Human activity has profoundly altered the Charles River and its watershed over the past 375 years. Restoration of environmental quality in the watershed has become a high priority for private- and public-sector organizations across the region. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs worked together to coordinate the efforts of the various organizations. One result of this initiative has been a series of scientific studies that provide critical information concerning some of the major hydrologic and ecological concerns in the watershed. These studies have focused upon:
* Streamflows - Limited aquifer storage, growing water demands, and the spread of impervious surfaces are some of the factors exacerbating low summer streamflows in headwater areas of the watershed. Coordinated management of withdrawals, wastewater returns, and stormwater runoff could substantially increase low streamflows in the summer. Innovative approaches to flood control, including preservation of upstream wetland storage capacity and construction of a specially designed dam at the river mouth, have greatly reduced flooding in the lower part of the watershed in recent decades.
* Water quality - Since the mid-1990s, the bacterial quality of the Charles River has improved markedly, because discharges from combined sewer overflows and the number of illicit sewer connections to municipal storm drains have been reduced. Improved management of stormwater runoff will likely be required, however, for full attainment of State and Federal water-quality standards. Phosphorus inputs from a variety of sources remain an important water-quality problem.
* Fish communities and habitat quality - The Charles River watershed supports a varied fish community of about 20 resident and migratory species. Habitat conditions for fish and other aquatic species have improved in many parts of the river system in recent years. However, serious challenges remain, including the control of nutrients, algae, and invasive plants, mitigation of dam impacts, addressing remaining sources of bacteria to the river, and remediation of contaminated bottom habitat and the nontidal salt wedge in the lower river.