The Green Living Guy

The river in Boston’s backyard, once derided as a lost cause to pollution and visits to a doctor’s office if you fell in, was recently awarded an international prize for cleanup efforts coordinated between federal, state and local governments, private organizations and environmental advocates to improve the health of the lower Charles River. The Charles River is the 2011 winner of the International Riverprize, recognized as one of the world’s most prestigious environmental awards. The designation, bestowed by the International River Foundation’s “Thiess International Riverprize,” is awarded for visionary and sustainable excellence in river management. River projects from over 20 countries competed for this year’s award. One of the key partners in the effort to restore the Charles River to ecological health, the Charles River Watershed Association (CRWA), accepted the Riverprize award on Sept. 27 at the 14th International River Symposium in Brisbane, Australia.

Upon the award, the CEO of the International River Foundation, Matthew Reddy, compared the Charles to other iconic rivers of the world: “Charles River should be congratulated for their achievement; it joins the ranks of iconic rivers like the Thames, Danube and Mekong.” Begun in 1995, the effort to make the Charles River both “fishable” and “swimmable” as key measures for ecological health has thus far been a 17-year effort with significant contributions from the US EPA, the Massachusetts Dept. of Environmental Protection, the Cities of Boston and Cambridge, the Massachusetts Water Resources Agency (MWRA) and the CRWA. As this work continues, the goal of a river that is healthy and supports many recreational activities becomes closer to an everyday reality.

“This international recognition for the sustained accomplishments of our many partners speaks to a unique and excellent partnership,” said Curt Spalding, regional administrator of EPA’s New England office. “The work to clean the Charles River spans nearly two decades, and has won the support of elected and appointed officials from both political parties, three generations of EPA leadership and scores of unheralded professionals who have applied their brainpower and energy to finding solutions to the pollution problems which once plagued the Charles. We still have more work to do to ensure the Charles is a great resource for Bostonians, but we can all be proud of the work we have done.”

“In the world of river management, this is akin to winning the World Series – CRWA’s science and advocacy may have been the catalyst, but the heavy-lifting was done by EPA, MA DEP, and the cities and towns in the watershed,” said Robert L. Zimmerman, Jr., CRWA’s Executive Director. “It’s truly a trophy, however, for the people that live and work in the communities that comprise the Charles watershed, and for everyone who loves this river.”

The Clean Charles initiative was the brainchild of former EPA New England Regional Administrator John P. DeVillars, who led EPA’s Region 1 office from 1994-2000. “The Clean Charles Initiative is a textbook model for effective collaboration between EPA, other Federal and state agencies, NGOs, and the private sector,” said DeVillars.

“The results speak for themselves – a river whose polluted state was once the topic of popular song -“Love that Dirty Water” – is now a swimmable urban oasis. Hats off to all involved!!” Following the 1990’s phase of the Clean Charles efforts, the project continued to be aggressively pursued under the leadership of Robert Varney, who was EPA Region 1 Administrator from 2001-2008.

Mr. Varney said, “Congratulations to the Charles River Watershed Association for this well-deserved honor. The CRWA`s successful collaboration with government agencies and diverse stakeholders, combined with its commitment to sound science, measurement of results, public accountability and innovative solutions, provides a dynamic blueprint for river organizations across the world.”

The efforts to improve water quality in the lower Charles River reflects the coordinated efforts by government and local groups to identify sources and reduce bacteria levels, in turn making water quality safe for boaters and increasingly for swimmers. Despite remarkable progress reducing bacteria levels, there continues to be heightened concern about elevated levels of nutrients, especially phosphorus, in the Charles River.

Both EPA and MassDEP are engaged in efforts to limit the discharge of phosphorus into the River. “The Charles River is treasured natural resource for those who live, work in and visit Massachusetts. We congratulate the Watershed Association for their many stewardship efforts to revitalize this beautiful waterway and vibrant river habitat,” said Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Richard K. Sullivan. “On behalf of the Commonwealth and Governor Patrick, I want to thank our federal and local partners for helping us to protect the Charles River today and for years to come.”

The Charles has improved dramatically from the launch of EPA’s Charles River Initiative in 1995, when the river met boating standards only 39 percent of the time and swimming standards just 19 percent of the time.

In 2010 (the most recent year where season-long water quality data are available), the Charles met boating standards 86 percent of the time, and swimming standards 66 percent of the time, according to data collected by the Charles River Watershed Association (CRWA) between Watertown Dam and Boston Harbor. The swimming percentage is the highest recorded since the EPA began grading the river in 1995.

Sources: News Release
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
New England Regional Office
October 19, 2011 (Boston, Mass. – Oct. 19, 2011)

International RiverFoundation’s Thiess RiverprizeEPA’s Charles River InitiativeCharles River Watershed Association – and related video.

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