Alewife Study Group > wetlands and flooding > community feedback > Apr. 11 2001, letter to Cambridge Chronicle Search 

Proposed sewer separation plan
opinion published in Cambridge Chronicle

After reading two misleading articles about the proposed sewer separation plan, I feel compelled to respond. In the last two Chronicle issues, Ellen Mass and John Walker have painted a glorified picture of a spoiled MDC Alewife Reservation restored to its natural splendor through the miracle of stormwater rerouted from the Fresh Pond area.

The low-lying, flood-prone Fresh Pond area is grossly overdeveloped. Rainwater doesn't soak into soil, but runs across pavement, gathering gas, oil, pesticides, salt, and other contaminants. In light rains, it flows into the sewer system and is carried to Deer Island. When heavy rains exceed the capacity of the sewer system, stormwater floods the Fresh Pond area and flows into Fresh Pond, contaminating Cambridge's drinking water.

As part of storm and sanitary sewer separation, Deer Island is to be for sewage only. Stormwater must be routed elselwhere via a separate set of pipes. But there is no elsewhere nearby. Cambridge has reserved Fresh Pond for drinking water, and the land around it for private property and roads.

The Cambridge Department of Public Works and the Mass. Water Resources Authority, under court order, have proposed a solution that simply transfers the problem elsewhere: During severe storms, expected several times a year, separated but contaminated stormwater from the Fresh Pond area will be piped to the MDC's Alewife Reservation. Since dumping it directly into Little River and Alewife Brook would worsen existing flooding in North Cambridge, East Arlington, and Belmont, it will instead be piped into 3-acre hole in the ground, dug just for that purpose, to gradually seep into Little River.

Despite the MWRA's claims, the hole will be ugly. Stretching in width from the edge of the Reservation that borders Cambridge Park Drive all the way to Little River, it will present an obstacle to walkers and bikers seeking to enjoy the reservation. A bridge over it will be needed. Both construction and maintenance with heavy equipment will damage the Reservation.

Ellen Mass' article mentions a "basin/bog which may have bacteria and solids". Most of the year, the pit will be empty, save for the empty bottles that partiers toss into it. The MWRA acknowledges that the shallow water at its bottom will be a potential mosquito breeding ground, a new worry now that the West Nile virus has arrived in the northeast. What kind of pesticide do you want used on your nature reservation?

Ellen Mass' article says that nearby Arlington and Cambridge neighborhoods will be "fairly safe" from flooding. John Walker's article doesn't even mention it. The MWRA's computer model predicts that in a major storm, its "retention pond" storage will raise the level of Little River and Alewife Brook by "only" 0.6 to 1.4 inches. Can the MWRA translate that into feet of water in a basement?

John Walker's article refers to the water being "much filtered" before being released. In truth, the MWRA will rely only on catchbasins to filter out contaminants prior to its arrival in the retention pond; it will make no attempt to further clean it before releasing it to Little River.

This non-solution isn't the best, merely the cheapest. Alternate locations to store stormwater include Jerry's Pond, retention basins installed under the streets in the affected areas, retention basins along Cambridge Park Drive (also being overdeveloped) and above-ground tanks near Fresh Pond. Having decided on one option, the MWRA has rejected all others.

Both John and Ellen claim that the retention pond water will wet and restore an "often-dried marsh". However, they both acknowledge that this will happen only several times a year, and will affect only about 1.3 acres of a 115-acre reservation. I fail to see how this will make that much difference.

Both Ellen and John hope that this additional water will restore the annual Alewife herring run. Neither the frequency nor volume of excess stormwater is sufficient to do so. At a minimum, dredging of 50 years worth of silt that has reduced the depth of Little River will be necessary.

The proposed solution is a failure. It is expected to prevent flooding around Fresh Pond only for "10-year" storms, those so severe as to be expected only once a decade. Since the area was inundated with "100-year" storms in 1996, in 1998, and again last week, this is truly an exercise in futility and a waste of taxpayer money.

In short, this proposal is not the "win-win project for Cambridge, Arlington, and Belmont" that John describes, but a license to transfer pollution from one area to another within a watershed and a way to for Cambridge to comply with a court order without solving the root problem - overdevelopment.

Aram Hollman is an Arlington resident and a member of the Coalition for Alewife. His views here are strictly his own.


This opinion piece was sent to the Alewife Study Group by the author.
The text was published in the April 11 2001 Cambridge Chronicle; as of April 15 it was not on the Chronicle's website. There may be differences between the text above and the published text.



Contact the Alewife Study Group, North Cambridge Massachusetts, by email at information@alewife.org