The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced a report card grade of "B-", down from a "B" last year, for the Charles River. The grade, based on water quality data collected last year, shows that water quality improvements in the river have leveled off in recent years and that additional stormwater controls and planned sewer system upgrades will be essential for water quality to improve over the next few years.
While environmental officials acknowledged the reduced grade indicates the huge challenge involved in restoring the Charles, they also pointed out that the goal of making the river safe for swimming and fishing is within reach. Future improvements will depend to a large extent on towns and cities along the Charles incorporating the kind of all-out effort already underway in both Boston and Cambridge. Those two cities are spending hundreds of millions of dollars tackling illicit sewer connections, stormwater overflows and other pollution problems that continue to beset the Charles River, especially after rain events.
"If every community along the Charles puts in the kind of effort to reduce sewer waste we have seen in Cambridge and Boston, we can indeed cross the finish line," said Robert W. Varney, regional administrator for EPA’s New England Office, at a news conference today on the Weeks Footbridge overlooking the river. "The dramatic water quality improvements we achieved in the early stages of this project are still with us, and the Charles continues to be much cleaner and safer than it was in the mid-1990s. However, with each increment of progress, the task ahead becomes more challenging. We grabbed the low-hanging fruit in the late 1990s. Now we are reaching for the upper branches."
Over the last five years, communities have successfully closed illegal discharge pipes and separated sewer lines responsible for much of the river’s pollution. More than one million gallons a day of sewerage was removed from the river through those efforts. But stormwater overflows and illegal sewer-line hookups continue to discharge more sewage than is acceptable.
Last year, the river was clean enough for boating 85% of the time, down from 91% of the time in 2002 and met swimming standards 46% of the time, compared to 51% the previous year.