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EPA Selects Charles River Watershed Association for Innovative Water Trading Project

Release Date: 02/13/2003
Contact Information: Peyton Fleming, EPA Press Office, 617-918-1008

BOSTON - The US Environmental Protection Agency today announced that the Charles River Watershed Association has been chosen as one of only 10 projects in the country for piloting the agency's new water quality trading program announced last month by EPA Administrator Christie Whitman.

Unveiled at a news conference in Waltham, the watershed association is pursuing an innovative project in which increased instream flows in the river would be used as a trading tool for addressing the river's water quality problems. CRWA has established after years of study that one of the principle effects of increased development in the watershed is de-watering of the area's aquifers, streams and rivers, especially in the Upper Charles communities.

By setting up a trading program, the watershed association plans to create a market to increase flows in the Charles, particularly between April and December, thus decreasing concentrations of pollutants in the river and providing greater habitat and resilience to droughts. River flows would be increased primarily by capturing rainwater before it gets contaminated by parking lot grease and oil, or herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers, or animal waste, and recharging, or putting that water back into the ground.

The project, still in its early stages, was kicked off with a $106,000 grant from EPA's Office of Watersheds, Oceans and Wetlands and was one of 10 such awards nationally.

"Municipal wastewater treatment plants and corporations that discharge into the Charles spend tremendous sums of money to remove pollution from their wastewater streams," said CRWA Executive Director Robert Zimmerman, announcing the project today at the association's new headquarters in Waltham. "Our theory is that it may be less expensive to recharge clean rainwater to the ground than remove more pollutants from their waste streams. The river benefits, too, because the increased groundwater means higher river flows and reduced stormwater runoff. It's a potential win-win situation. The project is the first of its kind in the country and will be a huge challenge to implement. The key is having a cap and trade pollution-trading program in place."

Announced last month by EPA Administrator Christie Whitman, the agency's new Water Quality Trading Policy is designed to give federal, state and local regulators more flexibility to maintain and improve the nation's waters in less costly ways.

"This policy recognizes that the most effective and economical way to reduce pollution is to provide incentives to encourage actions by those who can achieve reductions easily and cost effectively," said David Batchelor, senior policy advisory at EPA's Office of Water, which is responsible for implementing the water quality trading policy. "The result will be cleaner water, at less cost, and in less time. It provides the flexibility needed to meet local challenges while demanding accountability to ensure that water does improve."

Water quality trading uses economic incentives to improve water quality. It allows one source to meet its regulatory obligations by using pollutant reduction actions created by another source that has lower pollution control costs.

In order for a water quality trade to take place, a pollution reduction "credit" must first be created. For example, landowners or farmers could create credits by changing cropping practices and planting shrubs and trees next to a stream. A municipal wastewater treatment plant could then use these credits to meet water quality limits in its discharge permit.

In the case of the Charles River, the watershed association is interested in substantially boosting instream flows in the Upper Charles River in exchange for additional controls on a discharger's waste stream. CRWA is also interested in exploring regulatory links between state water withdrawal and development permits and federal wastewater treatment permits that create incentives to improve the rainwater-to-groundwater connection.

Pavement and constructed land surfaces associated with road, subdivision and industrial development make it impossible for rain to penetrate the ground. These impervious surfaces are creating polluted stormwater runoff and flooding, while at the same time depleting the aquifers that the public depends on for drinking water. CRWA's flow-trading project is a potential tool for addressing these problems.

"Lower instream flows in the Charles River reflect that far too much rainwater is being lost to storm drains as opposed to going back into the ground, and eventually the river, where it should be," Zimmerman said.

"Clean water depends on a functioning water cycle. However, the Charles River watershed has been developed in a way that has rendered the water cycle dysfunctional," said Arleen O'Donnell, deputy commissioner for Policy and Planning at the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. "This innovative project is simply a way to provide incentives to return natural flow to the river. What is being attempted here is a national model."

In the first pilot project of its kind in the nation, the town of Bellingham is encouraging homeowners to install CRWA's SmartStorm system, a high-tech cistern/drywell system that traps roof rainwater runoff.

"The average home dumps between 50,000 to 60,000 gallons of rain off the roof each year," Zimmerman said. "By capturing the water and reusing it for watering the lawn, washing the car, or recharging the ground, the water will remain in the watershed as groundwater and, if done on a substantially larger scale, replenish the river. We would also sustain our drinking water supplies."