands and thousands of people along Mass Ave, as we marched into Harvard Square! What an amazing day for a parade – there was not a cloud in the sky! Everybody was out to see the bright and noisy spectacle. SAVE THE ALEWIFE BROOK distributed hundreds of stickers and collected more signers for our email petition to end Alewife Brook sewage pollution and flooding in the face of Climate Change.
Thanks to everyone who participated:
Cecily Miller, Sara Peattie, Kara Casey and family, Alida Castillo, Sue Janowitz, Ann McDonald, Crystal Maier, Maggie Starvish, Beth Melofchik, Gilbert Martin, Matthew De Remer & family, Cullen Malone, Gerda Brown, Thomas Close, Joel Snider, Veronique Bailly, Monique McNally and Barg, Gerda Brown, Sandy Durmaskin, Diane Martin, Paige Gromfin, Jonathon Forbes, Jean Devine, David Stoff, Gwen Speeth, Kristin Anderson, & The Mystic River Watershed Association.
SUNDAY OCTOBER 9, from 11 am to 1:30 pm March with us in the HONK! Parade, at 11 am gather at the Day Street Parking Lot in Davis Square, Somerville ending in Harvard Square, Cambridge, at 1:30 pm
Parade with us, along with musicians and puppeteers. Join us, to demand a safe, clean, and restored brook, for all species who live in and around the Alewife Brook.
Puppeteer Sara Peattie has created large, colorful fish puppets, and to lead the group, Big Blue, the Goddess of Clean Water. Wear a free Save the Alewife Brook t-shirt and carry a GHOST FISH when you join us in the parade.
RSVP here for the Parade:
SATURDAY OCTOBER 8 MAKE ART WITH US DURING THE HONK! FESTIVAL IN DAVIS SQUARE!
Join us anytime from noon until 4 pm at Elm Street Art in Davis Square. There will be a public arts station for folks of all ages to make their own Alewife fishes while brass bands play all over Davis Square.
Please invite your friends to join you! You can also help us get the word out to your neighbors about Save Alewife Brook and get more people involved.
Cecily Miller from Arts Arlington has made this video to explain the HONK!Fest and Elm Street Art. More info about HONK!Fest here.
A Grand Day on the Alewife Brook Measuring Sediment Depth
The Environmental Protection Agency’s mention of dredging the Alewife Brook in its Response to the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority’s April 2022 Draft Scope for the new CSO Control Plan has revived the discussion about the role removing sediment from the Alewife Brook can play in restoration and flood prevention efforts. EPA recommends MWRA include dredging the Alewife Brook as part of the Alternatives Analysis for the new Control Plan.
Elimination of Combined Sewer Overflows and sewage pollution in the brook must be achieved through continued sewer separation in Cambridge and Somerville. But sewer separation means removing stormwater from the sanitary sewer system. Once it’s removed, that stormwater has to go somewhere, and that somewhere is the Alewife Brook. Increasing the amount of stormwater flowing to the Alewife Brook could increase the threat of area flooding. Therefore, flood mitigation measures must be taken alongside sewer separation. EPA suggests that one way to accommodate an increase in stormwater would be to increase the Alewife Brook’s storage and flow capacity by dredging the channelized portion of the brook.
The Time Has Come to Dredge the Alewife Brook to Increase Capacity and Prevent Flooding
In its Response letter, EPA quotes a 2005 United States Geological Survey study that estimated sediment volume in the Alewife Brook at approximately half a million cubic feet. In 1988, one of many moments when the idea of dredging the Alewife was floated, the Metropolitan District Commission (MDC – precursor of both MWRA and the Department of Conservation & Recreation) commissioned a study to determine what was in the sediment. This was necessary to determine how to dispose of the dredged material. When testing indicated that the material was toxic enough to require disposal at a Certified Waste Disposal Site, the MDC’s enthusiasm for dredging faded. If EPA are now endorsing consideration of dredging, then it may be an idea whose time has finally come.
Our Measurements Suggest a Doubling of Sediment Since 1988
On a fine summer day in July, three members of Save the Alewife Brook set out to measure the depth of sediment at the 1988 testing sites. Equipped with a precision hand-crafted measuring tool – a 5-foot steel rod with a ruled scale ground onto it – and a hand-built canoe. We dropped the boat in at John Wald Park in Cambridge.
It’s no surprise that the amount of sediment has increased since 1988, given three decades of sewage discharges, and infrequent removal of branches and trash. At the center of the Little River opposite MWRA’s CSO MWR003 (‘CCSO’ on the map), our tester measured a sediment depth of approximately 36 inches. That’s double the 18 inches recorded in 1988. Further upstream, adjacent to 20 Acorn Drive (‘AB03’), the sediment measurement was 48 inches. That’s an increase of 18 inches over the 1988 measurement.
We also measured sediment at two sites in the Alewife Brook not found on the 1988 map. Under the Pedestrian/Bikepath Bridge over the brook, sediment was 36 inches deep. At the canoe launch in Arlington, adjacent to Lafayette Street (the overlook marked by the boulder with the carved Snapping Turtle image), the sediment depth was 48 inches – that’s 4 feet of sediment in the narrow concrete channel!
We didn’t measure the site marked on our 1988 map just downstream of the Mass. Ave. Bridge (AB06A). None of the crew felt like dragging the canoe past the growing channel obstructions or measuring the sediment depth immediately downstream of two of Cambridge’s active CSO outfalls (CAM002 & CAM401B), what with the 1.5 million gallons of sewage pollution they dumped in this spot last year.
The stench emanating from this portion of our poor debris-strewn channel on that hot summer day undercut the (wildly misleading) claim of an 85% reduction in the volume of sewage discharged to the Alewife Brook since 1988 (the year our sampling map was made). In 1988 the sediment depth at AB06A was 10 inches. Eyeballing it from the banks, it’s clear that the sediment now catching and trapping branches and other debris is a great deal deeper.
Now is the time to consider dredging the Alewife Brook. Removing the sediment could provide immediate benefits in terms of capacity, flow, and improved water quality. Federal Infrastructure Law funds can get this done.
The Boston Harbor Clean-Up worked wonders in the Boston Harbor and in the Charles River, but Massachusetts Water Resources Authority’s claim that they have achieved an 85% reduction of combined sewer overflows to the Alewife Brook is not consistent with their own data about the vast quantities of sewage actually discharged into our little brook in recent years.
In 2021 the sewer operators’ own websites (MWRA, Cambridge, Somerville) reported that over 50 million gallons of untreated sewage pollution was discharged into the Alewife Brook. That’s the same amount of sewage pollution as was dumped in the Alewife in 1994, before work began to try to fix the problem.
So, why does the MWRA claim the Alewife sewage pollution problem is 85% better? MWRA’s 85% improvement assertion is based on their flawed computer modeling based on the “Typical Year” (a hypothetical “average” year). They have actual metered data that could be used to evaluate their progress, but they assess themselves using fanciful modeled results instead.
The MWRA’s Typical Year model results bear little resemblance to the current reality in the Alewife Brook because it is based on old weather data going back to 1949, with no acknowledgement of the dramatic changes in precipitation brought about by Climate Change. Increases in storm intensity & volume of rains are causing exponential increases in sewage discharges.
MWRA’s own chart below shows the actual volume of sewage pollution dumped in the brook vs. the MWRA modeledsewage volume. When you compare the actual volumes (gray bars) to the modeled volumes (blue bars), it becomes clear that the MWRA’s model is out of touch with reality.
Note that, until their Alewife sewer separation work ended in 2015, actual sewage discharges decreased as a result of Cambridge’s excellent sewer improvements. The MWRA’s modeled data (blue bars) implies that these positive impacts from Alewife sewer improvements persisted, while the sad reality of exponential increase in actual sewage pollution (gray bars) is undeniable. Over the last seven years, there has been 250% more sewage pollution than the MWRA’s computer model admits.
Why are the sewer operators using modeled data? There is a legal reason for the MWRA’s flawed modeling. As part of the Boston Harbor Cleanup court case, the sewer operators are required by law to reduce their sewage pollution discharge amounts by 85%. They use this computer model to show that they aren’t breaking the legal limit. If the model showed the truth over the last seven years, they would be out of compliance with the law!
So, whenever you hear the MWRA use the words “Typical Year” or “Average Year,” remember that they are not talking about the actual amount of sewage pollution. They are talking about flawed computer modeling that the MWRA created to fulfill a legal requirement of the Boston Harbor Cleanup court case.
Climate Change is Here.
The solution to the Alewife sewage pollution problem is – most urgently – treatment of all sewage discharges, continued sewer separation by the cities to allow for eventual elimination of discharges, and upgrades to the MWRA’s Northern Branch sewer system to handle increased flow to their Deer Island Treatment Plant. The MWRA must end the dumping of untreated sewage into our little brook! This will require significant new sewer infrastructure. MWRA will only invest in this infrastructure if we, the public, insist that they do.
The planning and assessment of new sewer infrastructure requires an honest look at the actual data. That is why the new Alewife CSO (Combined Sewer Overflow) Control Plan being drafted now must include forward-looking Climate Change projections. Climate Change is here – there are no more ‘Typical’ or ‘Average’ Years.
Help End Sewage Pollution!
Please come to the virtual sewage planning meeting Wednesday, June 29th at 6 PM. The Alewife Brook belongs to the people. Tell the MWRA that they must end the dumping of untreated sewage pollution in our little brook!
We need a strong show of support on Wednesday night. The MWRA must make major upgrades to their regional sewer system. Their sewer system reaches capacity during many storm events. This is when sewage pollution is dumped into our rivers and streams. The MWRA will not fix the problem if they think no one cares. Let them know you care!
Unable to attend the meeting? Send an email asking for an End to Alewife Sewage Pollution by clicking here. Just add your name to it and feel free to edit the email!
Meeting Talking Points:
On May 23, 2022, the EPA provided the following guidance to the Alewife CSO permittees (Somerville, Cambridge, MWRA):
Future climate change impacts to be incorporated into new sewer infrastructure planning and performance models.
Real public participation in the early stages of planning and throughout.
Improvement in water quality.
Flood control measures must be taken.
Significant gray and green infrastructure work on DCR property, including at Dilboy Park.
Sewer infrastructure upgrades.
Possible dredging or dechannelization of the Alewife Brook.
Funding for the work must be equitable and not fall upon lower income residents who cannot afford it.
Wide-ranging projects and major facility upgrades to the MWRA regional system, including possible expansion or rebuilding of the Caruso Pump Station, the key connection point for the MWRA North System. The Caruso Pump Station is known to be a flow restriction in significant storm events.
Adequately consider and protect the Environmental Justice communities along Alewife Brook.
We agree with the EPA on these points and demand that the great cities of Somerville and Cambridge and the MWRA follow the EPA’s guidance. These are our talking points.
You should be allowed to speak at the meeting, after the video presentation is shown. Please raise your hand and take a stand for the Alewife Brook!
We need you now! On Wednesday, June 29th, at 6 PM, Cambridge, Somerville and the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA) are holding their first public meeting via Zoom to discuss Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs).
The legal limit for sewage discharge in the Alewife Brook is 7.29 Million Gallons. In 2021, 51 Million Gallons of untreated sewage pollution was dumped in the Alewife Brook. The sewage pollution problem has been getting worse, not better.
The Alewife needs you now. Please register for this meeting today & let the MWRA, Cambridge, and Somerville know it is NOT OK to use the Alewife Brook as an open sewer.
On June 8th, 2022, Arlington Town Meeting voted 197-1 to pass a Resolution for the Alewife Brook that states:
“Town Meeting declares the Alewife Brook to be a valuable natural resource deserving of equal commitment to rehabilitate and restore to the highest water quality standards feasible for wildlife, resident abutters, and recreation; and
FURTHER, that Town Meeting also resolves to encourage and support all Town officials in engaging the MWRA, Cambridge, Somerville, and the Department of Conservation and Recreation as well as state and federal regulators, legislators, and officials to garner the actions necessary to eliminate CSO discharges into the Alewife Brook and render the Brook a safe resource to live near and beautiful water resource to enjoy for the public.” Arlington Town Meeting 2022, Article 76
You can watch our Town Meeting video presentation here:
Thank you to Arlington’s Select Board & Town Meeting for their support!
