Progress on sewer problems in Winn Brook

I had been Selectman in Belmont for only a couple of months, when, in the major June 1998 rain storm, a constituent called me late one night to come see the raw sewage rising out of the sink in his finished basement. The vision remains with me to this day.

Those who live in the Winn Brook area and have problems with sewage backups in major rain storms can look forward to substantial reductions in the frequency of this problem.

The Selectmen in Belmont recently approved a creative proposal that was many years in the making. In 1998, we brought in engineers who told us that there was nothing to be done about the sewage problem. But the problem is so bad when it does happen that I continued to be interested in the possibility of some kind of solution.

Slowly, as I got to know officials in the communities around Belmont, I came to better understand the regional nature of the problem. In 2003, officials in Belmont, Arlington and Cambridge came together with the Mystic River Watershed Association to form the Tri-community Working Group on flooding. The mission of the group was to take a fact-oriented approach to the question of why overland and sewage flooding occurs in the Alewife area and to see what could be done. I chaired this group for several years until I moved into the state legislature in 2007, and now Arlington Selectman Clarissa Rowe chairs it.

In 2005, we produced a report that included a number of action recommendations for local governments and agencies. We requested responses from each of the agencies. One of them was the MWRA, the regional water and sewer agency. After some follow-up, the MWRA came back in 2006 with a letter including a number of specific responses to our report.

In paragraph 6 of that letter, the MWRA offered to work with Belmont to evaluate the installation of a pumping station to mitigate flooding in the low lying areas of the community. When sewage backs up in Winn Brook basements during rain storms, it is not because the system is blocked or running backwards. It is because water seeks its own level and the water level is rising in the whole sewage system. The sewage system is like one big bath tub that is being filled faster than it can be drained. The water level is rising all over town. In Winn Brook, the basements are lower than anyplace else, so the sewage emerges there. The water also emerges from a few very low manhole covers in the area.

In a nutshell, the solution is to isolate the Winn Brook area from the rest of the system and put in place a pump that would operate to keep levels down in that area. While there may always be storms that can overwhelm the pump, it will make an occasional problem into a much rarer problem.

The exact solution is complex and took a lot of study. It had to be done in such a way as to not create new problems elsewhere in the system.

I am grateful to the Town Engineer, Glenn Clancy and to the current Board of Selectmen for maintaining direction on the project and getting to a fully defined solution. I am especially grateful that they were able to develop a funding approach. The project will cost approximately $8 million and will be funded in part with federal money. It should be complete in mid to late 2011.

Click here to view the power point that Faye Spofford and Thorndyke presented to the Board of Selectmen earlier this month.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

2 replies on “Progress on sewer problems in Winn Brook”

  1. While the sewage problem is most severe in Winnbrook, there are flooding issues all over town, especially where streams were culverted years ago and the culverts are clogged with roots and debris. Water floods backyards, sump pumps can’t keep up with the flow, cellars flood and some sewage backups do occur.
    The infiltration-inflow studies should be helping the big picture but these culverts should be investigated. Even properties on hills around town have flooding issues as the water sheets over ledge or through old watercourses. Glad flooding is still an issue under discussion.

  2. Well taken, Carolyn.

    The flooding in other areas is different from Winn Brook. Winn Brook is so low that — in very major storms — the basements are actually below the water level in the main collector sewers in Cambridge which causes its especially severe problems. So, Winn Brook sewage flooding is part of the Alewife regional flooding issue. But you are quite right that there a host of local blockages that deserve continuing attention.

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