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Alewife Brook sewer overflows to be addressed

Caption: Worst Offender: Somerville’s SOM01A Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO)Somerville’s SOM01A combined sewer overflow.

UPDATED Dec. 31: “Sewer overflow affects many Arlington residents,” said Kristin Anderson, Precinct 13 Town Meeting member, who monitors the combined sewer overflows (CSOs) at Alewife Brook, at the Dec. 20 Select Board meeting.

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CSOs are caused by the discharge of untreated sewage and storm-water runoff. Select Board Chair Steve DeCourcey said he would include the issue on a future meeting agenda.

“I appreciate Arlington’s hard work for Alewife Brook. However, attention needs to be brought to the problems of flooding because of climate change,” she said.

“Six of the 12 CSOs discharging into Alewife Brook have been fixed, but these improvements have been totally eclipsed by climate change and wetter weather. During flooding, unsafe and untreated CSOs flood into homes in East Arlington, Cambridge, Somerville and Belmont.”

She suggested that more work must be done, by organizing and collaborating with residents in these communities, and working with the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA).

She said that green infrastructure must be part of the solution. “Alewife Brook can become a resource, not a problem and be safe a place for fishing in the summer and ice skating in the winter,:” she said.

The organization that she began this fall, Save the Alewife Brook, an environmental campaign site, could benefit tremendously from support, she said, including state and federal funding, legal advice and engineering assistance to evaluate storm-water runoff.

“Times have changed over the decades. We need to let elected officials who represent Cambridge and Somerville know that this situation still exists. This problem has been going on for so long that it’s now out of sight and out of mind, so bringing this to their attention will be helpful,” she said. 

She cited the importance of attracting federal funding. “The MWRA’s mechanism to pay for this is to pass it along to the ratepayers,” she said. “Everett and Chelsea residents cannot afford to pay more for sewer upgrades for people living in Cambridge and Somerville. The sewer system is more than 100 years old.

“I hope the town can figure out what this will cost, because if we knew this, we would know how much state and federal money to ask for.”

Town Counsel Doug Heim explained, “These are interconnected ecosystems. The original projections for what CSO reductions could achieve didn’t take into account climate change and its effects. There are conflicting strategies and costs that could come together.” 

Board members weigh in

DeCourcey said: “We’ll put this on our agenda, and perhaps create a subcommittee. We can also work with our [legislative] delegation and encourage the MWRA to get involved.

“Part of the problem is the lack of money to address these issues, not a lack of desire. The Select Board has a unique opportunity in the short term to advocate for funds, working with our state ARPA [American Rescue Plan Act].

“We must also reach out to our federal delegation to see what’s been earmarked, and collaborate to get additional funds. We’re willing to do that, because this affects Arlington residents living near Alewife Brook. We should also look at the year-end MWRA reports, because that will guide us.”

Diane Mahon: “In the short term, I’d like to outline some low-cost ideas with the Conservation Commission chair and town manager, and ask the town counsel to see what [the bordering municipalities are] in violation of.

“Moving forward, I want the Select Board to have strategies for the permit process, explore the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] and revitalize the now former tri-county community group. Cambridge and Somerville have money.” 

Eric Helmuth: “This work is important, and I’m glad that climate change is being called out.”

Residents express their views

During the meeting’s open forum, several residents expressed concerns:

Patricia Worden, Precinct 8 meeting member: “East Arlington deserves a solution to the problem of combined sewer overflow, for both the environment and public health.”

Watch the whole Dec. 20 meeting on ACMi

Leah Broder, Precinct 1 member: “Alewife Brook it as an integral part of the town’s bike network and a critical piece of habitat; the bird watching and wildlife observation there is incredible. CSO is a serious public health threat, especially as we see water levels rise due to climate change. Please lobby for CSO from Cambridge, Somerville and the MWRA.”

Opinion: Dec. 8, 2021: Alewife Brook sewage campaign underway

This news summary, by YourArlington freelance writer Susan Gilbert, was published Friday, Dec. 24, 2021, and updated Dec. 31, to add ACMi video window.

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