Join us for our Community Meeting on Monday, June 20th at 7 PM
Please join us on Monday June 20th at 7 pm to discuss next steps at Save the Alewife Brook’s June Community Meeting. We will discuss the upcoming Alewife CSO meeting for the new Long Term CSO Control Plan. This first public meeting will be announced later this week and we are very excited to strategize about it with you!
In response the new CSO (Combined Sewer Outfall) control plan “draft scopes”, the EPA has sent letters to MWRA, Somerville, and Cambridge, addressing every single one of our concerns, which are described in our “Alewife Brook Path to Zero Sewage Pollution“.
What is a “draft scope”? A draft scope is framework for the planning of the new Alewife Brook CSO control plan to eliminate sewage pollution. It’s a plan to create a plan! Somerville and Cambridge and EPA have until December 31, 2023 to finish collaborating on a plan to make improvements to sewage pollution in the Alewife Brook. The draft scope documents are available in our document library here.
In the guidance letters, EPA asked Somerville, Cambridge, and MWRA for:
1. Future climate change impacts to be incorporated into new sewer infrastructure planning and performance models. 2. An improvement in water quality. 3. Realpublic participation in the early stages of planning and throughout. 4. Flood control measures. 5. Significant gray and green infrastructure work on DCR property, including at Dilboy Park! 6. Sewer infrastructure upgrades. 7. A tiered rate structure to pay for the CSO work, so that the burden doesn’t fall on lower income residents who cannot afford it.
Former President of Friends of the Alewife Reservation
Dear water protectors to Save the Alewife Brook,
After 20 years, your water quality campaign for watershed conservation is a great boon to the residents of the Alewife Upper Basin in Belmont, Arlington, Cambridge, Somerville and to the downstream Medford and Chelsea Creek communities, and for the protection of our Atlantic Ocean coast line as well.
We started our Friends of Alewife Reservation in 2000 to bring attention to watershed matters. Now 20 years later the group is with Green Cambridge. At that time, we did not have the scientific means to advocate for the area in the way you have now enlightened us in measuring the vast amount of pollution increase coming from fully discharging CSOs, or those that were not separated in 2013 by Cambridge. It is also true that today, there is the increased flow of dreaded pathogens coming through our towns and cities on the Mystic River watershed especially in the Alewife subwatershed of Belmont, Arlington, Cambridge and Somerville where, you point out in your reports and news briefs, much of Little River and Alewife Brook pollution comes from.
By galvanizing caring community members to note the great open space and benefits and dangers posed by the Alewife waters, and our green corridor to Boston Harbor and the ocean, you show foresight of our New England climate change future. By providing proper mitigation demands which are part of the Boston Reports and city agreements regarding adaptation measures to prevent the severity of climate change flooding. Greening the corridor would do that as will cleaning out the river and brook toxins, and provide habitat for our well-established animals, birds, insects.
The noted environmental firm Horsley and Witten provided my organization with an important Upper Basin report and spoke to the State House regarding the importance of the Belmont/Cambridge Forest which was removed for a developer. I hope you will sustain your outreach and ally with others who care about the urban wild, river, brook, ponds and increasing climate change, noting that the MBTA Alewife metropolitan transit artery is extremely low in water rise elevation, and the area is predicted to flood in 2050 by future climate specialists.
Well-established hazard warning signs in the River and Brook by Cambridge and Somerville may assist in alerting the public to the dangers in the water quality. I hope you will have better results than my then organization had in gaining municipal support and extracting the needed funds from federal, state and municipal sources. Cleaning up this section of the watershed will continue to bring safe recreational, educational benefits, and protect our health and diminishing species in this densely populated region so rich in floodplain. Wishing you the best.
for a Safe, Beautiful, Fishable Alewife Brook for Residents and Wildlife
Save the Alewife Brook (StAB) is working hard for dramatic improvements in and around the Alewife Brook. Planning will be starting soon for what may be a huge investment to clean up the brook and make environmental improvements!
The great cities of Cambridge and Somerville and the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority have prepared “Draft Scopes” for their combined sewer overflow (CSO) improvement plans. These draft scopes lay out how they plan to create a new joint Long Term Control Plan to control or eliminate sewage pollution in the Alewife Brook and other waterways.
We reviewed their CSO Draft Scopes and were alarmed by several things:
Climate Change projections were not included in the plans.
A regional approach was missing, which meant that there was no overall plan to include system-wide solutions to the problems, or to involve other communities.
Creative funding alternatives were not mentioned.
Because of these omissions, Save the Alewife Brook presented our own Alewife Brook CSO Plan Draft Scope to the Environmental Protection Agency and to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection on April 28th, 2022.
On Saturday April 23rd, 2022, Save the Alewife Brook volunteers gathered along the Alewife Greenway for a trash pickup, CSO tour, and ended the event at the Ghost Fish Art Installation at Mass Ave and Route 16.
Save the Alewife Brook thanks the two dozen people from Cambridge, Arlington, Somerville, Medford, and Belmont who came out for the Alewife Earth Day Cleanup and CSO tour.
The Trouble with MWRA’s Terrible Combined Sewer Outfall
We started with a walk and discussion of the MWRA’s Alewife CSO, MWR003, which discharged over 20 million gallons of sewage from Belmont and combined sewage from Cambridge. You can play the video below to hear this one minute presentation.
We hauled a lot of trash! We even found a busted toilet (appropriate, haha) and the rusty hood from a car, a shopping cart, busted furniture, and lots of plastic bottles.
The best part of the CSO tour came at the end, when we got to David Stoff’s Ghost Fish art installation at Cambridge’s Historical CSO known as CAM401B. There is one Ghost Fish for every 2 million gallons of sewage that was discharged into the brook last year. That’s a big school of fish!
Many thanks to all the participants and donors: Shone Gibson, Joel Snider, Elaine Lyte, Candace Young, Loren Bernardi, Suzanne McLeod, Lida Junghans, Cythina Stillinger, Ann Stewart, Anne Thompson, Philip Thompson, Diane Martin, Ann McDonald, Michael Quinn, Sharon Taylor, Bode Taylor, Cole Taylor, Kate Schull, Ed de Moel, Jean Devine, Jim Eggleston, David Stoff, Jimmy Johnson, Gwen Speeth, Kristin Anderson, & Darbi Crash. Thanks also to George Laite from the East Arlington Good Neighbor Committee, for donating trash pickers and trash bags.
We have an opportunity now to promote our vision for a safer and more beautiful Alewife Brook. Please join us to discuss this on Sunday April 24th at 6 pm for Save the Alewife Brook’s April Community Meeting.
In 2015, the Massachusetts Water Resource Authority reconstructed and enlarged the Combined Sewer Outfall known as MWR003 in the Alewife wetland.1 This CSO was enlarged and functionality was added to it, to provide hydraulic pressure relief for the system downstream. Before the MWRA performed the work on this CSO in 2015, its annual discharge was about 60,000 gallons of untreated and undiluted sewage from Belmont, mixed with untreated sewage and stormwater from Cambridge. MWRA expected the reconstruction of this CSO would result in an increase of untreated sewage discharge of around 1 million gallons annually. But last year, in 2021, this CSO discharged 20 million gallons2 of untreated sewage and wastewater.
Why did the MWRA design this CSO to discharge more sewage into the Alewife Brook?
This CSO is part of a larger sewer system that is tied to the Chelsea Creek Headworks, where it is screened before flowing to the Deer Island water treatment plant. The MWRA’s Chelsea Creek Headworks receives sewage flows from the following 17 municipalities: Everett, Somerville, Cambridge, Arlington, Burlington, Lexington, Malden, Melrose, Wakefield, Stoneham, Medford, Reading, Woburn, Wilmington, Winchester, Belmont, and Bedford, as seen in the map below.
When flows from these municipalities are experiencing “high growth” during storm events, the Chelsea Creek Headworks runs out of capacity. There’s no room in the pipes because too much stormwater gets into the system. Upstream from the Chelsea Creek Headworks, the Alewife Brook pump station cannot handle the increase in flow because there’s nowhere for sewage to go. This is why the MWRA reconstructed their Alewife CSO, MWR003, made it bigger, and turned it into a relief valve for the rest of the system. The MWRA quite likes CSOs, the reasoning being that CSOs provide more capacity to their sewer system during storm events.3
The MWRA’s sewage pollution in the Alewife Brook is a feature, not a bug!
The systemic failures in the MWRA’s sewer system impact Alewife area residents.
The Commonwealth and the MWRA have known about the flooding problems in the area for decades now. They have known of the health problems that area residents have suffered following flood events, when raw sewage enters their homes. It is time for the Commonwealth and the MWRA to show that they care about the health of vulnerable area residents, in Environmental Justice communities. They must not design, build, and maintain their sewer system in a way that creates serious health hazards for residents!
It’s time to redesign the sewer system in the Alewife.
Constructed in 1951 and operational in 1952, the Alewife Pump Station is the oldest in the MWRA’s entire system.4 The MWRA’s Alewife Brook Sewer, still in use, was constructed in 1896 or 1897.5 In 1948, a larger sewer line was added to the Alewife and is known as the Alewife Brook Conduit.6 This infrastructure is all so old. Isn’t it time to install new, larger pipes and provide greater pumping capacity for the Alewife Basin?
The Commonwealth provides CSO sewage treatment facilities elsewhere throughout the MWRA’s system. For example, the MWRA has 6 CSO sewage treatment facilities: Prison Point, Cottage Farm, Somerville Marginal, Union Park, Fox Point, & Commercial Point.7
We are at a point in the CSO regulatory process when the MWRA must create a new Long Term CSO Control Plan. Now is the perfect moment for the Commonwealth to ensure that the MWRA redesigns and builds new sewer infrastructure that protects the health of the vulnerable populations who live near the Alewife Brook.
Join us Saturday morning, April 23th, for an Earth Day Alewife Greenway Path Clean-Up and CSO Tour! We’ll be working with Everywhere Arlington Safe Streets to gather trash along the path next to the brook. While we’re there, we can show you the CSOs you’ve been hearing so much about. You’ll know us by our new red Save the Alewife Brook t-shirts.
Bring gloves, water, & garbage picker, if you have one. We’ll provide bags.
Arlington’s Award-Winning Town Engineer, Wayne Chouinard, also had a letter published about the CSOs:
In addition to being Arlington’s Town Engineer, Wayne Chouinard is also the Chair to the MWRA’s Wastewater Advisory Committee. We are very excited about his ideas for green infrastructure throughout the Alewife Watershed!
Note: Mr. Chouinard states that 90% of all MWRA CSO discharges are disinfected. But this is not true in the Alewife! Despite the amount of flooding, the MWRA continues to discharge hazardous untreated sewage into the Alewife Brook. After major flood events, this results in painful digestive disease in the area’s Environment Justice populations who risk a more adverse outcome to exposure to untreated sewage.
Last week, the Charles River Watershed Association, the Mystic River Watershed Association, and Save the Alewife Brook had meetings with the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection to discuss our recent letter to the regulators. This comes at a time when new plans are coming due to eliminate combined sewer overflow (CSO) sewage pollution.
We came away from the meeting with the EPA and their awesome new Regional Director for New England, David Cash, with a sense that the agency is compassionate toward the Environmental Justice populations in the Alewife flood plain. The EPA and DEP seem sincerely concerned about the hazardous health risks that area neighbors face, as the heavily polluted and flood-prone Alewife Brook is so densely settled.
Keep in mind that some of the folks from Save the Alewife Brook worked on the CSO problem 20 years ago. Back then, we wrote letters, letting everyone know about the illnesses we experienced after Alewife flooding brought sewage-contaminated flood water into our homes. And no one was talking about Environmental Justice back then. Save the Alewife Brook is happy to report that the regulatory agencies indicated that they are concerned about the health of the people and want to protect us. They care about the families who live along the Alewife Brook. We are so grateful to have been met with open ears and warmth from the EPA and MassDEP.
