In what marks the highest award since the inception of the Clean Charles River Initiative in 1995, the Charles River received an “A-” grade from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for its 2013 Charles River Report Card at a ceremony at the Museum of Science, Boston on September 3, 2014.
For nearly 20 years, the Charles River Report Card has measured annual improvements in water quality in the Charles River Lower Basin, the section of the Charles downstream from Watertown Dam. The Report Card also outlines goals and objectives for the coming year as Charles River Watershed Association (CRWA), EPA, and local agencies and officials work together to restore the Charles River Lower Basin to its full ecological health.
The “A-” grade reflects continued improvement in the number of days the river is safe for boating and swimming. For the 2013 calendar year, the Charles River was safe for boating 96 percent of the time and safe for swimming 70 percent of the time, representing the highest safe swimming percentage in the past 19 years. The 2013 grade also demonstrates how far the Charles has come since reporting began in 1995, when data showed the Charles only met boating standards 39 percent of the time and was safe for swimming just 19 percent of the time.
The Charles River Report Card is determined each year through data analysis and bacterial sampling conducted by CRWA’s science staff and team of trained volunteers.
“Across the country, the Charles serves as a model for the restoration of urban rivers”, said Bob Zimmerman, CRWA Executive Director. “We are thrilled to celebrate this remarkable achievement, while remembering that the Charles still faces serious issues such as toxic algal blooms, polluted stormwater runoff, and the impacts of climate change. However, if the success of this effort over the past 20 years is any indication, together we’ll resolve them as well.”
Launched in 1995, the Clean Charles River Initiative established the goal of making the Charles River Lower Basin both “fishable” and “swimmable.” To start, EPA, along with CRWA and Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) sought to reduce bacteria contamination into the Charles by eliminating “combined sewer overflows”, or CSOs. Originally designed to carry both sewage and stormwater, CSOs discharged excess wastewater directly in to the Charles during periods of heavy rain or melting snow, resulting in untreated human waste, toxic materials and other debris ending up in the river.
Thanks in part to CRWA’s advocacy, EPA and the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA) reached a major settlement in 2006 which resulted in the elimination of 99.5 percent of CSO activations into the Charles River.
The Charles now boasts the busiest recreational use seen since the 1900’s, when huge crowds were swimming and boating on the river. To better inform the public of water quality during the summer months, CRWA’s science team has developed a statistical model to provide a daily forecast of water quality conditions in the Charles River Lower Basin.
While the Report Card highlights reductions of bacteria and pathogen pollution in the Charles, it doesn’t take other kinds of pollution into account, at least not directly, so problems such as toxic algal blooms, increased water temperatures, explosive weed growth and habitat losses remain a major concern.
As we move in to a new phase of restoring the Charles River, CRWA is committed to addressing additional threats to the river’s ecosystem, particularly nutrient pollution from stormwater runoff and impacts from climate change in the watershed. Through CRWA’s Blue Cities Initiative, CRWA is building natural green systems like rain gardens and bioswales that reduce flooding while absorbing stormwater runoff and filtering out pollutants.
EPA’s 2013 Charles River Report Card Grade confirms what CRWA has long advocated and worked for: urban rivers like the Charles can be restored, and a healthy river is good not only for the environment, but also for the economy and everyone who lives, works and plays in the watershed!