Agency Increases Controls on Stormwater for Charles River

On Nov. 17, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced a targeted effort to apply more stringent controls on stormwater pollution in the Charles River watershed, where stormwater containing high levels of phosphorus is a chief culprit in dramatic algae blooms – including toxic cyanobacteria – that have plagued the river in recent years.

The action will require certain industrial, commercial, and residential facilities in the towns of Milford, Franklin, and Bellingham with two or more acres of impervious area (parking lots, roofs, roadways, etc.) to operate under a Clean Water Act permit. EPA is accepting public comments on this action.

"Polluted stormwater runoff causes serious water quality problems and is the next great challenge for cleaning the Charles River," said Robert Varney, regional administrator of EPA's New England office. "By working closely with Massachusetts and our other partners, we will make great environmental improvements, while at the same time providing facilities with flexibility and time to meet the new standards. Working together cooperatively, we can solve these problems."

"Many of our state's waters are severely degraded as a result of stormwater pollution," said Massachusetts Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Ian Bowles. "Now is the time to take action to reduce pollution and return more water to the ground, where it will be cleaned naturally and added to our water supplies."

In a separate but closely related action, Massachusetts is enacting a statewide requirement for facilities with five or more acres of impervious area to reduce stormwater runoff. Under both the federal and state actions, new requirements will be phased in to reduce polluted stormwater runoff at sites with large paved areas, including shopping malls and industrial areas. While the statewide standard will be five acres, the state is proposing to match EPA's two-acre requirement in the Charles, where a higher level of control is needed to address chronic water quality problems.

"Until now, managing stormwater has largely been the responsibility of the cities and towns," said Laurie Burt, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. "It is critical now for other property owners to step up to the plate and do their part. This new program creates a level playing field by requiring that the responsibility for managing stormwater be shared by municipalities and private property owners."

The new EPA requirements are being piloted in the three communities at the upstream end of the Charles for commercial, industrial, and high-density residential facilities with two or more acres of impervious area. EPA will require these facilities to apply for a Clean Water Act permit for stormwater discharges that eventually reach the Charles River. The permits will require these facilities to reduce phosphorus discharges by 65 percent through a variety of stormwater management practices. Ultimately, these requirements will likely apply to the entire Charles River watershed.

"EPA's extension of the Clean Water Act to include polluted stormwater runoff from commercial and industrial parking lots is both bold and necessary. We will never clean up urban rivers without cleaning up existing runoff from pavement. This bold move will aid cities and towns meet their requirements, and help restore a more natural balance to the way water works in metropolitan regions, not just in the Charles River, but ultimately across the United States," said Bob Zimmerman, executive director of the Charles River Watershed Association.

In October 2007, EPA and the state began a process to limit phosphorus entering the Charles River by establishing a new Total Maximum Daily Load for discharges of phosphorus into the lower Charles River.

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