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At Annual Swim Event in Charles River, Yearly Water Quality Remains Good; EPA Grade from 2010 Monitoring: B+

Release Date: 06/04/2011
Contact Information: David Deegan, 617-918-1017

(Boston, Mass. – June 4, 2011) – As local residents eager to reestablish swimming in the Charles River held an annual swim event, EPA announced a grade of “B+” reflecting monitoring data that showed that during 2010, the Charles River continued to have acceptable water quality for boating and swimming.  This progress is thanks to the intensive Clean Charles Initiative began in 1995.

EPA’s grade of B+ for the lower Charles River reflects the coordinated efforts by government and local groups which have had continuing success in reducing bacteria levels that make water quality safe for boaters and increasingly swimmers.  However, despite the good progress reducing bacteria levels, there continues to be heightened concern about elevated levels of nutrients, especially phosphorus, in the Charles River.  EPA and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts are working to address elevated nutrient levels.

"The long-term effort by EPA and many partners to improve water quality in our Charles River since 1995 is a great achievement and something we should all be proud of,” said Curt Spalding, regional administrator of EPA's New England office. “We are now addressing tougher pollution problems, most notably increased nutrient runoff and stormwater pollution."

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 2010, the Charles met boating standards 86 percent of the time, and swimming standards 66 percent of the time, according to data collected by the Charles River Watershed Association (CRWA) between Watertown Dam and Boston Harbor.  The swimming percentage is the highest recorded since the EPA began grading the river 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 clean-up of the Charles River has been a tremendous benefit to the region," says Bob Zimmerman, Executive Director of the Charles River Watershed Association.  "Everything we measure - from herring populations to real estate values to the number of river users - has improved since EPA initiated the Clean Charles Initiative in 1995.  We still have work to do, but there is no doubt it's worth it."

Today’s announcement is made at the third annual swimming race in the river, sponsored by the Charles River Swimming Club. The Club’s advocacy has been instrumental in showing that swimming is a realistic goal for the Charles River restoration – and helps illustrate the achievements made since 1995 when EPA’s Clean Charles Initiative began.  

"The Charles River Swimming Club's annual mile-long race is only possible thanks to the determination and foresight of the two generations of environmentalists whose work has done much to rehabilitate the river since its closure to swimming.  While much work is ongoing we are confident that we will be able to help reintroduce ever greater numbers of residents to the pleasure of swimming in their local river in the near future," said Frans Lawaetz, President of the Charles River Swimming Club.

Efforts to restore the Charles River are not limited to EPA’s partnership.  The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is also focusing on how it can help improve the river’s ecological health. The Charles River Water Quality Commission continues to make steady progress in assessing the feasibility of returning swimming to the Charles. During Summer months, the Commission helps oversee daily water quality monitoring for E. coli and weekly monitoring for cyanobacteria in the Charles. The Commission includes participants from Massachusetts agencies including Dept. of Environmental Protection, Dept. of Conservation and Recreation, Dept. of Public Health, as well as elected representatives, the Charles River Watershed Association, Northeastern University, the US Geological Service and others.

Despite the notable progress made to reduce bacterial contamination in the Charles River, a high level of the nutrient phosphorus has been a growing concern over the past several years, and is the cause of portions of the river turning a bright shade of blue-green during summertime algae blooms.  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 engaged in efforts to limit the discharge of phosphorus into 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 goal of a river that is healthy and supports many recreational activities becomes closer to an everyday reality.

More information: EPA’s Charles River Initiative (

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