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MWRC spells out 2018 priorities at EPA event

MRWC Executive Director Rusty Russell

LAWRENCE — Growing vulnerability to flooding. Poorly reported mass dumpings of raw sewage. Concerns about pollution and dangerous trash such as hypodermic needles.

Those are some of the key issues facing the lower stretches of the Merrimack River between Lawrence and Newburyport.  All were discussed at a meeting held yesterday between the Environmental Protection Agency, the state Department of Environmental Protection, Lawrence city officials and local non-profits that have a vested interest in cleaning up the local environment. The meeting, hosted by Groundwork Lawrence, was intended to enhance communication between the parties and work toward common goals.

The meeting gave the Merrimack River Watershed Council an opportunity to present some of its priorities for 2018. Executive Director Rusty Russell discussed three broad areas that the MRWC will focus on in 2018:

Runoff controls: Runoff into the Merrimack is a significant cause of pollution and flooding. In most cases it’s a manmade problem — caused by development that overloads the watershed during significant rainstorms and causes pollution to flow unchecked into the river. Russell said the MRWC is helping to combat the problem with expanded efforts to plant trees in buffer zones that will lessen the flow of pollutants.

Combined Sewage Overflows:  This topic has been in the news of late, driven by a power failure at the Greater Lawrence Sanitary District’s sewage plant in North Andover in late October that resulted in at least 8 million gallons of raw sewage flowing into the river. But CSOs are a common event along the Merrimack, almost always going unreported to the general public — in fact the EPA disclosed that during that late October storm, the Lowell Regional Wastewater Utility’s treatment plant spilled nearly 21 million gallons of untreated sewage into the Merrimack. As Russell explained, sewage plants are not required to report their CSO events to the public. The MRWC is working aggressively with state lawmakers to pass a bill that will require sewage plants to publicly report their CSO incidents.

Public education: Educating citizens about the Merrimack and encouraging them to explore it is one of the pillars of the MRWC’s mission, and Russell said in 2018 there will be expanded plans to achieve those goals. Among the initiatives the MRWC is a new round of water testing, river bank restoration, and exploring the possibility of creating public access to an island the MRWC owns in the Methuen stretch of the Merrimack. The island could be well suited as a recreational resource for local youths, Russell said.