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Mystic malady

Agencies, volunteers work hard to clean watershed, but pollution persists

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Kay Lazar
Globe Staff / May 4, 2008

Matt Shuman has trudged through some miserable weather, inched down icy rocks, and wrapped numb fingers around carefully collected samples of frigid river water as a volunteer foot soldier in a regionwide brigade of citizen scientists.

For the past seven years, the 31-year-old Somerville resident has dutifully driven once a month at about dawn to the High Street Bridge on the Arlington-Medford line, climbed down the bank, thrust a pole into the Mystic River, and scooped four water samples that are analyzed later for a variety of contaminants. Then he has headed to his civil engineering job in Melrose, bleary-eyed but happy that he is "part of a process that is using this data for the public good."

By all accounts, environmental authorities will need Shuman's help - and that of his counterparts at the nonprofit Mystic River Watershed Association - for quite a while. The group's testing shows that water quality in the Mystic River Watershed is in tough shape, no better than it was a year ago when the federal Environmental Protection Agency gave it a "D," then announced an ambitious plan to clean things up. Since then, because of bacterial contamination the water has met swimming standards just 46 per cent of the time and boating standards 79 percent, the EPA stated.

"It's not an easy, overnight fix," said Todd Borci, the federal agency's water enforcement chief. "This is long-term work."

Borci said the agency is relying on a collaborative approach, working with state and local officials and nonprofit groups to pinpoint the countless - and often hidden - sources of contamination in the vast watershed. Home to about 500,000 residents, the Mystic is one of the state's most densely populated and urban watersheds, encompassing 76 square miles within 21 communities north and west of Boston.

With widespread sewage overflows, significant amounts of oily storm-water runoff in urban areas, and even dog excrement dropped into street drains, the problems are many and the fixes not cheap. The EPA's mission occurs at a time when many of the watershed's cash-strapped communities have few funds to repair aging water and sewer pipes, which are believed to cause a large portion of the contamination.

"Parts of our system goes back to the pre-Civil War era," said Andy DeSantis, assistant director of Chelsea's Department of Public Works. "To replace all of our sewer system is probably a quarter-billion dollars in today's dollars."

Suspecting violations of federal clean water laws, the EPA in 2005 and 2006 required several communities in the watershed, including Chelsea, Everett, Malden, Medford, and Revere, to test for contaminants in every "outfall," where storm water is discharged to the Mystic River or one of its many tributaries. Most of the communities, including Chelsea, are still testing or searching for the sources of the pollutants that were found.

Joining the communities in water testing is the Arlington-based Mystic River Watershed Association, which has trained volunteers, including Shuman, to collect samples on a monthly basis at 10 sites throughout the watershed. The samples are tested for free by the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, and the data are forwarded to each of the communities in the watershed and the EPA. The association also organizes several cleanups each year along the waterfront and sponsors many programs to focus public attention on pollutants.

Next on the group's agenda is the dog problem.

"Each time a person registers a dog in one of our 21 communities, they will get an educational brochure about not dumping dog poop in storm drains," said Mary Beth Dechant, the watershed association's director of water-quality monitoring.

"In Somerville, someone told me they were walking in Davis Square and they saw someone trying to stuff a dog poop bag down a storm drain," Dechant said. "We have heard reports from a boat club in Winchester that they were seeing dog poop bags floating in the water there."

But the issue goes way beyond cleaning up after dogs.

"We have people changing their oil at home and dumping their used oil in storm drains," Dechant said. "People see that water is going underground and assume it's going to a water-treatment facility, and often that's not the case. Most of the storm drains in this watershed drain directly to a water body with no treatment."

Rules governing the amount and type of pollutants that can be legally discharged into Massachusetts rivers, known as municipal separate storm sewer system or MS4 permits, are about to be significantly tightened, according to David Webster, the EPA's chief of the industrial permits branch. The permits, issued every five years, are up for renewal this year. Webster said the EPA is slated later this month to issue draft plans that will require municipalities to more aggressively track down illegal sewer connections and to lower the percentages of bacteria in their discharges.

"For towns that have been doing the minimum under the current permits, it will be arduous," Webster said. "It's very surprising how much sewage is in the storm drains."

The EPA hasn't set a date for when it expects the Mystic River Watershed to rate a more respectable grade, signifying that the water is safe for swimming and boating most of the time.

But officials point to a similar project to clean up the Charles River, which also received a grade of "D" back in 1995; today, it gets a B-plus.

"We have increased the amount of staff to work on this and we're also looking for ways to leverage private foundation funds, too," said Lynne Hamjian, the EPA's surface water branch chief.

But cash is tight at the federal level, too, she said.

"We aren't gong to be able to throw all the money on the table and solve all the problems," Hamjian said. "We're in this for the long haul."

For more information, visit mysticriver.org, and epa.gov/region1/mysticriver.

Kay Lazar can be reached at klazar@globe.com.

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