State of the Beach/State Reports/MA/Water Quality

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Massachusetts Ratings
Indicator Type Information Status
Beach Access83
Water Quality75
Beach Erosion9-
Erosion Response-8
Beach Fill6-
Shoreline Structures9 3
Beach Ecology6-
Surfing Areas25
Website9-

Important Legislation

Massachusetts Beaches Act
In August 2000, the Massachusetts Beaches Act (Chapter 248 of the Acts of 2000) was passed. Beginning in 2001, the act requires 1) adopting the EPA-recommended water quality standards for all marine and freshwater public beach waters, 2) monitoring weekly, and 3) informing the public about unsafe waters by posting notices at beaches when the water is polluted.


BEACH Act
The Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act (BEACH Act) signed into law on October 10, 2000, amends the federal Clean Water Act (CWA), incorporating provisions intended to reduce the risk of illness to users of the Nation's recreational waters. The BEACH Act authorizes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to award program development and implementation grants to eligible States, Territories, Tribes, and local governments to support microbiological testing and monitoring of coastal recreation waters, including the Great Lakes, that are adjacent to beaches or similar points of access used by the public. BEACH Act grants also provide support for development and implementation of programs to notify the public of the potential exposure to disease-causing microorganisms in coastal recreation waters. EPA encourages coastal States and Territories to apply for BEACH Act Grants for Program Implementation (referred to as Implementation Grants) to implement effective and comprehensive coastal recreation water monitoring and public notification programs. CWA section 406(i) authorizes appropriations of up to $30 million per year to develop and implement beach programs. Unfortunately, only about one-third that amount has been authorized each year since the program's inception. In recent years, the total funding available for BEACH Act grants has been about $9.5 million. Funding beyond 2012 has been in jeopardy, since EPA's budget requests for this program in FY2013 and FY2014 were ZERO (money for testing in 2013 and 2014 was ultimately allocated as part of Continuing Resolutions to resolve the Federal Budget impasse) and there was also no money for beach testing in the FY2015 budget. Again, it was restored at the last minute as part of a Continuing Resolution. It is very discouraging to have to fight for this basic funding to protect the public's health at the beach every year. Thankfully, there is a growing movement to provide stable funding. Unfortunately, in 2017 the situation is even more dire. If available, funds are allocated to the states and territories based on a formula which uses three factors that are readily available and verifiable: (1) Length of beach season, (2) miles of beach and (3) number of people that use the beaches. Massachusetts was eligible for a $242,000 grant in fiscal year 2016. In Massachusetts the responsible agency is the Department of Public Health (MDPH).

Water Quality Monitoring Program

Massachusetts has more than 500 public and semipublic marine beaches along 204 miles of sandy shore lining Atlantic waters. The monitoring program is a collaborative effort between local boards of health and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (MDPH) and is administered by MDPH. Beachgoers can find information about sampling practices and advisories on the MDPH/Bureau of Environmental Health's website.

Standards and Testing

For marine beaches, the standard is a single-sample maximum of enterococcus of 104 cfu/100 ml or a five-sample geometric mean of 35 cfu/100 ml. For freshwater beaches, either enterococcus or E. coli can be used as indicator species. For enterococcus at freshwater beaches, the standard is a single-sample maximum of 61 cfu/100 ml or a five-sample geometric mean of 33 cfu/100 ml. For E. coli at freshwater beaches, the standard is a single-sample maximum of 235 cfu/100 ml or a five-sample geometric mean of 126 cfu/100 ml. In addition to closings due to bacterial exceedances, the local Board of Health and/or the MDPH can close a beach if they determine there is a threat to human health for any other reason, such as algal blooms or oil spills. Local Boards of Health can preemptively close beaches that have consistently elevated indicator bacteria levels during rain events.

In April 2014 it was reported in an article in the Boston Globe that Massachusetts was considering revising water testing rules to specify that a beach not be closed unless water samples from two consecutive days show elevated levels of bacteria. Under the current system, beaches are closed after a single water sample is found to have high bacteria levels.

Monitoring

All data collected are sent electronically by local Boards of Health to MDPH’s internal database. MDPH compiles an annual report of the data. For marine beaches in 2014, 4.4% of all samples collected exceeded the bacterial standard. Of the 589 public or semi-public marine beach locations, 154 (26%) incurred at least one bacterial exceedance.

See here for beach monitoring results. To access data for a specific beach, click on the color-coded region of interest, then click on the municipality of interest, and lastly click on “View Lab Data.”

Monitoring locations are chosen by the local Board of Health or MDPH. The frequency of monitoring is determined by a tier classification system. Tier 1 beaches include heavily used beaches that have pollution problems and are sampled at least twice per week. Tier 2 beaches include heavily used beaches with some pollution and must be sampled weekly. Low-use beaches that have no known pollution problems, and that have a completed sanitary survey to show a low potential of bacterial contamination are classified as Tier 3. Tier 3 beaches are required to be tested once every two weeks or less if the local Board of Health obtains a variance from MDPH. Sampling occurs throughout the week, and the day of the week that sampling occurs can vary among beaches. Most communities pick one day during the week to complete all of the necessary sampling.

In 2014, the MDPH Public Health Council approved for promulgation amendments to the bathing beaches regulations (105 CMR 445.000, Minimum Standards for Bathing Beaches). These amendments define bathing water quality as unacceptable when two samples collected on consecutive days exceed the established water quality standard. This change, consistent with practices in other Northeast states (e.g., Connecticut, New Jersey), stipulates that a posting will not be required until two samples collected on consecutive days show elevated levels of bacteria. For beaches with a history of multi-day elevated bacteria levels (i.e., one or more instances of consecutive exceedances in at least two of the last four beach seasons), postings continue to be required after a single exceedance.

Part of the federal grant received by MDPH was used to provide partial funding to support communities for routine beach monitoring. To reduce administrative burdens associated with coordinating with all 60 coastal communities, MDPH awarded contracts to five qualified laboratories that would cover all coastal regions of the state. The selected laboratories were Barnstable County Department of Public Health and Environmental Water Quality Testing Laboratory, Chatham Water Quality Laboratory, Dukes County Testing Laboratory, G&L Laboratories, and the New Bedford Health Department Laboratory.

