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EPA New England Regional Laboratory (Office of Environmental Measurement and Evaluation)

Introduction to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection’s Water Quality Report Card

Section 305(b) of the federal Clean Water Act requires states to prepare periodic reports on the status and trends of their local water quality. The design of the report card aims to satisfy the need of relating water quality in simple non-technical terms for a variety of audiences.

The report card can to be used to:

  • Guide water quality management decisions.
  • Coordinate monitoring activities with various groups.
  • Communicate to the public on the progress of state environmental programs.


The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection’s (MADEP) water quality report card is a simple matrix that presents standardized water quality assessment information for a given water body on a single page. Originally developed by Warren Kimball of the MADEP for reporting on rivers and streams in Massachusetts, it is currently being tested for its applicability in lake assessment reporting (Note: a more detailed explanation with accompanying examples of how this approach was originally developed for rivers and streams and an example for lakes can be found in the New England Lakes and Ponds Report (PDF) (78 pp pp, 5.2 MB, about PDF). The left-hand column of the report card is used to delineate the sampling year for a lake, river monitoring segments, or specific lake sampling areas/stations. The indicators being used for assessments are itemized across the top of the report card. At each intersection of the segment (or sample-year/station) row and indicator column, the assessment for that waterbody and indicator is reported by a color code (Figure 1):

Figure 1 - Report card color coding makes problem areas readily discernable for each indicator.

Figure 1 - Report card color coding makes problem areas readily discernable for each indicator.

Color coding may be represented as follows:

Blue: excellent, comparable to reference conditions

Green: good, meets criteria

Yellow: threatened, meets criteria but quality is declining

Orange: fair, partially meets or usually meets criteria

Red: poor, does not meet criteria

Gray: not assessed, information lacking

The colors represent the best professional judgment of the assessors, based on the standardized rules for 305(b) reporting. By displaying colors, instead of raw data, the science is “built in” and the report card is accessible and easily interpreted by non-technical audiences; problem areas can be identified at a glance. The indicators are divided into 10 groups, selected to correspond with the national water-use goals established by the Federal Clean Water Act pertaining to aquatic life, recreation, and fish edibility. The indicator groups represent three environmental compartments that pollutants may reside in – the water column, sediments, or fish tissue. Response indicators, such as biologic community data, reflect the status of the water-use goals; indicator groups related to exposure are used to diagnose problems. The groups correspond with regulatory programs in Massachusetts to better identify remedial action responsibility. The groups were crafted to show water quality trends over time.

Coordinating Monitoring Activities

The report card can be used to coordinate monitoring activities for various groups so they can make more efficient use of available resources. It has standardized metadata levels for each indicator group. Levels range from 1 to 4—level 4 corresponds with the most rigorous information, level 1 with the least rigorous information. The numeric metadata levels can be superimposed on the color coded indicator cell to inform the resource manager about the level of data behind the assessment (Figure 2). Level 3 and 4 metadata are generally acceptable for 305(b) reporting, whereas 1 and 2 metadata levels may be lacking or suspect in some regards. This format is useful in that it highlights areas with insufficient information for sound decision making—knowing what you don’t know can be valuable information for planning.

Figure 2 - Metadata levels superimposed over assessment colors

Figure 2 - Metadata levels superimposed over assessment colors

A Guide for Decision Making

Report cards are useful tools for decision makers at all levels of resource management. The format brings distilled data to an interpretable level that visually highlights problem areas and easily portrays the level of data supporting the assessments. Large and complex datasets can be easily understood by the average citizen and acted upon by lake associations and state water quality resource managers alike. Identified problem areas can then be targeted to best optimize management and cost, while tracking changes to the resources over time.

Communicating to the Public

The public has the right to know how our environmental programs are working, and the government has a clear obligation to inform the public. This process should be as transparent as possible. The public is the government’s best ally in securing the resources needed to accomplish its regulatory mission. The report card has proved itself effective in this role. Water quality trends can convey the most convincing evidence of environmental success or failure.

EPA Efforts

EPA has developed this automated process for creating prototype report cards, using Excel spreadsheet applications and other licensed software. The automated reporting approach could be adapted by states that embrace the goal of making their environmental reporting process easy, reliable, and adaptable for any state’s reporting structure. The prototype Excel applications include all numerical and narrative information needed to evaluate the resource condition, which is copied to Excel worksheets and organized in a workbook. Template graphics are included on individual worksheets to display relationships and trends in data and aid in lake-assessment decisions. For example, nutrient concentrations may be plotted versus time relative to a threshold value specified by the user. The use of these worksheets and simple graphic displays of information can help the assessor draw a conclusion regarding nutrient-impairment status. The user can generate any additional graphics to explore data structures and relationships of particular interest. The assessor then uses the graphics and narratives to specify the indicator status, metadata level, and pollution-source assignments, needed to create the report card. The worksheets have designated locations for this information, and are designed to help automate the process. They serve as an archive of raw information and help document the decision process used by the assessor to evaluate environmental conditions. This process is valuable with regard to a state regulatory agency’s transparency. It allows the agency to easily “recreate” an assessment in standardized reporting terms, even in the absence of the original assessor. Finally, in this calculator tool, macro-driven algorithms can be designed to automatically convert the assessor’s decisions into the colored, annotated cells in the report card. The automated process should help speed technology transfer of computation methods and encourage other states to adopt automated water quality report cards as useful assessment and reporting tools.

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