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As Earth Day Volunteers do Spring Cleaning near Charles River, Water Quality Conditions Hold Steady // EPA Grade from 2008 Monitoring: B+

Release Date: 04/25/2009
Contact Information: EPA Office of Public Affairs, 617-918-1010

(Boston, Mass. - Apr. 25, 2009) – With volunteers eager to help with the annual Charles River Earth Day cleanup event, and boating season upon the area, EPA water quality monitoring data show that during 2008, the Charles River continued to have acceptable water quality for boating and swimming. This progress is thanks to the intensive Clean Charles Initiative began in 1995.

EPA’s grade for the lower Charles River this year is a “B+.” The grade reflects the coordinated efforts by government and local groups which have had continuing success in reducing bacteria levels – helping to restore the river to ecological health. Despite the good progress reducing bacteria levels, there is also concern about elevated levels of nutrients, especially phosphorus, which EPA and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts are working to address.

"All Bostonians should be proud that our Charles River is much more clean and healthy since 1995,” said Ira Leighton, acting regional administrator of EPA's New England office. “Still, we’ve addressed many of the easy-to-fix problems, and are now tackling tougher issues, such as the last bacterial sources, nutrients and stormwater pollution."

This year’s grade is based on the number of days the river met state boating and swimming standards on days that samples were taken during the previous calendar year, and is based on measurements of bacteria levels. For 2008, the Charles met boating standards 95 percent of the time, and swimming standards 48 percent of the time, according to data collected by the Charles River Watershed Association (CRWA) between Watertown Dam and Boston Harbor. These measurements were slightly lower than data for 2007. The difference is attributable to large amounts of rainfall during 2008.

The Charles 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.

High levels of phosphorus in the river have been an increasing concern over the past several years, and is the cause of portions of the river turning a bright shade of blue-green during summertime algae blooms. Among the significant sources of phosphorus to the river are impermeable surfaces such as roadways, rooftops and parking lots where phosphorus and other nutrients collect. Rainfall scours these pollutants from these surfaces and the resultant stormwater discharges into the Charles. Both EPA and MassDEP are engaged in efforts to limit the discharge of phosphorus into the River.

Since 1995, the Charles River Initiative has featured coordinated efforts between EPA, state and local governments, private organizations, and environmental advocates, working together to improve the health of the lower Charles River. As this work continues, the goal of a river that is healthy and supports many recreational activities becomes closer to an everyday reality.

More information: EPA’s Charles River Initiative (

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