Charles River Water Quality Earns a “B” Grade in 2016

BOSTON – EPA has given a grade of “B” for water quality in the Charles River during 2016. This is a slight reduction from the “B+” grade awarded for water quality in the Charles during 2015.

EPA and state and local partners have worked to improve water quality in the Charles River for over two decades. This is the 22nd year EPA has issued a Charles River Report Card. The grade of “B” reflects EPA analysis of bacterial contamination in water samples taken monthly from the lower Charles River by the Charles River Watershed Association (CRWA) at ten sampling stations between Watertown and Boston over the 2016 calendar year. CRWA collects monthly water quality samples throughout the length of the Charles. In 2016, the Charles met the Massachusetts’ bacterial water quality standards for boating 86 percent of the time and for swimming 55 percent of the time. The Charles River grade is determined according 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 grading is also based on a comparison to previous years’ grades and whether the water quality has improved. The slightly lower grade for 2016 is likely related to the fact that seven out of ten sample events occurred during or immediately after a rain event, despite the overall drought conditions that occurred throughout the region during most of the year.

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. These improvements were due to a significant reduction in the amount of sewage discharged into the River over the last twenty years from Combined Sewer Overflows (“CSO”) and illicit discharges through storm drains Illicit discharges often consist of cracked and leaking sewer pipes or improper sewer connections to the storm drain system.  

EPA continues to collaborate with state and local governments, private organizations and community advocates, as the goal of a consistently healthy river becomes closer to an everyday reality. For the third year, EPA has 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, and the data can be viewed on EPA’s Charles River Website (https://www.epa.gov/charlesriver) as well as viewed as part of an exhibit on the Charles in the Museum of Science.

The 2016 calendar year saw further expansion on the public’s enjoyment of the long-term trend of improved water quality in the Charles River, illustrated by over 140 swimmers competing in the Charles River Swim, a 1-mile swim race held in June, and the release of a feasibility study for a permanent swimming area near the entrance to the Charles at North Point Park (see: http://www.thecharles.org/media/uploads/2016/07/Swimmable-Charles-Study_reduced.compressed.pdf).

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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