Taking Stock of EPA’s Work Helping the Mystic River

By Curt Spalding, Regional Administrator, US EPA New England

Today’s blog post celebrates the great work done by EPA and many partners to improve water quality in Boston’s urban waters. EPA has focused for more than two decades on improving the water quality here. It’s hard to overstate the turnaround in Boston Harbor, and the improvements to urban river watersheds like the Mystic and Charles are nothing short of remarkable.

The Mystic River offers a view of Boston.

The Mystic River offers a view of Boston.

While water quality improvements to the Charles River and Boston Harbor may get more attention, the work and the resulting advances in urban waters like the Mystic, have been equally impressive. A huge amount of progress has been made improving water quality in the Mystic River and the differences can be seen in communities throughout the watershed.

The Mystic suffered from high bacteria levels just like other urban waters such as the Charles and the Neponset. And in all three rivers, we used the same tools to tackle sources of bacterial contamination by aggressively enforcing the law to halt industrial pollution and the discharge of sewage mixed in with storm overflow. In each case, we eliminated illicit connections to storm drains, and found ways to limit stormwater pollution.

Our results speak volumes. This past summer, the water quality in the main stems of both the Mystic and Charles rivers were graded roughly equal. In the main stem of the Mystic (including Chelsea Creek, the fresh water and salt water portions of the river and the upper lakes), the water quality met Massachusetts water standards for boating and swimming over 86 percent of the time, and in the areas closer to Boston Harbor, the grade rises to nearly 90 percent of the time. These results are on par with the Charles River’s water quality grade of B+ this year for the main stem of the Charles. Some of the tributaries of the Mystic still need to see further improvement, and those areas are our focus.

EPA Regional Administrator announces 2016 Mystic River Report Card results.

EPA Regional Administrator announces 2016 Mystic River Report Card results.

Of course, the Mystic and the Charles each have different geography, development history, and vastly different population density. For example, the Mystic River is part of a large watershed, but contains a much smaller river stem. The challenges that exist in this river are heavily concentrated in the smaller tributaries that feed the river. The Mystic Watershed is far more densely populated, with about 6,600 people per square mile compared to 2,900 people per square mile in the Charles Watershed.

The differences among these rivers means EPA must tailor its work to respond to the unique characteristics of each river’s area and pollution sources. Our concerted work on the Charles began in the 1990s, and the lessons we learned there provided knowledge and experience that has brought faster improvements in other urban waters like the Mystic.

The power of the 44-year-old Clean Water Act has provided many of the tools EPA needed to achieve the superb results we have seen in Boston’s urban waterways. In 2007, EPA gave the Mystic a D for its first water quality grade. That year we also ordered the City of Revere to stop discharging pollutants into the Mystic watershed. Additional enforcement with several other Mystic municipalities, as well as the Suffolk Downs racetrack and a criminal prosecution of Exxon Mobil for a diesel spill followed. All of the municipal enforcement required the entities to identify and eliminate illicit discharges of pollutants to storm drains discharging to the Mystic River and its tributaries. And our enforcement cases have resulted in other valuable investments in the watershed. Resolution of the Exxon Mobil case provided over $2.6 million for environmental projects in the Mystic River and Chelsea Creek.  Another settlement provided over $1 million toward the 4.5 acre Condor Street Urban Wild along the heavily industrialized Chelsea Creek, providing an urban oasis for the citizens of East Boston.  And thanks to a settlement requiring installation of a boardwalk in Belle Isle Marsh, citizens will soon be able to explore the largest surviving salt marsh in Boston in greater detail.

Sun shines on the shores of the Mystic.

Sun shines on the shores of the Mystic.

If the Mystic River was going to get healthier, we knew it would need many champions. So, in 2009 EPA led the formation of a Mystic River Watershed Steering Committee. The Steering Committee, including community groups, nonprofit organizations, local, state and federal partners, since then has guided the improvements of the Mystic River Watershed, establishing strategy, priorities and key projects and actions needed to improve the Mystic. The focus of this group has certainly helped us realize the tremendous improvements we have seen on the Mystic, and they continue to work diligently on water quality improvement. For example, the Mystic River Watershed Association just received a national EPA Urban Waters grant to help create a multi-media stormwater education collaborative to increase awareness of stormwater pollution throughout the watershed.

EPA's Water Quality Monitoring Buoy collects and streams live water quality data on EPA’s Website (LINK: https://www.epa.gov/mysticriver).

EPA’s Water Quality Monitoring Buoy collects and streams live water quality data on EPA’s Website (LINK: https://www.epa.gov/mysticriver).

Another exciting development we are proud of is that in 2015, we launched a Mystic River water quality monitoring buoy in front of the Blessing of the Bay Boathouse in Somerville. The buoy measures water quality parameters including temperature, dissolved oxygen, pH, turbidity, specific conductance, and chlorophyll. The buoy is also used to monitor for and track cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) blooms. The data can be viewed by the public in near real time on our Mystic River website.

The data collected over the years, from a number of different partners, has informed the work done to improve water quality on the River. It contributes to our understanding of the River, which is especially important when tracking toxic algae blooms, a current EPA priority.  Algae blooms are often the result of excess nutrients entering the river, and this fall, we awarded an extensive technical assistance contract to help assess and reduce phosphorus entering the Mystic watershed.   This information will help guide future water quality projects in the area.

To improve water quality we also need better, flexible yet protective permits. Last April, we updated the Clean Water Act permit for small “Municipal Separate Storm Sewer Systems” (MS4s) in Massachusetts, including for the 21 communities within the Mystic Watershed. Better management of stormwater will protect rivers, streams, ponds, lakes and wetlands from pollutants, including elevated levels of nutrients.

Our work to improve conditions in the Mystic Watershed has extended beyond water quality. We’ve invested nearly $16 million in cleaning and developing formerly contaminated and abandoned sites known as brownfields. This work throughout greater Boston has brought life back to long abandoned sites with industrial pollution. We’ve also been cleaning Superfund sites along the Mystic River Watershed for decades. Two of the most famous sites we’ve cleaned – the Wells G&H and Industri-plex sites in Woburn – are in the Mystic River Watershed. Both have been and continue to be cleaned up and returned to productive use.

The Boston Harbor Cleanup was just the first step in EPA’s focus on cleaning waterways in the Greater Boston Area. We’ve all made tremendous strides to reduce direct bacterial pollution harming our urban rivers, even as these rivers are still in recovery from legacy pollution. The Mystic, Neponset and Charles River watersheds have robust watershed organizations employing citizen science and leveraging public/private partnerships. Still, more work lays ahead. The tributaries that feed all three rivers continue to be investigated for sources of pollution. We now understand that stormwater runoff is a major source of pollution to our waterbodies. EPA will continue its work towards healthier and cleaner watersheds that are a valued resource for the communities.