We also had a meeting with MWRA on Thursday of last week. There were many there from MWRA as well as from our advocacy groups. There was an open discussion with a frank exchange of views. However, a big disappointment was that MWRA did not want to update their modeling to reflect future climate change impacts.
New Draft Scopes for CSO Elimination Work
Friday, April 1st, 2022 was a big day in the Alewife CSOs regulatory timeline. It was the day that Somerville, Cambridge, and the MWRA were required to submit draft scopes for their new Long Term CSO Control Plans to the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.
The initial takeaway from the MWRA’s scope is that they do not want to consider Climate Change in their plan!
The MWRA’S Climate Change Denial
We are very concerned about the climate change denial in the MWRA draft scope proposal.
Climate Change threatens to exacerbate the problems in the Alewife, with wetter rain seasons, more frequent and more severe storms, and sea level rise, all of which lead to more flooding.
But flooding is not the only problem that Climate Change will present. Climate Change also makes the sewage discharge problem exponentially worse. The volume of discharge is exponentially greater with increase in rainfall. This is why climate change effects must be included in MWRA’s modeling and CSO Plan.
What is the MWRA’s “Typical Year Model?”
There is a legal, regulatory requirement that the MWRA assess the performance of the CSOs in their system, and report back to the regulators. This allows the court and the government to ensure that their obligations to make improvements are being met.
The benchmark for this modeling is a Typical Year, which represents rainfall for average conditions. The Typical Year that they are now using is based on historical data that goes back as far as 1949! To truly represent current and future conditions, the model must be forward-looking and take into account the effects of climate change. The Typical Year approach also does not capture the fact that, when rainfall is above average, CSO discharges exceed in frequency and volume the limits set for a Typical Year, as discussed below.
The MWRA claims that they have reduced the amount of sewage pollution in their system by 85%, as part of the Boston Harbor Cleanup. This may be true for the Boston Harbor and its East Boston and South Boston beaches and the Boston waterfront. Truly, the MWRA deserves an enormous amount of credit for the miraculous, magical work they’ve done improving Boston Harbor water quality with use of the Deer Island Treatment Plant.
But a review of the actual volumes of combined sewage discharge in the Alewife shows that, in the last four years, the system has not met the Long Term Control Plan goals. And, frighteningly, the volume of discharge is increasing exponentially since 2016, and is exponentially worse with increase in rainfall.
Here is a chart from the MWRA that shows the actual annual amounts of combined sewage discharge (the gray bars), the aspirational modeled amounts of discharge (navy blue bars), and the required goal (the straight horizontal orange line). Up top, you can see the actual annual rainfall (light blue bars):
MWRA’s ‘Calendar Year’ metered [actual] data (gray bars) vs. modeled [hypothetical] data (navy blue bars), with LTCP goal (horizontal red line), actual rainfall (light blue bars), and modeled rainfall (horizontal yellow line). Note that: In the last four years, Alewife CSOs failed to meet the LTCP goal, except in drought year 2020. There is an exponential upward trend of actual CSO discharge volume since 2016.
The MWRA has been employing a model that uses historical storm data from before 1993, going backwards over 4 decades to 1949! The actual volumes of sewage discharge, in the gray bars, show that, since the last CSO improvements were completed in 2015, we are experiencing an exponential increase in sewage discharges. The hypothetical model, in the navy blue bars, obfuscates that alarming fact, by suggesting that the Alewife CSOs are performing well and generally below the LTCP goal. The 50 Million Gallons volume of sewage discharge in 2021 is the same amount of sewage discharge that the Alewife was receiving back in the 1990s, before any improvements were made!
If the MWRA does not acknowledge Climate Change in its new plan, we are likely to see a much worse situation in the future.
This is why the EPA and DEP must require the MWRA to adopt a forward-looking model that includes Climate Change projections and also properly considers large storm events.
“The Typical Year is a series of storms (93 storms with total precipitation of 46.8 inches) developed by the Authority in 1992 from a 40-year rainfall record (1949-1987 plus 1992) and approved by EPA and DEP that has served as the basis for development, recommendation and approval of the Authority’s LTCP, establishment of the Court-mandated levels of control, and assessment of system performance.“ P. 3, Footnote 1 from MWRA BIANNUAL COMPLIANCE AND PROGRESS REPORT AS OF JUNE 14, 2019
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.”
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.
Would you like to help flyer a neighborhood in Cambridge or Somerville that is connected to the sewer outfalls on the Alewife Brook?
Please help our grassroots effort in North Cambridge and West Somerville, hanging our “Please don’t flush when it rains” flyers. We will be visiting neighborhoods that are still hooked up to the 19th century combined sewage pipes that are polluting the Alewife Brook.
It’s fun to walk around and explore new streets and meet new people! And the weather is so nice now. Please bring your friendly children and your awesome dog. You can check out the map that is linked at the button below. We will be flyering the “D37”, “D39”, and “D41” neighborhoods of North Cambridge.
On March 11th, 2022, the Charles River Watershed Association, the Mystic River Watershed Association, and Save the Alewife Brook came together to speak with one voice to the Federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. Together, we collaborated on the following letter about the decades-long Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) work; we commented on the history of that work and, more importantly, on the future of the CSO work.
Note that Save the Alewife Brook is a fiercely independent, growing, grassroots, environmental activist organization with supporters in Cambridge, Somerville, Arlington, Belmont, and Medford. Please sign our petition here: Email Petition to End Alewife Brook Sewage Pollution
Regional Administrator David Cash Environmental Protection Agency, Region 1 5 Post Office Square, Suite 100 Boston, MA 02109 firstname.lastname@example.org
Commissioner Martin Suuberg Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection One Winter Street Boston, MA 02108 email@example.com
Dear Regional Administrator Cash and Commissioner Suuberg:
We are at an important moment in the decades-long fight to eliminate combined sewer overflows (CSOs) in the Charles and Mystic Rivers, Alewife Brook, and Boston Harbor. The original Long Term Control Plan (LTCP) is coming to a close and the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA), Cambridge, and Somerville are beginning to plan for future CSO control efforts. On behalf of Charles River Watershed Association (CRWA), Mystic River Watershed Association (MyRWA), and Save the Alewife Brook (StAB), we are reaching out to you and your respective agencies to highlight several important issues and opportunities as we move into the next phase of CSO control planning. We would welcome an opportunity to meet with you to discuss these topics in more detail. Briefly summarized:
Despite decades of investment in CSO-reduction projects, MWRA’s CSO discharges are still violating the limits set in the LTCP at more than a dozen outfalls, prompting MWRA to seek a three-year extension (until 2024) to achieve compliance with the court-mandated LTCP. The current LTCP must be fully implemented as close to schedule as possible such that all CSO locations meet or do better than the agreed-upon limits—anything less is unacceptable. MWRA must employ all possible tools at their disposal, including green infrastructure measures, to achieve compliance with the LTCP.
Because the LTCP does not consider increased precipitation caused by climate change or environmental justice, even if MWRA were in compliance with the existing LTCP—which it is not—it would not be a sustainable solution to CSOs. The effects of climate change and environmental justice considerations must be incorporated into future requirements.
As MWRA, Cambridge, and Somerville begin the next phase of CSO control planning required by the Water Quality Standards variances, it is critical to incorporate robust public participation early and often in that process, including as the scopes of the plans are developed.
We expect the next phase of CSO planning to focus on eliminating CSO discharges into the Charles and Mystic Rivers and Alewife Brook—anything short of complete elimination prolongs the public health risks and environmental harm caused by CSOs.
CRWA and MyRWA both have long, successful histories of partnering with MWRA, EPA, and DEP to improve water quality and habitat conditions in our respective rivers, a task that is becoming increasingly urgent as our climate changes. The emergence of Save the Alewife Brook in the past year, as well as the increased focus on CSOs by residents and community groups throughout the Boston area, is clear evidence that many members of the public share these concerns and are similarly invested in the development of concrete plans to effectively eliminate the remaining CSOs as expeditiously as possible.
The Water Quality Standards variances for CSO discharges in the Lower Charles River/Charles Basin and Alewife Brook/Upper Mystic River require that MWRA and the cities of Cambridge and Somerville begin the next phase of CSO control planning. The first step is the submission of scopes and schedules for updated CSO control planning, which are due by April 1, 2022.
Concerns with the end of the LTCP/Post Construction Assessment phase
Much of the work required under the 1997 LTCP, as revised in 2006, has been completed and the success and failure of those measures has now been assessed. Substantial investment by MWRA and the cities of Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville has led to significant progress in reducing CSO activations and volumes. However, sixteen CSOs are violating LTCP limits under “Typical Year” conditions. An additional six CSOs are also violating their respective activation or volume limits, but MWRA states that the difference between actual performance and LTCP limits at those sites should be considered “immaterial.” Further, actual discharges in 2021, as compared to MWRA’s model, significantly violated the LTCP limits for many CSOs. There is clearly much work yet to be done under the existing LTCP, even before increased precipitation and environmental justice are taken into account.
It is disheartening, if not unexpected, to get to the end of the Post Construction Assessment phase with 22 outfalls still not meeting the LTCP goals. In requesting a three-year extension (until the end of 2024) to comply with its obligations under the LTCP, MWRA informed federal district court judge Richard G. Stearns that they believe they have solutions that can be implemented by the end of 2024 at six of the non-compliant outfalls (BOS003, BOS009, BOS014, CHE008, MWR205, and SOM007A/MWR205A). Of the remaining outfalls, MWRA, coordinating with the Boston Water and Sewer Commission, reports having conceptual ideas at four outfalls (BOS017, BOS062, BOS095 and BOS070/DBC) that they believe will bring the outfalls into compliance with the LTCP if they can be successfully implemented. There are six outfalls for which MWRA, Cambridge, or Somerville do not currently have a solution (CAM005, MWR201 [Cottage Farm], MWR018, MWR019, MWR020 and SOM001A) for achieving compliance with the LTCP. These six outfalls are all within the variance waters. Finally, there are six outfalls that are close to achieving compliance—they have not actually achieved compliance—for which MWRA deems exceedances to be “immaterial.”
CRWA and MyRWA have communicated to the court our position that MWRA must achieve full compliance with the LTCP by the extended deadline of 2024 and that as part of its compliance obligation, MWRA must conduct a thorough analysis of the role green infrastructure and real-time monitoring can play in achieving LTCP requirements and maintaining those requirements as our climate changes.
“Typical Year” vs. Reality
The current LTCP modeling and limits were based on the use of a typical precipitation year, consistent with EPA and DEP LTCP guidance. While that has been standard practice in the past, the reality is that our climate is changing and actual discharges are more frequently and regularly exceeding modeled control limits, and this trend will continue. The difference between actual activations and discharges in 2021 and LTCP limits requires a more detailed examination.
For example, the cumulative LTCP limits for the six remaining outfalls in the Alewife Brook were 29 activations and 7.29 million gallons discharged. Five of the six outfalls were predicted to meet the LTCP limits under typical year conditions. However, under actual 2021 conditions, there were 45 activations and 50 million gallons discharged. Only two outfalls in the Alewife actually met the LTCP activation limits in 2021. And while 2021 did bring a significant amount of rainfall, LTCP limits were also exceeded in 2018 and 2019. In fact, looking at actual conditions in the past four years, it was only in the drought year of 2020 that LTCP limits were met. Clearly the typical year model no longer reflects actual conditions.
