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Region 1: EPA New England

Clean Charles River Initiative

In 1995, EPA launched an ambitious effort to restore the river to better ecological health. EPA identified a goal of making the Charles River both "fishable" and "swimmable." The effort, called the Clean Charles River Initiative, has made dramatic strides improving water quality in the river, thanks to the cooperation and commitment of numerous federal, state and local agencies as well as strong participation from citizens, nonprofit groups and private institutions.

Clean Charles Progress

Using sound science, cutting-edge technologies and strong targeted enforcement, EPA and its partners have made remarkable progress tackling storm overflows, illicit sewer connections and other pollution sources to the river. While we have made significant progress targeting sources of bacterial pollution – combined sewer overflows (CSOs) will have been reduced by 99.5 percent by 2013 – there continue to be problems with excessive amounts of nutrients entering the river, especially phosphorus.

The end result of our work since 1995: a river that is safe for recreational boating virtually all of the time; a river that is now a resource for an active wind surfing community; a river that is safe for swimming so much of the time that there is now an organization actively promoting an annual swim race. Indeed, we are much closer to the original goals of making the Charles both fishable and swimmable.

The Clean Charles initiative has achieved significant improvements in the river's water quality. The Charles is substantially cleaner than when this project began. However, there is still work to be done; and EPA and our partners remain committed to performing the hard work necessary to helping this river return to better ecological health and continuing to be a vibrant resource for the urban population of the area.

Each year, EPA provides a detailed summary of the progress that has been accomplished, and what actions lay ahead as we continue our efforts to bring the lower Charles River to full ecological health. Charles River Report Cards »

Measuring Results for the Clean Charles Initiative

The Clean Charles River Initiative, launched in 1995, established the goal of making the lower Charles River, from Watertown to Boston harbor, fishable and swimmable. "Fishable" and "swimmable" were selected as the goals of our work because those are the broad objectives set out under Section 101 of the Clean Water Act (CWA) for all waters of the United States.

Although "fishable" and "swimmable" are not defined in the CWA, these general goals are given their more specific meaning under the structure of the Act, which requires that states designate uses for water bodies that must at least reflect the fishable/swimmable goal unless a "use attainability analysis" is conducted. The Act further requires that states promulgate water quality standards that are meant to protect designated uses.

Massachusetts has promulgated water quality standards relating to "fishable" that establish limits for dissolved oxygen, pH, and temperature. The state has also established standards relating to swimmability, setting limits for bacteria. Finally, Massachusetts has promulgated standards that relate to both fishable and swimmable that address aesthetics, eutrophication, bottom sediments, radioactivity and toxics.

Targeting Bacterial Contamination First

From the beginning of the Clean Charles River Initiative in 1995 until 2007, EPA used only one measure to evaluate the progress toward the fishable and swimmable goal: the State of Massachusetts' bacterial water quality standard for swimming and boating.

Agency scientists evaluate water quality data collected by the Charles River Watershed Association at ten locations in the lower Charles River. The water samples are compared to the Massachusetts bacterial standards. EPA then determines the cleanliness of the river water, and we evaluate our progress towards the overall project goals, by calculating the percentage of time that the standards are attained.

In 1995, the river met boating standards 39 percent of the time, and swimming standards 19 percent of the time. In contrast, the 2006 data show that the lower Charles achieved boating standards 90 percent of the time, and attained swimming standards 62 percent of the time. This reflects the steady progress since the Clean Charles initiative began.

To reduce bacterial contamination, EPA made a concerted effort over many years to target enforcement efforts on "combined sewer overflow" (CSO) discharges into not only the Charles River but also Boston Harbor and South Boston beaches.

CSOs are sewer systems that were designed to carry sewage and storm water in the same pipe to a sewage treatment plant. After heavy rainfall or snowmelt events, the wastewater volume is often more than the sewer system or treatment plant can handle. For this reason, combined sewer systems were designed to overflow after rain events and result in excess wastewater being discharged directly into rivers, lakes and coastal areas. The wastewater the CSOs carry not only contains storm water but also untreated human waste, industrial waste, toxic materials and floating debris.

A major settlement between EPA and the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA) in March, 2006 will reduce CSO discharges to the Charles River down to approximately eight million gallons per year, from a 1988 level of 1.7 billion gallons.

The Goal of a Swimmable Charles River

The work of EPA and our partners to clean the Charles River has shown impressive results since 1995. The river has become ever cleaner and healthier, and shows more days when people can safely enjoy activities such as boating, wind surfing and swimming.

2006 was one of the best years for meeting swimming standards since EPA began the Clean Charles Initiative. During the summer of 2006, the river was safe for swimming 62 percent of the time – up from 19 percent when the Clean Charles Initiative began. This indicator is also a significant achievement given the unusually high amount runoff due to rainfall during the previous spring.

Thanks to the 2005 settlement between EPA and the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA), sewage discharges to the river are already declining, and are expected to continue declining for the next several years. By the time this effort is completed in 2013, MWRA will have reduced flows from sewer relief pipes by an impressive 99.5 percent. Further, the municipalities of the lower Charles continued to chip away at sewage flows from storm water pipes, eliminating 7,500 gallons per day during 2006. This is in addition to the more than one million gallons per day eliminated from storm drain systems since EPA began the Charles cleanup effort a decade ago.

Because of the hard work done by many organizations to improve water quality in the Charles, efforts by other local groups to bring swimming back to the river are more likely to succeed in the future. Groups including the Charles River Swimming Club and the Charles River Conservancy are working actively to promote events including an annual one-mile swimming race in the river, and to address logistical issues to expand use of the river as a warm-weather swimming resource for the area's urban population.

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