(Don’t) love that dirty water – sewage problem needs treatment with more balanced growth
The lyrics of the Standells’ classic 1966 hit about loving that “Dirty Water” today give us pause. Kudos to the citizen activists of Arlington for exposing the 50 million-gallon deluge of untreated sewage-contaminated stormwater that ran into the Alewife Brook last year (“Despite upgrades, 50 million gallons of sewage were released into the Alewife Brook over 2021,” Jan. 16). For comparison’s sake, that’s the equivalent of nearly eight Olympic-sized swimming pools. To add insult to injury, that level of contamination comes after almost $200 million dollars was spent precisely to prevent this problem.
The important point here is not government incompetence – in fact, our city’s Public Works Department has made protecting the Alewife a priority. The problem is simply so much bigger than anyone thought, and only getting worse. Back in the 1990s, when these efforts began, the double whammy effects of climate change and overdevelopment were seriously underestimated.
That sewage-stormwater mix isn’t just bad for the wildlife of the Alewife brook. It travels into people’s homes. Roughly 3,500 residents of North Cambridge live in the Little River-Alewife Reservation’s 100-year flood plain.
Calling it a 100-year flood plain, moreover, is a quaint relic from an age of “100-year floods.” Thanks to climate change, these now happen every few years. Last year was one of the wettest recorded for Massachusetts, but 2018 was even wetter and climate scientists say that more water, from sea-level rise and more precipitation, is our future.
And speaking of the environment, this same Alewife brook area is the former home to the Native community here – overseen by a female chief (sachem) who negotiated with the first Europeans to arrive in Cambridge. Our rivers and the environment more generally are critical to this Native legacy. Sewage flowing to this wetland is deeply troubling, especially with renewed concerns about the climate.
To bend the curve of climate change takes more than the goodwill of Cantabrigians. We can (and must) do something about overdevelopment. Since the 1990s, development in the Alewife area has exploded with thousands of new apartments and scores of office buildings with hardscaped surfaces that prevent stormwater from being naturally absorbed. Stormwater can overwhelm the sewer system, flushing everything back out into rivers and people’s homes.
Today, there is a commercial land rush going on in the Cambridge Highlands next to Alewife. One company has spent more than a half-billion dollars in just the past year to acquire 36 acres for a “life-science campus.” Back in 1979, the city endorsed mixed-use development for that neighborhood, and in 2019 our government reiterated that goal. That hope is evaporating along with the 1,000-plus housing units (including hundreds of affordable units) that might have been built on that parcel. The City Council proposes a temporary freeze on permitting for new labs, but our history on this issue doesn’t inspire confidence.
How does all this tie together? In the particular case of development in Cambridge Highlands, the City Council, Planning Board and city manager must work together to ensure all new construction relieves the pressure on local housing and residential needs and infrastructure. That means a full environmental review and an iron-clad commitment that all mitigation measures will be enforced, including permeable surfaces (which we’ve already put forward in our zoning petition), bioswales, significant plantings and even a stormwater tank, if required. The city has to get tough to prevent disasters, not just react to them.
On a larger scale, these issues underscore the increasingly seat-of-the-pants nature of planning now and into Cambridge’s future. Envision Cambridge, which cost millions of dollars and countless hours of work from city staff and residents, seems like an elaborate public relations stunt rather than a tool for managed growth. Increasingly, developers of all kinds are being given a green light to build whatever they want, wherever they want. Environmental concerns, including protecting our modest tree canopy and green spaces, are treated like frivolous extras rather than the front-line defenders against climate change that they are.
When we look at the flooding danger threatening a big chunk of the city – a danger that was consistently underestimated – how can we be so cavalier going forward?
As the demand for space in Cambridge, residential and commercial, continues to skyrocket from investors and others, we can’t ignore the message that the contamination of the Alewife sends us. We need balanced growth (with priority given to new affordable and non-luxury housing) that won’t leave us knee-high in sludge. While we disagree with the Standells about loving that “Dirty Water,” we agree with them about loving our hometown.
Marilee Meyer, for the Cambridge Citizens Coalition