Similarly, in the Charles River, in 2019, based on MWRA’s metering, the following sites had more overflow occurrence than what is allowed under the LTCP: CAM017, MWR018, MWR201 Cottage Farm, MWR023, CAM005, and CAM007. CAM007 and MWR023, both of which MWRA considers to be achieving the LTCP, had 1 and at least 3 more overflows than their respective LTCP limits. These differences were far more extreme in 2021; every CSO location on the Charles River, other than MWR010, exceeded LTCP limits. CAM005 had 9 reported overflows with a volume of 3.2 MG, compared to LTCP limits of 3 overflows and 0.84 MG. At Cottage Farm, there were 5 overflows with a total volume of 88 MG compared to LTCP limits of 2 overflows and 6.3 MG. Even locations that MWRA considers to be in compliance with the LTCP violated the limits: CAM007 had 4 activations and 1.4 MG of overflow compared to the limit of 1 overflow and a volume of 0.03 MG, while CAM017 have 5 overflows with a volume of 13.6 MG compared to limits of 1 overflow and 0.45 MG.
Given the significant differences between typical year expectations and actual conditions, we expect the EPA and DEP to ensure that MWRA’s next annual report, due in April of this year, provides the agencies and the interested public with the type of analysis of actual precipitation compared to the typical year that was included in the prior semi-annual progress reports. The agencies should also ensure that MWRA provides meter data scattergraphs and results of simulations of the most current hydraulic system model (Q4 2021) under actual 2021 precipitation conditions.
Accounting for the Impacts of Climate Change
The 2021 experience must also inform the CSO control planning process going forward. Whereas EPA’s 1999 CSO Guidance for Monitoring and Modeling is premised on a review of the historical precipitation record, the climate in Massachusetts, and specifically precipitation patterns, has changed significantly in the intervening years and is forecast to continue to do so. What may have been viewed as a static climate system in guidance from the 1990s is now clearly a dynamic one.
At a minimum, we expect EPA and DEP to require updated calculations for the typical year that account for current and projected climate impacts. It is no longer adequate to rely solely on a historical analysis of precipitation in planning for the future. We also question whether the typical year approach adequately captures the true impacts of climate change. In looking at the rainfall and CSO discharge data for the previous seven years, we observed that the magnitudes of the discharges in years in which rainfall was above average greatly exceeded the typical year value.
In January, NOAA released a paper titled “Analysis of Nonstationary Climate on NOAA Atlas 14 Estimates” (National Weather Service, Office of Water Prediction, Jan. 31, 2022), which stated that historical assumptions about the magnitude and frequency of extreme future events are not appropriate in the presence of nonstationary climate. Considering that many climate models indicate that the increasing trend in intensity and frequency of precipitation will likely continue in the future, using only statistics from the past observations could underestimate the precipitation frequency quantiles as well as their confidence limits, which could result in undersized civil engineering water resource infrastructure. (p. 6)
Results of some of the modeling in the NOAA report indicate that overall, the Northeast regional average 2-year 1-day estimates show an increase of between 5% and 22% by the end of the century, while the 100-year 1-day estimates show an increase of between 7% and 30%. (p. 22) EPA and DEP must provide updated guidance to MWRA, Cambridge, and Somerville on considering likely future climate scenarios in their CSO planning simulations.
Environmental Justice Considerations
Since the 1990s—when EPA and DEP last released guidance on CSO control planning—consideration of Environmental Justice has emerged as one of the most important aspects of decision-making on a wide range of environmental issues. Going forward, CSO control planning must take Environmental Justice into account.
Most of the neighborhoods abutting the Alewife Brook, and the Lower Charles and Mystic Rivers are Environmental Justice neighborhoods according to the Massachusetts 2020 Environmental Justice Population maps published by the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. In significant storms, the Alewife Brook has historically flooded Environmental Justice neighborhoods in Arlington, resulting in flood waters containing CSO discharges entering the homes of residents. The areas of Boston and Cambridge immediately downstream of the Cottage Farm discharge are also Environmental Justice neighborhoods and this section of the Charles—which is readily accessible by public transit—is used by many residents, including children, accessing the river through the multiple free or low-cost boating programs such as Community Boating. Environmental Justice is an important consideration in people’s ability to safely recreate in and along our rivers downstream of CSO discharges and must be factored into future CSO control planning.
Expectations Regarding Public Engagement
With respect to updated CSO control planning, we appreciate that the variances require a public participation plan, including ample opportunities for the public to be informed of plan development at critical junctures and opportunities for the public to provide informed comments on the CSO abatement alternatives and recommendations. At the outset, we request that EPA and DEP provide a similar opportunity for the public to offer comments on the proposed scopes and schedules that will chart the course for updated CSO control planning. This will help instill the public confidence and buy-in to the process that is necessary to ensure robust public participation moving forward. To that end, we would welcome a public workshop facilitated by EPA and DEP where MWRA, Cambridge, and Somerville describe their proposed scopes and schedules and answer questions and receive feedback from interested parties. A robust public process is also critical to the Environmental Justice considerations described above.
We appreciate your consideration of these comments, recommendations, and requests, and look forward to working with you towards finally eliminating CSOs in the Charles and Mystic Rivers and Alewife Brook. As noted, we would welcome the opportunity to meet with you in the near future to discuss these issues in greater detail.
Emily Norton, Executive Director Charles River Watershed Association
Patrick Herron, Executive Director Mystic River Watershed Association
Kristin Anderson David White Save the Alewife Brook
cc: Frederick Laskey, Executive Director, MWRA Secretary Kathleen Theoharides, Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui, City of Cambridge Mayor Katjana Ballantyne, City of Somerville Mayor Michelle Wu, City of Boston
At the March 4th, 2022 Massachusetts Water Resources Authority’s (MWRA) Wastewater Advisory Committee meeting, core activists from Save the Alewife Brook learned something awful about Belmont’s sewage.
In 2015, the MWRA reconstructed a Combined Sewer Outfall (CSO) known as MWR003 in the Little River/Alewife Brook. They did this as part of the 2006 Long Term Control Plan that closed the CAM004 CSO. However last year, MWR003 dumped 20 million gallons of sewage pollution into the Little River / Alewife Brook (although their model predicted 1 million for a typical year). The project also cost the MWRA rate payers $3.7 million.
The MWRA tied sewer trunks from Cambridge and Belmont into this CSO to provide “hydraulic relief” for their failing and over-capacitated system downstream. So now, when the MWRA’s Alewife sewage system is inundated with rain, Cambridge’s and Belmont’s sewage gets dumped into the Little River / Alewife Brook.
We think that as part of the original Long Term CSO Control Plan, this “solution” to the CSO problem was not much of a solution at all. The MWRA has basically shifted the problem around and not fixed the systemic problem of their failing sewage system throughout the Alewife.
Please join us on Sunday March 13th at 7 pm for Save the Alewife Brook’s March Community Meeting!
We’ll discuss the looming April 1st deadline, when Cambridge, Somerville, and the MWRA are required to submit the initial scope of their new Long Term CSO (Combined Sewer Overflows) Control Plan for the Alewife. We have an opportunity now to promote our vision for a safer and more beautiful Alewife Brook.
At the Final CSO Report meeting on February 17th, MWRA’s Executive Director Fred Laskey promised us, “We’ll give you whatever you want!” So let’s meet to discuss how we can hold the MWRA to their promise.
Our Vision for the Alewife…
A Safe, Beautiful, Fishable Brook for the Residents and for Wildlife
Separated Sewer Systems to keep Sewage out of Stormwater
Elimination of all Alewife CSOs to End Sewage Pollution
New Green Infrastructure to Clean the Stormwater
An Additional Alewife Pumping Station Near Little River
New Grey Infrastructure to Reduce Flooding in the Face of Climate Change
Save the Alewife Brook is an environmentalist group that is trying to eliminate sewage pollution and flooding in a little brook on the border of Arlington, Cambridge, and Somerville.
The brook is named after the herring that used to live there. There used to be so many herring living in this brook, that the Menotomy Indians lived right next it, at the confluence of the Mystic River.
In the 1800s, colonial settlers started piping their poop and industrial waste into the brook and the rain water and tides carried it away to the Boston Harbor. Unfortunately, the cities of Somerville and Cambridge haven’t stopped doing this. Yes, we now have a water treatment plant. But, if we get an inch of rain, the poop and industrial wastewater goes into the Alewife Brook.
The fish can no longer survive in this brook. And we get flooding in this part of town. The people who live near that brook get the sewage in their homes during big flood events.
Very few people know that this is happening because the story was green-washed by corporations and consultants in 2015.
But it IS still happening and it’s getting exponentially worse because of Climate Change.
We want to alert people to this problem in a funny and light-hearted way. We don’t want them to feel guilty about it or feel like they’re being attacked. We want to launch a kind of a silly and WTH-sort of campaign with cartoon characters, posted on flyers and various swag.
The campaign slogan would simply be:
“Please don’t flush when it rains.”
And then there would be some combination of creative characters involved: a happy and helpful and not-so-smart toilet character a round herring alewife fish character a hooded merganser duck character a wise great blue heron character a cheerful and sweet rain drop character
The campaign will be humorous.
We want people to see the flyers and wonder, “what the hell?” and then have them go to our website for more info. Folks legit don’t know that this is happening.
We’d love to find a local artist who can do this work, someone from Arlington, Cambridge, Somerville, Belmont, Medford, or nearby. And we need it done quickly because we’re up against a fast-moving regulatory timeline with the EPA and MassDEP.
If you know an artist who can draw funny-looking characters, please have them email links to their artwork.
On February 17 2022 the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA) hosted a public briefing to discuss their Final combined sewer overflow (CSO) Performance Assessment Report. This was based on their four-year CSO assessment, which looked at their system’s CSO performance from 2018 to 2021. This briefing was a requirement of the Federal Boston Harbor Clean-up court case.
There were 90 people logged in to this virtual meeting and almost all of them were community members who were interested in the Alewife Brook CSOs. The briefing began with PowerPoint presentation, where the MWRA gave an overview of their CSO program work and the results to date.
THE BIGGEST BOMBSHELLS?
Somerville’s Alewife CSO is out of compliance.
The MWRA has determined that Somerville’s Alewife CSO is not in regulatory compliance. This means that Somerville has failed even to live up to the terms and requirements of their permit to pollute the Alewife Brook. They are discharging far too much sewage and too frequently!
Based on the MWRA’s modeling results using a “Typical Year” approach, the model shows that Somerville’s CSO (SOM001A) is discharging 4.47 million gallons of sewage water compared to the regulatory goal of 1.67 million gallons. Note that the actual measured discharges for Somerville’s Alewife CSO were 18 million gallons of sewage water in 2021.
Somerville needs to separate their combined sewer system in Davis Square, eliminate that terrible CSO, and add green and grey infrastructure to clean their stormwater and reduce flooding. This work can be done on state DCR land all along the Alewife, including at Dilboy Park.
The MWRA cannot currently meet the area’s sewer needs when we have big rainstorms.
After the MWRA’s PowerPoint presentation, the public was allowed to ask questions and make comments. Arlington Town Meeting Member Patricia Worden said that she used to be a Cambridge resident and that she believes Cambridge can afford to close their Alewife CSOs. Worden also asked whether the sewer system can handle more sewer hookups required by future development. Then Gwen Speeth from North Cambridge asked the MWRA why they don’t take care of their own Alewife Brook CSO, MWR003. Speeth pointed out that the MWRA’s Alewife CSO discharged over 20 million gallons of sewage water in 2021.
In response, a consultant spokesperson for the MWRA, Don Walker from AECOM replied, “The MWRA system is limited by downstream capacity. Under very large storm events, the capacity of the Alewife Brook Pump Station, which is downstream of [MWR003] is reaching capacity – very large facility, has 90 MGD capacity. That then discharges into sewers that are conveying flow further downstream and going to the Chelsea Creek Headworks, that then reaches capacity. And there are events when the capacity of our Deer Island treatment plant, 1.2 / 1.3 billion gallons per day is reached. So there are limits to what the MWRA can push through the system.”
What Mr. Walker is stating here is that the MWRA’s sewer system through the Alewife is not capable of handling the area’s current needs during some rain storms. This is because stormwater in the combined systems is overloading the MWRA sanitary sewer system.
We note that separating the combined sewer systems will greatly reduce stormwater flow into the MWRA system and thus address the capacity issue.
What does this mean for the future? What is the solution?
