Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Intern Blog: Testing Water Samples at Deer Island
I recently got the opportunity for a behind-the-scenes look at how water samples from CRWA’s monthly monitoring program are tested.   Even though it was a chilly 20 degrees on the day of sampling, dedicated volunteers went out early in the morning to collect water from the river and deliver the samples to CRWA. Once at the office, the sample bottles were packed in ice to keep them fresh on their journey to the lab at Deer Island.

Located in Winthrop, Deer Island is the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority’s (MWRA) wastewater treatment facility ( The plant processes wastewater for 43 communities in greater Boston. In addition to testing CRWA’s samples, the Deer Island lab also provides daily monitoring of the water, effluent, and sediment in Massachusetts Bay to assess the impact of the facility’s discharge to a deep water section of the Bay.  The lab also evaluates the health of fish and shellfish in Massachusetts and Cape Cod Bays which necessitates adherence to FDA standards.


Deer Island is an amazing complex. Approaching the checkpoint for admittance, I could see the beautiful expanse of Massachusetts Bay on the right.  On the left, turbines were spinning and 150-feet tall, egg- shaped digesters were working on breaking down sludge from wastewater into methane, CO2, water, and organics.  The facility aims to produce very little waste and much of this methane output is utilized as an energy source for the plant. Various signs along the entrance to the facility indicate that there are scenic walking areas to be enjoyed by visitors. Other plaques explain some of the rich history of this site as a quarantine station for immigrants, and as a hospital and prison.

As soon as I arrived at the lab, Jonathan Brody, CRWA’s contact at Deer Island, wheeled CRWA’s ice chest to its first stop where the water samples were removed and the date and time of arrival recorded.  The water was then taken to the Central Lab and mixed with Colielert-18, a reagent that is used to identify the presence of E.coli.  This bacteria indicates contamination in the water from human or animal waste. Using long pipettes to draw the water out of CRWA’s plastic bottles, the lab staff inserted the samples into what look like very shallow ice trays. The back of these trays are then completely sealed with a plastic coating.   Lab supervisor, Laura Ducott, explained that the trays need an incubation period in the refrigerator for about 18 hours.  At that point, the trays are observed under UV light.  Laura placed other samples that were fully incubated under the light to demonstrate the presence of a bright fluorescent color. This color change is the indication that E. coli is present. 

Lab staff at work

The staff at Deer Island were generous with their time and even shared some of their impressions of the Charles River. Jonathan says the Charles has been a staple in his life, providing wonderful memories from his days growing up in the Boston area, including 4th of July celebrations. He was so struck by the beauty of the Charles one day as he was riding the T near the Salt and Pepper Bridge, that he wrote a song about it!
Thank you to all of the staff at the Lab who were so generous with their time and who work so hard to help monitor the health of the Charles River. You can see the data MWRA collects for the Charles River at:

Lab staff sorting CRWA water samples

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

2013 Flagging Program

The beautiful view from the boat
Last week, we officially wrapped up the 2013 flagging season. We completed the last round of water sampling on the Charles River on Wednesday morning. This time, we shared the river with more rowers than usual, who were probably preparing for the Head of the Charles regatta. As we drove the boat down the Charles towards the Longfellow Bridge, I reflected on my experience doing the flagging sampling. If I could summarize my overall experience in two words, they would be: memorable and meaningful. In fact, although I had prior experience conducting water sampling, this was my first time sampling in the middle of a river, rather than on the banks. Moreover, this experience helped me visualize everything I learned about the Charles River in my Water Quality Control class last year. 
Ali and I on my first day on the river

