East Coast Sewers Endure Spring Snowmelt

As the weather warms up, city sewer systems from Boston to Bangor, Maine, are being challenged by this winter's record-setting snowfall totals.
East Coast Sewers Endure Spring Snowmelt
Workers from the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority load bucket after bucket full of snow into turbine-powered snow melters, trying to clean up after the record-breaking snowfalls of January and February.

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As the East Coast recovers from an unusually harsh winter season, the jaw-dropping impact has been revealed along the way, and Boston’s record-setting snowfall has been a focal point of much of that attention.

The cost of the city’s snow removal is expected to hit $50 million, according to Mayor Marty Walsh, who appeared on WBZ 1030 NewsRadio on March 11. That figure is over double what the city planned for in its budget. Along the way, Boston has cleared 1 billion cubic feet of snow, removed 30,000 truckloads from streets, plowed 263,000 miles of roadway and melted over 50,000 tons of snow.

The impact spreads much further, however. Economic analysis firm IHS Global Insight estimates that Massachusetts alone has been hit by about $1 billion in lost wages and profits as a result of the heavy snowstorms, and other East Coast states and the communities within have dealt with much of the same.

Springtime sewer concerns

Bangor, Maine, reached its second snowiest season and the highest total in 52 years, according to a March 19 report published by weather.com, and as all that snow melts there are plenty of stormwater management issues to tackle.

Wynne Guglielmo, environmental coordinator for this city of roughly 33,000 residents, says because Bangor was built up during the early Victorian Era the narrow streets require snow removal.

It is trucked to a snow dump in the neighboring township of Hampden that is bermed so that any runoff – salt, chlorides, sand and grit – doesn’t enter the stormwater. “We actually have to permit our snow dump with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection under their Wastewater Division,” she says.

One of the biggest fears is the possibility of a rapid melt due to an extended period of warm temperatures or heavy rainfall. “It would inundate our storm sewer infrastructure, and there’s also a chance that it could enter our combined sewer system,” Guglielmo says. In a worst case scenario, water could flood the roadways and the combined sewer system would be overloaded, resulting in a CSO discharge.

“We’re also quite worried about the Penobscot River raising its levels when it’s starting to melt,” she says. “We have our wastewater treatment plant right on the river, so if we were to have a large inundation of water that could cause serious problems.”

Despite the possibilities, Guglielmo feels confident that the infrastructure in place will be able to handle the melt, particularly considering the extended forecast. “It doesn’t look like we’re going to get spring any time soon,” she says. “It’s not like Philadelphia or New York where they may see temperatures in the 60s for a prolonged period of time.” In addition, the municipality attempts to get ahead of the springtime thaw by cleaning its catch basins and sweeping the streets in late fall.

Load lessened for some

As communities large and small deal with the financial burden of a record-setting winter, some are receiving help along the way. A March 13 report by The Bangor Daily News indicated that a disaster declaration has been approved for Maine’s Androscoggin, York and Cumberland counties, for example.

As a result, The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will reimburse municipalities and state agencies a percentage of the costs related to snow removal, emergency protective measures or storm-related infrastructure damage.

“It’s been a very, very difficult winter,” Guglielmo says. “I know everyone is getting excited about the thoughts of spring, but hopefully we’ll just have a nice slow, steady melting rate where things can sort of infiltrate and not cause a lot of flooding problems.”

Photo credit: “Snow Removal in Braintree” by Massachusetts National Guard is licensed under CC BY 2.0.


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