Climate Change projections and current data indicates that if the CSOs are not closed, the sewage pollution problem will snowball, and become exponentially worse. Therefore, the combined sewer systems which mix sanitary sewage (what you flush) with street water in West Somerville and North Cambridge must be separated. They must stop sending their street water (AKA stormwater) to the Deer Island sewage treatment facility. This will reduce the overloaded capacity on the system. And the MWRA’s Alewife CSO, which dumped 20 million gallons of sewage water in the Alewife Brook in 2021, must be replaced with a pumping station.
Thank you, Alewife Supporters!
Save the Alewife Brook would like to thank all of the supporters who attended the MWRA’s Final CSO report briefing, including: Adam Chapdelaine, Amy Schofield, Barbara Moran, Ben Beck, Beth Kudaruskas, Beth Melofchik, Betsy Davis, Carolyn Francisco-Murphy, Carolyn M Fiore, Charlie Jewell, Chris Goodwin, Christian Klein, Clare Nosowitz, Dan Codiga, David Wu, Denise Ellis-Hibbett, Don Seltzer, Douglas Heim, Eugene Benson, Eric Helmuth, Eva Murray, Fang Yu, Gwen Speeth, Jane Carey, Jean Devine, Jianjun Wang, Jill Carr, Jim Barsati, Jimmy Johnson, John Reinhardt, John Salo, John Tortelli, Julia Hopkins, Kane Larin, Karen Graham, Kelly Morton, Lealdon Langley, Leon Cantor, Lucner Charlestra, Maret Smolow, Mary Adelstein, Mary Kay, Michael Fager, Michele Barden, Michele Gillen, Mike Altieri, Minka vanBeuzedom, Nancy Bloom, Pallavi Mande, Pam Heidell, Patricia Worden, Patrick Herron, Peg McAdam, Rachel Roth, Rich Raiche, Sally Carroll, Shavaun Callahan, Stephen Perkins, Steve Cullen, Susan Stamps, Susy King, Todd Borci, Tricia Carney, Wynelle Evens, Yuyou Chen.
The Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA) is holding a briefing at 10 am on Thursday February 17 for their Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) project’s Final Report.
This meeting is a final milestone in the completion of the several decades’ long project to clean up Boston Harbor.
As part of that miraculous effort, half of the CSOs in the Alewife Brook were closed. But six Alewife CSOs remain. In 2021, those CSOs discharged 50 MILLION GALLONS OF SEWAGE WATER into the Alewife Brook. That’s the same volume as they discharged in 1997, before any work was done. This is a serious health problem in the Alewife area because it is naturally flood-prone. Known as The Great Swamp, the Alewife has been flooding for centuries. And sewage-contaminated flood water enters resident’s homes, yards, and parks.
FLOODING & COMMUNITY HEALTH ISSUES ARE IGNORED The MWRA has been ignoring the health impacts that the CSOs have on Alewife residents when it floods.
There are an estimated 5000 residents living in the Alewife’s 100-year flood plain.
Hazardous sewage-contaminated flood water enters the homes, yards, and parks of area residents during major storms.
Untreated sewage contains pathogens including Hepatitis, Salmonella, COVID-19, cholera, dysentery, bad headaches, bloody diarrhea, abdominal cramps, fever, nausea, vomiting, and dehydration.
The community living in the 100-year flood plain is the area’s most vulnerable and diverse population. This population is also the most susceptible to bad health outcomes from exposure to pathogens in the untreated sewage flood water. This is an Environmental Justice issue.
Because the Alewife is naturally flood prone, the residents who live near the Alewife CSOs are disproportionately impacted by these particular CSOs in the MWRA’s system. Therefore, we must have a plan to end all Alewife sewage pollution.
SEWAGE POLLUTION IS WORSE THAN STREET WATER RUNOFF / STORMWATER The MWRA believes that the CSO sewage pollution is OK because the street water runoff / stormwater in the brook is not clean.
We are obviously way more concerned about the much worse health impacts of exposure to untreated sewage than we are to street water / stormwater runoff. But, let’s end the sewage pollution and tackle stormwater water quality at the same time, through a new CSO plan that includes green and grey infrastructure!
Arlington has been investing and continues to invest in improving its stormwater through the work of its Environmental-Award-Winning engineer, Wayne Chouinard, and its MS4 program. Other municipalities along Alewife Brook are doing so as well.
THE ALEWIFE NEEDS A NEW CSO PLAN THAT ENDS SEWAGE POLLUTION IN THE FACE OF CLIMATE CHANGE In six weeks, the MWRA, Somerville, and Cambridge will have to submit new CSO Long Term Control Plan (LTCP) plans. The MWRA’s old CSO plan ignored Climate Change effects.
The first CSO plan eliminated half of the Alewife CSOs. The new plan should eliminate the other half, fully eliminating Alewife sewage pollution.
Cambridge got a beautiful constructed wetlands park on state land which cleans their stormwater and reduces flooding. Somerville and Arlington should have the same thing. We want to see stormwater improvements through green and grey infrastructure in a new Long Term Control Plan!
The original CSO plan is over twenty years old and ignored Climate Change. A new plan must take into consideration the changes in precipitation due to Global Warming.
The MWRA’s Alewife CSO (MWR003) discharged 20 million gallons of sewage water in 2021. It needs to be eliminated by installing a pumping station. Cambridge and Somerville CSOs need full sewer separation and green and grey infrastructure to clean the storm water and reduce flooding.
Climate Change will lead to an increase in CSO activations and even more sewage pollution. There will be a snowball effect, where it gets worse faster and faster. Therefore, all Alewife CSOs must be eliminated.
The Massachusetts Water Resource Authority (MWRA) is holding an online meeting this Thursday, February 17th, at 10 am. They plan to claim victory for their Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) project. Their good work is a victory for Boston Harbor, but what about the Alewife Brook?
Twenty years ago, the MWRA promised to clean up the untreated sewage pollution in Alewife Brook by 85%. And they raised our water bills to pay for it. But because of an increase in precipitation due to Climate Change, the Alewife CSOs continue to dump the same large volumes of sewage discharge into the brook.
The MWRA must acknowledge the flooding problems of the Alewife and the health risks associated with untreated sewage that they dump into Alewife Brook. There are an estimated 5000 people living in the Alewife’s 100-year flood plain. During flood events, hazardous, contaminated sewage water enters the homes, yards, and parks of our most vulnerable and diverse populations, making this an Environmental Justice issue.
In 2021, the MWRA’s Alewife CSO, MWR003, discharged over 20 MILLION GALLONS of untreated sewage water into Alewife Brook. Somerville and Cambridge dumped an additional 30 MILLION GALLONS. That’s an annual total of over 50 MILLION GALLONS of untreated sewage water discharged into the tiny Alewife Brook.
This is a serious health problem: among other pathogens, the MWRA’s Alewife sewage pollution contains COVID-19.
The solution is to eliminate all sewage pollution in the Alewife Brook, while adding green and grey infrastructure to clean the stormwater and reduce flooding.
We have an opportunity on Thursday – as a community – to ask that the MWRA commits to making lasting improvements in the Alewife. Please participate in the February 17th meeting and speak during the question and answer period as well as during the comments period.
Click here to use an interactive map that displays CSO locations, FEMA’s 100 year flood model from 2020, and Environmental Justice Population blocks.
This interactive map displays Combined Sewer Outfall locations as clickable red dots. Clicking on the red dots will reveal additional information about each individual CSO, including links to the NPDES pollution permit documents.
The blue areas on the map represent the waterbodies and the 100-year flood data. The flood overlay can be toggled on and off by clicking on the content tab in the upper left corner of the map and then selecting the checkboxes for each of the map overlays.
The Environmental Justice Populations yellow overlay shows the EJ blocks. These blocks are also clickable. Clicking on an EJ block will reveal 2019 Census data summarizing minority population, median household income, and household English language barriers.
From www.mass.gov: “Environmental Justice (EJ) is based on the principle that all people have a right to be protected from environmental hazards and to live in and enjoy a clean and healthful environment. EJ is the equal protection and meaningful involvement of all people with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies and the equitable distribution of environmental benefits.
Environmental Equity in Massachusetts
The Commonwealth’s Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA) established an Environmental Justice Policy to help address the disproportionate share of environmental burdens experienced by lower-income people and communities of color who, at the same time, often lack environmental assets in their neighborhoods. The policy is designed to help ensure their protection from environmental pollution as well as promote community involvement in planning and environmental decision-making to maintain and/or enhance the environmental quality of their neighborhoods.
Through its agencies and programs, EEA works to engage environmental justice populations in environmental decision-making through expanded and inclusive outreach, to minimize health risks through targeted environmental enforcement, and to improve environmental quality in all communities through initiatives that include reduction of pollutants and emissions, remediation and redevelopment of contaminated land, and investment in urban parks and greenspace.”
Fifty million gallons of sewage-contaminated stormwater were discharged into the Alewife Brook from the cities of Cambridge and Somerville in 2021, according to websites for those two cities and the Metropolitan Water Resources Authority. There was as much sewage-contaminated water discharged into the Alewife Brook last year as in 1997, before the implementation of a $200 million plan to modernize the area’s antique combined sewer systems.
Pollution persists in the Alewife sub-watershed because the area, already prone to flooding, is densely developed with impervious surfaces including pavement, rooftops and sidewalks. To make the matter worse, during major flood events when the Mystic River rises, it flows backward into the Alewife Brook, reversing the brook’s direction. This conveys the contaminated floodwater containing untreated sewage back upstream through vulnerable neighborhoods in North Cambridge and East Arlington, into the Little River and Belmont, and into residents’ homes, yards and parks. The situation is expected to get worse due to climate change.
Cambridge shares the concerns of environmentalists watching the discharge levels and in the past 20 years has completed more than 20 large sewer separation and stormwater holding tank projects, said Kathy Watkins, the city’s assistant commissioner for engineering. “It’s a continuous improvement program we’re committed to.”
But last year was extraordinary in its power to overtake the improvements the city has made: “The latest data I’ve seen shows 2021 was the 16th wettest year on record, and July was the wettest on record since 1895,” Watkins said. “The [work since 1997] has been an incredible success, but the work is not done.”
Cambridge staff also parts ways with some advocates on the emphasis placed on floodwater management. It’s made decreasing flooding a priority with the installation of a dozen stormwater tanks, including the latest at Parking Lot 6 on Bishop Allen Drive, which captured roughly 3.5 million gallons of stormwater last summer that gets stored and pumped into the system when it’s safe, Watkins said. The next project is a 1.3 million gallon tank and 100,000-gallon bioretention basin at the Tobin School campus.
“Sewer separation does not address flooding. In some ways it can actually exacerbate flooding. So when we’re looking at reducing flooding, we look at things like stormwater tanks, we look at how our system is designed, we look at how properties are designed when people are redeveloping their property,” Watkins said.
Many alarmed by sewage-contaminated discharges have a different focus: combined sewer overflow.
What is a CSO?
A combined sewer overflow is the discharge of untreated sewage mixed with stormwater into local waterways. These overflows happen when heavy rains or snowmelt overwhelm a sewer system where sewage and stormwater pipes are connected. Normally, these pipes send sewage to the Deer Island treatment plant, but when they overflow, sewage flows out through the stormwater pipes into rivers and brooks such as Alewife Brook and the Little River.
Cambridge and Somerville have been sending untreated sewage mixed with stormwater directly into the Alewife Brook through sewer outfalls – a pipe or conduit that carries stormwater (sometimes combined with raw sewage) into a body of water. These sewers, relics of combined sewer systems from the 19th century, are known as “one-pipe systems.”
The combined sewer system carries stormwater, industrial wastewater and untreated domestic sewage away in a single pipe out to the Deer Island water treatment plant. This one-pipe system is often overwhelmed during and after storms, when a mix of untreated sewage and stormwater is discharged, via outfalls, directly into the Alewife Brook. Rains, tides and river currents carry the pollution to Boston Harbor via the Mystic River.
