Feds report improvements in majority of Mystic River's 14 segments


SOMERVILLE >> Celebrating cleaner water on a Somerville riverbank Tuesday, local and federal officials said they anticipate more spending by municipalities and ratepayers to make further environmental improvements.

Congressman Michael Capuano, who recalled swimming in the Mystic River as a youngster, joined Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone to announce the waterway's new and improved cleanliness grade. The fresh and saltwater portions of the river received an A- grade while three tributaries — Mill Creek, Winn's Brook, and Island End River — received failing grades for cleanliness.

Grade improvements were reported for 10 of the river's 14 segments, and officials attributed the progress to ongoing projects as well as efforts undertaken over many years.

Looking ahead, a federal permit scheduled to go into effect in more than a year would prod municipalities across the state to build more "green infrastructure" so stormwater seeps into the ground before flowing into rivers. The permit would also require cities and towns to ferret out sewage pipes illegally hooked up to the stormwater system, according to a federal regulator.

EPA Regional Administrator for New England Curt Spalding told the News Service the new federal permit for municipal separate storm sewer systems will impose varying levels of costs depending on different communities, with eliminating illegal sewage hookups the most expensive step.

"They probably have to do more work with catch basins and street sweeping," Spalding said. He said, "This is not heavy-handed enforcement with lots of inspectors. This is really about them reporting what they're doing. If they keep up with the reporting, they should have no problems."

Issued in April, the general permit covers most municipalities, takes effect July 1, 2017, and updates a 2003 permit. According to the EPA, the permits require municipalities to detect and eliminate illegal sewage discharges, engage in public education and participation, manage construction site runoff, manage runoff from new development and practice "good housekeeping" in municipal operations. According to the agency, stormwater is the leading cause of the state's "water quality impairments."

Spalding said federal agencies — such as the Department of Transportation, Army Corps of Engineers and Federal Transit Authority — have been encouraged to consider the Mystic River in their decisions.

"It is not always easy to get the federal silos to break down and work together, but we are relentless in this effort," Spalding said. "We'll get into the face of our federal partners on behalf of the Mystic."

The Mystic benefits from its Urban Waters federal partnership designation, meaning "extra money from the federal government," Spalding said.

Massachusetts Water Resources Authority Executive Director Fred Laskey thanked ratepayers, saying on top of the $4 billion Deer Island sewage treatment center, $370 million had been spent on the Mystic, and there's "more to come."

Laskey, whose organization provides sewage treatment to 43 communities, highlighted a manmade wetland in Cambridge near the Belmont border, which he said was one of the most successful green infrastructure projects in the country.

According to the Mystic River Watershed Association, the $150 million, 3.4-acre wetlands will store and treat stormwater runoff, reducing combined sewer overflows by 86 percent.

As Orange Line trains rumbled over a crossing and geese mingled with boats docked at the Winter Hill Yacht Club, officials took turns praising the progress and noting the work yet to be done.

"I was one of the kids who swam here when I was a young child - used to call it Somerville beach, down by the boathouse," Capuano told the News Service, acknowledging the water was not clean back then. He said, "The most important thing that I've seen in the last 20 years, 25 years, is people now care about it."

The setting for the announcement was a relatively new park next to the new Assembly Row development.

According to the EPA, federal and state environmental regulators took enforcement actions resulting in the removal of 31,800 gallons of sewage daily from the Mystic River Watershed, which covers 76 square miles north and west of Boston.

Data from the EPA and the Mystic River Watershed Association showed that while water in the main branch of the river and on the Upper and Lower Mystic Lakes is "quite good on a regular basis" there are rivers and brooks in the watershed that rarely meet the standards for swimming and boating.

The Island End River, in Chelsea, meets swimming and boating standards only 25.4 percent of the time, according to the rolling three-year average through 2015.

The main river — divided into its freshwater and saltwater portions - did not undergo dramatic changes, as it met boating and swimming standards more than 85 percent of the time. The biggest improvement was on the Belle Isle Inlet, which met the standards 77.8 percent of the time, up from 63.9 percent a year earlier.

"This is not a story of too many geese," said Patrick Herron, deputy director of the Mystic River Watershed Association. "This is a story of lacking municipal infrastructure that needs to be repaired."

"The Mystic was probably the most impaired," said Spalding when asked how the river compared to other waterways across the state.

EkOngKar Singh Khalsa, the executive director of the watershed association, said. "It's taken us a little while to undo the damage of 100 years of industrial life."


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