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The U.S. Geological Survey has developed a watershed-scale web application that includes stormwater infrastructure for the first time to assist municipalities in the most urbanized watershed in New England, the Mystic River Basin.

Stretching 76 square miles north of Boston, Massachusetts, the watershed includes 600,000 residents in 21 towns, many of which are underserved. Pollution from urban development and industrial land use has adversely affected the watershed.

“Stormwater is a significant issue for the water quality of Mystic River and its tributaries,” said USGS hydrologist and project lead Alana Spaetzel. “Better characterizing urban drainage in this application should improve the decision-making process by providing transparency as to where water is draining, because stormwater drainage does not always flow in accordance with elevation.”

Laura Schifman, Statewide Stormwater Program Manager for Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP), said most towns within the Mystic River Watershed contain environmental justice populations, as defined by criteria set forth in a statewide law.

“Because 19 of the 21 municipalities have environmental justice populations, and stormwater pollution in the Mystic River watershed is widespread, it is anticipated that this tool will help address stormwater pollution in environmental justice neighborhoods,” said Schifman.

Urban watersheds include both natural and altered water flows, such as stormwater drainage into catch basins and through pipe networks. The Mystic River Basin StreamStats tool represents urban hydrology by including manmade infrastructure into USGS’ StreamStats Program, a publicly accessible web application that defines watershed boundaries based on land elevation. Incorporating stormwater network data from each town and increasing elevation resolution in this tool enables municipalities to delineate drainage areas and calculate pollutant inputs to meet state and federal requirements more easily.

All towns within the Mystic River Watershed must follow the Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) Permit issued by MassDEP and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency - Region 1. The MS4 permit requires municipalities to calculate how much phosphorus enters water bodies through stormwater networks.

“Municipal officials can now easily calculate how much phosphorus is entering their waterbodies with the click of a button,” said Schifman of the application.  “It makes it easier for local decision-makers to identify which waterbodies are at risk of high phosphorus pollution and where an intervention, like a green infrastructure installation, is needed to treat the stormwater before it enters a water body.”

This project was primarily funded by the Urban Waters Federal Partnership Funds, which is USGS support allocated for watersheds within developed communities that have degraded waterways or are low-income areas and historically underserved. USGS joined the Urban Waters Federal Partnership in 2017, which focuses on coordinating federal agency resources and cooperating with local organizations to advance environmental justice and ensure all people have access to safe water systems.

The project was also carried out in cooperation with EPA, MassDEP and local governments.

For more detailed information on the Mystic River StreamStats application, check out the project page.

To view the Mystic River StreamStats application, launch StreamStats, zoom into the area of New England and click on “Mystic River Basin” under “Select a State/Region”.  


An aerial view of a city with an area filled in in yellow.
A drainage-area delineation to a stormwater pipe in Somerville, Massachusetts, which falls within the Mystic River watershed area in StreamStats.


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