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Charles River Report Card: Continued Progress Cleaning ‘That Dirty Water’

Release Date: 04/21/2006
Contact Information: EPA Office of Public Affairs, 617-918-1000

(Boston, Mass. - Apr. 21, 2006) – For the second consecutive year, the lower Charles River has attained its highest-ever grade from EPA, as efforts to restore the river to ecological health continue to progress.

Begun over ten years ago, the Charles River Initiative is an effort between EPA and local stakeholders to improve ecological conditions in the lower Charles River. The continued work is paying off as the river shows signs of significantly improved water quality and ecological health. EPA has graded the health of the Charles River as a “B+” for 2005 – only the second time the river’s conditions have merited a grade that high.

The grade is based on the number of days the river meets boating and swimming standards during the previous calendar year. For 2005, the Charles met boating standards 97 percent of the time, and swimming standards 50 percent of the time according to data collected by the Charles River Watershed Association (CRWA) between Watertown Dam and Boston Harbor.

The Charles has improved dramatically from the initiation of EPA’s Charles program in 1995, when the river received a D for meeting boating standards 39 percent of the time and swimming standards just 19 percent of the time.

"The next generation of Bostonians will hardly believe that the song, 'Love that Dirty Water,' was once inspired by the Charles River,” said Robert Varney, EPA regional administrator for New England, as he lauded recent efforts to require work on combined sewer overflows as a crowning accomplishment in the effort to make the river fishable and swimmable. “A 99.5 percent reduction in CSOs will bring tremendous benefits to the 20,000 people who enjoy the Charles and its shorelines on hot summer days in Boston.”

EPA data indicates that the swimming standard in the most heavily used part of the river - the basin between the Mass. Avenue Bridge and the Longfellow Bridge - was met consistently during summer sampling in 2005.

"EPA and CRWA have been measuring progress on the Charles for a dozen years, and working with a host of organizations, from municipalities to Harvard, to address the remaining concerns. We believe that the Charles can be fully restored, and that that restoration will be completed over the coming decade," said Bob Zimmerman, Executive Director of the CRWA.

Although the grade for the river remained the same for the past two years, a recent legal settlement among EPA, the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) and the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA) promises great improvements in water quality for the Charles in the years ahead. As part of the settlement, MWRA has committed to reduce discharges from combined sewer overflows (CSO) to a level that was previously considered unattainable.

“Back in 1983, we had a dream that Boston’s waters could be clean. Lawyers from Conservation Law Foundation won an historic court order to clean up Boston Harbor. But we soon learned that there could be no clean Harbor without a clean Charles, and no clean Charles as long as rainstorms brought sewage into its waters. Now, that will end. The dream is being fulfilled,” CLF spokesperson Julia Bovey said.

MWRA executive director Frederick A. Laskey called this agreement a win-win. "It's a win for the river and the people who use it and a win for MWRA's ratepayers who now have some certainty of the cost of this program over the next several years."

Combined sewer overflows discharge during heavy rains when the pipes carrying stormwater and sewage become full and must be released to adjacent surface waters like the Charles River or Boston Harbor. At the completion of MWRA’s promised work in the year 2013, discharges from the combined sewer overflows will drop to 7.8 million gallons per year, down from 1.7 billion gallons per year in 1988, when MWRA’s CSO-reduction work commenced. This represents a 99.5 percent reduction in CSOs since 1988.

For more than a decade, the Charles River Initiative has featured the coordinated efforts between EPA, state and local governments, private organizations, and environmental advocates, working together to improve the health of the lower Charles River.

More information on EPA's efforts to clean the Charles River: http://www.epa.gov/ne/charles/index.html .

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