Charles River Water Quality Earns an A- for the Second Time in the Past Five Years

The EPA has given the Charles River a grade of “A-” for bacterial water quality in the river during 2017. This is only the second time the river has earned a grade as high as an “A-minus,” and both have occurred within the past five years.

“The Charles River turnaround is a perfect example of what strong partnerships with States, Municipalities, and Non-Profit organizations can achieve,” said Alexandra Dunn, regional administrator of EPA’s New England office. “EPA continues to work hard at improving water quality in the Charles River by tackling pollution sources by detecting illicit discharges and our work on combined sewer overflows. EPA is also protecting this great resource with stormwater permits that address the problem of nutrient pollution.”

The EPA grade for water quality in the lower Charles River is based on bacterial sampling conducted by the Charles River Watershed Association (“CRWA”) over the 2017 calendar year. CRWA collects monthly water quality samples at ten monitoring sites from the Watertown Dam to Boston Harbor.  In 2017, the Charles was meeting the state’s bacterial water quality standards for boating 95 percent of the time, and for swimming 72 percent of the time. This is the 23rd year EPA has issued a Charles River Report Card.


The Charles River grade is determined by comparing the amount of time the river meets water quality standards to the following criteria:

A – almost always met standards for boating and swimming
B – met standards for almost all boating and some swimming
C – met standards for some boating and some swimming
D – met standards for some boating but no swimming
F – did not meet standards for boating or swimming

The lower Charles River has improved dramatically from the launch of EPA’s Charles River Initiative in 1995, when the river received a “D” for meeting boating standards only 39 percent of the time and swimming standards just 19 percent of the time. The water quality improvements are due to significant reductions in the amount of Combined Sewer Overflow (“CSO”) discharges to the river over the past 24 years, as well as enforcement of water quality standards and removal of illicit discharges.  Illicit discharges often consist of cracked and leaking sewer pipes or improper sewer connections to the storm drain system.

An updated Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (“MS4”) permit for Massachusetts, which takes effect in July 2018, will encourage further progress to reduce harmful amounts of nutrients contained in stormwater runoff. The new MS4 permit will build upon past work, and update stormwater management efforts across Massachusetts, better protecting rivers, streams, ponds, lakes and wetlands across the Commonwealth.

“The Commonwealth is proud to join all of the partners in celebrating these critical water quality improvements to the Charles River, and we are heartened that these projects have resulted in a cleaner river for all,” said Deputy Commissioner Stephanie Cooper of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP). “We will continue to support the important work that municipalities, advocates and governmental entities do to protect this historic and vital watershed, in furtherance of our shared mission to reduce sources of pollution and ensure water quality improvements.”

“The Baker-Polito Administration is proud of its continued efforts to provide residents and visitors with a high level of access to our state’s natural, cultural, and recreational resources for people of all abilities to utilize,” said Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation Commissioner Leo Roy. “The Charles River is one of the Commonwealth’s most treasured natural resources, and the Department of Conservation and Recreation is committed to working with partners and stakeholders to provide excellent stewardship of the river and abutting state parklands.”

“MWRA takes great pride in this environmental success story,” said MWRA Executive Director Fred Laskey.

“During my tenure at Charles River Watershed Association I have seen the Charles River improve from a ‘D grade’ in 1995 to the ‘A- grade’ it received today. I am proud of Charles River Watershed Association’s role in this transformation and am grateful to EPA for its commitment to the Charles River. The Charles River continues to face challenges including nutrient pollution, droughts and extreme storms. But with the continued partnership between CRWA, EPA, DCR, Mass DEP, Massachusetts Water Resources Authority and City of Boston, I am confident that water quality in the Charles River will continue to improve,” said Robert Zimmerman, Executive Director at Charles River Watershed Association.

The higher grade for 2017 was measured despite a majority of sample events occurring during or soon after wet weather, when many pollutants are washed into area streams and storm drains, as well as directly into the river.

The 2017 calendar year saw a continuation of the expanding use of the Charles River, with over 140 swimmers competing in the Charles River Swim, a competitive 1-mile swim race held in June, in addition to continued advocacy for a permanent swimming area near the entrance to the Charles at North Point Park. Last July, nearly 300 swimmers took part in “City Swim” off the Esplanade docks.

As collaborative efforts between EPA, state and local government, private organizations and environmental advocates continue, the goal of a consistently healthy river becomes closer to an everyday reality. For the fourth year, EPA launched a water quality monitoring buoy in front of the Museum of Science in the Charles River Lower Basin. This buoy measures water quality in near real time. The data is being streamed-live on EPA’s Charles River Website, as well as to a new Charles River exhibit in the Museum of Science.

Aside from illicit discharges, stormwater containing phosphorus, and the algae it produces are some of the major pollution problems remaining. These are problems that every citizen can help tackle. A major load of phosphorus comes from fertilizer and runoff from impervious surfaces like roads and rooftops. Citizens have been the driving force behind the Charles River Initiative and they can continue to help improve water quality in the River while monitoring progress themselves.

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