As a result of the landmark Conservation Law Foundation Boston Harbor cleanup court case in the 1980s, the Environmental Protection Agency enforced the Clean Water Act and required that the CSO pollution end. The act created federal standards for discharges of pollution. The state Legislature then created the MWRA to manage and modernize the Boston water and sewer system, including building the sewage treatment facility at Deer Island. It was determined that the cost of totally replacing the existing CSO system would be very expensive and burdensome to the ratepayers, especially in less affluent communities. Thus a political compromise was made to only do part of the work.
The 12-year plan to fix CSOs
For the Little River-Alewife Brook watershed, the plan was to eliminate half of the Alewife CSOs and create a wetland in Alewife Reservation to clean some of the discharge. According to the DEP’s 2019 Alewife Mystic Final Variance Fact Sheet, the initiative promised the public an 85 percent reduction in sewage pollution while satisfying a Department of Environmental Protection requirement that improvements were being made. The Long Term CSO Control Plan split this work into seven large projects that took more than a dozen years to complete. All of this work was finished by 2015.
Victory was declared at a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the newly created Alewife Reservation Constructed Wetland in North Cambridge. This celebratory event marked the completion of the first LTCP for remediating the CSOs. Cambridge had good reason to celebrate: This project is a rare example of cutting-edge bioengineered green infrastructure.
The wetland collects stormwater from Cambridge’s Huron Village neighborhood north to Fresh Pond Parkway. The stormwater is pumped from the surrounding commercial and residential areas into a holding tank known as a “forebay,” in which sediment settles before the water is released into the wetland to be biologically filtered for contaminants and conveyed into the Little River just above where it becomes the Alewife Brook at the Minuteman Trail footbridge.=
To many people, this beautiful park appears to be an urban wild, with its trails, 119,000 native plantings, great blue herons, ducks, swans, eels and other wildlife. But it is so much more than that. The wetland provides flood relief and reduces sewage pollution via bioremediation while helping to protect Cambridge’s water supply at Fresh Pond. Built wetlands are tertiary treatment systems that use natural processes involving wetland vegetation, soils and their associated microbial assemblages to improve water quality, according to the EPA.
It is hard to imagine how much worse off the area would be without the work that was completed in 2015, local environmentalists say.
The “PL6” stormwater tank in The Port is seen under construction. It came online in 2020. (Photo: City of Cambridge)
How is it possible that after all the work to reduce discharges, 2021 saw the same volume of hazardous pollution as before the investments and CSO activations that are six times worse than the original plan promised?
Environmentalists say the answer is probably a combination of factors such as climate change and the wetness of the year, construction with rooftops, roads and parking lots made of impervious materials, vanishing trees and vegetation that used to slurp up groundwater and new developments tied into combined sewer system lines that reduce system capacity.
There is a problem with “illicit connections” at developments – where construction connects to a stormwater system instead of a drainage system – that communities are required to identify and remove, Watkins said. (Belmont, which has a system flowing to the Alewife Brook, is under an Environmental Protection Agency consent order to address illicit connections.) In Cambridge, larger development that tie into the sewer main must remove four gallons of water from the sewer system for every gallon they put in, Watkins said.
Some environmentalists propose a second Long Term Control Plan that would expand on the original’s sewer separation and green infrastructure, including bio basins, bioswales, planter boxes, rain gardens and permeable-asphalt roads, as well as closing the remaining Alewife Brook outfalls and adding a holding tank for stormwater with extra capacity and another bioengineered wetland park with trails and native plantings.
In addition to sewer infrastructure upgrades, experts say improvements around the Mystic River must be made to reduce flooding. An important key to controlling Alewife area flooding is the proper operation, maintenance and upgrades at the Amelia Earhart Dam. If the Amelia Earhart Dam is breached or flanked during future storms, a surge of water will be pushed up the Mystic into the Alewife Brook and into the neighborhoods of vulnerable populations.
“I always see these things as ‘yes, and,’” Watkins said. “Sewer separation is a part of it. Reducing combined sewer overflows is certainly a part of it. But there are other strategies as well that are important and may have a more significant impact on decreasing flooding and improving water quality.”
Topography and flooding
A review of federal flood maps reveals an estimated 3,500 Cantabrigians, 1,200 East Arlington residents and 300 Belmont residents living in the Little River-Alewife Reservation’s 100-year floodplain – a number that does not count the 643 residents in housing on the former Belmont Uplands/Silver Maple Forest site who could be stranded and surrounded by water in the event of a 100-year flood.
The Mystic River and Alewife Brook are below the mean high-tide level of Boston Harbor and have historically been tidal, with the water flow direction changing with the tide. For many years, this tidal flow was used to power mills.
Because of pollution and malaria concerns, the river flows were changed in 1909 with the construction of the Craddock Dam and tidal gates at Medford Center. This dam was replaced in 1966 by the Amelia Earhart Dam and pumping station at the mouth of the Mystic that pumps water into the harbor as needed to maintain a predictable water level.
The Amelia Earhart Dam is considered key to reducing flooding in the Mystic River and Alewife Brook. If the Mystic rises too high, water can flow backward in Alewife Brook toward Cambridge and Belmont. With global warming and sea-level rise, this dam will have to be reinforced to continue to protect the Mystic and the Alewife.
“The dams are critical in terms of providing protection to upstream communities,” Watkins said. The past year saw good progress in working with other municipalities and the state on what it would take to raise the dams by 4 feet and providing relief to a dozen communities with more than 108,000 residents and $60 billion-plus in real estate value. “We are we are working incredibly hard in terms of making sure this is a priority for the state.”
Discharges to Alewife Brook Have Persisted for Two Decades
By Kristin Anderson and David White
Fifty million gallons of sewage-contaminated stormwater have been discharged into the Alewife Brook from the cities of Cambridge and Somerville in 2021, according to websites for those two cities and the Metropolitan Water Resources Authority (MWRA) for the Alewife/Upper Mystic Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO). There has been as much sewage-contaminated water discharged into the Alewife Brook in 2021 as there was in 1997 before the implementation of a $200 million plan to modernize the area’s antique combined sewer systems.
Pollution persists in the Alewife sub-watershed because the area, already prone to flooding, is densely developed with impervious surfaces including pavement, rooftops, and sidewalks. To make the matter worse, during major flood events when the Mystic River rises, it flows backward into the Alewife Brook, reversing the brook’s direction. This conveys the contaminated flood water containing untreated sewage back upstream through vulnerable neighborhoods in East Arlington and North Cambridge, into the Little River and Belmont, and into residents’ homes, yards, and parks. The situation is expected to get worse due to climate change.
Sewage discharges continue for decades
The reported 2021 discharge volume shows no reduction in the volume of discharge compared to the base year of 1997. That’s the year that the MWRA chose as the standard in its original Long Term CSO Control Plan (LTCP) to reduce the amount of combined sewage discharge in the Alewife/Upper Mystic River Basin.
What is a CSO?
A combined sewer overflow (CSO) is the discharge of untreated sewage mixed with stormwater into local waterways. These overflows happen when heavy rains or snow melt overwhelm a sewer system where sewage and stormwater pipes are connected. Normally, these pipes send sewage to the Deer Island treatment plant, but when they overflow, sewage flows out through the stormwater pipes into rivers and brooks like the Little River and Alewife Brook.
Cambridge and Somerville have been sending untreated sewage mixed with stormwater directly into the Alewife Brook through sewer outfalls. An outfall is a pipe or conduit that carries stormwater (sometimes combined with raw sewage) into a body of water. These sewers, relics of combined sewer systems from the 19th century, are known as “one-pipe systems.”
The combined sewer system carries stormwater, industrial wastewater, and untreated domestic sewage away in a single pipe out to the Deer Island water treatment plant. This one-pipe system is often overwhelmed during and after storms, when a mix of untreated sewage and stormwater is discharged, via outfalls, directly into the Alewife Brook. Rains, tides, and river currents then carry the pollution to Boston Harbor via the Mystic River.
As a result of the landmark Conservation Law Foundation Boston Harbor cleanup court case in the 1980s, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) enforced the Clean Water Act and required that the CSO pollution end. The Clean Water Act created federal standards for discharges of pollution. The Massachusetts Legislature then created the MWRA to manage and modernize the Boston water and sewer system, including creating the new sewage treatment facility at Deer Island. It was determined that the cost of totally replacing the existing CSO system would be very expensive and burdensome to the ratepayers, especially in less affluent communities. Thus a political compromise was made to only do part of the work.
The 12-year plan to fix CSOs
For the Little River-Alewife Brook watershed, the plan was to eliminate half of the Alewife CSOs and construct a wetland in Alewife Reservation to clean some of the discharge. According to the DEP’s 2019 Alewife Mystic Final Variance Fact Sheet, the initiative to close and control the CSOs promised the public an 85% reduction in sewage pollution while satisfying the DEP requirement that improvements were being made. The LTCP split this work into seven large projects which took more than a dozen years to complete. All of this work was finished by 2015.
In 2015, victory was declared at a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the newly created Alewife Reservation Constructed Wetland in North Cambridge. This celebratory event marked the completion of the first LTCP for remediating the CSOs. Cambridge had good reason to celebrate: this project is a rare example of cutting-edge bioengineered green infrastructure.
The wetland collects stormwater from Cambridge’s Huron Village neighborhood, north to Fresh Pond Parkway. The stormwater is pumped from the surrounding commercial and residential areas into a holding tank known as a “forebay,” where sediment is allowed to settle before the water is released into the wetland to be biologically filtered for contaminants and then conveyed into the Little River just above where it becomes the Alewife Brook at the Minuteman Trail footbridge.
To many people, this beautiful park appears to be an urban wild, with its trails, 119,000 native plantings, great blue herons, ducks, swans, eels, and other wildlife. But it is so much more than that. The wetland provides flood relief and reduces sewage pollution via bioremediation while helping to protect Cambridge’s water supply at Fresh Pond. Constructed wetlands are tertiary treatment systems that use natural processes involving wetland vegetation, soils, and their associated microbial assemblages to improve water quality, according to the EPA.
It is hard to imagine how much worse off the area would be without the excellent work that was completed in 2015.
Pollution persists today
How is it possible that in 2021, after all the work that was done to reduce the CSO discharges, that we are now experiencing the same volume of hazardous pollution as we did before making any investments in green and gray infrastructure?
It has been a wet year, but that cannot completely explain the fact that the CSO activations are six times worse than the original LTCP promised. Sometimes just one inch of rain can activate a CSO in the Alewife Brook.
Is the rate at which the rain fell in 2021 to blame for the unexpectedly large volume of CSO discharge? Is it because the ground absorbs less water, as developers continue to build one new building in the area after the next, with impervious rooftops, impervious access roads, and impervious parking lots?
How is it possible that we are now experiencing the same volume of hazardous pollution as we did before making any investments in green and gray infrastructure?
Is it that new developments are tied into the combined sewer system lines, further reducing system capacity? Is it due to the vanishing trees and vegetation which normally used to slurp up groundwater as the roots aid infiltration and send the rainwater into the water table (where it becomes a resource rather than a waste product)? Are we experiencing more storms because of climate change?
The answer is probably a combination of these factors, but it is clear that we are losing ground. We must continue the work of modernizing the sewer systems and employing green infrastructure and other nature-based solutions or the problem will get worse.
Improvements have to be made to reduce the damaging impact of the CSOs. There have been no investments since that ribbon-cutting ceremony in 2015. But there is now an opportunity to create a second Long Term Control Plan, which we will call LTCP2.
LTCP2 should include everything that was part of the first LTCP:
Closing of the remaining Alewife Brook outfalls
Green infrastructure including bio basins, bioswales, planter boxes, rain gardens, permeable asphalt roads
A holding tank for stormwater with extra capacity to help relieve flooding
Another bioengineered wetland park with trails and native plantings
This plan would take a big step towards climate change resiliency.
In addition to sewer infrastructure upgrades, necessary improvements in the Mystic River must be made to reduce flooding. An important key to controlling Alewife area flooding is the proper operation, maintenance, and upgrades at the Amelia Earhart Dam. Looking into the future, if the Amelia Earhart Dam is breached or flanked during future storms, a surge of water will be pushed up the Mystic into the Alewife Brook and into the neighborhoods of our most vulnerable populations.