Harmful Algal Blooms

The MDPH’s Environmental Toxicology Program works with other state agencies in responding to harmful algal blooms in freshwater. For marine harmful algal blooms, the primary concern is red tide, which in Massachusetts is caused primarily by Alexandrium. The MDPH’s Food Protection Program works in collaboration with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries to monitor state coastal waters for marine harmful algal blooms. Beach closings may be issued if harmful algal blooms occur at coastal beaches. The Office of Health and Human Services has a useful Red Tide Fact Sheet. More information on "red tides"/harmful algal blooms in New England can be found here.

A 2009 red tide caused a near-complete closure of shellfish harvesting in the state of Maine in early July. Atlantic coastal waters of New Hampshire and much of the north coast of Massachusetts was also closed to harvesting. In November 2008 the red tide conditions that had closed local shellfishing beds in Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts between April and July 2008 were declared an official disaster by the U.S. Department of Commerce, opening the way for local shellfishermen to receive federal financial assistance. The historic red tide season of 2005 resulted in $23 million in lost shellfish sales in Massachusetts and Maine alone.

The Phytoplankton Monitoring Network (PMN) is a National Ocean Service/National Center for Coastal Ocean Science program operating in ten coastal states with the ultimate goal of linking laboratory scientists to the general public. PMN's seven goals are:

  • To create a comprehensive list of harmful algal species inhabiting coastal marine waters
  • To monitor and maintain an extended survey area along coastal waters throughout the year
  • To isolate areas prone to harmful algal blooms (HABs) for further study by Marine Biotoxins researchers
  • To identify general trends, such as time and area, where HABs are more likely to occur
  • To promote increased awareness and education to the public, particularly students, on HABs
  • To increase the public's awareness of research conducted by federal and state workers on HABs
  • To create a working relationship with open communication between volunteers and researchers through PMN


MDPH Inventory of Marine Bathing Beaches and Mapping Project

A detailed Geographic Information System (GIS) layer for Massachusetts’s marine bathing beaches was developed by MDPH with assistance from Applied Geographics, Inc. (AGI), and local health officials. In the spring of 2003, detailed color aerial photomaps with the marine bathing beaches highlighted were prepared by AGI for all 60 coastal communities. AGI also calculated the miles of sandy coastline (approximately 727 miles) in Massachusetts. This work was partly based on preliminary GIS work done by MDPH in the fall of 2002 that mapped the location of approximately 200 marine bathing beaches. The color maps were printed and mailed to local health officials in each marine beach community in the spring of 2003. Local health officials were asked to mark on the maps the locations and specific boundaries of each known beach, the designations of each beach (public or semi-public [and private if known]), the location or locations where the water samples are taken for routine monitoring, the location at each beach where posting (i.e., posting/closure due to bathing water quality violation) would occur in the event it is necessary, and the locations of normal access points and parking lots. MDPH beach inspectors used a global positioning system (GPS) unit to collect beach boundary points, sample locations, posting points, access points, and possible pollution sources using the marked up maps provided by local health officials. As points were obtained, the beach inspectors downloaded them onto their computers. The files were sent to a GIS analyst via e-mail and were then joined together into one GIS point layer. Descriptions of each point were broken out into database fields in the GIS. The points were checked versus the marked-up maps and assigned USEPA Beach IDs. Lines were drawn between boundary points following the coastline for each beach and were put into a GIS line layer. This line layer was used to calculate beach mileage for public and semi-public beaches, and was compared to the earlier sandy coastline mileage calculation generated by AGI.

The completed GIS point layer and line layer for 510 marine bathing beaches, including 419 public beaches and 91 semi-public beaches, as well as the estimated mileage of public (153.1 miles), semi-public (50.7 miles), and private beaches (522.4 miles) in Massachusetts were sent by MDPH as required deliverables to EPA in October 2003. The process of developing the beaches GIS layer was also shared with other New England states through a presentation given by MDPH at the EPA Quarterly Working Group meeting in October 2003. Beaches datalayers are posted on the MassGIS website.

2014 MDPH use of EPA Beach Grant Funds

Beaches Website/Data Management

The beaches website was maintained and improved as needed to provide the public with the most up-to-date information as well as to present the data in an easy to use format. Website posting procedures were updated to reflect regulatory amendments promulgated for the 2014 beach season. Links to all MDPH/BEH standardized forms were checked and the forms were made available for download via the Forms link in the Publications and Reports section on the bathing beaches website. Both local communities and laboratories were notified and given field data forms that made it easier for samplers to record conditions while in the field.

Guidance and training were provided to local boards of health, when necessary, to ensure quality assurance for data entry conducted outside of the contract laboratory program.

The beach program’s database was again updated for the 2014 beach season. Beach locations were revised as sampling points were combined at continuous, uninterrupted beaches; non-swim beaches were identified and reassigned; and new swim beaches were identified. Throughout the duration of the project, MDPH has continuously been adding new information associated with beaches, such as waterbody information, latitude/longitude coordinates, and potential pollution sources of freshwater beaches.

After the 2013 bathing season ended, extensive enhancements were made to the MDPH beach database to improve alignment with the USEPA reporting schema. Enhancements included the following:

  • Analytical methods are now being reported to USEPA.
  • The formatting for reporting non-detects has been improved.
  • The procedure for assigning USEPA-issued identification numbers to

beaches has been better aligned with USEPA specifications. This particular change to meet USEPA requirements resulted in some multiple sample location marine beaches being reported as a single beach vs. multiple beaches. This will be further explored in the discussion of 2014 marine beach results.

  • A system for ensuring the reporting of any changes to beach name, coordinates, sampling frequency, or Tier has been implemented.
  • The latitudes and longitudes of each beach are now being reported to USEPA.

