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Charles River Earns Another "B" Grade; Cleanup Halfway to Swimmable Goal

Release Date: 04/27/2001
Contact Information: Amy Miller, EPA Press Office (617-918-1042)

BOSTON - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today announced a report card grade of "B" for the Charles River, the same grade as last year. The grade, based on water quality data collected last year, represents a leveling off after many years of dramatic improvement in the river's water quality.

Halfway through its 10-year goal of making the Charles River safe for swimming and fishing by Earth Day 2005, EPA New England officials said the level grade shows that a renewed commitment and heightened emphasis on stormwater are needed for restoring the river.

"We've made huge strides, but just like a marathon, the final leg will be the hardest in achieving our goal of a fishable/swimmable Charles River by 2005," said Ira Leighton, acting regional administrator at EPA's New England Office, at a press conference today at Magazine Beach in Cambridge.

Leighton said future improvements will depend much more heavily on individual actions rather than enforcement against large scale violators.

"Over the last five years, we have been highly successful in closing off the pipes and separating the sewer lines responsible for much of the river's pollution," Leighton said. "Now it is time to turn our attention to stormwater runoff and 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."

Robert L. Zimmerman Jr., executive director of the Charles River Watershed Association, echoed Leighton's remarks.

"Our water quality monitoring from last year shows that we're heading into the toughest cleanup stage yet," Zimmerman said. "Stormwater runoff, the biggest polluter of the Charles, is ubiquitous. The good news is that everyone can do something to help clean it up. CRWA will be testing methods this summer that may allow each of us to have a hand in the effort."

Last year the river was clean enough for boating 92 percent of the time, up from 90 percent of the time in 1999 and met swimming standards 59 percent of the time, compared to 65 percent the previous year. The apparent downturn was due in large part to the intensity of rain last year. In fact, the river showed some improvement during dry weather, meeting standards for swimming 82 percent of the time, up from 71 percent the prior year.

Although last year's data emphasized the challenges that lie ahead in reducing stormwater pollution, they also provided a chance to celebrate dramatic gains that 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.

The river's turnaround is the result of numerous actions by state and local agencies, businesses and individuals to reduce stormwater discharges, illicit sewer connections and other pollution sources.

To illustrate how individual behavior will be critical for future river improvements, Leighton used today's press conference to encourage individuals to clean up after their dogs and be aware of what goes into a storm drain. Leighton held up dog pickup bags as well as "Don't Dump It" kits used for stenciling warnings on storm drains.

"If each dog owner uses one of these bags, less bacteria will seep into the river," Leighton said. "If every car owner can make sure waste oil isn't going down a storm drain, we can begin to eliminate the runoff that remains a significant source of pollution in the Charles."

Other actions announced at today's press conference included:

    • The Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced a national stormwater contest to improve the quality of the Charles River through stormwater management improvements, such as better drainage systems, education programs or innovative materials and equipment. MIT will give prize money to those with winning designs and pay up to $10,000 to put one winning design into practice along the river.
    • EPA, working with the Natural Resource Conservation Services, has created a stormwater education handbook that towns and cities can use to educate their citizens on the potential damage of runoff and how citizens can reduce that damage. EPA will hold workshops with municipalities on how to implement the ideas.
    • The Clean Charles Coalition, a group of 16 universities, corporations and other landowners on the river, has set up a web page ( and begun plans for public outreach on stormwater management. The group has set up meetings to develop stormwater management strategies, which will act as models for training smaller facilities.
    • The Watershed Institute, a partner with EPA in river education, has created a curriculum that is now offered in eight public schools and has reached 400 students in the watershed. Students monitor the quality of the water and habitat and learn how these are directly affected by contaminants flowing in from the neighborhoods. Their studies are posted monthly at
"We believe that the storm water competition we are planning with the EPA will help produce the innovative ideas required to achieve our common goal of additional improvements in water quality.," said Paul Parravano, government relations at MIT. "Together with EPA, we seek significant participation in the competition and implementation of the winning design concept soon thereafter."

Residents who have been paddling on the Charles for years - including some who will be paddling in this Sunday's annual Run of the Charles canoe race - attended today's press conference to testify to the river's greatly improved conditions.

"I don't smell sewage for my entire trip every trip anymore. I usually just smell it at a couple of spots," said Roger Frymire of Cambridge, who kayaks on the river throughout the year. "In the late 1970s, I would walk down to the bank and the river was so polluted it didn't freeze in the winter."