A review of FEMA flood maps reveals there are an estimated 1,200 East Arlington residents, 3,500 Cantabrigians, and 300 Belmont residents living in the Little River-Alewife Reservation’s 100-year floodplain. This number does not count the 643 residents living in housing on the former Belmont Uplands/Silver Maple Forest site, who could be completely stranded and surrounded by water in the event of a 100-year flood.
There will likely continue to be flooding in some extreme events, but antique combined sewer systems make flooding much worse by contaminating floodwaters with raw sewage. We can close the outfalls. Six have already been closed on Alewife Brook, and there are six more to go.
Topography and flooding
For the Mystic River and Alewife Brook, topography is destiny. Both streams are below the mean high-tide level of Boston Harbor and have historically been tidal, with the water flow direction changing with the tide. For many years, this tidal flow was used to power mills.
Because of pollution and malaria concerns, the river flows were changed in 1909 with the construction of the Craddock Dam and tidal gates at Medford Center. This dam was replaced in 1966 by the Amelia Earhart Dam and pumping station at the mouth of the Mystic that pumps water into the harbor as needed to maintain a predictable water level.
The Amelia Earhart Dam is the key to reducing flooding in the Mystic River and Alewife Brook. If the Mystic rises too high, water can flow backward in Alewife Brook towards Cambridge and Belmont. With global warming and sea-level rise, this dam will have to be reinforced to continue to protect the Mystic and the Alewife.
Kristin Anderson is an Arlington Town Meeting member whose home was occupied by the untreated sewage flood waters of the Alewife Brook during more than one 100-year flood event within a two-year period. David White is an Arlington Conservation Commissioner and member of its Waterbodies Working Group. David has been involved in environmental activities for many years.
On December 30, 2021, the Massachusetts Water Resource Authority (MWRA) published its anticipated Final CSO Performance Assessment, as part of a series of regulatory reports that have been submitted to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. These reports are a requirement of the landmark Boston Harbor Cleanup Case. Here, the MWRA has attempted to demonstrate that it has achieved the levels of Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) control, “including as to frequency of activation and as to volume of discharge specified in its Long-Term CSO Control Plan” as stated in the court ruling.1
What the MWRA Final CSO Performance Assessment Report Says:
The Boston Harbor Cleanup has been extremely successful for the Boston Harbor.2 There really has been a miraculous transformation in the Boston Harbor that everyone involved can be proud of.
SOM001A, Somerville’s Alewife Brook CSO is not in compliance3 and there is no plan proposed to get SOM001A into compliance4. SOM001A is the Tannery Brook CSO, which discharges combined sewage from Davis Square.
What the MWRA Final CSO Performance Assessment Report Doesn’t Say:
Based on modeling, rather than real data, the report claims that there were a total of 6.26 million gallons of CSO discharge in the Alewife Brook in 2021.5 The reality is that in 2021 there was a total of 50 million gallons of sewage water discharge into the Alewife Brook. The true data is eight times worse than the MWRA’s modeled data. The MWRA’s CSO report is off by 43 million gallons!
The report does not provide actual CSO discharge volumes in the Alewife Brook. It only includes measured 2021 CSO discharge volumes for the first half of the year. For the second half of 2021, the MWRA used modeling, rather than actual measured discharge volumes.6
Cambridge, Somerville, and the MWRA have reported the actual measured data for the entire year on their CSO Activations reporting websites.7 Given the disproportionate health impact that the CSOs have on our most vulnerable Environmental Justice populations in the Alewife area, it is not equitable to publish untrue, modeled data that has no basis in reality. The true numbers demand that more work is done to control the CSOs. If the true data is published, then this report can be used to better improve the community health problems of hazardous sewage-contaminated floodwater that enters the homes, yards, and parks of Alewife area neighborhoods.
The report basically evaluates modeled performance of the CSOs for a “typical” year which was determined over twenty years ago based on historical data. It is this modeled data that is then used to evaluate compliance. The “typical” year assumption needs to be re-evaluated and likely updated to represent current conditions including the effects of climate change.8
The actual data is used for model calibration but not for assessing compliance. This is a potential disconnect between what is actually happening and what the model is saying.
The Final CSO Performance Assessment report does not account for the effects of Climate Change and its continual increase in precipitation.9 It says nothing about how Climate Change’s increase in wet weather is resulting in an increase in CSO activations. The report makes no mention about the fact that future conditions will be even worse, not only because of the increase in precipitation, but also because of sea level rise, and more frequent and dramatic storm events.
Missing from the MWRA’s Final CSO Performance Assessment report is any information whatsoever about the Alewife Basin’s topography and how it is prone to flooding. It says nothing about how close to sea level the Alewife is. And it says nothing about the number of people who live within the Alewife’s 100-year flood plain and how hazardous sewage-contaminated flood water enters the homes, yards and parks of the area’s most vulnerable, Environmental Justice populations. The report says nothing about how unsafe it is to live near the Alewife Brook because of CSO sewage water that floods neighborhood homes.
And, alarmingly, although it does list other pathogens, the CSO Final Performance Assessment report says nothing about COVID-19 in the CSO sewage water and what health risk the Alewife’s hazardous COVID-19 contaminated flood water carries when it enters residents’ homes, yards, and parks. The MWRA is already doing an amazing job of testing their wastewater for COVID-19. That data should be included in their CSO report.10
The Boston Harbor Cleanup has been a great success for the Boston Harbor. The Alewife Brook is a small waterbody by comparison, but it should be treated it as the unique tributary that it is. The flat topography of the low-lying Alewife watershed ensures that CSOs have a disproportionate impact on the folks living in this flood-prone area. A review of FEMA flood maps reveals there are an estimated 1200 East Arlington residents, 3500 Cantabrigians, and 300 Belmont residents living in the Little River – Alewife Reservation’s 100-year flood plain. Because of flooding, the CSOs make the Alewife Brook an unsafe place to live near. The neighborhoods around the Alewife include the area’s most diverse and vulnerable populations, which makes this an Environmental Justice issue, since these are Environmental Justice populations.11 Because of the elevated health risks associated with sewage water entering the homes of Alewife residents, the Alewife’s CSO control design should exceed the EPA & MWRA’s 85% improvement goal as part of the Boston Harbor Cleanup case.
The great achievements from the first Long Term CSO Control Plan, which closed half the CSOs in the Alewife Brook, are losing ground to Climate Change, with its wetter rain season, and more frequent and dramatic storms. What we once thought would be an 85% reduction in CSO discharges is now completely eclipsed by the effects of Climate Change, in addition to other factors such as the increase in impervious surface. In 2021, there have been 50 million gallons of sewage-contaminated water discharged into the Alewife Brook. This is the same volume of sewage contaminated stormwater discharge as for the base year of 1997, which is the year that the MWRA chose as the design year in its original Long-Term CSO Control Plan.
The MWRA’s CSO Performance Assessment provides no path forward towards solving the critical community health problems that Alewife Brook CSOs present. As an example, there is currently no plan for compliance of Somerville’s SOM001A CSO. For this CSO, which MWRA has flagged as being out of compliance, there should be a plan that includes (1) full sewer separation and elimination of the SOM001A CSO, (2) gray infrastructure that includes an underground stormwater tank at Dilboy Park, (3) another Pumping Station to convey sewage out to Deer Island, and (4) green infrastructure that includes a stormwater wetlands to clean Somerville’s stormwater, bioswales and rain gardens, (5) Alewife Brook restoration, and (6) possible daylighting of the Tannery Brook.
Somerville, Cambridge, and the MWRA will benefit when their CSOs are no longer polluting the community surrounding Alewife Brook. There is federal funding available to do this work now, making the project an economic win. Somerville, Cambridge, and the MWRA should stop pushing the costs downstream on MWRA rate payers in Everett and Chelsea who cannot afford it. By closing the CSOs, they will prevent unsafe, contaminated discharge into Alewife Brook and into the flood water that enters neighborhood homes, yards, and parks. Half of the CSOs have already been closed, now is the time to close those that remain.
Combined Sewer Outfalls (CSO) are where sewage overflows occur when the combined sewer system is overwhelmed by stormwater during rainy weather and sewage mixes with stormwater and overflows or discharges into a waterbody like the Alewife Brook. CSOs are a relic of outdated Combined Sewer Systems (also known as “one pipe systems”) from the 1800s, when flush toilets were an exciting technology that was being quickly adopted. Many older systems such as in Cambridge and Somerville were built this way. Arlington’s was built later and has no combined sewers and no CSOs.
During dry weather, the sanitary sewage, which is what you flush, goes to the wastewater treatment plant (“POTW” or publicly operated treatment works). During wet weather, sanitary sewage mixes with stormwater in the same pipe and flows over a weir, or dam, and out into the receiving waterbody.
How should the sewers work?
Stormwater runoff, which is rainwater from the street, should be filtered through rain gardens or wetlands, where the water is naturally filtered and cleaned, and then it should flow through storm drains into our rivers and eventually out to sea. Sanitary sewage should all go to the waste water treatment plant.
How many CSOs are there in the Alewife Brook?
Twenty years ago, there were twelve CSOs in the Alewife Brook. As part of the landmark Boston Harbor Cleanup court case, Cambridge and Somerville closed six of the CSOs over the period of a decade or so. They didn’t close them all because they couldn’t afford to do them all at once. So they closed half of the CSOs and we now have six CSOs that discharge untreated sewage water into the Alewife Brook.
Don’t we have to have CSOs if we don’t want sewage backing up into people’s homes and businesses and roads?
We do not have to have CSOs. They are a relic of very old and aging sewer system which is begging to be upgraded. If the sewer system infrastructure is updated by being separated and possibly by adding capacity, then the sanitary sewage can be pumped out to the wastewater treatment plant and it will not end up into homes, roads, or businesses.
We held our second community meeting on Monday night, this time online. 50 area residents joined us from Arlington, Cambridge, and Somerville. Elected officials were there, including Senator Will Brownsberger, Arlington Selectboard Member Diane Mahon, an aide from Representative Dave Rogers’ office, and a number of Arlington Town Meeting members. MyRWA Director Patrick Herron presented valuable information, as well.
We discussed the Alewife Brook water pollution, flooding, our vision for safe and beautiful brook, and the upcoming CSO regulatory milestones. Our goal is to rally for passionate public participation which will leads to regional solutions to the water quality and flooding problems in the Alewife Brook / Little River sub-watershed. Because this must be a regional effort, we were very happy to see meeting participants from Belmont, Cambridge, Somerville, and Arlington.
We need everyone to show up to this online meeting in order to make our voice heard! We need to flood the meeting with public comment and demand that the area municipalities and the MWRA develop a second long term CSO control plan to modernize the 19th Century combined sewer systems and close the remaining Alewife CSOs. More needs to be done in the face of Climate Change!
APRIL 1, 2022 Cambridge, Somerville, and MWRA submit to federal EPA and state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) a scope and schedule for an updated CSO control plan. Source: MWRA CSO Assessment Public Briefing, May 2020 p. 21
We must work now to educate the municipalities about the realities of pollution and flooding in the Alewife Brook, so that the scope of the new plan includes full sewer separation and an end to sewage pollution in the Alewife Brook including that from other contaminated storm water sources.
APRIL 30, 2022 Deadline for the cities’ annual CSO reporting. The cities will provide a comparison between the precipitation for the year 2021 and the precipitation of the typical year. The annual report will also provide a comparison between the activation volume and frequency for each CSO in 2021 compared to the typical year and the MWRA Long Term Control Plan requirements.
JUNE 30, 2023 Cambridge, Somerville and MWRA must submit a Draft Recommended CSO Control Plan to EPA and DEP for review. Source: DEP Variance Permit, p.8, section F(5)
We need to demand that green and gray infrastructure technologies are employed to fully separate the combined sewers, close the CSOs, clean the stormwater for contaminants, and provide the public with a safe Alewife Brook that is boatable and fishable.
