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As Boaters and Cleanup Volunteers Converge on Charles River, Water Quality Conditions Improved EPA Grade from 2007 Monitoring: B++

Release Date: 04/25/2008
Contact Information: Ken Moraff, (617) 918-1502

(Boston, Mass. - Apr. 25, 2008) – As volunteers flock to the Charles River tomorrow for the annual spring clean up event, and paddlers arrive for the “Run of the Charles” canoe and kayak race, EPA water quality monitoring data show that during 2007, the Charles River had it’s best water quality for boating and swimming since the intensive Clean Charles Initiative began in 1995.

EPA’s grade for the lower Charles River this year is the highest-ever: a B++. The unusual grade reflects that coordinated efforts by government and local groups have had continuing success reducing bacteria levels – helping to restore the river to ecological health. Although we have made good progress reducing bacteria levels, there is growing concern about elevated levels of nutrients, especially phosphorus, which requires more work to address.

"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."

This year’s 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 a superb 100 percent of the time, and swimming standards 63 percent of the time, according to data collected by the Charles River Watershed Association (CRWA) between Watertown Dam and Boston Harbor. These measurements are the best levels recorded since the Charles River Initiative began in 1995.

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.

"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 Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Ian Bowles. "The challenge before us is to maintain the momentum and finish the job - and learn from our lessons in the Charles and spread them to the other impaired watersheds of the Commonwealth."

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 (CSOs) to the Charles,” said MWRA executive director Frederick A. 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."

EPA’s Varney noted that the involvement of ordinary citizen volunteers who have patrolled and cleaned the Charles for years has been critical to the restoration of the River. This weekend, in conjunction with its annual canoe and kayak race dubbed Run of the Charles, the Charles River Watershed Association will be organizing a clean up day during which volunteers can collect trash along the shores.

“Though it seems progress has been slow for a few years, our efforts to analyze the Charles and the impacts of urbanization have accelerated. That work has been revealing. Together with EPA, DEP, and CLF, 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,” said Bob Zimmerman, Executive Director of the Charles River Watershed Association.

High levels of phosphorus in the past several years have caused the River to turn a bright shade of blue-green during summertime 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. EPA and MassDEP developed and approved the new limits using extensive data collected in the Charles over several years.

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

Since 1995, the Charles River Initiative has featured coordinated efforts between EPA, state and local governments, private organizations, and environmental advocates, working together to improve the health of the lower Charles River. As this work continues, the goals of a river that is healthy and supports many recreational activities becomes closer to an everyday reality. The Charles River Swimming Club, established to promote competitive swimming in the river had 67 participants in its race last summer, and has another race scheduled for June 15 of this year.

More information:
EPA’s Charles River Initiative (

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