Leighton said that the Metropolitan District Commission for the first time has incorporated plans for swimming beaches in its master plan. Magazine Beach, where the press conference was held, is among the spots listed as possible future swimming beaches.

As part of that effort, EPA last summer tested an innovative curtain for improving water quality and water clarity in the river near Magazine Beach. The "Gunderboom," a 150-foot long curtain that filters suspended solids and bacteria, demonstrated that a boom could probably increase visibility in the water to the point that it meets state water clarity standards.

Today's press conference illuminated dramatic progress in reducing pollution from stormwater, educating the public and particularly in eliminating sewage discharges into the river. Among the highlights:

    • Work to reduce sewage discharges made significant headway over the last decade. Changes to the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority sewer system have greatly reduced the amount of sewage discharged into the river. MWRA has also eliminated six combined sewer overflow (CSO) pipes. These pipes discharged untreated wastewater after storms overloaded the capacity of the sewer system. Already, nearly 1.5 billion gallons a year of treated discharge have been eliminated. And plans to eliminate 11 more CSOs are expected to almost completely eliminate the 50 million gallons a year of untreated discharges now released into the river.
    • Engineering designs have been completed for a sewer separation projects that will include 75,000 feet of new pipe in Jamaica Plain and Roxbury. This will reduce overflows to the Stoney Brook from as many as 22 overflow events per year to zero such events in an average year.
    • MWRA has also finished upgrades to the Cottage Farm wastewater treatment plant at Magazine Beach and begun work to upgrade the Prison Point facility at the Charles River Dam. The authority built a new connection between the Cambridge sewer system and MWRA's North Charles Metropolitan sewer, reducing annual discharges from a sewer overflow pipe there by 75 percent and dropping the frequency of discharges to just two events per year.
Efforts to reduce runoff pollution have focused largely on local municipalities. All 10 communities in the lower Charles have evaluated their storm drains for illegal tie-ins from sewer pipes and removed connections, reducing illicit discharges by one million gallons a day over the last several years. Two remaining projects to remove illicit discharges are underway in Newton and Waltham. In Newton, after 17 miles of sewer line is sealed to prevent leaks, a major source of bacteria will be eliminated. In Waltham, two miles of leaking pipe are being replaced.

While work to reduce wastewater continued, EPA also stepped up its efforts to help private industry and local communities reduce non-point pollution, which includes storm runoff from streets, roofs and gardens. Each of the 10 communities in the lower watershed has already submitted state-of-the-art plans for stormwater management to EPA. Municipalities are now working with EPA to sign agreements under which they maintain existing stormwater plans and improve them with advice from EPA's consultant, the Center for Watershed Protection in Maryland.

Virtually all the communities in the lower Charles have already signed agreements that includes many of the most current practices for reducing stormwater, as recommended by the Center for Watershed Protection.

EPA has also selected a group of projects identified by the Center for Watershed Protection for structural controls for stormwater in the watershed. The agency has given a grant to CWP to create full scale designs for the selected projects. The projects chosen for design funds include one in Brookline on Leverett Pond and two in Wellesley on Duck Pond. When the design is done, EPA will work with communities to get funding for construction.

In a major effort to protect water quality and flow in the upper Charles River above the Watertown Dam, EPA reissued permits with stricter standards to six wastewater treatment facilities serving 11 communities that discharge into the Upper Charles. The new permits demand reduced levels of phosphorus to control nutrient levels. The program encourages the six communities to trade pollution and flow allowances for the benefit of the river.

Making the next round of improvements will in many ways be harder, and will depend on better public education, Leighton said.

"We are reaching a level where incremental improvements will be harder and harder to see," Leighton said. "Many of the major infrastructure problems have been addressed. Additional improvements will depend increasingly on the municipalities stormwater management efforts and changed behavior on te part of the public."

USGS is helping EPA identify and quantify contamination in the Charles. Last year the agency studied sediments in the river to determine contamination levels, the cause of limited visibility in the water and the extent to which sediments contaminate the water. The study found sediments are quite contaminated and the basin has served as a settling pond for the last century. Furthermore, the USGS determined that suspended solids and algae are major contributors to water clarity problems.

For more information about EPA's Clean Charles 2005 project, visit EPA's web site at