Defending the Charles River from Stormwater Pollution

Chris Kilian

In February, CLF and the Charles River Watershed Association filed a notice of intent to sue the EPA for failing to uphold the Clean Water Act and requiring large, privately owned stormwater polluters to obtain permits for their dirty discharge.

EPA’s responsibility is clear: to ensure that our waterways are safe for drinking, swimming, and fishing. The agency’s failure to require polluters to control their runoff puts the Charles’ water quality at risk and places an unfair burden on cities, towns, and, ultimately, taxpayers, to foot the bill for managing stormwater pollution.

Kelp Forest at Cashes Ledge; 70-miles off the coast of Maine

CLF is asking the EPA to hold polluters accountable for unregulated stormwater discharge, which is harming the Charles River. Photo: Charles River Watershed Association.

In part due to improvements in water pollution, the Charles River today is an incredible recreational and ecological resource flowing through the heart of Boston and surrounding communities. On any given summer day, you’ll see scores of people sailing, boating, kayaking, and fishing its waters. But the reality is, for all the progress made in cleaning up this iconic river in recent decades, significant threats to its health remain, including polluted stormwater runoff.

Along the Charles’ 80-mile course from Hopkinton to Boston Harbor you’ll find thousands of acres of strip malls, office parks, and other industrial development – along with flat roofs and huge parking lots (80% of the land area in Greater Boston is paved). All those impermeable surfaces add up to trouble when it rains or, as is happening now, snow melts.

Back when the Charles flowed through a largely natural landscape, that rain and snowmelt would have been absorbed by the ground and filtered of pollutants long before it drained into the river. Today, though, stormwater rushes off those mirror-like impermeable surfaces, picking up debris, fertilizer, and other toxic pollution along the way. The result: a contaminated soup of dirty water draining into the Charles and other rivers, lakes, and streams across New England.

The worst part of the problem? EPA not only knows who the biggest privately owned stormwater dischargers are, it also has the legal authority to hold them accountable. In fact, the Clean Water Act requires known stormwater polluters to obtain a permit for their discharge. But EPA has failed to uphold this basic responsibility.

By not enforcing the law, EPA is leaving cash-strapped cities and towns – and all of us as taxpayers – on the hook for the costs of this damaging pollution. And those costs are big. One of the most harmful pollutants swept into the river with stormwater is phosphorus. Too much phosphorus in the water can lead to massive blue-green algae outbreaks, which are toxic to people, pets, and wildlife. This is just one reason why the Charles is so often subject to closures and advisories for fish contamination and unsafe swimming and boating.

The bottom line is that stormwater pollution is hurting the river, the wildlife that depend on it to be healthy, and the communities that pay when it’s not. A successful outcome to this lawsuit will mean that hundreds of commercial, industrial, and institutional polluters will finally be required to obtain permits. Those permits would not only control the stormwater pollution those businesses can discharge, but also ensure they are paying their fair share of the costs for its management.

The Charles River will never truly be healthy until stormwater pollution – and the industrial offenders responsible for it – are brought under control. It’s time for EPA to step up and enforce the law and set the Charles on the final road to recovery once and for all.

For more background information please see Conservation Law Foundation’s briefing on stormwater pollution in New England, “Closing the Clean Water Gap: Protecting our Waterways by Making All Polluters Pay.”

Focus Areas

Clean Water

Places

Massachusetts

2 Responses to “Defending the Charles River from Stormwater Pollution”

  1. Virginia Steel

    This is the kind of reason I have been a supporter of CLF for many decades. We need exactly the combination of knowledge, expertise and commitment that CLF provides, to keep our laws enforced and our environment as healthy as possible.
    Thank you, CLF

  2. Pam Kelly

    What about the Western MA Rivers? And Rivers that pass through MA, he Connecticut? Polluted by radiation from VT Yankee which just closed, but is leaving a legacy of radioactive pollutants leaking into the groundwater?

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