Ali taking a water sample at the Longfellow Bridge
CRWA conducts the flagging program every year from early July through mid-October to provide the public with up-to-date water quality information for the Lower Charles River Basin. This is done on a daily basis through the website, phone hotline, and email list. The flagging program was designed to evaluate whether or not bacteria and cyanobacteria levels in the Charles River meet state health standards. Water samples are collected at four locations along the river twice a week and sent out to a lab to be analyzed for Escherichia coli (E. coli). E. coli is a species in the fecal coliform group used to indicate the presence of pathogenic microorganisms that inhabit in the intestinal tract of warm-blooded animals. The presence of E. coli in the water indicates recent contamination from human or animal waste. The US EPA recommends E. coli as a better indicator of health risk for recreational waters (US EPA 1986). In addition to the weekly sampling, a statistical model was developed by CRWA to give a conservative estimate of water quality conditions. For more information about the flagging program, visit the Water Quality page on CRWA website.  
Cristina driving the boat
Taking everything into account, the water quality was generally satisfactory this year. Compared to last year’s sampling program, more blue flags were predicted by the model this time around. The highest concentrations of E. coli at all four sampling locations were noted on July 24th, 2013. In this instance, red flags, indicating potential health risks, were predicted by the model. This may have been the consequence of heavy rainfall, which may have resulted in the introduction of pollutants into the river from storm drains and combined sewer overflows. Besides, a discharge from the MWRA Cottage Farm Pretreatment Facility was noted on that day. 

My first time driving a boat :-)
Although there are many challenges facing the Charles daily, CRWA has come up with a practical means to evaluate its water quality to protect river users from potential health risks: the flagging program. As mentioned previously, it has been a real pleasure to be part of this year’s sampling team. I have enjoyed every moment on the river. It made me purposeful and happy to be part of a team that aims to protect human health and the environment. I am truly going to miss those beautiful sunny days on the river. 
I am going to miss them too :-(


US EPA, 1986. Ambient water quality criteria for bacteria. Report Number EPA440/5-84/002. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Water, Washington, D.C.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Summer Cyanobacteria Monitoring

  Cyanobacteria, also know as Blue-green algae, has been know to bloom in various locations in the Charles River Lower Basin. These blooms can, at high enough concentrations, produce smelly gases and toxins (1), and cause skin irritations to swimmers who come in contact with it. .
The summer interns have been working hard since July to monitor the locations of historical blue-green algae blooms so that  we can alert the public of any possibility of adverse health effects(2).

Each Friday we have been visiting three spots along the Charles River in Boston:

 The MIT Sailing Pavilion

A stones throw from the Harvard Bridge in Cambridge, the MIT Sailing Pavilion is the western extent of our Lower Basin cyanobacteria monitoring.

The Esplanade

This section of the river is perhaps the most active area. Recreators can enjoy the Community Boating organization and the quite coves, which are prime zones for Cyanobateria blooms.

 The New Charles River Dam

Sitting quietly behind the Boston Garden and under the Zakim Bridge is the Charles River Dam. Here the Charles meets the Boston Harbor. Consequently this area can become a destination for floating trash and debris, creating a potential breeding ground for bacteria.

The summer of 2012 saw considerable amounts of Cyanobacteria, with large blooms occurring in the Lower Basin during August and through September. However, this summer August has come and gone and no algae blooms have been detected. Keep your fingers crossed that this trend keeps up!

You can find out more about identifying Cynaobateria when you are on the river using the Charles River Watershed's Cynobacteria Field Guide by clicking here.

But you must know, not ALL Cynobacteria is bad, read about how Children's Hospital is working on a healthier local anesthetic derived from a toxin found in Cynobacteria HERE!

(1) The Toxic Cyanobateria Home Page, Purdue <>
(2) CRWA Algae in the Charles -

Photos by Intern Pam

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Water Birds of the Charles River

Taking water quality samples early in the morning usually means we are one of the few boats out on the Charles. However, this does not mean the water is not full of life at this hour! Lauren, Ali and I entertain ourselves by pointing out all the creatures we pass along the way. We check to see if our favorite big turtle is still perched on his rock near the Community Boat House, and we take care to avoid ruffling too many geese feathers with the waves our boat makes. In my short time here at CRWA, I have tracked my creature sightings on the river to the point of obsession, and I thought that a blog entry about the diverse bird species we see would be the perfect outlet for sharing our findings. Here is a short list of the most loved, and most interesting, waterfowl we have seen on the Charles:

1. Canada Goose


These large geese are all over the river – they love the Charles as much as we do! Canada geese travel in groups along the river, flying swiftly from one place to the next, both on land and water.

Fun fact: Canada geese mate for life.

