Our local representatives in Congress, Lori Trahan and Seth Moulton, have consistently lobbied the federal government for more help to clean up the combined sewer overflows (CSO) that continually deposit pollutants into the Merrimack River.
Last week, they got their answer, one that should tell them that federal grants alone won’t solve the Merrimack’s and any other distressed waterways’ problem.
Trahan announced that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) allocated $67 million in grant funding to assist local communities across the nation in stemming the outflow of these contaminants.
This event occurs when excess storm water mixes with raw waste in municipal sewage treatment plants with single-flow filtration systems, depositing that contaminated mix into rivers and other waterways, which can kill aquatic life and cause gastrointestinal diseases.
“… For too long, Washington has shifted the financial and environmental burdens of addressing this issue to local governments, who are already being asked to do more with less,” Trahan said in a statement. “This down payment is a signal that help is on the way.”
Down payment is the operative word here.
Since its reauthorization in 2018, the Sewer Overflow and Stormwater Reuse Municipal Grants program has seen modestly higher annual appropriations — given the enormity of the task — from $28 million in fiscal year 2020 to $40 million in fiscal year 2021.
The key concern of Trahan and others involve the formula the federal government applies in dispersing these limited grant dollars.
Back in September 2020, Trahan and Moulton, along with two of their New Hampshire congressional colleagues, Chris Pappas and Annie Kuster, sought changes to the proposed EPA grant formula for sewer overflows.
They were concerned that one of the proposed metrics, total population, would penalize smaller states like Massachusetts and New Hampshire, and not reflect a state’s actual need for assistance.
They urged the EPA to “replace the total population with a metric that weighs per capita needs.”
They also wanted the agency to prioritize awarding these grants to financially distressed communities, as required under the Clean Water Act.
In March 2021, the EPA finalized the grant-award methodology.
Factors weighed include the latest Clean Watershed Needs Survey (50%), total state population (16.7%), urban population (16.7%), and annual average precipitation (16.7%).
The lawmakers previously also encouraged the EPA to meet its lawful obligation to provide more frequent updates to the Clean Water Needs Survey, which they identified as the most comprehensive dataset for identifying states’ stormwater management needs.
By the way, the Clean Watershed Needs Survey back in 2012 — the most recent document we could find — assessed the cost of CSO remediation at close to $50 billion, so we can only imagine what that calculation is now.
Whatever the criteria, it leaves Massachusetts vying along with every other state, U.S. territories and the District of Columbia for pieces of that $67 million prize.
And whatever a state receives must be reallocated to individual municipalities to address infrastructure needs including, but not limited to, CSOs.
This explains why EPA grants aren’t the answer.
It’s literally going to take an act of Congress to funnel the sum of funds needed to overcome this massive infrastructure problem.
Trahan tried to do just that In April of 2019, when she introduced the Stop Sewage Overflow Act to support the elimination of CSO contamination in rivers across the United States.
In 2018 alone, communities along the Merrimack River released 800 million gallons of untreated sewer and storm-water runoff into that waterway.
While the original legislation stalled, Trahan reintroduced the bill to Congress in March 2020, key parts of which are now contained in comprehensive infrastructure legislation pending in Congress.
The billions of dollars needed to mitigate this CSO problem nationwide remains beyond the means of any one community or state.
Congress must provide the resources that a federal government agency is unable or unwilling to do.