Trainings

In April 2014, MDPH gave presentations to local health officials at four seminars held by the Massachusetts Health Officers Association (MHOA) and MDPH/BEH Community Sanitation Program at geographically diverse locations across the state. MDPH staff presented a review of 2013 beach data and an overview of proposed regulatory amendments (see Part Two, Section I.E). Staff also responded to questions from local health officials in preparation for the 2014 beach season. Informational packets were provided containing the beach sampling field data forms, sanitary survey forms, posting forms, and fact sheets. Importantly, time was allocated for health agents to provide feedback and pose any questions they had regarding forms and procedures.

In preparation for the 2014 beach season, MDPH staff personally communicated with and conducted outreach to bathing beach communities while collecting 2013 beach data. Local health officials were reminded of their responsibilities under the state’s bathing beach regulations and provided with any technical assistance or forms needed. MDPH staff also discussed deficiencies in reporting and updated the internal database based on these conversations. These efforts help enhance reporting, as nearly all communities in the state now report beach testing results on a yearly basis.


Quality Assurance

Throughout the beach season MDPH staff conducted numerous inspections at selected beaches identified as being posted to ensure proper signage was present. MDPH staff also assisted local health officials and laboratories in developing their weekly sampling schedules for the 2014 beach season. MDPH helped analyze the locations and logistics with local health officials, and staff standardized field forms with beach names and the weeks when they were to be sampled so that appropriate sampling schedules were maintained (weekly, biweekly or monthly).


Laboratory Program

Since 2003, MDPH/BEH has supported local marine communities for routine monitoring through the services of contract laboratories funded by MDPH. This support continued in 2014. The laboratories are Barnstable County Department of Health and Environment Water Quality Testing Laboratory, Biomarine, Inc., G&L Laboratories, Inc., New Bedford Health Department Laboratory, and Wampanoag Environmental Laboratory. The laboratories funded by MDPH/BEH analyzed over 3,700 marine beach samples from 53 marine beach communities during the 2014 beach season.

Laboratories fulfilled their contract requirements by promptly entering sampling data and laboratory results into the MDPH/BEH public notification website as results became available. Beach postings were automatically generated by the website when submitted samples exceeded acceptable water quality standards. Display of these postings on the public pages occurs twice per day, at 9:30 AM and 12:30 PM.

The above information was taken from MDPH's 2014 Bathing Beaches Annual Report, which highlights and summarizes the results of bacterial testing during the 2014 beach season.

Other Reports and Monitoring Programs

In May 2012 the group Save the Harbor/Save the Bay released a report that ranks 18 Boston area beaches from best to worst based on the percentage of time it was safe to swim in the water. The report relies on 2011 swimming season data from the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, Department of Conservation and Recreation. It also looks at the accuracy of the flag system that signals whether the water is clean enough for swimming. More info.

National Ocean Service/National Center for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS) has carried out many water quality research projects in Massachusetts.

Water Quality Contacts

Todd Callaghan
Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management
Phone: (617) 626-1233
Email: Todd.Callaghan@state.ma.us

Chris Huskey
Bathing Beaches Coordinator
Massachusetts Dept. of Public Health
Environmental Toxicology Program
250 Washington St.; 7th Fl.
Boston, MA 02108
Phone: (617) 624-5757
Email: chris.a.huskey@state.ma.us

Beach Closures

National Resources Defense Council's (NRDC) released their report Testing the Waters, A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches in June 2014. NRDC's report evaluates beach monitoring data relative to EPA's recommended Beach Action Value (BAV). The BAV is a more protective threshold than the national allowable bacteria levels used in previous years to trigger beach advisories. The EPA considers the BAV to be a "conservative, precautionary tool for making beach notification decisions."

NRDC ranked Massachusetts 14th in Beachwater Quality (out of 30 states). 10% of samples exceeded EPA's new BAV standards for designated beach areas in 2013.

NRDC reported:

In 2013, Massachusetts reported 571 coastal beaches and beach segments, 566 of which were monitored. Of all reported beach monitoring samples, 10% exceeded the Beach Action Value (BAV) of 60 enterococcus bacteria colony forming units (cfu) per 100 ml marine or estuarine water in a single sample. NRDC considers all reported samples individually (without averaging) when calculating the percent exceedance rates in this analysis. This includes duplicate samples and reported samples taken outside the official beach season, if any.

The beaches with the highest percent exceedance rates of the BAV in 2013 were Cockle Cove Creek Parking Lot in Barnstable County (77%), Pond at Lucy Vincent Beach in Dukes County (70%), Bassing's (Sailing Club) in Norfolk County (60%), Moses Smith Creek Beach in Bristol County (54%), and Leisure Shores Beach in Plymouth County (50%).


For a bar chart showing a 5-year water quality trend, see NRDC's report.

In June 2013, U.S. EPA released its latest data about beach closings and advisories for the 2012 swimming season. Note that for some states the data is incomplete, making state-to-state or year-to-year comparisons difficult. Here's EPA's BEACH Report for Massachusetts' 2012 Swimming Season. EPA no longer publishes this report.

Storm Drains and Sewage Outfalls

In coastal Massachusetts, there are stormwater drains that discharge to beaches in just about every community. Storm drains that are cracked and adjacent to sewer lines, or that have sewer lines connected to them illegally, can discharge sewage to beaches and coastal waters. Information on the state's grant programs for addressing polluted stormwater can be found here and here. Even stormwater that is not commingled with sewage can contain bacteria from pet and wildlife feces, so water coming from drains onto beaches should be avoided.

Several communities (Gloucester, Lynn, Chelsea, Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, Fall River) have combined stormwater/sewage systems that can discharge sewage to coastal waters and beaches during heavy rainfall events. For more information about Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs), see here. Also see the CSO Progress Reports. Many Massachusetts communities have addressed combined sewer overflows and stormwater runoff problems in response to EPA’s stormwater regulations. Here is a January 2012 article on work to separate stormwater and sewage in Gloucester.

In Massachusetts, sewage treatment plants that discharge to the coastal waters (e.g., in Newburyport, Ipswich, Rockport, Gloucester, Manchester, Salem, Lynn, Boston, Hull, Cohasset, Scituate, Marshfield, Plymouth, Wareham, Marion, Fairhaven, New Bedford, Dartmouth, and Fall River) generally do so far from shore and with treatment that should allow the effluent to meet beach quality standards. However, Gloucester receives a waiver each year allowing them to discharge partially treated sewage into the ocean.

