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EPA Awards $363,257 Grant to Somerville for Mystic River Project

Release Date: 12/03/2001
Contact Information: Peyton Fleming, EPA Press Office (617-918-1008) Sean Fitzgerald, City of Somerville (617-625-6600 ext. 2100)

SOMERVILLE – EPA Regional Administrator Robert Varney and Somerville Mayor Dorothy Kelly Gay today announced that the city has received a $363,257 EPA grant to develop a state-of-the-art system that can predict, assess and report the Mystic River's water quality in real time. Tufts University President Lawrence Bacow and Mystic River Watershed

Association Executive Director Grace Perez also were present at a press conference that announced the grant and demonstrated the equipment.

"Everyone deserves clean water to swim or boat or fish in – not just on Cape Cod or in Maine but also in Somerville and the rest of the Mystic River area," said Varney, regional administrator of EPA's New England Office. "This project will help residents better utilize the river and help us track our progress in cleaning it up. This is a great collaboration and good use of innovative technologies, which is why it was chosen during a very competitive grant process."

"This is a tremendous advancement for the community and may well serve as a model for other urban areas across the country," added Mayor Kelly Gay, who is committed to making the river fishable and swimmable by 2010. "It represents an important first step beyond the regulatory initiatives under way to clean up the Mystic River. People currently have to make decisions about boating, swimming and fishing on the river based on day-old readings, or no readings at all, of bacteria levels. When this system is up and running, we will know on any given day whether it's okay to enjoy our river."

Measuring bacteria levels will start next spring, with daily water quality prediction levels for swimming, fishing and boating available during spring 2003.

"The ability to monitor the Mystic River's water quality in real time will make it safer for people who use the river and also provide us with critical information for the cleanup process," added Congressman Mike Capuano.

The Mystic River, one of three draining into Boston Harbor, has significant water quality problems: chemicals leaching from waste disposal sites, contaminated sediments, excessive inputs of plant nutrients, discharges of sewage with pathogenic bacteria, fuel hydrocarbons, road salt and toxic metals in storm water runoff. A half-million Massachusetts residents – just under 10 percent of the state's population – live in 21 cities and towns within the 76-square-mile Mystic River watershed. The river is also home to one of the largest urban river herring runs in the Northeast.

Working closely with Somerville officials and the Mystic River Watershed Association, 10 faculty and graduate students at Tufts University's School of Engineering and the Tufts WaterSHED Center will use advanced sensor technology to measure water quality parameters from several stations along the river.

Measures of water quality will include fecal coliform bacteria, dissolved oxygen (an important indicator of pollution and how well a body of water can purify itself), turbidity (or transparency, particularly as it affects swimming visibility), conductivity (as a reflection of dissolved mineral salts, which increase following applications of wintertime road salt), pH and water depth (critical for developing the early-warning bacteria forecast model).

Data from these sites will be transmitted through cellular modem technology to a central server at Tufts, where information will be processed, archived and placed in publicly accessible venues such as dial-in phone messages, cable television and Web sites. Color-coded "water quality" flags also will be placed at key riverfront locations. The project team also will undertake an aggressive information campaign to let area residents know that this information will be readily available at their fingertips.

"This is truly an exciting project for us at Tufts," said Tufts University President Bacow. "We are committing some of our best and brightest to this initiative – from the School of Engineering and the Tufts WaterSHED Center to the Tufts Institute for the Environment and the University College of Citizenship and Public Service. And we're also planning to invest $90,000 in this project over the next couple of years for equipment and staff to help get the network up and running and then maintain it.

Bacow, who is an environmental economist, said Tufts will install three of the monitoring sites along the Mystic River at locations heavily used by recreational boaters and swimmers. He added a fourth site will be installed on Alewife Brook, one of the river's most contaminated tributaries. Large volumes of storm water, often containing raw sewage, frequently discharge into the sluggish brook, affecting the quality of recreational waters up- and downstream. Existing real-time weather data also will be used to help predict bacterial levels.

These readings will be supplemented by bacteria sampling at least five days a week and analyzed at Tufts' environmental lab. Combined with meteorological information and the real-time water quality data, it will be used to create water quality indices and a model that will provide the public with short-term water quality predictions and serve as an "early warning" to people who wish to swim, fish or boat in the river.

"We want the public to understand that --particularly when it rains – they can check the water quality indicators on the web site or the flags along the river to determine whether sewer overflows and runoff have made the water unsafe for recreational use," added Grace Perez, the Mystic River Watershed Association's Executive Director. "More generally, we want to focus attention on the clean-up of the Mystic watershed, which is ‘home' to both an economically and culturally diverse urban population and also to two Superfund sites, hundreds of hazardous waste sites and numerous sewer overflows."