The Charles River Initiative
- Clean Charles River Initiative
- Sound Science on the Charles River
- Charles River Watershed Report Cards
- Charles River in the News
Clean Charles River Initiative
In 1995, EPA launched an ambitious effort make the Charles River both fishable and swimmable. Thanks to partners in numerous federal, state and local agencies as well as nonprofit groups, private institutions and citizens, the Clean Charles River Initiative has improved water quality in the river.
Using sound science, cutting-edge technologies and strong targeted enforcement, EPA and its partners have determined the causes of pollution and poor water quality in the River.
Since 1995, municipalities and the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA) have made remarkable strides to improve water quality by reducing illicit sewage discharges to storm drain systems and Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs), respectively.
The municipalities of the lower Charles River (including: Boston, Cambridge , Newton, Brookline Watertown and Waltham) have reduced sewage-contaminated stormwater flows through illicit storm drain connections. That effort has eliminated in excess of 48,000 gallons of sewage contaminated stormwater flowing into the River per day since 2004. This is in addition to the more than one million gallons per day of sewage contaminated stormwater that has been eliminated from municipal storm drain systems from Watertown to Boston harbor, an effort that began with the launch of the Charles cleanup effort in 1995.
Sewage discharges from CSOs to the river declined significantly as a result of the 2005 settlement between EPA and the MWRA. As a result of various CSO projects throughout the lower Charles (in many cases, eliminating CSOs entirely, MWRA has reduced CSO discharges by an impressive 99.5%).
We have made significant progress targeting bacterial sources of pollution in The River. But, there continue to be problems with excessive amounts of nutrients entering the river, especially phosphorus. See the Environmental Challenges for updated overview of these latest challenges.
Sound Science on the Charles River
The improvements in water quality on the Charles River are a direct result of sound science. EPA, U.S. Department of Interior, U.S. Geological Survey, Mass DEP, Charles River Watershed Association, Rocky Mountain Instituteand New England Interstate Water Pollution Control Commissionhave conducted studies and produced reports analyzing the River.
Please see Reports and Links for a more complete view of reports on the Charles River.
Today we have a river that is safe for recreational boating virtually all of the time, and safe for swimming 70% of the time. It is a river that is now a resource for an active wind surfing community, an annual swim race and catch and release fishing. Indeed, we are much closer to the original goals of making the Charles both fishable and swimmable.
Charles River Watershed Report Cards
EPA has been assigning a report card grade for the lower Charles River since calendar year 1995. Beginning in 2019, grades are assigned to six individual water body segments including two tributaries. Prior to 2019, a single grade was assigned to just the lower Charles River. EPA uses the Charles River Report Card to measure and evaluate progress towards meeting the State of Massachusetts bacterial water quality standards for swimming and boating as well as to assess general health of the watershed.
Grading Criteria 2019
Starting with 2019, the Charles River Watershed Association (CRWA), in coordination with EPA, will begin using an assessment method that encompasses all 80 miles of the mainstem river as well as two tributaries to provide the public with a more accurate assessment of local water quality conditions and greater transparency for all stakeholders. The report card will be based on E. coli data from thirty-nine sampling sites, collected monthly by CRWA volunteers. While the new grading system continues to measure the percentage of time water quality samples meet bacterial swimming and boating standards, it also incorporates cyanobacteria (toxic blue-green algae) blooms and combined sewer overflows (CSOs), which are both public health hazards, especially for boaters and anyone who comes into contact with the water. The Charles will now receive grades for six waterbody segments: the Upper Watershed (Hopkinton to Medfield), the Upper Middle Watershed (Sherborn to Dedham), the Lower Middle Watershed (Newton to Waltham), the Lower Basin (Watertown to Boston), the Stop River, and the Muddy River.
|Overall||E. coli*||Other criteria**|
|Site||Grade||Total||Grade||Total||Cyanobacteria||Combined Sewer Overflow|
|Upper Middle Watershed||A||94.0%||A||94.0%||0.0%||0.0%|
|Lower Middle Watershed||A-||89.2%||A||91.1%||1.9%||0.0%|
|Overall||E. coli*||Other criteria**|
|Site||Grade||Total||Grade||Total||Cyanobacteria||Combined Sewer Overflow|
|Upper Middle Watershed||A||94.1%||A||94.1%||0.0%||0.0%|
|Lower Middle Watershed||A||90.7%||A||90.7%||0.0%||0.0%|
*Figures represent average percentage of time that state bacterial standards are met.
**Figures represent percentage of time that each waterbody stretch is affected by a cyanobacterial bloom or combined sewer overflow.
Grading Criteria Prior to 2019
When assessing water quality to assign a grade to the lower Charles River prior to 2019, EPA used a comparison with previous years and general trends, as well as qualitative criteria, as follows:
A - met swimming and boating standards nearly all of the time
B - met swimming and boating standards most of the time
C - met swimming standards some of the time, and boating standards most of the time
D - met swimming and boating standards some of the time
F - fail swimming and boating standards most of the time
|Year||Overall Grade||% Meets Standards||% Meets Standards in Dry Weather Conditions||% Meets Standards in Wet Weather Conditions|
The grade is based on a comparison with previous years and general trends. Given that the grades are based on a limited set of data, some annual fluctuations depending on weather are expected. Figures represent the percentage of time that state bacterial standards are met.
