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For Immediate Release: Apr 21, 2005
Contact: Kirsten Stade (202) 265-7337


Commonwealth’s “Dirty Water” Is Nothing to Celebrate

Boston, MA - Earth Day concerts, festivals, and cleanups help raise awareness about protecting the earth, but a group of environmentalists say that Massachusetts is not really doing its part to honor the earth. The group cited the state’s failure to protect water resources as an example of how the Commonwealth could do a lot more to protect the environment. Moreover, the group noted that the Commonwealth’s investment in the environment has fallen to 48th in the nation.

“We host the largest Earth Day gathering in the nation, and yet we rank near the bottom nationwide on environmental spending. Despite the importance of Earth Day, that does make it a little difficult for a Massachusetts resident to be overjoyed,” said James McCaffrey, Director of the Sierra Club of Massachusetts. .

Advocates for Wetlands and Watersheds (AWW), a group that includes a number of national, state, and local conservation groups, said that fewer than 10 percent of the Commonwealth’s rivers are known to be safe for swimming, wading, boating and fishing.

“The majority of Massachusetts waters have not even been assessed for their water quality, and many of those that have been assessed are unsafe for recreation,” stated the New England Director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), Kyla Bennett. Bennett, a biologist and attorney who formerly worked for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is one of the spokespeople for the Advocates.

The Advocates say there has been very little progress in assessing and cleaning up the state’s lakes and rivers in recent years. While much industrial pollution was reduced following the first Earth day, 35 years ago, progress has slowed in recent years. The Commonwealth continues to face ongoing contamination from decades of undetected and undeterred industrial discharges in a number of rivers, but today a larger portion of the state’s surface water bodies are being polluted from non-point sources. These non-point sources, which include contaminated stormwater runoff, pesticides and herbicides from yards and fields, and fecal coliform bacteria often associated with illicit sewer connections and leaky and broken sewer pipes, are more difficult than industrial wastes to trace and clean up.

To compound this issue, the environmental agencies mandated to monitor and prevent such contamination of the state’s water resources are unable to keep up with the growing pollution problems because of the drop in the resources available to them, impairing their ability to do even minimal assessments. According to Jessica Stephens Siler, Environmental Advocate for the Environmental League of Massachusetts, “the legislature and the current administration have continued to decrease the funding for environmental agencies; the very agencies directed to protect our natural resources.” As a result of these funding cuts, key programs to protect water quality in rivers and lakes have been jeopardized. Specifically:

  • Only 9 percent of Massachusetts rivers and streams are known to be safe for all their intended uses, such as fishing and swimming, compared with a national average of nearly 60 percent;
  • Sixty percent of sampled river miles in Massachusetts have one or more water quality problems;
  • Seventy-eight percent of the Commonwealth’s rivers have not even been assessed for water quality; and
  • Only 20 percent of the Commonwealth’s lakes are known to be safe for swimming and fishing.

The Department of Environmental Protection, which handles water monitoring, wetlands and watershed protection, and enforcement and compliance of environmental regulations, has lost over a quarter of its staff in the last three years. With the budget cuts and loss of staff at DEP, the most basic management and protection of the state’s water resources are jeopardized. In order to properly assess water quality, DEP would need 33 additional employees and an additional $5.1 million (See Commonwealth’s Water Quality Monitoring Strategy, page v, below). “The state’s own data paint a dark and murky picture of water quality in Massachusetts,” says Stephens Siler. “When it comes to our rivers and lakes, what we don’t know can hurt us.”

The Advocates for Wetlands and Watersheds are dedicated to improving the quality of the Commonwealth’s waters and protecting wetlands. AWW supporters include the Belmont Citizens Forum, the Berkshire Environmental Action Team, the Charles River Watershed Association, the Connecticut River Watershed Council, the Connecticut Valley Summit, the Environmental League of Massachusetts, Friends of the Blue Hills, the Housatonic River Initiative, Mass Audubon, the Massachusetts Association of Conservation Commissions, the Mystic River Watershed Association, the Neponset River Watershed Association, the Organization for the Assabet River, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, Save the Bay, the Sierra Club of Massachusetts, the Taunton River Watershed Association, the Watershed Action Alliance of Southeastern Massachusetts, and the Water Supply Citizens Advisory Committee.


View the Commonwealth’s Water Quality Monitoring Strategy

See DEP’s Water Quality Assessments

See the Massachusetts Dirty Water fact sheet

See the photos