There's no question the Charles River is dirty. While all 35 communities in the watershed are contributing to the stormwater runoff problem, three at the head of the Charles River - Milford, Bellingham and Franklin - are being singled out to help solve it.
There's no question the Charles River is dirty.
One of the causes, environmental experts say, is stormwater runoff generated by communities from Milford to Boston. Among other problems, high levels of phosphorus get swept into the water, which causes algae blooms and other aquatic weeds to multiply and choke off oxygen to fish and other organisms.
"It's a water quality issue. It's a habitat issue. It's a public health issue," said Kate Bowditch, project director at the Charles River Watershed Association in Weston.
While all 35 communities in the watershed are contributing to the problem, three at the head of the Charles River - Milford, Bellingham and Franklin - are being singled out to help solve it.
Officials in those three towns recognize the river needs to be cleaned up. As they await draft regulations that are soon due, they say they're greatly concerned about the price tag for participating in a federally mandated pilot program aimed at reducing phosphorus levels.
Franklin Department of Public Works Director Brutus Cantoreggi estimates it will cost his town $71 million to build filtration systems and lower its phosphorus load by 52 percent.
Amid a climate of cutbacks and layoffs, Cantoreggi criticized what he said is an unfunded mandate.
But, he also sees benefit in the program, which is being rolled out by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as part of the Clean Water Act.
"The river's in bad shape, things need to be done," Cantoreggi said.
Under the pilot program, stricter requirements for stormwater management would force Franklin, Milford and Bellingham - and owners of certain large private properties in those towns, such as box stores - to significantly reduce the amount of pollution they send into the Charles.
Milford needs to reduce its phosphorus by 57 percent, according to the EPA, at an estimated cost of $35 million to $60 million, while Bellingham has to make a 51.8 percent cut.
When the pilot program was announced in late 2007, Milford Town Engineer Michael Santora said he was discouraged at the outset.
Santora, Cantoreggi and Bellingham DPW Director Don DiMartino all said they were encouraged to hear at a recent meeting the EPA is exploring ways to offer their towns financial or other help.
"I think they realize that this stormwater management is going to be so expensive that there's no way the towns could fit this into their budget," Santora said.
Officials from the three towns met in late February to discuss the pilot program with representatives from the federal and state environmental agencies.
"I think there was a lot of listening going on," said William Walsh-Rogalski with the EPA's Boston office, who attended the meeting. "I think we were trying to understand their concerns where they're trying to understand where we're coming from."
While the EPA "didn't show up with a big golf tournament check," which would have been nice, DiMartino joked, they did talk about the possibility of grants and even staff.
"They're there trying to help," DiMartino said.
One of the EPA's suggestions for affording the pilot program is for the towns to consider implementing a stormwater utility - a fee that could be charged to every property owner in town.
A handful of communities in the Bay State, including Newton, have done that to generate new revenue, Walsh-Rogalski said.
Cantoreggi said he's interested in the idea for Franklin, but DiMartino in Bellingham opposes it.
"It's another fee, it's another charge, nobody wants that," DiMartino said.
Santora, Cantoreggi and DiMartino said they were also relieved to hear the EPA plans to eventually expand the pilot program so it affects all cities and towns in the Charles River watershed.
"It's not like we decided let's torture these three towns," Walsh-Rogalski said.
He expected the EPA to come out with a draft permit within two months.
Danielle Ameden can be reached at 508-634-7521 or firstname.lastname@example.org.