AUGUST 31, 2024 Massachusetts DEP Temporary 5 Year Variance Permit Expires. This permit is issued by the state and allows the municipalities’ combined sewer systems to pollute the Alewife Brook during wet weather. Source: MADEP Variance Permit
On December 1st, 2021, Save the Alewife Brook (StAB) attended Cambridge’s Finance Committee Meeting, which was dedicated to the discussion of the allocation of $80 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds.
The Finance Committee includes Cambridge’s mayor Sumbul Siddiqui, Vice Mayor Alanna Mallon, Councillor Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler, Councillor Marc C. McGovern, Councillor Patricia Nolan, Councillor Quinton Zondervan, and Councillor Timothy J. Toomey.
Thanks goes out to everyone who wrote letters to their state representatives. Because of your letters, Representative Dave Rogers reached out and recommended that we attend Cambridge’s meeting to discuss allocation of $80 million in federal ARPA funds.
Here is our three minute statement to Cambridge’s Finance Committee:
Following our comments, Cambridge resident Damon Krukowski spoke in support our efforts and helped to amplify our message. And then Councillor Nolan speak in favor of Climate Change Resiliency and Environmental Justice and specifically in support of our plea to end the sewage water pollution in the Alewife Brook!
The meeting was an amazing opportunity to have our voice heard by Cambridge’s most influential elected officials. This is one step towards reaching the centuries’ long goal of reducing hazardous pollution in the Alewife Brook.
So far, this year, a total of 50 million gallons of sewage-contaminated stormwater have been discharged into the Alewife Brook from combined sewer overflows as shown below. The kind of sewage that we are talking about here is the kind that you flush. It contains hazardous human waste which can cause disease.
There have been a total of 45 Combined Sewer Outfall (CSO) activations in the Alewife Brook in 2021. Rainstorms producing as little as an inch of rain can trigger a CSO discharge into the Alewife Brook.
The 2021 CSO discharge numbers are significant because they show ZERO reduction in the volume of discharges, as compared to the original 1997 assessment. That predates any improvements that were made as part of the Boston Harbor Cleanup case to close the CSOs.
The CSO Final Variance Permit 2 from the MA Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) that allows the permittees (Somerville, Cambridge, and MWRA) to discharge sewage contaminated water into Alewife Brook, provided the public with a promise that there would be an 85% reduction in discharges after the work was done, as part of the Long Term Control Plan (LTCP)3.
But an 85% reduction would mean that we would experience 7 CSO activations and 7.3 million gallons, annually. The reality this year is SIX TIMES WORSE than what the Variance Permit predicted.
While there has been a lot of rain this year there still should have been some improvement. Also, with climate change we can expect more rainfall and more severe storms.
Note that this variance permit places no maximum limit on the number of annual activations. It places no maximum limit on the annual volume of discharges. It is not concerned about any maximum amount of bacteria in the water. However, the Final Variance Permit does require that the permittees (Somerville, Cambridge, & MWRA) have in place a Long Term Control Plan (LTCP) and that they are making improvements. But the Alewife Brook LTCP was completed in 2015 and, to the best of our knowledge, there have been no improvements since then, other than regular maintenance.
There’s an opportunity, now, for a new Alewife Brook CSO Long Term Control Plan to be developed. It appears that the previous improvement efforts are unexpectedly losing ground to an increase in precipitation, an increase in stormwater, and an increase in sanitary sewage, resulting in more CSO activations. Since we expect that the future will bring more precipitation and more dramatic storms, the new Alewife Brook CSO Long Term Control Plan must consider all these factors. It should be a plan to close all the CSOs in the Alewife Brook.
The Alewife Basin is prone to flooding4. When there is flooding, Arlington’s most vulnerable and diverse neighborhoods receive flood waters over the bank of the Alewife and into parks, yards, and neighborhood homes, right through the back door. This is not percolating ground water flooding. It is flood water that is mixed with sewage. To make matters worse, the Alewife reverses direction during some flood events, sending that contaminated flood water back to North Cambridge, towards Cambridge’s most diverse and vulnerable neighborhood.
The Alewife Brook CSOs are an environmental justice issue5.
Please sign the Save the Alewife Brook petition to close the CSOs in the Alewife Brook.
Please join Save the Alewife Brook on December 13th, for our Zoom meeting to discuss our vision for a safe, clean, and beautiful Alewife Brook and to plan our public response to the upcoming regulatory milestones.
In a recent YourArlington.com article about the new ARPA funding, Representative Sean Garballey was quoted as saying, “As the chair of the House Committee on Global Warming and Climate Change, I was proud to work on and help secure $100 million toward infrastructure for communities to adapt and become climate resilient, $100 million for water-and-sewer projects including resources to address combined sewer water flow into our waterways, and investments in housing, health and human services, and education.”
also from the YourArlington.com article:
“Environment, climate-change mitigation”
“Building on the House’s commitment to the environment and clean energy, the bill includes investments for environmental infrastructure and development spending, with a focus on environmental justice communities, climate change resiliency and clean energy. This bill includes $100 million for port infrastructure development and revitalization to facilitate economic activity and support the offshore wind industry.
Other investments include $100 million toward infrastructure for communities to adapt and become climate resilient; and $100 million for water and sewer projects, including those to remediate combined sewer overflow into waterways.“
You can see and smell the Alewife Brook when you walk along the Alewife Greenway, the path that runs along the eastern edge of Arlington, parallel to the Alewife Brook, from the Minuteman Bike Trail to the Mystic River. Seeing it and smelling it is how most people experience the Alewife Brook.
Silas Price, however, is interested inlisteningto the Brook, to hear what it has to say. The Alewife is pretty quiet, at least until it starts to rain. When it rains, the Alewife Brook begins to sing.
Save the Alewife Brook is building an Open Source Field Recording Library of sounds from the Alewife Brook. The library will be free for anyone to use, as long as the recordings are attributed to Silas Price & Save the Alewife Brook.
Why are we doing this? Besides that fact that it’s fun, we hope to inspire the creation of musical compositions, in a wider effort to bring attention to the unsafe quality of the water and the flooding of the Alewife Brook.
The Silas Price & Save the Alewife Brook field recording audio files are protected by the following Creative Commons Attribution license:
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The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection’s GIS map is a resource that displays information about all Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) throughout the Commonwealth. Each CSO is marked with a link to a pop-up window that displays a wealth information, including: the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit ID, the system that it belongs to (Cambridge, Somerville, or the MWRA), the CSO ID, the location, and a link to the permit which allows for the legal discharge of sewage contaminated water into the receiving water body.
After receiving notification of multiple Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) activations in the Alewife Brook, filmmaker Clare Nosowitz grabbed her video camera and her rain coat and headed out the door. The date was October 26, 2021 and the Alewife was experiencing rain at the start of a gusty autumn Nor’easter.
On this day, less than an inch of rain fell before activating Somerville’s lone Alewife Brook CSO, known as SOM001A. According to Somerville’s DWP website, just .92″ of rain caused SOM001A to discharge for 45 minutes. This resulted in an estimated 1.42 million gallons of untreated sewage contaminated water, all from Somerville, discharging into the Alewife Brook.
Currently, there are six CSOs in the Alewife Brook, which discharge sewage contaminated stormwater during some rain events. The worst CSO is SOM001A, Somerville’s only active CSO in the Alewife Brook.
But Somerville was not the only neighbor discharging untreated sewage water into Arlington’s Alewife Brook on that morning. Further upstream, the MWRA and Cambridge were also discharging sewage water into the Alewife Brook. In fact, five of the six Alewife CSOs, SOM001A, CAM001, CAM401B, CAM401A, & MWR003, were activated, discharging an estimated 2.5 million gallons of sewage water into the Alewife Brook between 6 and 8 am.
Here is video of the filthy water moving quickly in the Alewife Brook, towards the Mystic River. The film maker caught this shot while heading upstream from SOM001A, towards Massachusetts Avenue.
Further west, at the mouth of the Alewife Brook, Cambridge’s CAM401A is physically the first CSO in the brook. It defines the start of the brook and it is hidden (out of sight, out of mind?) behind the cylindrical parking ramp at the Alewife T. CAM401A discharged .7 million gallons of sewage water for 90 minutes on that morning.
Fortunately, the Alewife did not experience any flooding on this day. New England’s favorite meteorologist, Dave Epstein said of this storm, “If this storm had occurred at the time of astronomical high tide, we might be looking at record-breaking flooding in Boston.”
* Note: SOM001A was activated again just four days later, on October 30th, 2021. However, Somerville does not update their CSO notification page within 48 hours of their CSO activations. This is why, at the time of this publishing, that on 11/2/2021, there is still no mention of this most recent CSO activation.
Here is a link to Arlington’s Interactive Wetland Regulations GIS map. If you click on “layers” and select the FEMA Hazard Zones, you will see which of our neighborhoods are expected to get flooding in 100 year storm events.
The Save the Alewife Brook group hosted a “Spooky” Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) tour of the Alewife Brook in East Arlington on the lovely morning of Saturday, October 16. Twenty Arlington residents, including some Town Meeting Members came out for the event.
The goals of the group are summarized in a petition that was distributed:
During major flood events, the Alewife Brook washes onto the yards and into the homes of Arlington residents. Most of those flood events also include sewage contaminated discharges from the active Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) from Cambridge and Somerville. Climate change, with its wetter rainy seasons, more intense storms, and sea level rise, is expected to increase the severity and frequency of these events.
Therefore, we want the cities of Somerville and Cambridge and the MWRA, to stop discharging sewage pollution into the Alewife Brook by closing the existing CSOs. We also want the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to invest in making necessary improvements to the Mystic River and Amelia Earhart Dam so that it is resilient to the effects of climate change.
Initial discussion topics included flood control improvements at the Amelia Earhart dam and regional Climate Change initiatives. There was talk of the long history of the CSOs events and the improvements that have been completed in the last two decades. But CSOs are still discharging sewage polluted waters.
The group arrived in Cambridge. Hidden behind the round Alewife T parking garage, they discovered that the start of the Alewife Brook is marked by the ugly mouth of CAM401A – the first of the Alewife Brook CSOs.
CAM401A most recently discharged 1.1 million gallons of untreated sewage-contaminated water into the Alewife Brook on September 28th, 2021, during a 1.6” rainstorm. Four weeks earlier, on September 1st, the CSO discharged 2.95 million gallons of untreated sewage-contaminated water.
While observing CAM401A, East Arlington resident David Stoff lamented, “This is the saddest place I’ve ever been.” And then he pointed out that the “floatables” control was not working well – a piece of toilet paper and a used condom hung from a dead tree branch in front of the outfall pipe.
The group then headed back along the Alewife Greenway, to find the other active CSOs. The walk ended at the worst offender: Somerville’s CSO, named SOM01A. It was noted that the “floatables” control was not working: toilet paper hung from a dead tree branch in front of the outfall. We also noted that on 9/2/21, 6.07 million gallons of untreated sewage-contaminated water was discharged on a single day, from this one CSO.
All of the walkers came away with a better understanding of the continuing pollution problems of Alewife Brook and motivated to work for improvements.
People who are interested in these problems can visit the group’s website and/or join the Google email list for periodic events and updates.
The Save the Alewife Brook “Spooky” Walk was organized by Town Meeting Member Kristin Anderson, Pct. 13 (who was flooded out by Alewife Brook), and David White of the Arlington Conservation Commission and Town Meeting Member from Pct. 21
During major flood events, the Alewife Brook washes onto the yards and into the homes of Arlington residents. Most of those flood events also include sewage contaminated discharges from the active Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) from Cambridge and Somerville. Climate change, with its wetter rainy seasons, more intense storms, and sea level rise, is expected to increase the severity and frequency of these events.
Therefore, we want the cities of Somerville and Cambridge and the MWRA, to stop discharging sewage pollution into the Alewife Brook by separating their sewers and by closing the existing CSOs. We also want the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to invest in making necessary improvements to the Mystic River and Amelia Earhart Dam so that it is resilient to the effects of climate change.
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