Opinion/Editorial (626 words)
25 for 25: Clean Water from Improved Wastewater Treatment
By Thomas S. Burack, DES Commissioner
In recognition of the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services’ 25th Anniversary, over the course of the year, I will highlight 25 agency activities, programs, projects and accomplishments of the past 25 years. This article, the fourth in the series, briefly describes the dramatic improvements to New Hampshire’s surface waters that have resulted from wastewater treatment plant improvements and the challenges that we face going forward.
Even in the early 1980’s, many of our rivers were virtually open sewers and effectively devoid of fish. Some, such as the Nashua River, would turn different colors depending on the dyes discharged from upstream textile mills. Nationally, in 1969, water pollution awareness increased dramatically when the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught fire, demonstrating how polluted our nation’s waters had actually become. As a result, in 1972, Congress enacted the Clean Water Act with the goal to attain clean water for drinking, swimming, and fishing. One of the necessary steps to achieve these goals occurred in 1974, when funding for new municipal wastewater treatment plants was also provided by Congress (75 percent construction grants). In New Hampshire that funding was augmented by 20 percent grants authorized by the legislature to accelerate construction.
By 1987, when DES was formed, due to the efforts of the Water Supply and Pollution Control Commission staff (a predecessor agency to DES), the majority of municipal and industrial wastewater discharges had attained new federal permit standards and New Hampshire’s waters were on the way to meeting the basic Clean Water Act goals. However, in 1987, the federal construction grant program was terminated by Congress and replaced by the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, a low interest loan program, leaving 12 New Hampshire wastewater projects without funding. Over the next 5 years, these last facilities were completed with 95 percent state aid grants authorized by the state legislature. These treatment plants were working, as New Hampshire’s major rivers became fishable and swimmable more rapidly than predicted by most experts. Over the last 20 years, our focus has shifted to the management of pollution from combined sewer overflows, urban stormwater systems and nonpoint source pollution. Most combined sewer overflows from sewers that carry both sewage and stormwater have been addressed, resulting in further water quality improvements, and the rest have long term management plans to correct the remaining problems. We are close to being able to honestly say that gone are the days when heavy rains overwhelm our city sewers and cause raw sewage to be dumped into our rivers.
As DES celebrates its 25th birthday, New Hampshire still faces many wastewater infrastructure and water quality challenges. All of our wastewater treatment facilities have aged, many approaching design capacity, and many also face more stringent federal permit requirements, especially for removing nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus. We stand at a crossroad in time when it is critical that a new wave of investment in our wastewater treatment facilities is necessary to not only sustain our current level of environmental protection but to modernize our systems to meet new water quality standards and to ensure capacity for future economic growth. Today we also face new water quality challenges such as excessive levels of nutrients and personal care products and pharmaceuticals that enter our waters. These challenges are no less serious than the gross contamination that we’ve made so much progress in addressing. For us to continue to make progress in the futre in assuring that all of New Hampshire’s waters are fishable, swimmable and drinkable will require innovative technical, policy and funding solutions as well as the active engagement of our state’s citizens, elected officials and regulated community. By working together, we can ensure that New Hampshire’s waters will be clean, healthy and plentiful long into the future.
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