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Charles River ‘Report Card’ Grade Drops to a “B-” – Clean Up Efforts Continue; Outlying Communities Challenged to Match Boston and Cambridge’s Efforts

Release Date: 04/21/04
Contact Information: Contact: Peyton Fleming, EPA Press Office (617-918-1008)

For Immediate Release: April 21, 2004 Release # 04-04-39

BOSTON - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today announced a report card grade of “B-”, down from a “B” last year, for the Charles River. The grade, based on water quality data collected last year, shows that water quality improvements in the river have leveled off in recent years and that additional stormwater controls and planned sewer system upgrades will be essential for water quality to improve over the next few years.

While environmental officials acknowledged the reduced grade indicates the huge challenge involved in restoring the Charles, they also pointed out that the goal of making the river safe for swimming and fishing is within reach. Future improvements will depend to a large extent on towns and cities along the Charles incorporating the kind of all-out effort already underway in both Boston and Cambridge. Those two cities are spending hundreds of millions of dollars tackling illicit sewer connections, stormwater overflows and other pollution problems that continue to beset the Charles River, especially after rain events.

“If every community along the Charles puts in the kind of effort to reduce sewer waste we have seen in Cambridge and Boston, we can indeed cross the finish line,” said Robert W. Varney, regional administrator for EPA’s New England Office, at a news conference today on the Weeks Footbridge overlooking the river. “The dramatic water quality improvements we achieved in the early stages of this project are still with us, and the Charles continues to be much cleaner and safer than it was in the mid-1990s. However, with each increment of progress, the task ahead becomes more challenging. We grabbed the low-hanging fruit in the late 1990s. Now we are reaching for the upper branches.”

Over the last five years, communities have successfully closed illegal discharge pipes and separated sewer lines responsible for much of the river’s pollution. More than one million gallons a day of sewerage was removed from the river through those efforts. But stormwater overflows and illegal sewer-line hookups continue to discharge more sewage than is acceptable.

“Today’s grade clearly underscores the complexities of resolving issues in the urban environment,” said Robert Zimmerman, executive director of the Charles River Watershed Association, which collects the water quality samples used for grading the river. “Nevertheless, with attention and diligence, and some creativity, the Charles can be fully restored. I’m looking forward to redoubling our efforts over the coming years.”

Last year, the river was clean enough for boating 85 percent of the time, down from 91 percent of the time in 2002 and met swimming standards 46 percent of the time, compared to 51 percent the previous year.

Although the 2003 data shows that challenges that lie ahead, dramatic gains have been made since the Clean Charles 2005 initiative began in 1995. At that time, EPA gave the Charles a grade of "D," since it was meeting bacteria boating standards only 39 percent of the time and swimming standards only 19 percent.

During that time, significant efforts by state and local agencies, businesses and individuals have successfully reduced stormwater discharges, illicit sewer connections and other pollution sources.

Various actions were outlined today for achieving additional water quality improvements in the river, among those:

    • Boston Projects: Boston, with support from the MWRA, is spending millions of dollars to reduce combined sewer overflows into the river from the Stony Brook drainage basin, which includes Jamaica Plain, Hyde Park, Roslindale and West Roxbury. When this project is done in 2006, Boston will have removed the largest remaining source of bacterial pollution to the Lower Basin. Boston has also undertaken a $1.5 million project to identify illicit sewer connections in this drainage basin. Illicit connections are also being removed in Fanueil Brook, another significant source of bacteria into the river. This project is part of a new City-Wide Illicit Connection Investigation Program that Boston is undertaking. The three-year program will address an estimated 6,000 acres throughout the city served by separate storm drains. The investigation will focus on approximately 95 outfalls, 2,500 manholes and 6,000 building connections. Collectively, Boston’s programs removed nearly three-dozen illicit connections last year that were discharging 12,000 gallons of sewage a day into the river.
    • Cambridge Projects: Since the mid-1990s, Cambridge has spent more than $100 million on sewer separation and stormwater management activities. Over the next several years, Cambridge has earmarked more than $70 million for additional sewer reconstruction projects. Among the biggest projects is separating storm drains from sewer pipes in the city’s Agassiz neighborhood, a project that will result in far fewer discharges from the Cottage Farm Combined Sewer facility, the largest discharge source on the Cambridge side of the river. Another significant project is a $30 million effort to eliminate 90 million gallons of combined sewerage that presently flows into the Charles from the Cambridgeport neighborhood during heavy rains.
    • Watershed-Wide Stormwater Management Subcommittee: Boston and Cambridge have agreed to lead an EPA-sponsored subcommittee, created as part of the Clean Charles 2005 Task Force, to make sure that all municipalities in the watershed are doing all that they can to reduce stormwater pollution into the river. Based on the significant knowledge and technical expertise of these two cities, their experience will be a tremendous asset to other municipalities to identify and correct inappropriate discharges into the river. Among the top priorities is the development of a comprehensive, systematic illicit connection identification and elimination protocol similar to the program being used by Boston. EPA intends to make comprehensive illicit removal programs a requirement of each municipality=s stormwater management permits. EPA will monitor through annual reports the progress these communities are making toward eliminating all connections.
    • Hot spot monitoring: Citizen watchdog Roger Frymire of Cambridge has helped identify bacterial loads to the river, which have allowed EPA to direct municipalities, including Waltham, Boston, Watertown and Brookline, to give immediate attention to these discharges. In the year ahead, EPA will continue to look for such hot spots with Frymire’s help.
For more information about EPA’s Clean Charles 2005 project, visit EPA’s web site at

Related information:
Charles River
Rivers and Watersheds