blog

Feature Menu

Boston's Charles River Cleaner Now Than Ever

BOSTON, Massachusetts, April 28, 2008 (ENS) – The Charles River now has the best water quality for boating and swimming since the intensive Clean Charles Initiative began in 1995, federal and state environment officials said Friday. However, there still is growing concern about elevated levels of nutrients from stormwater runoff, especially phosphorus.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency gave the lower Charles River its highest grade ever – a B++. The unusual grade reflects coordinated efforts by government and local groups that have succeeded in reducing bacteria levels to restore the river to ecological health.

The river was the focus of activity this weekend as volunteers Saturday participated in the annual spring clean up event, and paddlers took part in the the “Run of the Charles” canoe and kayak race on Sunday.

“We can all be very proud that our hard work to reduce bacteria levels in the Charles River is paying off,” said Robert Varney, regional administrator of EPA’s New England office.

“We still have work to do – especially regarding nutrients from stormwater pollution – to solve problems including the algae blooms that have occurred the past several summers,” Varney said.

High levels of phosphorus in the past several years have caused the river to turn a bright shade of blue-green during summer algae blooms. The color is caused by blooms of cyanobacteria, which can be harmful to both people and pets.

Last October, EPA and the state began a process to limit phosphorus entering the Charles River by establishing a new Total Maximum Daily Load, TMDL, for discharges of phosphorus into the lower Charles River. A TMDL determines how much of a pollutant can be put into a body of water before it has harmful effects.


Kayaks lined up to run the Charles River,
2007. (Photo courtesy CRWA)

EPA and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, or MassDEP, developed and approved the new limits using extensive data collected in the Charles over several years.

“The Charles River is one of our signature waterways and it is clear that more than a decade of focus and attention – from the full spectrum of community organizations, environmental groups, businesses, institutions, municipalities and state and federal agencies – has begun to turn the tide toward the promise of a clean, fishable and swimmable river,” said Massachusetts Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Ian Bowles.

“The challenge before us is to maintain the momentum and finish the job,” said Bowles, “and learn from our lessons in the Charles and spread them to the other impaired watersheds of the Commonwealth.”

The Charles River is 80 miles long and flows through 23 towns and cities in eastern Massachusetts, beginning at Echo Lake in Hopkinton and ending in the Boston Harbor.

Among the sources of phosphorus to the river are impermeable surfaces such as roadways, rooftops and parking lots where phosphorus and other nutrients collect. Rainfall scours pollutants from these surfaces and the resulting stormwater flows into the Charles.

Both EPA and MassDEP are developing approaches that would limit the discharge of phosphorus in order to tackle the algae problem in the River.

This year’s B++ grade is based on the number of days the river met state boating and swimming standards on days that samples were taken during the previous calendar year, and is based on measurements of bacteria levels.

For 2007, the Charles met boating standards 100 percent of the time, and swimming standards 63 percent of the time, according to data collected by the Charles River Watershed Association between Watertown Dam and Boston Harbor.

The Charles has improved dramatically from the launch of EPA’s Charles River Initiative in 1995, when the river received a D for meeting boating standards only 39 percent of the time and swimming standards just 19 percent of the time.

Cleanup work by local municipalities and the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, MWRA, that started years ago continues to reduce the flow of contamination into the Charles.

Over the last year, MWRA has finished the design of a 57 inch pipe that will stretch from Brookline to Cambridge. This will improve flow of sanitary wastes to Deer Island for treatment and will reduce the number of overflows that will discharge to the Charles in heavy rains.

In addition, during the last year the city of Cambridge closed two of its combined sewer overflows that discharged mixed stormwater and sanitary waste during large storms.

“Over the last decade, the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority has completed a number of projects to control combined sewer overflows to the Charles,” said MWRA executive director Frederick Laskey.

“To date, overflows have been reduced by over 90 percent in a typical year – and there’s more to come. We have three more projects in the works that, when completed, will achieve a 99 percent reduction in CSO discharges.”

Varney said the involvement of ordinary citizen volunteers who have patrolled and cleaned the Charles for years has been critical to the restoration of the river.

“Though it seems progress has been slow for a few years, our efforts to analyze the Charles and the impacts of urbanization have accelerated, said Bob Zimmerman, executive director of the Charles River Watershed Association.

“That work has been revealing,” he said. “We are at a new high in understanding the sorts of regulatory changes and water infrastructure changes necessary to fully restore the river, sustain our drinking water supplies, reduce energy demand, and improve the quality of our lives in the Greater Boston metropolitan region.”

View This Story On Eco–mmunity Map.