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EPA and Commonwealth Tackle Stormwater Pollution On Eve of the Head of the Charles


As world-class rowers take to the Charles River this weekend, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) today announced aggressive targets to reduce stormwater pollution in Boston’s world-renowned river.

EPA and MassDEP have issued new, protective targets to reduce phosphorus pollution to the Charles. Phosphorus, a nutrient, is responsible for the psychedelic blue-green algae blooms that plagued the Charles for the last two summers. EPA’s goal is to reduce phosphorus discharges to the lower Charles by 54 percent to restore the river to a healthy state.

“We’ve made dramatic progress against the high bacteria levels that once plagued the Charles,” said Robert W. Varney, regional administrator of EPA’s New England office. “Today, as we celebrate the 35th Anniversary of the Clean Water Act, we are setting the stage for dramatic reductions in nutrients and elimination of the algae blooms. We are committed to restoring the Charles River to good ecological health.”

Thanks to a concerted decade-plus effort by EPA, the Mass. DEP, local governments, and concerned citizens such as the Charles River Watershed Association, rapid progress has been achieved in the last decade in making the river safe for recreation, such as the rowing that will take place this weekend in the Head of the Charles competition. For example, within the past few years, the MWRA has committed to eliminate 99.5 percent of all combined sewer overflows to the Charles and Boston coastal areas.

In 1997, bacterial contamination left the river safe for boating just 39 percent of the time. Bacteria levels in the river (which indicate the presence of viruses and other pathogens) were above safe levels more often than not. Today, the river is safe for boating virtually all of the time, except for days following intense storms, and work is underway on projects to further reduce bacteria. EPA and MassDEP are now moving to address algae blooms, which threaten recreational use of the river and also degrade fish habitat and aesthetics.

“We’ve made tremendous progress in the Charles River, but solving the issue of algal blooms will require us to focus on smaller contamination sources, such as stormwater,” said MassDEP Commissioner Laurie Burt. “Reducing phosphorus levels is the next step toward restoring the river to its natural beauty.”

EPA is now acting to reduce algae in the Charles by approving a “Total Maximum Daily Load” (TMDL) for discharges of phosphorus into the lower Charles River. A TMDL determines how much of a pollutant can be put into a body of water before it has harmful effects. EPA and MassDEP have developed and approved the new limits on phosphorus to the lower Charles using extensive data collected in the Charles over the last several years. Today’s action provides the basis to control the discharge of phosphorus into the Charles.

“We’ve made huge progress cleaning up the Charles, especially in terms of removing sewage and other sources of bacteria. But for the past two summers, toxic blue-green algae blooms have turned the river pea-green and raised concerns about public safety. This TMDL spells out how serious the nutrient overloading really is, and gives us a roadmap for how to fix it,” said Robert Zimmerman, Executive Director of the Charles River Watershed Association.

“The Charles River phosphorus TMDL is a comprehensive appraisal of the continued pollution problems in the river and the reductions needed to correct them,” said Christopher Kilian, Senior Attorney and Clean Water Program Director for Conservation Law Foundation. “In particular, the TMDL points to the need for substantial efforts to dramatically reduce the phosphorus flowing into the river from polluted stormwater runoff from roads, parking lots, and rooftops. CLF is working to correct nutrient pollution problems throughout New England and the Charles River TMDL is one of the best assessments that CLF has reviewed in the region and nation. CLF applauds the agencies for recognizing the scope and importance of this pollution problem and looks forward to working with the agencies to implement the TMDL.”

The TMDL forms the scientific basis for taking specific actions to ratchet down the release of phosphorus into the river. Phosphorus enters the river by a number of routes, some of which are already controlled by permits issued by EPA and MassDEP. These include combined sewer overflows, illicit connections through which sanitary sewage seeps into storm drains, and outflows from wastewater treatment plants. While all of these sources have come under stricter discharge limits in recent years, a major uncontrolled source of phosphorus is stormwater runoff - rainwater and snowmelt that carries contamination into the Charles.

Now that the TMDL has established a maximum load, EPA and MassDEP will work with municipalities and other dischargers to reduce their contribution of phosphorus to the Charles. Techniques to reduce phosphorus in stormwater include the construction of infiltration chambers, the installation of permeable pavement that enhances the return of water to the soil, the use of high efficiency street sweepers, and other low-impact development methods.

Explosive algae growth has turned the river a day-glow green during the warm spells of the last two summers. That vivid color indicates the presence of “blue green” algae, actually a form of bacteria known as Cyanobacteria, whose cells may release a toxin when they die. Exposure to the toxin can cause skin rashes and irritate the nose, eyes or throat, and if ingested can lead to serious liver and nervous system damage. Other harmful affects of the algae include reduced water clarity, nuisance scum, and reduced oxygen in the water. Oxygen is necessary for a healthy fish habitat.

While there have not yet been any reported cases of serious health problems for people boating or windsurfing on the Charles, the Mass. Dept. of Conservation and Recreation, which controls activity in and along the river, recently adopted guidelines developed by MassDEP, the Mass. Dept. of Public Health and CRWA to advise recreational users when Cyanobacteria presents a health risk.


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