In June 2014 Northeast Ocean Data announced the release of easy-to-use interactive maps of water quality data for the northeastern states from New York to Maine. Based on data provided by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the maps display No Discharge Zones, impaired waters, and wastewater discharges. Also shown on the maps are boundaries of watersheds and subwatersheds in the region. To view the water quality maps, go here.

In August 2012 an agreement was reached to settle a lawsuit filed in 2010 when the Conservation Law Foundation and the US Environmental Protection Agency sued the Boston Water and Sewer Commission for not acting quickly enough to stop sewage pollution coming mostly from storm drains and illegal sewer pipe hookups. The agreement includes a penalty of $395,000, but the real cost will be much higher as the Water and Sewer Commission fixes problems that it promised to correct under the agreement. One major problem is impermeable surfaces common to most large cities that do not allow rainwater filled with pollution from city streets and sidewalks to seep into soil, which would allow toxins to naturally filter out. Instead, the pollution travels on a storm drain highway, reaching Boston Harbor and other waterways. To help address this problem, the settlement requires green makeovers at City Hall Plaza, East Boston’s Central Square, and Audubon Circle in the Fenway-Kenmore neighborhood. The three urban landscapes will undergo a redesign as quickly as possible. That means residents and visitors could soon see tree boxes or rain gardens that hold water and filter out pollutants in those locations, among other items being discussed. Environmental groups hope those demonstration projects start a green redesign revolution across Boston.

In March 2010, a severe nor'easter storm forced MWRA to discharge 5 million to 10 million gallons into Quincy Bay from their Nut Island Headworks plant over a one-hour period. Approximately 8 to 11 inches of rain fell during the nor’easter, which may have been the worst two-day storm in the area since Hurricane Diane in 1955. Following is a history of sewage discharges, sewage treatment and water quality conditions over the last century (through summer 2007) in Quincy Bay and at Wollaston Beach:

  • 1904: A sewer pipe running into Quincy Bay is completed. Raw sewage would continue to move through the pipes and into the water, unabated, for 48 years.
  • May 1908: Wollaston Beach “opens” with the completion of Metropolitan Boulevard from Atlantic Street to Fenno Street.
  • 1945: At the urging of Quincy residents, the Legislature OKs $4.5 million in spending for a sewage treatment plant at Nut Island.
  • 1952: The Nut Island sewage treatment plant is completed, removing about half the solids from up to 300 million gallons of sewage sent each day.
  • 1978 : Federal environmental officials block the Metropolitan District Commission’s plan to expand the Nut Island plant.
  • 1982 : City solicitor William Golden spots human feces on Wollaston Beach, spurring him to action. Quincy sues the MDC and other state agencies for sewage discharges from Nut Island – leading to a court- ordered, multibillion dollar harbor cleanup and the creation of the Massachusetts Water Resources
  • 1988: Presidential candidate George H.W. Bush comes to Massachusetts to criticize his opponent, Gov. Michael Dukakis, and “the filthiest harbor in America.”
  • 1989: James Sheets is elected Quincy mayor, with a campaign heavy on MWRA bashing. Clam diggers are banned from the Wollaston area because of pollution.
  • 1995: After three years of delays, the Nut Island sewage tunnel is completed.
  • 1996: Overwhelmed by melting snow and heavy rain, wastewater treatment plants are spilling more than 20 million gallons per day of partially treated sewage into South Shore waterways, threatening beaches and shellfish beds.
  • 1997: After spending $3.7 billion, the MWRA starts discharging clear wastewater into Boston Harbor with the opening of a new regional sewage- treatment plant on Deer Island.
  • October 1998: The Nut Island sewage treatment plant is shut down, although it remains a sewage screening facility. Its 17 acres open a year later as a park.
  • 2000: Wollaston clam beds are deemed clean enough for diggers to return.
  • 2003: Quincy begins a $12 million project to repair crumbling sewer lines.
  • 2005: After an electrical failure, 25 million gallons of untreated wastewater is dumped into Quincy Bay.
  • Summer 2007: Wollaston Beach is deemed “swimmable” 90 percent of the time.


In March 2008, EPA ordered the town of Milford to take steps to stop "sanitary sewer overflows" (SSOs) from discharging onto streets and into buildings and surface waters, including tributaries of the Blackstone River and the Charles River. EPA has taken enforcement actions in other New England states for SSOs, including the issuance of a number of Administrative Orders in Rhode Island. More information on SSO prevention is available on EPA's website.

Periods of high rainfall often result poor beach water quality due to Combined Sewer Overflows and other sewage-related problems. An example of this was when record rainfall during May 2006 caused widespread problems throughout the Commonwealth's coastal areas, especially in Essex County. Sewage treatment system failures, coupled with contaminated runoff, resulted in the closure of shellfish beds from the New Hampshire border to Cape Cod. Thousands of homes suffered extensive flood damage throughout the region. The MBP developed the report May 2006 Extreme Rain Event and the Response of the Coastal Waters in the Massachusetts Bays System — which provides details about the storm's impacts. Similar events occurred during Hurricane Sandy in October 2012, although most of the impacts from that storm were felt in New Jersey and New York.

CPR Grant Program and Massachusetts Bays Program Research and Planning Grants

The Buzzards Bay National Estuary Program, a planning and technical assistance unit of the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management, makes funding available to assist eligible Buzzards Bay watershed municipalities to meet the goals and objectives of the Buzzards Bay Comprehensive Conservation Management Plan. Grant categories typically include the protection of open space, rare and endangered species habitat, and freshwater and saltwater wetlands, projects to help restore tidally restricted salt marshes, to develop designs and remediate stormwater discharges threatening water quality, monitoring to establish the effectiveness of previously funded Buzzards Bay NEP projects, to construct pumpout facilities, to digitize wetland boundaries approved in permits, to assist in the monitoring of water quality to prioritize stormwater remediation, to address problems in migratory fish passage, and to implement other recommendations contained in the watershed management plan for Buzzards Bay.

