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EPA Gives Charles River a "B-" and Announces Innovative "Curtain" at Magazine Beach

Release Date: 04/14/2000
Contact Information: Peyton Fleming, EPA Press Office (617-918-1008)

BOSTON - Mindy S. Lubber, regional administrator at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's New England Office, today announced that the Charles River has become substantially cleaner over the past year, and gave the river a grade of "B-," up from a "C+" a year ago. Lubber said the river was clean enough for boating 90 percent of the time last year, up from 83 percent in 1998, and met swimming standards 65 percent of the time, compared to 51 percent in 1998.

EPA's Clean Charles 2005 Initiative to make the Charles fishable and swimmable by 2005 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 actions by numerous groups and individuals who contributed to reductions in stormwater and sewage discharges, educated the public on pollution and conducted research necessary to improve the water quality.

"The hard work of many people and organizations has made the Charles River substantially cleaner and safer," Lubber said at a press conference at Magazine Beach in Cambridge this morning. "With more dedication and careful planning, we look forward to achieving our goal of a swimmable and fishable Charles River by Earth Day 2005."

Lubber also announced today that EPA New England will fund a pilot program this summer at Magazine Beach to test an innovative barrier for improving water quality and water clarity in the river. The "Gunderboom," a curtain-like barrier that filters suspended solids and bacteria, will be tested in August. This will determine if a boom could make the water clear enough and free enough from bacteria to meet state clarity standards. This specific river section was chosen because it is prone to water clarity problems in late summer. Gunderboom has already developed systems for swimming at Sea Cliff Beach on Long Island and Mamaroneck Beach in Westchester, NY.

Members of the Cambridge community who once swam at Magazine Beach attended today's event, which included poster-size photos of people swimming at the beach in the early 1900s.

"I remember walking from East Cambridge for a family picnic at Magazine Beach," said Bea Harvey, a Cambridge resident who swam there in the 1930s. "It was very crowded and a big treat for us to spend the day there swimming and picnicking"

EPA's annual report card is based on samples taken by the Charles River Watershed Association (CRWA).

"As water quality in the Charles River Basin improves each year, we gain confidence that it can be restored to the point where it is consistently safe for recreation," said Bob Zimmerman, the association's executive director. "Until then, CRWA will continue seeking solutions to stormwater pollution. We also will continue to inform the public about days when water quality poses health risks, using color-coded flags at the boats houses. We look forward to the time when a flagging system is unnecessary because pollution problems are history."

Today's press conference also highlighted advances that have been made in providing reducing pollution from stormwater, educating the public and eliminating sewage discharges into the river.

Local municipalities have played a significant role in reducing pollution from stormwater runoff. 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 continues, EPA is also stepping 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 plans for stormwater management to EPA. This year, municipalities will be negotiating agreements under which they will maintain existing stormwater plans and improve them with advice from EPA's consultant, the Center for Watershed Protection in Maryland.

The City of Boston received one of the state's first stormwater permits from EPA last fall, governing 200 storm drain outfalls that are a major pollution source to the Charles. The permit requires the city to implement a series of stormwater management and monitoring programs that will control pollution.

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. Both Wellesley and Brookline are interested and have applied for state funding..

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

EPA's efforts to educate the public got several good boosts last year:

    • The US Geological Survey (USGS) created a website that lets the public find out in real time the level of water in the Charles as well as the salinity and temperature of the water. The website also gives monthly readings on bacteria, biologic oxygen demand, metals and nutrients as well as suspended solids.

      Peter Weiskell, scientist with USGS, was at the press conference to talk about water sampling and measurement his agency is doing to help EPA identify and quantify contamination in the Charles. USGS has 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. The Gunderboom barrier curtain could prove effective given the information found in the study.

    • The Clean Charles Coalition, a group of 16 landowners on the river, last year set up a web page ( and began 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 public outreach, created a basic watershed science and biology curriculum for high school students in eight Boston Harbor Watershed communities. The institute began offering the curriculum this year involving 250 high school students and 11 teachers from nine Boston area schools. Students, including those from Boston who explained their work at today's press conference, are following improvements through field studies tracking the recovery of animal and plant species at seven stations. Their studies are posted monthly at Click icon for EPA disclaimer..
Work to reduce sewage discharges also made significant headway in several arenas:
    • The Massachusetts Water Resources Authority has been a key player in EPA's goal of restoring the river. Improvements in the MWRA sewer system are substantially reducing the amount of sewage discharged into the river. MWRA has markedly increased capacity at the Deer Island sewage treatment plant. It has also separated sewer and storm drain pipes formerly draining together through combined sewer overflow (CSO) pipes. These pipes discharged untreated wastewater after storms overloaded the capacity of the sewer system. Among the projects: design was completed last year for a sewer separation that entails 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 per year.
      Also last year, MWRA finished upgrades to the Cottage Farm treatment plant at Magazine Beach and began 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 two events per year.
    • State stormdrains: All four state agencies that own stormdrains flowing into the Charles have investigated all their drains to identify illicit connections. Of 600 drains, only one illicit connection was found and was immediately rectified.