After a storm, sewage systems can get overwhelmed with water. Instead of pouring excess sewage into basements, the system is designed to discharge sewage into nearby rivers — the same bodies of water that are used for drinking and recreational purposes. The contaminated water has been linked to an increase of various diseases. Due to redlining and systematic racism, these contaminated waters are more likely to run through low-income populations and communities of color.
As a public health issue that is expensive to fix and one that disproportionately affects marginalized groups, solutions are not prioritized by legislators and engineers. Yet, despite these barriers, there are currently people educating communities about water quality and cleaning up polluted waters.
Nathan Sanders, a data scientist and a volunteer member of the Mystic River Water Association (MyRWA) policy committee, has done extensive research on the Massachusetts sewage system, using an environmental justice lens.
“The way our sewer systems are designed in Massachusetts and in many other older communities is to intentionally dump sewage into the river when it rains,” Sanders said. “That is a little bit appalling and essentially illegal under federal law, but there are very understandable reasons why the system is designed that way.”
To begin, the system was created for a much smaller population and not for the scale it is today.
“Three hundred years ago, I think that made perfect sense. We had these bodies of water that weren’t necessarily used by a lot of people … and the volume of sewage was relatively low at that time,” Sanders said. “Adding a trickle of sewage to a big flowing river maybe didn’t seem like a big problem. But now, as … the volume of the sewage discharge has grown, and we have more people using the river actively, it’s created a real public health concern.”
Rachel Wagner, a senior studying environmental studies, interned at the MyRWA, where she focused on water testing and environmental justice work. She explained that levels of nitrogen and phosphorus increase in the water after a storm due to runoff and sewage discharge.
“There are a lot of problems with this pollution of phosphorus and nitrogen, because they come from excess fertilizers on people’s lawns [and from] people who don’t pick up their dogs’ waste that has nitrogen and phosphorus,” Wagner said. “That runoff that goes into storm drains, which goes directly into our water sources. [It] is basically an over-stimulant in the environment, and it causes intense reactions of growth and then death.”
These chemicals are also in the sewage that is discharged in the river, causing bacteria to grow.
“Phosphorus and nitrogen are both limiting nutrients, which means that they basically are the predictors of growth and they are required for the growth of algae,” Wagner said. “You’ll see [algae] blooms … so you see a lot of dead fish…