More recently, MCZM has also administered funds in support of the Southern New England Program (formerly SNECWRP). These grant funds are made available to a wider range of groups including municipalities, non-profits, higher education and research institutions, and others. For more information on this effort in Buzzards Bay, see the Coastal Watershed Restoration Program Funding web page.

The Coastal Pollutant Remediation (CPR) Grant Program was established in 1996 by the Massachusetts Legislature to help communities identify and improve water quality impaired by nonpoint source (NPS) pollution. The CPR program provides funding to Massachusetts municipalities to assess and treat stormwater pollution from paved surfaces and to design and construct commercial boat waste pumpout facilities. Since 1996, more than $9 million in CPR grants have been awarded. Here is a list of past projects.

The MassBays Healthy Estuaries Grant Program provides funding and technical assistance to coastal communities from Salisbury to Provincetown for initiatives in Massachusetts Bay and Cape Cod Bay. With funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under Section 320 of the Clean Water Act, MassBays funds work that will lead to implementation of the Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan (CCMP). The CCMP will guide MassBays' work through 2023 to address a wide range of environmental issues, and works to improve ecosystem conditions across the region. The Healthy Estuaries Grant Program is a revision of MassBays' previous Research and Planning Grant Program. This grant program fills the funding gap between development of a concept for improving estuarine conditions and its implementation. By directing funding to planning, assessment, and prioritization steps, MassBays can advance well thought-out and resilient restoration and resource management projects

Sewage Outfalls

The municipal wastewater authority for the metropolitan Boston area is Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA). Their Website provides information on their Deer Island wastewater treatment plant, which is the second largest municipal wastewater treatment plant in the United States. Also see here.

This site contains information about the new outfall, which discharges an average of 390 million gallons per day of treated wastewater into Massachusetts Bay, 9.5 miles east of Deer Island, at a depth of 100 feet. This is a vast improvement over the former treatment plant, which discharged partially treated wastewater into Boston Harbor at a depth of 30 feet. The MWRA websites also contain numerous links to other sources of information regarding ocean wastewater discharges, monitoring programs, and monitoring data.

This site contains a substantial amount of monitoring data for wastewater treatment plant discharges, Boston Harbor, and Massachusetts Bay.

On July 2, 2008 the Boston Globe reported:

The Massachusetts Water Resources Authority will have to better treat sewage at the Deer Island Treatment Plant, according to a $610,000 legal settlement announced yesterday by the authority, the US Department of Justice, and the US Environmental Protection Agency. The federal government said the agency had the capacity to fully treat more than 22 billion gallons of sewage-contaminated waste water that was discharged into Massachusetts Bay since 2001 but failed to do so, a charge the MWRA disputes. An MWRA spokeswoman said last night that the authority agreed to the settlement to avoid a costly legal battle.


MWRA's account of their level of treatment and other details concerning this matter differ substantially from US EPA's.

The New Bedford Water Pollution Control Facility processes about 30 million gallons of wastewater per day and releases the water 3,000 feet into Buzzard's Bay.

In July 2005 an article in seacoastonline.com reported:

The agency in charge of providing water and sewer services to Boston's metropolitan communities must eliminate sewage and stormwater along South Boston's beaches by 2011, according to a judge's order. The Massachusetts Water Resources Authority must build a $372 million pump station and two-mile-long tunnel to get rid of the waste, according to the judge's order, issued July 7.


The tunnel and pump station will stop sewage overflow, which happens when Boston's water treatment facility can't handle both sewage and large amounts of storm water, The Boston Globe reported Monday. U.S. District Judge Richard G. Stearns ordered the agency to build the pump and tunnel after years of tension among residents, MWRA authorities and environmental advocates.

The project will make the South Boston beaches some of the cleanest in the country, MWRA executive director Frederick A. Laskey told the newspaper. But the 2.5 million MWRA customers in metropolitan Boston will likely face higher water and sewer rates to pay for the project, Laskey said.


Work on the 2-mile sewer overflow tunnel began in September 2007 with the arrival from Japan of a massive boring machine.

In April 2013 the New England Center for Investigative Reporting (NECIR) published the results of the first comprehensive look at where, how often and how much sewage from combined sewer overflows (CSOs) flows into New England waterways. Massachusetts produces the most of these CSOs, despite decades of investment in sewage systems in Boston and other municipalities. In 2011, approximately 2.8 billion gallons of sewage water spilled through 181 pipes throughout the state. The NECIR investigation determined more than 7 billion gallons spewed into waterways across New England, the first such compilation of an annual total. More info.

Septic Systems

Studies have indicated that septic systems have been leaking nitrates into the bays and estuaries of southeastern Massachusetts, contributing to the loss of half the eel grass population. These and other signs indicate septic systems are polluting Cape Cod waters, according to experts at a panel discussion on wastewater at Cape Cod Community College held in May 2009. Nitrates from septic systems are polluting the waters that attract tourists to the Cape and form the base of the local economy, panelists said. Installing sewer systems is the answer to the problem, according to environmental regulators. Headwaters of estuaries from Falmouth to Orleans have turned cloudy with algae blooms, said Brian Howes, technical director of the Massachusetts Estuaries Project.

In Orleans, the selectmen voted in December 2009 against asking voters for an override to spend $150,000 for a pilot program to test a groundwater barrier that removes nitrogen from groundwater, and a cluster treatment system that reduces the amount of nitrogen it discharges with treated wastewater. The two alternative wastewater treatments had drawn interest from Cape taxpayers and town officials who believe there are cheaper, less disruptive alternatives to conventional sewers and large treatment plants. But the majority of Orleans selectmen voted to refocus on the town's existing wastewater treatment plan, which relies mainly on sewers, and was approved by voters in October 2008. The board agreed to compare the costs behind centralized systems, with sewers and a central treatment plant, with the costs of decentralized systems that gather and treat sewage in neighborhoods.

In 2008 Sen. Robert O'Leary and other lawmakers introduced the Clean Water Bill, which will provide zero interest loans to finance local wastewater projects for 10 years. Experts on the panel urged local officials to expedite planning for waste water systems. Regional solutions — rather than 15 towns working separately — would also make good financial sense, said Andrew Gottlieb, executive director of the Cape Cod Water Protection Collaborative.

