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Rain, rain, rain. . .

March 15, 2010

If you’re in the Boston area, you know that there’s been a constant heavy rain for the past three days (an astounding 10 inches). If you’ve watched the news, you’ve seen it: dams about to be washed away, streets flooded, sinkholes opening beneath the subway system, basements filled with water, streams overflowing their banks. All of this is causing a state of emergency.

Whether this is a fluke storm, or the result of shifting weather patterns in correlation with climate change, one thing is for certain — it’s creating chaos and our infrastructure is not prepared to handle it. Just consider this from a Boston Globe article:

The storm also overburdened septic systems. With its plant on Nut Island in Quincy overflowing, the MWRA was forced to empty untreated waste into Quincy Bay.

“It’s really to save the station,” said Ria Convery, a MWRA spokesman. “If it fills up with water, we’ve got bigger troubles.”

Convery said the controlled release is mostly water and is permitted under environmental regulations in an emergency. Officials plan to test the water for elevated bacteria levels. Raw sewage was also released into the Mystic River.

The Nut Island plant feeds the larger treatment plant on Deer Island, which has been running at capacity for 48 hours. Each day, the plant has handled 1.3 billion gallons of flow, compared to 360 million on a normal day.

The idea that we are literally dumping RAW SEWAGE into Boston Harbor and local streams infuriates me. An article in the Patriot Ledger reports that 14.5 million gallons were dumped, some of it 1/2 mile offshore. (This used to be the practice for all sewage in the late 1800s).

Sewage is deemed necessary to dump into our local water to protect homes and streets. But wait, dumping bacteria and other pollutants into our water systems will contaminate our drinking water and affect our food systems and ecosystems . . . so what to do?

Boston’s system needs an upgrade and it needs it now. Boston has one of the oldest sewage systems in the country, one that mixes sewage and rainwater. Ordinarily, this doesn’t cause much of a problem until we encounter a big storm like the one we’ve just had.

So here are a few ideas to prevent this kind of chaos in the future . . . for one, begin to scrape together the funding, the plans and the city support for upgrades to the sewage system. (If we had separate pipes for rainwater and sewage, would dumping still be necessary?) Secondly, build green roofs. They help reduce water runoff, hold and absorb water and help to filter pollutants. Third, use pervious pavers, cobblestone . . . just about anything that lets water seep into the ground rather than run into storm drains. And lastly, reduce the amount of water used in businesses and homes. Install low-flow toliets, low-flow faucets, collect rainwater in cisterns or buckets, only use your dishwater and washing machine when they are full, install greywater systems, turn off the water when you brush your teeth, fix leaks. . . put a value on water.

As Mr. Hawkins from D.C.’s Water and Sewage Authority says in this recent NY Times article,

People pay more for their cellphones and cable television than for water . . . You can go a day without a phone or TV, you can’t go a day without water.

Water is not endless. It is not something that always comes out of the faucet, clean, drinkable and cheap as can be. Especially not when we are using it up faster than it can replenish itself and polluting the fresh water that we do have.

There will be more severe storms in the future that raise stream levels and threaten homes, so we have to consider some of things we can do to try to prevent the worst of the damage. And if this storm teaches us anything, we need to start taking preventative measures now or we’ll be caught facing the pricey and dangerous consequences.

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