Ice was out early on the St. John River this year, sending millions of gallons of early meltwater rushing downstream toward Madawaska's overwhelmed sewage system. Credit: Hannah Catlin / St. John Valley Times

MADAWASKA, Maine — A chunk of ice wedged in a frozen Madawaska pipe was all it took to send tens of thousands of gallons of untreated wastewater flooding into the St. John River during a March 26 rainstorm coinciding with spring melt. It backed up into the town’s main pumping station, flooding the structure and damaging the pumps inside.

It was a disastrous event that town officials and statewide experts called an “act of God.” Madawaska Pollution Control staff and volunteers worked through the night to fix the problem, ultimately returning the station to operation the following evening.

While the severity of Madawaska’s recent sewer troubles was unique, communities across Maine discharge wastewater into rivers, lakes and the ocean to the tune of half a billion gallons every year, according to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. As the Earth’s climate continues to change, the impact of more severe weather is slowing the progress communities have been making toward reducing water contamination.

Madawaska is one of 31 Combined Sewage Overflow communities in the state — towns that use one system to handle both stormwater and wastewater. Among those communities are the state’s largest population centers: Augusta, Bangor and Portland.

While the environmental impacts of this old-fashioned method are minimal on most days, heavy rain storms and excess runoff from snowmelt can overwhelm these combined systems, forcing untreated sewage into nearby lakes, rivers and coves.

The DEP closely monitors these communities for progress toward eliminating stormwater-wastewater discharges. In the last 10 years, Madawaska has taken its discharges from double to single digits. That kind of progress takes money. Madawaska put nearly $10 million of work into its sewage systems during that time, Town Manager Gary Picard said.

But this year, early ice flow on the river and the first heavy rainstorm both preceded the total thawing of the ground as spring burst quite suddenly onto the St. John Valley. Inundated with rain and melting snow, Madawaska’s system was already overwhelmed and heading toward a combined sewage overflow discharge before the ice blockage caused the backup.

Under normal environmental circumstances, it’s likely the high flow would never have made contact with a frozen pipe, DEP’s Regional Director for Northern Maine Bill Sheehan said.

“I think under a normal year we wouldn’t have the spring flow for a couple more weeks — typically it’s usually April that we have the ice outs,” Sheehan said. “Probably that pipe would have been thawed out and wouldn’t have had an ice block … It’s not something the town has experienced in the past.”

Fueled by warming oceans, heavier, slower and wetter storms will become more frequent in Maine. Scientists have projected that New England should start expecting 100-year floods on an annual basis.

All this adds up to a deluge. For Combined Sewage Overflow communities working to bring their systems up to date, more water isn’t what they want to see.

“The worst storms are the ones that come in the summer, that come in really fast with the lightning and all of a sudden you’re just inundated with water,” Portland Water Resources manager Nancy Gallinaro said.

Portland is by far the state’s largest combined sewage discharger with dozens of events every year accounting for hundreds of millions of gallons of wastewater emptied into the ocean. In turn, it has spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to fix its pollution problem.

“There’s always something that needs to happen, some separation, some closure of a CSO [outfall], maintenance that’s been neglected for a long time,” Gallinaro said. “We’ll never really be done. But we took the worst areas for overflows and we worked on those … Casco Cove will be entirely protected.”

The city has had to prepare itself for climate change in other ways too, like building surge tanks, for example. Gallinaro said the anticipated side effects are present in all of her department’s design plans, many of which include higher elevations and stronger building materials.

It’s not only CSO communities that will see their sewer infrastructure affected by climate change. The American Society for Civil Engineers has ranked Maine’s overall sewage infrastructure a D+ due to outdated pipes and treatment plants and lack of preparedness for the effects of climate change.

Madawaska and Portland may be CSO communities, but both have been able to spend serious dollars to update their amenities. Some Maine sewer systems have gone untouched for decades, with leaky pipes and not enough money to fix them, Sheehan said. They may not dump excess water into the rivers, but these communities need help to keep up with the influx of water all the same.

Progress to update pipes, rectify CSO discharges, and do regular maintenance is slow across the state. Gallinaro, who has worked with municipal utilities across the country, said that in some places, wastewater budgets wind up on the chopping block simply because the public isn’t aware how much work is put into maintaining the infrastructure.

“What we’re talking about you don’t see. It’s underground or it’s tucked into a side wood and there’s odor control,” she said. “These are the kinds of decisions that get made because the public doesn’t know.”

Without a dramatic increase in funding on a federal level, communities will continue to have inefficient means to respond to the pressures they increasingly face on their wastewater systems, Bruce Berger, executive director at the Maine Water Utility Association, said.

The Maine Water Utility Association has lobbied at the state and federal levels for more funding every year. A recent plan from President Joe Biden could make billions of dollars in funding available at the national level to target poor water, wastewater and stormwater infrastructure, if he can eke out enough votes in Congress to pass it.

“We have to keep beating the same drum, but until [Washington politicians] respond to our requests, we don’t know what else to do,” Berger said. “It’s the only way to crack this, it’s the only way to improve.”

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Hannah Catlin

Hannah Catlin is a reporter at the St. John Valley Times/Fiddlehead Focus in Madawaska, Maine.