However, it did get me thinking about how a paddler in Massachusetts can get some idea as to the water quality of a waterway he's about to dip his paddle into. My research brought me to two resources which, when combined, provide what I consider to be a reasonable assessment of water quality.
The first and simplest resource is the Massachusetts Surface Water Quality Standards (314 CMR 4.00) developed by the MassDEP Division of Water Pollution Control. One goal of these standards is to "prescribe the minimum water quality criteria required to sustain the designated uses".
Water quality criteria include dissolved oxygen, temperature, pH, bacteria, solids, color and turbidity, oil and grease, and taste and odor.
Designated uses can include source of public water supply, habitat for fish, other aquatic life, and wildlife, including for their reproduction, migration, growth, and other critical functions, and for primary (swimming) and secondary (boating) contact recreation.
The river basins and coastal drainage areas within the Commonwealth of Massachusetts have been divided into 27 zones, and the waterways within each zone classified as either Class A, Class B, or Class C (fresh waters). Coastal and Marine waters are classified as either Class SA, SB, or SC.
Class A waters are those having a water quality sufficient for use as a public water supply, excellent habitat for fish, aquatic life, and wildlife as well as primary and secondary contact recreation. These waters have the best water quality but, as a rule, both primary and secondary contact recreation is not allowed on them in order to maintain their relatively pristine status.
Class B waters are those with the next best water quality and provide suitable habitat for fish, aquatic life, and wildlife as well as primary and secondary (paddling) contact recreation. In certain cases Class B water can be a source for a public water supply if treated (i.e. Concord River down to Billerica). Most of the Massachusetts waterways I paddle are Class B.
Class C waters are those with a lower level water quality and provide suitable habitat for fish, aquatic life, and wildlife as well as secondary contact recreation. I don't recall having encountered any Class C waters in my travels to date.
Some waters are also noted as either High Quality Waters, Outstanding Resource Waters, or Special Resource Waters and receive additional protection.
Where combined sewer overflows (CSOs) can occur, waters are classified as Partial Use, B (CSO) or SB (CSO).
There is also a Site Specific Criteria (Table 28) that lists levels for total phosphorus, nitrogen, copper and zinc.
The second resource I use is the Massachusetts Year 2014 Integrated List of Waters prepared by the Massachusetts Division of Watershed Management. States are required to prepare a water quality assessment for submission to the EPA as part of the Clean Water Act. This list provides a more detailed look at each waterway and classifies them into five categories:
- Unimpaired and not threatened for all designated uses (none listed in Mass due to DPH concern for mercury in fish statewide).
- Unimpaired for some uses and not assessed for others.
- Insufficient information to make assessments for any uses.
- Impaired or threatened for one or more uses, but not requiring the calculation of a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL); or
- Impaired or threatened for one or more use and requiring a TDML.
Both of these resources use the same 27 zones which makes it possible to combine the water quality aspects listed in both, resulting in a more complete picture as to the waterway's water quality.
For example, when I reference the Massachusetts Surface Water Quality Standards (MSWQS) for the 30 mile stretch of the Assabet River from the Westborough Wastewater Treatment Facility down to the confluence with the Sudbury River, I find it listed as Class B with a "warm water (fishery)" qualification.
However, if I next reference the Massachusetts Year 2014 Integrated List of Waterways (MILW) for the same stretch of the Assabet River I find it classified as Category 5 Waters and further divided into 6 sub-zones. Each sub-zone has impairment causes listed (i.e. the 6.4 miles from Powdermill Dam down to the confluence with the Sudbury River shows fecal coliform and total phosphorus listed as impairment causes).
Another example would be a section of the Neponset River I recently paddled between Bade Canoe Launch in Norwood and Paul's Bridge in Milton. The MSWQS shows that section as Class B with a "warm water (fishery)" qualification, whereas the MILW has it as Category 5 Waters and further mentions several impairment causes including bacteria, DDT, and PCBs in fish.
Some segments of waterways show Debris/Floatables/Trash listed as an impairment cause and I have found that to be more than accurate in several instances.
By consulting both resources, paddlers can be forewarned of potential water quality concerns of the waterway they intend to paddle.
It's interesting to note that the most pristine water I've ever paddled in Massachusetts was rated in MSWQS as being Class B with a "cold water (fishery)" qualification, while the MILW rates it as a Category 2 Waters (one of the few Category 2 Waters I've paddled). It's the Swift River between Quabbin's Windsor Dam and the Bondsville Mill Dam in Belchertown. Some other Category 2 waters I've paddled were sections of Fort Meadow Brook, Salmon Brook (in Dunstable), Squannacook River, Quabaug River, and Ware River.
Regarding the river in north central Massachusetts that the commenter referenced, I did find mention of it having a MSWQS rating of Class B with a "warm water (fishery) " qualification while the MILW had it as Category 5 Waters with several impairment causes one of which is PCB in fish tissue. Perhaps the presence of PCB was the concern of the commenter.
After all is said and done, I have no illusions that the waters I paddle are pristine. Given the several centuries of water-use for manufacturing processes in Massachusetts, contamination of one kind or another will be present in our waterways for many years to come. I'll just do my best to avoid ingesting any of it. Considering what water quality was 50 years ago, I consider myself fortunate to be able to paddle today's much improved (and continuing to improve) waterways. So, unless you find yourself "sleep-paddling" on a Class A, Category 1 waterway, your best bet would be to "stay thirsty my friend".