2. White Domestic Goose


Every day we take water samples, we see our white goose friend with his usual group of Canada geese. As it happens, this friendship is not unheard of, although it seems unusual.

Fun fact: One breed of white goose can weigh up to 34 pounds!

3. Cormorant


The Cormorant is definitely my favorite bird on the Charles! It has a squat, sleek body that sits almost entirely below the water’s surface as it bobs along the river, and is easily identified by its bright orange beak.

Fun fact: Some cormorant species have been known to dive as deep as 150 feet underwater!

4. Great Blue Heron


The Great Blue Heron is an elegant bird with an extremely elongated neck (perfect for gobbling small fish). It can be found perched on the banks of the Charles or wading in shallow water.

Fun fact: The call of the Great Blue Heron is a harsh croak.

5. Black-crowned Night Heron


This waterbird was tough to track down! It is a spectacular hunter, and gets its name because it feeds primarily at night and in the early morning. I have only seen one of these guys on the river this summer, but keep your eyes on the river banks, and you might sneak a peek at one!

Fun fact: This species breeds all over the world, with the exception of Antarctica and Australia.

The water is full of incredible, unique creatures, even in our urban setting of Boston. I urge everyone to try to find the birds on this list... and maybe a few more!

Cormorant in the Charles. Photo by Kristen Volinski.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Water Quality Sampling Training

Hey guys!

Last Tuesday was a great example of why having an internship at CRWA is a unique and rewarding experience. It was the day fellow intern Ali and I were trained in water quality sampling in the Charles River's lower basin for CRWA's Flagging program. These samples are taken daily at 4 locations in the basin to be tested for E. coli and cross-checked with the results from CRWA's flagging model. Its an important project because the model and sampling inform CRWA about the water quality of the river so that we in turn can notify the public of potential health risks.

The day started off early; I arrived at Community Rowing in Watertown at 7 AM. I wouldn't call myself a morning person, but it was hard to be anything but grateful for the opportunity when I got a beautiful view of the Charles just after sunrise:

Julie showed us around the boat house, we suited up in life jackets, and after a little trouble starting the motor, we were off! I got a crash course in boating etiquette along the Charles. For example, basically the whole lower basin is a no wake zone due to the volume of traffic and scullers along the waterway. This kept our boat's speed around 6 miles per hour, so it took us an hour to navigate from Community Rowing to the Longfellow Bridge, our first sampling site. I have to one of my favorite parts about the training was when we passed under the BU bridge and the basin really opened up. Julie handed the steering over to Ali and we were able to speed up quite a bit, which was exciting. It was also exciting because soon we arrived at the first sampling site, and Julie showed us the proper process and protocol when obtaining water quality samples. It was so refreshing to be out in the field having hands-on experience with the work that CRWA does. The Charles is a highly recreational and urban river, inextricably linking environmental quality and public health. On our way from the Longfellow bridge back to our second site, the BU bridge, I was able to snap a picture of Julie and Ali. It's a little dark, but that's only because the sun was so bright and beautiful that morning!

With all the boat traffic on the River, getting a proper sample is all about timing and efficiency. The trip back to the boat house went smoothly, and Ali and I were able to take turns getting samples and driving the boat. I still can't believe I get to go out on the Charles once a week to do the water quality sampling. To me, the time and effort spent obtaining those samples is entirely worth it.


Wednesday, June 12, 2013

5 Fantastic Ways to Experience the Charles River This Summer

As you may have read in the previous post, I got the opportunity to represent CRWA at the New England Aquarium's World Ocean Day this past Sunday with Pam. When brainstorming what I wanted to write my blog post about, I remembered interacting with a woman during one of our "watershed-in-a-box" demonstrations. She said she was excited to learn more about the Charles River, because she had never been in or around it before. When I asked her where she was from, she replied, "Here." I was baffled that anyone living in Boston hadn't spent time around the River, but I suppose our busy lives may not always allow us to explore our community as much as we'd all like to. So I decided to brainstorm 6 fun ways to experience the Charles River this summer, because the only way we can protect the river is by encouraging the community to experience and become invested in it! Whether you're a seasoned Charles River enthusiast or a new comer, I hope you find at least on of the following activities enticing enough to check out. Happy exploring!