No Discharge Areas

In July 2006, EPA formally designated the coastal waters of Plymouth, Duxbury, and Kingston as a Vessel No Discharge Area (NDA), prohibiting the discharge of all boat sewage. Boat sewage can contain pathogens, nutrients, and chemical products, which can negatively affect aquatic life or degrade water quality. The total area of that NDA is 63 square miles.

Coastal waters off Scituate, Marshfield and Cohasset were designated as an NDA on May 23, 2008. In June 2008 EPA approved the designation of the coastal waters of Salem Sound as an NDA. The NDA applications for Boston Harbor and Cape Cod Bay were approved by EPA in July 2008 and the Lower North Shore was approved on March 18, 2009. To date, EPA has certified 12 NDAs in Massachusetts, covering over 1100 square miles of Massachusetts waters. For more on NDA activities along the coast, see CZM’s NDA website and EPA's website.

In April 2010 it was announced that the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA), through CZM, had recommended that the EPA approve vessel NDAs for coastal waters on the upper North Shore and in Pleasant Bay on Cape Cod. On the North Shore, the ban on discharge of all boat sewage (whether treated or not) would apply to the state waters from Gloucester to Salisbury and up the Merrimack River to Lawrence. In Pleasant Bay, the discharge ban would apply to the Bay’s waters in Chatham, Harwich, and Eastham. Efforts were also under way to authorize NDAs in the Commonwealth’s remaining coastal waters including, Nantucket and Vineyard Sounds, the Outer Cape (approved in August 2011), and Mt. Hope Bay.

On June 27, 2014 Governor Deval Patrick announced the approval of Massachusetts’s statewide No Discharge Area (NDA) designation. With this approval by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), commercial and recreational vessels are now prohibited from releasing sewage anywhere along the Massachusetts coast. NDAs protect water quality and aquatic life from pathogens, nutrients, and chemical products contained in discharged sewage—even boat waste that has been treated—and also reduce the risk of human illness, making it safer to swim, boat, fish, and eat shellfish from protected waters. NDAs can also help reduce the growth of harmful algae that occurs due to high nutrient levels in sewage discharge and protect shellfishing areas. This designation caps years of extensive work by CZM and coastal communities and their partners to develop NDA applications and ensure the necessary waste pumpout facilities are available for boaters to use. See the Governor Patrick press release; see the CZM No Discharge Areas website for information on the Massachusetts requirements; and see Pumpout Facilities for Boat Sewage Disposal in Coastal Massachusetts for pumpout locations.

Also see Simple Steps to Clean Boating in Massachusetts.

Perception of Causes

MDPH's 2014 Annual Beach Testing Report contains the following observations (edited):

In 2014, 220 marine and/or freshwater communities reported bathing beach water quality data to MDPH/BEH. MDPH/BEH received the required posting notification (or confirmed that posting was not necessary) for all but 7 of 329 single sample marine exceedances or approximately 98%. It should be noted that not all exceedances require posting. For example, if a beach is already posted because of a prior single sample or geometric mean exceedance and a follow up sample shows a continued exceedance, an additional posting notification to MDPH/BEH is not required for the follow up exceedance. Therefore a single beach posting could cover several exceedances. Local boards of health may preemptively post beaches without a bacterial exceedance and these instances are included in the total number of postings. It should also be noted that, due to regulatory amendments that were promulgated in 2014, the majority of beaches are no longer required to post after a single exceedance if a next day resample shows acceptable water quality. As a result, there were 106 occasions when postings were not necessary. The amendments had a significant impact in reducing the number of postings in 2014.

Completeness of the field data forms filled out by samplers has also increased over the years. While there are still areas for improvement, such as actively reporting the presence or absence of environmental pollution sources, Massachusetts local health officials have for the most part adhered to MDPH/BEH’s field forms. This can be seen in the wide range of potential sources of pollution noted on the field forms submitted in 2014. Prior to 2003, most noted potential sources of pollution were fairly general (i.e., outflow pipes, wildlife, and boats). Starting in 2004 and continuing in the 2014 bathing beach season, more communities began to document incidents of algae and wrack build-up on beaches and the presence of trash, birds, dogs, waste solids and fish die-offs. These notations become an important factor when the communities or MDPH/BEH need to identify possible reasons for continuously elevated bacterial levels at a particular beach that may increase potential health risks and to develop strategies to reduce these sources. For marine beaches, the percentage of exceedances at beaches where a pollution source was noted (5.9%) was also higher than those where none were noted (3.3%). However, 54% of marine samples and 55% of freshwater samples were accompanied by a field data form that did not include any information on the presence or absence of pollution sources. Notification on the presence or absence of pollution sources is an area that needs improvement in order to help in the formulation of mitigation strategies.

From 2001 through 2014, from 2.8 to 7.0% of all marine samples collected during the summer bathing seasons exceeded the enterococcus standard, with an overall average of 5.0% exceedance across all seasons. The rate of marine beach exceedances in 2014 was 4.4% which is within the historical range.

Rainfall amounts during the 2014 beach season may partly explain the lower exceedance percentage vs. the historical average. The Boston area received 8.94 inches of rain during the 2014 beach season (i.e., June through August), which is below the 10.46 inches of rain normally received in those months. This is the lowest amount of rainfall the Boston area has received since the 2007 beach season. The Chatham area (Brewster, Chatham, Dennis, Eastham, Harwich, and Orleans) also received below average rainfall during the beach season (9.72 inches received in 2014 vs. the 10.15 inches typically received). The beach testing results also show the percentage of exceedances at marine beaches was lower in 2014 than 2013 (4.4% versus 5.8%). Rainfall is a major driver of bacterial exceedances in beach water. The Boston area, which has many urban beaches affected by rainfall, received seven fewer inches of rain in 2014 vs. 2013. In 2014 the Chatham area received more than two fewer inches of rain than in 2013.

For both marine and freshwater beaches, exceedances generally rise and fall with rainfall amounts, with some exceptions. As discussed previously and as expected, in 2014 the amount of rainfall and the percentage of exceedances decreased from 2013. In 2014, 277 of the 329 marine exceedances had corresponding rain event information, while for freshwater beaches rain event data were recorded for 143 of the 196 bacterial exceedances. Sixty percent of marine beach exceedances and 40% of freshwater exceedances occurred within 24 hours of a rain event in 2014.

The bather load at a particular beach can affect water quality as well because humans are also sources of fecal pollution. The greater the bather density at a beach, the greater the likelihood that human sources are contributing to higher enterococcus levels. However, as in previous years, more than three-fourths of the marine beach samples (83%) and freshwater beach samples (78%) that reported bather density indicated low bather density (0-10 bathers on the beach) during sampling. This can be attributed largely to samples being taken during off-peak hours for swimming. Samples are primarily collected before 12:00 PM so that laboratories can begin the analysis before the close of business and before the six hour holding time expires.

While the data relative to the impacts of bather density on exceedances are extremely limited, beaches staff did evaluate the data to determine if trends were apparent. For marine samples with a corresponding bather density, exceedance rates showed an increase when the bather density reached 50 bathers or greater. The overall rate of exceedances for all marine samples (4.4%) was higher than the rates of exceedance for the three lowest bather density groupings (0-10, 10-20, and 20-50 bathers) and lower than the rate of exceedance for samples that did not have a corresponding bather density. The rate of exceedance for samples with a corresponding bather density of >50 bathers was highest of all, at 12.9%.

The decaying plant material, or wrack line, at a beach may also be an incubator for bacteria, potentially increasing bacterial counts even outside spring tides. In addition, it has been suggested that wrack is often the subject of scavenging by wildlife and pets, which may defecate in it, further increasing its contribution to bacterial contamination (Heufelder 1988). Wrack also keeps the soil surfaces it covers in a dark, wet environment, which is conducive to bacterial growth. Researchers have found that survival of fecal coliform and enterococcal bacteria was far greater in salt water when organic debris (i.e., wrack) were present (Martin and Gruber 2005). Furthermore, they concluded that tidal flushing of wrack during high tide could easily transport elevated bacterial densities into the marine environment, thus potentially degrading the surrounding waters (Martin and Gruber 2005).

Other potential sources of bacteria, which are difficult to directly measure through routine beach water sampling, have the ability to influence overall water quality. At marine beaches, illicit discharges of human waste from boats may cause significant degradation of water quality in areas where there is significant boating activity. It is generally believed that the number of illicit discharges from boats is proportional to the difficulty posed in the disposal of the wastewater; therefore there has been significant effort by many coastal communities to increase the number of locations where boat waste can safely be discharged. USEPA worked with state and local officials to designate virtually all marine waters within three miles of the Massachusetts coast as a no-discharge zone.

Additionally, sediments may act as a sink for fecal indicators at both fresh and marine beaches. These sediments may be disturbed by tides, human activities, or stormwater runoff and potentially increase bacterial contamination.


Public Education

The MDPH and related agencies conduct public outreach and works with local boards of health and other interested groups wishing to alert the public to actions that can reduce beach closings. For example, the Office of Health and Human Services has published information about the effects of pet waste on beach water quality and public health.

There are many other educational efforts in Massachusetts related to water quality:

  1. C-Z Tip - Be a Coast-Conscious Kid describes simple ways to help protect coastal water quality, fish and wildlife, and more.
  2. 2007 Metropolitan Beaches Commission
    The Massachusetts Legislature established the Metropolitan Beaches Commission in 2006 to perform a comprehensive review of the public beaches owned by the State’s Department of Conservation and Recreation in the coastal communities surrounding Boston. The Commission was made up of elected officials and community, nonprofit, and business leaders from across the metropolitan Boston region. The Commission was charged with: 1) identifying the current conditions on each beach, 2) identifying the best management practices across the region, and 3) making recommendations that would bring the beaches to their fullest potential as significant recreational and economic resources, and 3) ultimately improving the quality of life for residents and visitors. To achieve this goal, the Commission held public hearings in each beachfront community and compiled the results into a report titled “Beaches we can be proud of.” The report contains information about each beach (e.g., length, amenities, how to get there by public transportation) and lists several things that the public felt were “working well” or “not working well” at each publicly funded beach. The report can be found here
    Recommendations from the Commission include: 1) increase sampling effort and performing modeling and sanitary surveys to identify sources of pollution at beaches where greater than 9% of testing samples indicate bacterial problems, 2) develop and implement a means for informing the public about beach water quality and institute a regular program of flagging to indicate whether the water is safe for swimming or not, and 3) expand the state’s revolving loan program (managed by MassDEP) to help municipalities fund the sewage and stormwater infrastructure improvements that are needed to keep pollution off of beaches.
  3. Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA) Beaches Data
  4. The Massachusetts Bays Program’s Think Blue campaign officially launched in 2006. A series of three Think Blue print advertisements were posted on the MBTA subway platforms throughout summer 2006. The Think Blue team also spoke directly to the public about stormwater pollution at numerous outdoor festivals and events, including the Boston Folk festival with 10,000 people in attendance. Think Blue was awarded the blue ribbon for best exhibit at the Environmental League of Massachusetts’ ninth annual Earth Night. The Think Blue Toolbox helps communities and organizations adopt the Think Blue campaign.
  5. COASTSWEEP is an annual state-wide beach cleanup sponsored by the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management (CZM) and the Urban Harbors Institute of UMass Boston. Volunteers throughout Massachusetts turn out in large numbers each year for this event, which is part of an international campaign organized by The Ocean Conservancy in Washington, DC. Participants all over the world collect marine debris and record the types of trash they find. This information is then used to help reduce future marine debris problems. Cleanups are typically scheduled throughout September and October. For more information, or to get involved, go to the COASTSWEEP website.
  6. The Boston Harbor Association Marine Debris Cleanup Program
  7. EPA’s NPS (Nonpoint Source) Outreach Products are a selection of television, radio, and print products on nonpoint source pollution that have been developed by various agencies and organizations around the country. They are good examples of outreach in the mass media. Also see What You Can Do.
  8. Massachusetts Clean Marinas
    In 2001, the CZM office put together the Massachusetts Clean Marina Guide, which was designed as a reference for owners and operators of marine boating facilities, collectively referred to throughout this document as “marinas.” This guide provides information on strategies and practices aimed at reducing marina and boating impacts on the coastal environment. For more information, check out the related pages on the right margin of this page.
  9. Boat Sewage No Discharge Areas
    In June 2014 Governor Deval Patrick announced the approval of Massachusetts’s statewide No Discharge Area (NDA) designation. With this approval by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), commercial and recreational vessels are now prohibited from releasing sewage anywhere along the Massachusetts coast. NDAs protect water quality and aquatic life from pathogens, nutrients, and chemical products contained in discharged sewage—even boat waste that has been treated—and also reduce the risk of human illness, making it safer to swim, boat, fish, and eat shellfish from protected waters. As part of this initiative, CZM, EPA, nonprofits, and local communities are conducting a significant amount of outreach to coastal communities on the health impacts of improper disposal of boat sewage. Pumpout facilities are available throughout Massachusetts so boaters can conveniently and properly dispose of their wastes. CZM has published information and maps of pumpout facilities throughout the region.
  10. 2007 Technical Assistance Provided by EPA’s Clean New England Beaches Initiative
  • EPA’s Clean New England Beaches initiative: “It’s a Shore Thing” has conducted several surveys of beaches and provided technical assistance to communities experiencing repeated beach postings in New England. This assistance has ranged from scientific advice on monitoring and best management practices to conducting a comprehensive survey of the major pollution sources to the beach using measurements of bacteria and traditional water quality parameters. The beaches surveyed are usually in urban and suburban areas near Boston, where coastal streams have been incorporated into the stormwater system and stormwater outfalls discharge onto or near swimming beaches.
  • EPA New England conducted a preliminary study in 2002 at Willows Pier beach in Salem, Massachusetts (north of Boston) to investigate sources of bacteria to an outfall discharging onto a small beach at adjacent Willows Park. EPA recommended that trash removal be improved to reduce the large bird populations and that catch basins be more regularly cleaned. More extensive follow up studies by the City of Salem in 2004 (partially funded by CZM) and by the MDPH as part of the Flagship Beaches sanitary survey in 2004 and 2005 corroborated these results and provided more specific recommendations to control bird populations and modify catch basins at Willows Park to control storm water discharges to the beach. The City has installed new trash compactors to control bird populations at Willows Park and water quality at the beach has improved slightly.
  • EPA New England worked with the City of Beverly, Massachusetts (north of Boston) and Salem Sound Coastwatch in 2004 and 2005 to investigate the sources of bacteria discharging through culverts to Brackenbury (also known as Patch, or Thissell) beach. The results of this survey suggested that a major source of bacteria to the beach was from an upstream duck pond, and the loadings to the beach were exacerbated by restricted tidal circulation in an adjacent salt marsh. EPA hypothesized that restoring the marsh by improving tidal circulation would improve water quality. Based on our results, CZM and local abutters are conducting an engineering study to determine whether marsh restoration is feasible.
  • In 2006 and 2007, EPA New England conducted a survey of sources of bacteria to Cohasset, Massachusetts (south of Boston) harbor. Children swim in the harbor or an adjacent beach as part of summer sailing programs, and the beach was posted over 13 percent of the time from 2002 to 2005. Based on this study, which was conducted with the assistance of the Town, MassDEP, and CZM, it was found that occasional sewage treatment plant overflows contribute to bacteria sources to a brackish salt marsh in a major tributary (James Brook) to the harbor. The Town is working to address the treatment plant overflows with an upgrade in permitted capacity, and is improving stormwater management in the harbor’s watershed. Other efforts by CZM, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and EPA to improve water circulation and restore the salt marsh may also reduce bacteria discharges to the harbor.
  • In 2008, EPA New England met with priority communities to create an action plan to collaboratively address chronic beach closures or advisories. It is EPA’s expectation that this plan will describe current remedial efforts and outline a strategy to further identify and eliminate known or suspected sources of pollution contributing to beach closures or advisories.
11. Coastal Landscaping Website
Landscaping with native plants can help coastal property owners prevent storm damage and erosion, provide wildlife habitat, and reduce coastal water pollution—all while improving a property’s visual appeal and natural character. CZM’s Coastal Landscaping website presents: detailed information on the benefits of these landscaping techniques; step-by-step instructions on landscaping a bank, beach, or dune; tips for planting, installation, and maintenance; plant lists and photos; sample landscape plans; information on permitting; suggestions on where to purchase native plants; and links to additional information. Also see the article Encouraging Coastal Residents to Eat Their Landscaping in Massachusetts.
12. Massachusetts has an ocean education program which includes an ocean education guide that assists K-12 educators in teaching about ocean resources. In addition, the program has a research aspect.
13. The Association to Preserve Cape Cod and UnderCurrent Productions have released Saving Paradise: Cape Cod’s Water at Risk, the first of a planned series of short videos on Cape Cod's water resources. The goal of this first film is to explain the personal connection each individual on Cape Cod has to the Cape's ponds, bays, and drinking water, and how nutrient pollution from septic systems, fertilizers, and stormwater runoff directly impacts the quality of life on the Cape.


General Reference Documents

EPA has compiled several NPS (Nonpoint Source) Outreach Products that are a selection of television, radio, and print products on nonpoint source pollution that have been developed by various agencies and organizations around the country. They are good examples of outreach in the mass media. Also see What You Can Do.

NOAA, in partnership with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, International City/County Management Association and Rhode Island Sea Grant, has released an interagency guide that adapts smart growth principles to the unique needs of coastal and waterfront communities. Smart Growth for Coastal and Waterfront Communities builds on existing smart growth principles to offer 10 coastal and waterfront-specific guidelines that help manage development while balancing environmental, economic, and quality of life issues.




State of the Beach Report: Massachusetts
Massachusetts Home Beach Description Beach Access Water Quality Beach Erosion Erosion Response Beach Fill Shoreline Structures Beach Ecology Surfing Areas Website
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