Charles River in the News
Boston River Report Cards Show Widespread Improvements in Bacteria Concentrations and Remaining Localized Challenges
EPA Works to Address Ongoing Water Quality Needs in the Charles River on 25th Anniversary of Initiative
Charles River water quality earns a "B" for bacterial sampling conducted in 2018
Charles River Water Quality Improvements Earns an A- for the Second Time in the Past Five Years
Charles River Water Quality Earns a "B" Grade in 2016
EPA Gives Charles River another B+, and Boston Museum of Science Opens Charles River Gallery featuring EPA Water Quality Data
On 20th Anniversary of Effort, EPA Gives Charles River a B+ and Publishes Live Water Quality Data
Charles River 2013 Report Card Reflects Cleanest Water in Decades
EPA Announces 2012 Report Card grades for the lower Charles River and the Mystic River Watershed
Settlement Requires Boston Water and Sewer Commission to Remedy Sewer and Stormwater Discharges
Annual Charles River Report Card Shows Water Quality Remaining Good and Improving
Charles River Pollution Control District Pays Penalty for Clean Water Violations
International Award Recognizes Successful Ongoing Work to Clean the Charles River
At Annual Swim Event in Charles River, Yearly Water Quality Remains Good; EPA Grade from 2010 Monitoring: B+
EPA Pilots Effort in 3 Massachusetts Communities to Reduce Stormwater Pollution that Impairs Charles River Water Quality
As Earth Day Volunteers do Spring Cleaning near Charles River, Water Quality Conditions Hold Steady // EPA Grade from 2008 Monitoring: B+
Stormwater Pollution Tackled to Improve Water Quality in Charles River
As Boaters and Cleanup Volunteers Converge on Charles River, Water Quality Conditions Improved EPA Grade from 2007 Monitoring: B++
EPA Orders Massachusetts Town to Fix Harmful Sewage Overflows
EPA and Commonwealth Tackle Stormwater Pollution On Eve of the Head of the Charles
Kicks Off Major Effort to Improve Conditions of Mystic River Watershed
Annual Water Quality Check Up for Charles River: "B plus" and Better for Swimming
New Discharge Permit for Mirant Kendall Power Plant in Cambridge, Mass. Significantly Advances Protections for Charles River
Charles River Report Card: Continued Progress Cleaning 'That Dirty Water'
Massachusetts Water Resources Authority to Implement Sharp Reductions in Sewage Contamination of Charles River
EPA Equipment for Communities Helps Advance Goals of World Water Monitoring Day
Clean Charles River Effort Celebrated For Ten Years of Environmental Progress - Water Quality Significantly Improved
EPA Orders Four Municipalities to Remove Illicit Discharges into the Charles River
"Love that Dirty Water" No Longer Applies to the Charles River; Crews in Head of the Charles Regatta Can Expect Cleaner Water
Public Hearing on Monday in Cambridge on Kendall Station Discharge Permit
EPA and DEP issue draft water discharge permit for Kendall power plant in Cambridge
NSTAR Agrees to $63,380 Settlement for Oil Spill Violations in Charles River
Charles River 'Report Card' Grade Drops to a "B-" -- Clean Up Efforts Continue; Outlying Communities Challenged to Match Boston and Cambridge's Efforts
EPA Files Complaint Against NSTAR For Oil Spills From Transmission Pipes
EPA Announces $400,000 to Improve Water Quality in Charles River
EPA Announces $800,000 to Improve Fish Habitat and Water Quality in Narragansett Bay
EPA Selects Charles River Watershed Association for Innovative Water Trading Project
EPA Honors Watershed Group, Students and Citizen Activist for Charles River Work
EPA, CZM, CRWA, and Save the Harbor/Save the Bay Promote Clean Boating on the Charles River During the Fourth of July Celebration
Charles River Earns a "B" Grade for Water Quality; Stormwater Pollution & Individual Action Priorities for Future Improvement
EPA Announces New Initiatives Aimed at Restoring the Charles River
Charles River Earns Another "B" Grade, Cleanup Halfway to Swimmable Goal
MIT Commits to Three Environmental Projects and $150,000 Civil Penalty to Settle EPA Violations
USGS Studies Show Extent of Sediment Contamination and Saltwater Impacts on Charles River
EPA Gives Charles River a "B-" and Announces Innovative "Curtain" at Magazine Beach
EPA Announces that Rowers will Compete in a Charles River Cleaner than in Decades
EPA Settles Clean Water Act Case with Medway-Based Pollution Control District; Agreement Benefits Charles River and Franklin Well Field
EPA Proposes $134,580 Penalty Against City of Watertown for Environmental Violations
EPA's Initiative to Make the Charles River Swimmable by 2005 Wins National Recognition
EPA Gives Charles River a C-Plus and Announces New Coalition of Private Institutions
EPA Proposes $75,000 Penalty for Wastewater Treatment Violations on Charles River
Good News for Charles River Rowers: The River is Getting Cleaner
EPA Settlement with Genzyme Requires Water Quality Studies in Charles River
EPA Report Card on Charles River Shows Water Quality Improvement
EPA Details Aggressive Pollution Prevention and Assistance Strategy for the Charles River
- Boston University Agrees to Pay Fine and Undertake Projects to Settle Environmental Lawsuit
EPA Issues Annual Charles River Report Card
EPA Requires Milford to Locate and Cleanup Storm Water Pollution to the Charles River
Warning Issued on Bacteria Levels in Charles River in Milford, MA
A Healthy Charles River Contributes Over $100 Million to Local Economy
EPA Sets Clean up Goal for Charles River by Earth Day 2005 (pdf)