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Manchester passes bond resolution to address sewage overflows into the Merrimack River

The Merrimack River will provide drinking water to a projected 700,00 people in New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

A $55 million bond resolution that will help pay for projects to update Manchester’s sewer system was passed on Tuesday night during a meeting of the city’s Board of Mayor and Aldermen.

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The funding will address the overflow of sewage and drainage that runs into the Merrimack River, a major issue with the city's system.

Manchester’s system puts about 280 million gallons of combined sewage —  industrial waste, nitrogen, phosphorous, polluted stormwater, and raw sewage — into the Merrimack River annually, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Manchester’s overflows account for about half of the combined sewage discharge into the river, which provides drinking water to over 500,000 people in New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

The resolution marks the first major funding for a 20-year project to reduce the overflow of combined sewage from Manchester’s system, said Fred McNeill, the chief engineer with the city’s environmental protection division.

The city agreed to implement a project to address the sewer system last year in a settlement with the EPA, the Department of Justice, and the State of New Hampshire.

About 200 communities live along the Merrimack River watershed, many of which are environmental justice communities.

The project should reduce the city’s combined sewer overflow discharge by 74 percent.

McNeill said the project is estimated to cost about $231 million. The city is planning other environmental infrastructure initiatives, most as a result of federal mandates, that will cost about $120 million, according to McNeill.

The $55 million from the bond resolution will predominately focus on combined sewage overflow abatement and will fund the first two years of activities, he said.

The money will fund eight projects, including the design of the Cemetery Brook Tunnel, a new drainage tunnel for the city’s main drainage basin, and one of the largest civil engineering projects the city has undertaken, according to McNeill.

It will also fund a project at Christian Brook to build a new drainage system in the north of the city. Construction on that project is set to start next spring.

The city is exploring federal and state funding for the combined sewer overflow abatement work, including loans from the Department of Environmental Services and the federal infrastructure bill currently in Congress.

“We felt that bonding, initially, now, is the most cost-effective method to fund these projects,” McNeill said.

Combined sewers are an issue across the country, impacting almost 860 municipalities in the United States.

A standard engineering practice throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s was to build one pipe for both sewage and drainage, said McNeill. When the pipe exceeds its capacity, such as during heavy rainfall, untreated wastewater can flow into a water body.

Prior to the consent decree, Manchester completed Phase 1 of a combined sewer overflow abatement program in 2010. That project cost $58 million over 10 years and addressed sewers on the city’s west side.

Combined sewer overflows aren’t the only challenge facing Manchester’s sewer system, which includes about 390 miles of pipes in the ground. About 100 miles of those pipes are more than 100 years old.

“That pipe has reached the end of its useful life and could fail at any time,” McNeill said. “So we’re taking a proactive approach to address this old infrastructure.”

Manchester’s wastewater treatment facility serves approximately 155,000 people, including portions of Bedford, Londonderry, and Goffstown.

Corrected: November 11, 2021 at 12:42 PM EST
This article has been corrected to state that the Merrimack River is projected to supply drinking water to over 700,000 people in the future. The river now provides drinking water to over 500,000 people.
Mara Hoplamazian reports on climate change, energy, and the environment for NHPR.
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