Those concerned about the health of the Merrimack River — which should be everyone in the Merrimack Valley and North Shore — can find reason for hope in a recent strategy by environmental regulators to tighten rules on sewage treatment systems that too often dump untreated effluent into the river. Their spills, which topped 800 million gallons last year alone, discharge all the unpleasant byproducts of household and commercial washrooms directly into the river — along with coliform and other bacteria that make people sick and hurt the river’s ecology.

Glad as we may be for progress, count us squarely in the camp of area leaders who’ve said these latest measures aren’t enough. The standard of timely notification of spills for the public cannot be set too high. Besides, as nice as it will be to know when these happen, it shouldn’t draw our focus from the real prize – doing the planning necessary to upgrade these systems so they no longer dump raw sewage into the river.

Realistically that goal is hundreds of millions of dollars and years in the future. But it will never be within reach unless our communities, with the support of the state and federal governments, plan to implement it today.

To be sure, there’s much to be optimistic about in the efforts of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to toughen requirements for area sewage treatment systems. Specifically, regulators are targeting operators in Haverhill, Lowell and of the Greater Lawrence Sanitary District, which serves a half-dozen communities. The EPA permits allowing these systems to function are up for renewal, which the EPA is leveraging as an opportunity to require notification of sewage outfalls within four hours. Regulators are also requiring additional treatment of bacteria, according to reporter Christian M. Wade’s analysis of the permits.

The combined sewers are an artifact of public works that predates the Clean Water Act, collecting sewage and stormwater in the same network of pipes. The spillovers occur when the pipes are inundated, usually by heavy rain, relieving the systems and preventing sewage from backing up into manholes, homes and businesses.

Treatment plant operators are already required to notify the state and local officials about spills, and lawmakers from this area have moved to speed up that process. Reps. Jim Kelcourse, R-Amesbury, and Lenny Mirra, R-West Newbury, have filed a bill to hurry those notices and also broaden them, via email blast or Reverse 911 call, to anyone along the river who cares to get the message. Sen. Diana DiZoglio, D-Methuen, wants the state to do one better and issue predictive warnings — in the form of color-coded flags displayed at beaches, boat launches and other public areas along the river — when weather conditions are ripe to trigger an outfall.

“We need to do a better job of letting people know when it’s safe to enter the river, or not,” DiZoglio tells Wade.

It’s hard to believe our lawmakers should have to drive home that point, not just for the Merrimack but for any body of water touched by the release of some 3.4 billion gallons of untreated sewage in Massachusetts last year. Public health research has already connected outfalls and emergency room visits in areas where the drinking water supply is vulnerable, which is the case along the Merrimack River. Why is it, in this day and age, that we need to goad treatment plant operators and state regulators to perfect the warnings and notices of events known to pose such a public health threat?

But there’s a far bigger task, and it’s the planning and financing and politicking necessary to rework these treatment systems so that they no longer leach into the river. Credit DiZoglio, Kelcourse and others for creating a task force to address this problem, through which they've engaged many others for whom it is a top priority. This important work cannot happen without regional coordination.

We eagerly await the results of that work, especially now that so many people with a stake in the outcome —local leaders, state and federal environmental regulators, and communities along the river —are working hard to get something done.

###