1. Hike around Echo Lake
See where it all begins! Take a day trip to Hopkinton, MA and check out the Charles River’s headwaters at Echo Lake. Hike around the lake’s perimeter for a peaceful, fun afternoon. Trail maps and guides can be found here:

2. Have lunch at the Waltham Watch Factory
If you're not the sporty type, this next option is the one for you. Get a dose of history and a delicious meal at the newly renovated Waltham Watch Factory. Diners can enjoy lunch or dinner right at the River’s edge. More information can be found here:

3. Recreation Sundays on Memorial Drive
Much to commuters' frustration, each Sunday from April to November, a portion of Memorial Drive (from Western Ave to Mt. Auburn) is closed to car traffic. The community is invited to walk, run, bike, and skate up and down the closed, normally hectic roadway from 11 AM to 7 PM. Additionally, Charles River Conservancy hosts free lawn games along Memorial Drive every Sunday afternoon starting June 16th and going through September. Pack a picnic, grab your friends, relax and have fun along our favorite River’s beautiful banks!

4. Kayak the River on the 4th of July
Boston’s 4th of July fireworks along the Esplanade are among the best and brightest in the nation. What better way to experience them then, than from the water?! True, you will not be the only kayak or boat on the River that evening, but the show is in the sky so there’s plenty of room and the view is spectacular!!  It tends to be the busiest traffic in the Lower Basin all year, so make sure to stay safe. Check out this website for more information:

5. Charles River & Locks Cruise

You don’t want to miss the opportunity to tour the Charles like you've never seen it before. Boston Harbor Cruises offers 90-minute narrated tours of Boston Harbor and the Charles River’s Lower Basin. This is the finale of your journey down the river – Boston Harbor is the Charles’ outlet, its final stop before becoming a part of the Atlantic. You’ll experience scenic views of downtown Boston and Cambridge, so make sure to bring your camera! Here’s info on fares & schedules:

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

World Oceans Day

World Oceans Day at the New England Aquarium is quite the fiesta.  Located conveniently next to the Sustainable Seafood tent, fellow intern Lauren Gunther and I passed out pamphlets and educated passersby about water pollution on behalf of the Charles River Watershed Association.

We used this fun, hands-on “watershed-in-a-box” to show kids how our rivers become polluted:

The watershed-in-a-box is a mini-plastic version of a watershed.  There are green spaces representative of farms or gardens, blue channels that lead into a river, a construction site, a factory, roads, etc... - all equipped with toy animals, houses, cars, and trees.

The demonstration went a little something like this:

Pretend these red sprinkles are fertilizer.  Sprinkle them onto the farm.  The blue sprinkles are like road salt – you can sprinkle some on the roads so that they are less slippery in the winter.  See these tiny slivers of paper?  These are chip bags and napkins, blowing in the wind from a picnic.   This cocoa powder is dog poop that you forgot to pick up.  And on and on.

As you can imagine, the box soon became covered by these "pollutants."  Then, pouring cups of water onto the box model, we imitated a rainstorm.  The kids watched as an unseemly cocktail of sprinkles, cocoa powder, and food dye accumulated from all quarters of the land and drained into the river.  Yuck! 

During the tabling, Lauren and I both came to the same conclusion.  The box model watershed is a wonderful educational tool.  For one, it helps kids better visualize concepts such as point-source vs. non-point source pollution.  While many youngsters can conjure up the iconic image of the Evil Factory, spewing out toxins (point-source pollution), it is a little less intuitive for them to visualize how all of the tiny, seemingly harmless byproducts of daily life can accumulate together during a rainstorm and "nastify" our water (non-point source pollution). 

The model helped to reinforce the necessity for smart, stormwater management practices - and on an individual scale, the importance of picking up your trash.  Between delicious seafood, smiling faces, and watershed chit-chat, I give World Ocean’s Day at the New England Aquarium a solid thumb’s up.

Til next time,

(World Oceans Day is just one of many fun and educational activities hosted by the New England Aquarium.  Check out their website for additional opportunities!: