NEWBURYPORT, MA – OCTOBER 17, 2018: The Merrimack River on Wednesday, October 17, 2018 in Newburyport, Massachusetts. (Staff photo By Nicolaus Czarnecki)

That raw sewage is being dumped straight into the Merrimack River in the year 2018 is astounding. Some 600,000 people get their drinking water from the river and many others enjoy the waterway for recreation each year.

As the Herald’s Meghan Ottolini reports, this is an especially trying time as the amount of raw sewage dumped into the river has skyrocketed in the past year, raising health fears in what one environmentalist is calling a “dire” emergency.

“If the water isn’t inspected constantly, there’s a risk that it could make people sick,” said Rusty Russell, executive director of the Merrimack River Watershed Council. “It is pretty dire.”

The Greater Lawrence Sanitary District was harshly criticized last October for dumping 8 million gallons of raw sewage into the river during a storm — but this year has proven to be even worse, records show.

The treatment plant in North Andover has pumped four times as much untreated waste into the river this year as it did in all of 2017 — nearly 69 million gallons, discharge records provided to the Herald show.

According to the Merrimack River Watershed Council, “About 400 to 600 million gallons of polluted CSO (Combined Sewage Overflow) wastewater is released into the Merrimack every year by the plants that serve Haverhill, greater Lawrence, greater Lowell, Nashua and Manchester. The sewage releases had been trending downward from 2015 to 2017 largely due to a three-year drought, but 2018 has seen a significant increase in rainfall and CSO events.”

Overflows occur because sewer systems are old and outdated and cannot handle the volume of raw sewage combined with stormwater runoff during periods of protracted rain. Treatment plants quickly reach capacity and are forced to discharge the excess to the only place they can: the Merrimack River. In a matter of days, much of the polluted water makes its way out to the Atlantic Ocean but not everything goes, and that is a problem.

Exposure to raw sewage is a serious health threat as it can cause cholera, dysentery, shigellosis,  typhoid fever and many other ailments.

According to the MRWC, “The plants are permitted by the EPA to release raw sewage into the Merrimack. However, they are also operating under enforcement agreements that require them to end their CSO events over the course of the next 20 or more years.”

And that is the challenge. Getting the plants up to speed or replacing them would be hugely expensive and would easily bust the budgets of the cities and towns forced to shoulder the costs. An estimated $725 million bill to overhaul river plants is out of reach for the mill cities.

“That’s fundamentally unfair,” said Russell, who wants to lobby for funding from the Trump administration.

This horrific problem needs to be remedied at once. The Merrimack River is the second-largest surface-based source for drinking water in New England. The Quabbin Reservoir is the first. Lawmakers on Beacon Hill need to  make this  crisis a priority. This is a state issue, not a local one. Gov. Charlie Baker must take a leading role in dealing with it — much like he has with the Merrimack Valley gas explosions. The federal government must kick in a large percentage of the funding required. The Clean Water Act of the 1970s brought with it supplemental dollars from Washington, D.C., and the same should happen now.