On Jan. 12, Gov. Charlie Baker signed a law requiring wastewater operators to notify the public when a combined sewer system discharges untreated wastewater into a local body of water.

Combined sewer systems, many dating back more than a century, combine wastewater and stormwater, unlike more modern systems that keep sewage separate from stormwater. Stormwater caused by heavy rain events can overwhelm combined systems, causing them to discharge into rivers.

These combined sewer overflows, or CSOs, discharged upwards of 700 million gallons into the Merrimack River alone in 2018, according to a report from WBUR. The Massachusetts Water Resources Authority reported that 29 million gallons were discharged into its service watershed during a major storm this past Christmas Day.

The notification bill was a priority of the environmental advocacy community for several years. In a press release about the bill signing, Julia Blatt, executive director of the Massachusetts Rivers Alliance, said: “Massachusetts residents have a right to know if there is sewage in their rivers, especially this year when we’ve turned to nature for safe recreation and peace of mind.”

The law requires wastewater operators to, at a minimum, send email or text notifications to local and downstream residents within two hours of discovering a discharge, and provide updates every eight hours until the discharge subsides. The law also requires the operators to publish information online confirming the volume discharged and identifying any precautionary measures the public should take when interacting with the affected waterway.

The law charges the Department of Environmental Protection with developing regulations in the coming year to enforce the new law.

Some wastewater operators have used the debate over the notification bill to raise concerns about implementation and funding. While some wastewater operators with CSOs have real-time and upgraded monitoring and metering systems, others have aging and out-of-date infrastructure.

Phil Guerin, president of the Massachusetts Coalition for Water Resources Stewardship and director of Worcester’s wastewater utility, recently told WBUR that not all permittees subject to the new law will be able to meet the requirements with their current technology, and that it will be a financial burden for them to do so.

As the public receives the CSO notifications required by the law and becomes concerned, Guerin hopes state and federal legislators “will come up with the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to actually fix the problems with antiquated sewer systems.”

As of 2018, Massachusetts had 19 CSO permitees responsible for more than 100 separate outfall locations.

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