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The Environmental Protection Agency said on Wednesday that the Charles River, the source of Boston’s municipal water, is the cleanest the river has been since the agency started performing regular water quality tests in 1995. That’s good news for Boston residents, and the announcement comes during World Water Week.

The testing measures the percentage of time during a year that the water is deemed to be safe for swimming and boating. In 2013, the last year for which complete sample data is available, the Charles River was given an A-. Previously, the river’s best grade was a B+. According to the 2013 samples, the river was found to be safe for recreational boating 96% of the time, and recreational swimming 70% of the time. Comparatively, the first water samples, taken in 1995, showed that the river was safe for boating only 39% of the time, and safe for swimming just 19% of the time.

According to the EPA, most of the contaminants that enter the river today come from improperly connected sewer drains. Previously, industrial pollutants had been the largest source of drinking water contamination. In the early 1970’s, the EPA began to regulate industrial waste disposal, and prohibited it from being discharged into rivers and streams.

Additionally, there has been a local push to eliminate improper sewer connections that dump untreated waste directly into the river. In 2013 alone, the Boston Water and Sewer Commission prevented nearly 3 million gallons of raw sewage from entering its storm water management system by eliminating illegal sewer hookups throughout the area.

Bob Zimmerman, Executive Director of the Charles River Watershed Association cautions that the high grades don’t mean that the river is in the clear. He emphasizes that the river is still vulnerable to other conditions, like toxic algal blooms, polluted storm water runoff, and the impacts of climate change. In August, the City of Toledo, OH had to shut down its municipal water system for two days to prevent toxic blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) from entering the city’s water supply. Ohio’s fourth-largest city also supplies water to surrounding communities in northwestern Ohio and southeastern Michigan.

Depending upon the strain, blue-green algae can produce neurotoxins, and cause liver and endocrine system damage. Some blue-green algae by-products can be toxic on contact, resist traditional water purification techniques, and release higher concentrations of toxins when boiled. Exposure to high concentrations of some blue-green algae toxins has been implicated in the neurological disorder amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

Preventing uncontrolled sewage discharges into the river is key to controlling both E. coli levels in the river and preventing the conditions that can cause a blue-green algae bloom. Blue-green algae feeds on fertilizers and waste products in the water, so minimizing their presence is important. Several local communities are currently offering a sewer discharge “amnesty” program to encourage residents with illegal sewer-to-storm drain connections to correct those.

Boston Standard Plumbing & Heating can help. We can diagnose and correct your sewer connection issues, and help you determine whether your community has a storm drain amnesty program to reduce the cost of correcting your storm and/or sewage drains.

Please give us a call at (617) 362-0377 anytime for a consultation or an appointment.

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