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Release Date: 07/15/1997
Contact Information: Leo Kay, Press Office, (617)918-4154

BOSTON -- EPA-New England Administrator John P. DeVillars gave the Lower Charles River a grade of C- in the agency's second annual water quality report card, and announced a seven-point action plan to ensure that the river is swimmable by Earth Day, 2005.

"One year ago, EPA gave the Lower Charles a grade of 'D' and outlined an ambitious agenda to make the river safe for swimming, fishing and boating by Earth Day, 2005," DeVillars said. "A C- is progress, but there is still a long way to go. The river is no longer in danger of flunking out, but it is far from making the honor roll. I hope we can stand on this spot eight years from now and announce that Magazine Beach is once again safe for swimming."

"The Charles River is a local and national resource, and we have to do all we can to protect and preserve it for future generations," said State Senator Warren Tolman. "'Dirty Water' is a famous song about Boston, but we can't let it be the truth about Boston's most treasured waterway."

"I believe that the Charles River is one of the most important recreational and environmental resources in the City of Cambridge," said Cambridge Mayor Sheila Russell. "It's important that we keep track of its condition and work with state and federal authorities to improve its condition."

"Water quality in the Charles River continues to improve thanks to the combined efforts of citizen volunteers and various governmental agencies which this year identified several illegal sources of pollution and eliminated them," said Robert L. Zimmerman, executive director of the Charles River Watershed Association. "However, it's clear that we still have plenty of work to do cleaning up river pollution from the discharge of stormwater and combined sewer overflows in wet weather. That is where CRWA will focus its efforts in coming months as we continue to work with responsible parties to further improve the health of the river."

"We have a long way to go, but we're on the right track," said Bruce Berman, Baywatch Director for Save the Bay. "The Charles is still a significant source of pollution into the inner harbour, but the EPA's creative new approach shows real promise and is beginning to pay off."

Over the past year, EPA investigators have extensively surveyed the riverbank to find unlawful discharges and identify targets for enforcement and remediation. Due to EPA enforcement actions that turned up more than 300 illegal sewer discharges, 20 million gallons of sewage per year will no longer pollute the Charles and its tributaries.

According to an EPA analysis released last year, the Charles River contributes over $100 million to the region's economy by boosting property values, promoting tourism and supporting recreational activities.

Overall, the Lower Charles meets boating standards about two-thirds of the time, and swimming standards about one-quarter of the time. Yet storm water runoff remains a problem.

During dry periods -- meaning that there has been no significant rainfall for three days -- boating standards were met 94 percent of the time on the Lower Charles in 1996, and swimming standards were met 40 percent of the time. During and after rainstorms (the day of a storm and the next two days), however, boating standards were met only 45 percent of the time, and swimming standards only 15 percent of the time. Because the effects of a storm linger for several days, the river can be heavily contaminated even on a sunny day.

The EPA announced a seven-point action plan for the coming year:

    • Establish a Water Quality Flagging Program: Following up on a call made by State Senator Warren Tolman, the EPA is providing a separate $10,000 grant to the Charles River Watershed Association to fund a water quality sampling and modeling program that will produce real-time data about the condition of the river. Color-coded flags located at boathouses along the Charles will inform the public of the quality of the water on any particular day. People concerned about the health of the river and its safety for recreational use will have access to up-to-date information at a glance.
    • Implement Storm Water Management Plans: The EPA has completed a review of storm water management practices in the 10 Lower Charles communities, and over the next several months will ask each community to make specific improvements. By this time next year each community should have in place a comprehensive, state-of-the-art storm water management program. These are likely to include:
        • regular street sweeping
        • ongoing efforts to detect illegal sewer connections
        • ensuring that businesses and industries implement measures to prevent stormwater pollution
        • aggressive programs to prevent discharge of household hazardous waste, including collection programs and storm drain stencilling
        • public awareness and involvement
    • Improve Maintenance of Infrastructure: The EPA will work with cities and towns to step up inspections and maintenance of aging sewer systems. Last summer, infrastructure failures in Newton and Cambridge allowed raw sewage to flow into the river, causing severe water quality problems and even reported outbreaks of illness among rowers.
    • Continue Enforcement Efforts: The EPA will continue its enforcement initiative against illegal sewer connections and other sources of pollution to the river.
    • Require Relief from Sewer Overflows: The MWRA has spent billions of dollars to construct a sewage treatment plant on Deer Island, and yet each year 150 million gallons of mixed sewage and storm water ("combined sewer overflow," or CSO) overflow into the Charles. Once a popular swimming beach, Magazine Beach is now the site of one of the MWRA's largest sewer overflows. After completing a study to assess disease-causing organisms in the MWRA's CSO discharge, the EPA will propose specific treatment facilities by Thanksgiving. For a relatively modest investment -- on the order of $1 per household per month -- the lion's share of this CSO discharge can be captured and treated.
    • Hold Communities Accountable for Reducing Pollution: Much of the pollution in the Charles is caused by municipal storm water runoff. The EPA will hold cities and towns accountable for reducing such pollution. Next year's report card will include grades for efforts by each community.
    • Support Scientific Research: The EPA will continue to support efforts to increase scientific understanding of the Charles. The EPA today announced a $10,000 grant to expand water quality monitoring efforts by the Charles River Watershed Association, bringing the total awarded by the EPA for such study to $85,000.
The grading scheme for measuring environmental health of the Charles River follows.


A -- always meet swimming and boating standards
B -- always meet boating standards; meet swimming standards most of the time
C -- meet swimming and boating standards some of the time
D -- meet boating standards some of the time; almost never meet swimming standards
F -- fail swimming and boating standards all of the time