Alewife Study Group > government > Dec. 7 2000, Cambridge and MWRA Search 

Cambridge sewer separation /
Alewife Brook sewer overflow

City of Cambridge and the MWRA
Public meeting, Dec. 7 2000
Notes from Aram Hollman, a member of the Alewife Study Group

The following appeared in last week's Arlington Advocate.

A proposal to dump additional Cambridge stormwater into Alewife Brook, further polluting it and increasing nearby flooding, is proceeding rapidly through the design and permitting stages. With few exceptions, Arlington and Belmont public officials have given it little attention, despite the negative impact it will have on residents.

To reduce flooding in Cambridge's Fresh Pond area and to protect its municipal water supply, the City of Cambridge and the Mass. Water Resources Authority (MWRA) want to to build a pipe to carry stormwater from the area into a proposed 3.4-acre retention pond, which they propose to build within the MDC's Alewife Reservation.

The proposal is part of courted-ordered separation of storm and sanitary sewer lines and required improvements to the water quality of Alewife Brook and Little River by reducing the overflow of sewage and stormwater they receive during and after rainstorms. However, the retention pond would increase total flow into Alewife and degrade water quality.

Last Thursday, I and about 60 Cambridge, Arlington, Belmont, and Somerville residents attended the second of two Cambridge/MWRA presentations on the project. Among them were Rep. Alice Wolf (Camb.), Rep. Anne Paulsen (Belmont and Arlington), aide Emily Callahan from Rep. Jim Marzilli's (Arlington) office, and Arlington Selectwomen Diane Mahon and Kathleen Kelly Dias, who responded to their constituents' concerns.

Like the presidential election, simple ideas (like counting votes) quickly escalate into complex details (like chads). Local pipes rely on gravity for water to flow through them; hence they must slope downward. In low-lying areas, limited drop in height limits how far water can flow without pumps. When stormwater mixes with sewage, it vastly increases the quantity of water which must be treated; hence the need to separate stormwater and sewage in separate pipes where one pipe now carries both. When heavy rains exceed the capacity of the pipes, overflow pipes called Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) prevent the mix of stormwater and sewage from backing up into buildings by instead releasing it to local streams and ponds.

Cambridge and the MWRA deserve credit for trying to come up with a good solution, for holding these meetings, and for agreeing to hold another meeting when, after 3 hours, residents still had more questions and concerns. They insist that the affected area's flatness and low elevation limit the distance it can pipe stormwater, so that the proposed retention pond is the only viable solution.

I suggest that they have eliminated other, technically viable solutions because they are more expensive for Cambridge.

Cambridge is shifting flooding and pollution costs onto nearby towns. By developing and paving most of its land, Cambridge has realized great economic benefit, but has reduced the amount of ground available to soak up stormwater, increasing the amount that flows into stormwater pipes. As stormwater flows over more paving before flowing into a pipe, the more it picks up gas, oil, sand, salt and other contaminants, elsewhere, increasing the problem for surrounding towns.

Having benefited from overdevelopment, Cambridge must now pay the costs, in both money and land. An equitable solution would have Cambridge use some of its own land for the needed retention pond, clean the contaminated stormwater, and to restrict the timing of its eventual release into Alewife Brook to non-flood periods. If the City of Cambridge does not own the needed land, it can use eminent domain proceedings to take it for this clearly public purpose, instead of infringing on MDC land, which should be managed for the benefit of all of Massachusetts.

I'm appalled that the MDC is allowing the the Alewife Reservation to be used as a non-treatment sewage plant. MDC's priority should be to improve the reservation's natural value, as a wildlife habitat and as a place for passive recreation. Its use as a place to dump floodwater already exceeds its capacity to do so. Digging up 3 acres of ground to create a pond is the ultimate "disposition" of public parkland and requires the Mass. Legislature's consent.

The MWRA has proposed widening Alewife Brook from 8 feet in width to 30 feet. The rationale is that during heavy flows, fast-moving water erodes the banks. A wider streambed would carry water more slowly, hence with less erosion. Is such a drastic increase in width necessary, or is this a pretext for increasing its capacity, to allow even more stormwater to be dumped into it?

The Town of Arlington has voted in favor of keeping the water quality of Alewife Brook and Little River at Grade B (fishable and swimmable). The MWRA now proposes to downgrade that to "limited" fishable and swimmable, that is, allowing Grade B pollution limits to be exceeded an expected seven times per year, after CSOs dump untreated water into them.

Recent increases in the frequency of major storms suggest that such events will occur more than seven times per year, and the pollution will exceed these limits for days at a time afterwards. In my opinion, the MWRA would downgrade water quality to somewhere between a B minus and a gentleman's C.

Doctors say "do no harm". A good maxim here would be "do no further harm". Residents near Alewife who already suffer flooding problems deserve to have their existing problems fixed, not worsened. To paraphrase Carolyn Mieth, a founder of the Coalition for Alewife, 'why is it we can put a man on the moon, but we can't keep sewage out of people's basements?'

There are more expensive, but more equitable alternatives to further damaging the Alewife Reservation and further flooding nearby residents. Stormwater runoff can be stored in Cambridge, in below-ground holding basins, at-ground ponds, or above-ground tanks. Possible locations include under the streets of some of the affected areas, in the vicinity of Cambridge Park Drive or along the railroad line, or even in the immediate vicinity of Fresh Pond.

While I commend the Arlington and Belmont representatives who attended last week's meeting, more elected officials will have to step up to the plate more than they have done so far to alter this fast-moving proposal. These public meetings are being held come six months after the MWRA Board of Directors voted to proceed with the project. Perhaps Selectman Lyons, a former MWRA Director, has some insight or influence that he can use; however, it's up to residents to make sure that their elected officials actively represent their interests.

Contact the Alewife Study Group, North Cambridge Massachusetts, by email at