By Anne-Marie Lambert and Frank Frazier
Have you seen the sewer today? This past summer, a Boston Globe editorial (“Belmont Needs to Clean Up Its Act,” August 14, 2015) caused the Belmont selectmen to request a presentation on the town’s sewer and storm drain systems. Belmont’s director of community development Glenn Clancy welcomed the opportunity. He took issue with Globe author Alan Wirzbicki’s comparison of Belmont’s $8 million in sewer expenditures dating from a 1998 Notice of Violation from the EPA. He cited the expenditures of Cambridge and Revere, both of which have much more significant pollution issues than Belmont. Cambridge spent $100 million addressing the requirements of a court order related to combined sewage overflow issues. Revere spent $50 million under a federal consent decree to address their severely undersized storm water infrastructure.
Clancy also noted that while Belmont is the only town under a notice of violation, EPA has used more drastic tools with other towns in the Mystic River watershed. At the January 11th Board of Selectmen’s meeting, Clancy presented positive news about repairs to the town’s sewer and stormwater infrastructure.
Contamination Sources Hard To Find
It is a daunting job to find and fix underground problems that contribute to contamination of ponds and streams. However, with the right approach and effort, Belmont can ensure its ponds and streams contain clean water. Clancy’s comprehensive presentation described the work accomplished so far, summarized overall costs and benefits, and listed the continuing effort needed to resolve remaining issues and maintain a clean water system. The selectmen listened to the presentation as well as questions and comments from the citizens and appeared determined to assume responsibility for ensuring the town had clear goals for reducing pollution as well as strategic guidance for how to meet them.
Based on October 2015 measurements, water quality has improved at key stormwater outfalls into Little Pond, showing that recently completed repair work has reduced the amount of sewage that had previously contaminated it.
Of the seven outfalls identified as exceeding the EPA’s e. coli threshold in 1999, three were cleared before 2015, three showed dramatic improvement in October 2015 (from over 120,000/100 ml to under 3,000/100 ml), and one showed marginal improvement (from 4,000/100 ml to 3,600/100 ml). There were also improvements at outflows along Wellington Brook, Atkins Brook, and other locations. The town still has a long way to go to get all outflow measurements below the EPA’s e. coli threshold of 235/100ml—there are 16 outflows draining into the Mystic River watershed. Belmont needs to take additional measures to ensure that inadequate stormwater management on public and private property does not compromise ambient water quality in brooks and streams.
Deteriorating Sewer Lines
Clancy explained that the two main causes of stormwater quality issues in Belmont are deterioration of the town’s 76 miles of sanitary sewer mains (and 76 miles of connecting laterals—the pipes between homes and a sewer main), and illegal connections of sanitary sewer services directly into the storm drain system. Both are expensive to detect with the closed circuit TV (CCTV) and the sampling technologies currently used by the town’s engineering consultants. The town spent a record $300,000 on detection and sewer repair this year, completing a $2.3 million multi-year repair project.
Although significant improvements have been made, more work is yet to be done. Clancy proposes spending about $400,000 to put in place a systematic inspection and repair process for next year. Over the next five years, his plans will likely include two more major projects totaling $4.5 million.
The town is considering a new bylaw to require inspection of stormwater connections March/April 2016 3 upon the sale of a residential property. According to town counsel, this requires a Home Rule Petition to the state government, an expense the selectmen need to authorize. However, this cost should be significantly lower than detecting and fixing problems after the fact.
Strategies for Funding
Clancy’s presentation included detailed drainage maps and costs to date showing how the town’s overall strategy uses three distinct programs to fund projects:
1. Borrowing money at a low rate
EPA/DEP Clean Water Projects to rehabilitate sanitary sewer and storm drains through the DEP’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund, a program which provides loans at a borrowing rate of 2% over 20 years.
2. Zero-interest loans and grants
Massachusetts Water Resources Authority I/I Removal Projects to eliminate infiltration (groundwater and lateral stormwater connections) and inflow (e.g., illegal connection of roof drains and sump pumps to the sanitary sewer system). Detection starts, using CCTV, with flow monitoring in sewer pipes during storms, followed by an investigation to determine the upstream source of spikes in the flow. Funding under this program has taken place in phases that started out with a 45/55% mix of grants versus zero-interest loans through phase 8, followed by a 75/25% mix in phases 9 and 10.
3. Coordinated road repairs
Pavement Management Program Repairs to fund underground infrastructure repairs in coordination with planned pavement repairs.
Clancy’s presentation included a detailed description of the 2011 Winn Brook stormwater infrastructure project, which appears to have prevented sewage-laden flooding during major storms. He did not discuss the potential for green infrastructure for stormwater management, nor the likely impact of climate change, as described in the Cambridge Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment. He did make reference to the upcoming change in MS4 regulations, as well as the potential for a stormwater utility fee to provide additional funding for stormwater projects. Representatives of the Mystic River Watershed Association (MyRWA) at the meeting expressed concerns about the way water quality measurements were explained at the meeting, and stating that outfall measurements were insufficient to assess ambient water quality resulting from all pollution sources. The selectmen, MyRWA, and the many residents in attendance expressed admiration for the thoroughness of the engineering information in Clancy’s presentation.
Anne-Marie Lambert is a director of the Belmont Citizens Forum and cofounder of the Belmont Stormwater Working Group. Frank Frazier is a Belmont resident and member of the Belmont Stormwater Working Group.