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Charles River Earns a "B" Grade for Water Quality; Stormwater Pollution and Individual Action Priorities for Future Improvement

Release Date: 05/02/2002
Contact Information: Peyton Fleming, EPA Press Office (617-918-1008)

BOSTON - Robert W. Varney, regional administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's New England Office, today announced that the Charles River continues to be substantially cleaner than it was several years ago, but that there was little change in water quality from a year ago.

Varney said the river was clean enough for boating 82 percent of the time last year, up from 39 percent in 1995, and met swimming standards 54 percent of the time, compared to 19 percent in 1995. The results are based on extensive wet- and dry-weather water sampling done by the Charles River Watershed Association.

Varney gave the river a grade of "B" for last year's results, the same grade as a year ago, but up from a "D" in 1995 when the agency's Clean Charles 2005 Initiative was first launched. The agency's goal is to make the river safe for fishing and swimming by Earth Day 2005.

The minimal water quality changes over the past year were attributed to the more diffuse nature of pollutants still getting into the river. "We've made huge strides the past few years, but now we're heading into the toughest part of the cleanup where the pollution sources are more ubiquitous," Varney said.

Varney said a renewed commitment and heightened emphasis on individual responsibility to curb pollution are needed for restoring the river.

"We've been highly successful closing off the pipes and eliminating illegal connections that were responsible for much of the river's pollution," Varney said. "Now it is time to focus our attention to the challenge of getting every homeowner, every car owner, every dog owner and every small business owner to play an individual role in reducing the flow of contaminants into the river."

Over the past two years, significant progress has been made in understanding where the bulk of the remaining pollution – in particular, stormwater runoff – is entering the river. A soon-to-be-released study of stormwater contaminant loads to the Lower Charles River directly addresses this issue.

"This study gives us our best understanding to date of the volumes, contamination levels and locations of stormwater inflow to the Lower Charles River, and the areas where managers most need to focus their attention to reduce those loads," said Peter Weiskel, chief of the Hydrologic Investigations Section of the Massachusetts Office of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). The USGS undertook the field and modeling study in cooperation with EPA, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority and the Charles River Watershed Association.

During dry weather, the Lower Charles generally meets water quality standards. But during and after storms, the river often fails to meet boating and swimming standards for fecal coliform bacteria. The USGS study shows that the bulk of the fecal coliform contamination now impacting the Lower Charles River enters at relatively few places: Stony Brook and Muddy River, both in Boston, together contribute about 70 percent of the wet-weather fecal coliform; Laundry Brook in Newton and Faneuil Brook in Brighton together contribute another 10 percent and another 10 percent comes in over the Watertown Dam. The rest is from many smaller streams and storm drains along the entire length of the river.

The planned elimination of the Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) now entering Stony Brook, a culverted stream in Boston, will have a significant impact on the overall fecal coliform load. That work is expected to be done by 2006. Continued efforts to eliminate illicit sewage connections to stormdrains and implement stormwater management practices will further reduce these loads.

The USGS, in cooperation with the DEP Wall Experiment Station and EPA, is now building upon its geographic stormwater study of bacterial sources by using advanced DNA techniques. Focusing on Laundry Brook, which enters the river just below Watertown Dam, USGS is using DNA "fingerprinting" to distinguish specific sources of bacterial stormwater pollution to the Lower Charles.

"The big question is whether the remaining bacterial pollution in stormwater is coming mainly from humans, domestic animals or wildlife which can run the gamut from waterfowl to racoons," said Weiskel, whose agency has collected fecal and water samples for DNA analysis over the past nine months and expects to release its findings later this year.

As the quality of the Lower Charles River improves, its importance as a recreational resource continues to increase. In order to serve the large number of recreational users, the Charles River Watershed Association will continue its boathouse flagging program this year as well as its extensive water monitoring program.

This year CRWA, in cooperation with USGS and EPA, has developed water quality models of the Lower Charles that allow numerical prediction of bacterial levels at the flagging sites based on the weather conditions over the previous week. These daily predictions will be posted, beginning in June, on the web at

In another new development in regard to stormwater, Robert Zimmerman, executive director of the Charles River Watershed Association, announced today that the association will be piloting an alternative stormwater technology this summer, beginning with a site in Bellingham next month.

"Our SmartStorm product can dramatically improve stormwater runoff problems by capturing stormwater before it becomes polluted so that it can be used for irrigation and recharging groundwater," Zimmerman said. "Our preliminary models show this technology could dramatically reduce costs abating or eliminating CSOs, Sanitary Sewer Overflows and stormwater runoff. It will also enhance groundwater storage, especially during summer months, improving summer flow, improving summer flow in the Charles, and improving the sustainability of metro Boston drinking water supplies."

For a typical homeowner, the SmartStorm technology, which includes two 400-gallon storage tanks and high-technology dry wells, provides storage and recharging capacity for 52,000 gallons of water a year.

Other highlights of what's been accomplished on the river cleanup, particularly in the past year:

CSO Discharges and Illicit Connections: Treated CSO discharges have been reduced from 1.5 billion gallons a year to 75 million gallons a year. Untreated CSO discharges are down to 58 million gallons a year and are on their way to no discharges in a typical year forecast for 2006 when the CSO projects are completed. We have also made significant progress on illicit connections, eliminating over one million gallons a day since the beginning of the initiative in 1995. While we eliminated 12 million gallons a year of illicit connections in 2001, this is still a significant result, considering that it represents eliminating the equivalent of 20 percent of the existing untreated CSO load of 58 million gallons a year.

Municipal Stormwater Management: Some of the communities in the watershed have been doing an outstanding job developing and implementing stormwater management on the municipal level. In particular, Cambridge, Dedham and Boston stand out for their good work.

Watershed Education in the Schools: The Urban Environment Institute, one of the agency's partners, continues to work with junior and senior high schools in the watershed, teaching watershed literacy and conducting bird and insect diversity studies at study areas along the Charles. They are working with approximately 400 students in eight schools.

Water Quality Forecasting The Charlescast project, funded by EPA, will provide for forecasting of water quality based on weather forecasts and regression modeling performed by USGS and CRWA. Results will be posted on a web page and with flags at boathouses along the Charles.

Stormwater Public Education Workshop Last fall, EPA hosted a stormwater public education workshop for all towns in the watershed, presenting experts on stormwater public education and distributing a "nuts and bolts" manual on the message and process for building stormwater literacy.

MIT Stormwater Design Competition In March of this year, EPA co-hosted a stormwater design competition with MIT. Twenty designs from both professionals and students around the country entered. The winning design will be constructed with funds donated by MIT this summer in Cambridge.

Wellesley Retrofit Construction Wellesley will be moving ahead to implement a stormwater retrofit design for the Town Duck Pond. This design grew out of a retrofit inventory of the watershed that the agency funded the Center for Watershed Protection to conduct in 1999.

Boston Stormwater Permit Under its stormwater management permit, Boston continues to do an outstanding job of eliminating illicit connections, cleaning catch basins, posting its storm drain outfalls, conducting stormwater education through school programs and cable public service announcements, and conducting best management practices studies for pet waste management and catch basin management.

CRWA Trading Grant EPA Headquarters will be giving CRWA a grant for $106,000 to continue its work on watershed permitting. In particular, this grant will support CRWA's work to develop trading mechanisms in the upper watershed, using instream flow as a medium of exchange. Such trading relies on the notion that recharging stormwater should be rewarded as it increases base flow and the assimilative properties of the river. Thus, trading would be based on allowing one party to trade credits it receives for increasing base flow to another party who would reduce end-of-pipe treatment costs due to the river's ability to safely absorb the extra loadings.