A decade of budget cuts has weakened a state water pollution monitoring and cleanup program and slowed efforts to address contamination in hundreds of rivers, lakes, ponds and streams across Massachusetts.

A decade of budget cuts has weakened a state water pollution monitoring and cleanup program and slowed efforts to address contamination in hundreds of rivers, lakes, ponds and streams across Massachusetts.


The state Division of Watershed Management’s Watershed Planning Program has lost nearly 40 percent of its staff since 2000, according to the Department of Environmental Protection.


Among other things, this staff tests waterways across the state and comes up with detailed plans to reduce pollution in places that do not meet water quality standards.


Cuts have “dramatically reduced” DEP’s ability to keep up with some of these responsibilities, DEP Commissioner Kenneth Kimmell said recently.


Program staff collects about a third as many water samples today as in 2000, according to DEP. That makes it harder for the agency to track which rivers and lakes are clean.


“It’s hard to implement a strategy to make sure all of our water bodies are healthy if you don’t have the resources to know which ones are and which ones aren’t,” Kimmell said.


The agency also fell short of a goal it set in 2000 to draw up 1,500 sets of local pollution thresholds and reduction plans, which it is required to develop for waterways it already knows to be tainted, by 2012.


DEP completed less than half that number, or 580, and has another 100 still in draft form, Kimmell said.


There is no deadline by which the state must complete these plans and Massachusetts is still meeting all requirements, Kimmell said. Nor is this program the only one the state has to fight water pollution.


Still, the cuts coincided with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency pressing states over the past decade to expand programs like this one.


The EPA wants states to address contamination not only from typical heavy polluters, such as factories or sewage plants, but more complex sources, including runoff from rain and snow, according to Rick Dunn, supervisor for the watershed program.


To deal with the expanded workload and catch up with its backlog, the DEP predicted in 2000 it would need to nearly double its watershed staff. Instead, it has dropped from 40 or 50 full-time positions to 26 today, Kimmell said. It is remarkable the agency completed as many pollution reduction plans as it has, he said.


“It’s a huge cut,” Kimmell said.


Gov. Deval Patrick’s budget proposal for next fiscal year would boost DEP funding by $9.6 million, according to the Environmental League of Massachusetts. Kimmell said this could help the watershed program, but no specifics were available.


Advocacy groups such as the Massachusetts Rivers Alliance and Environmental League have been raising an alarm about cuts to this program. Julia Blatt, the alliance’s executive director, called last year for the state to reinstate at least 13 positions and dedicate funding to developing pollution reduction plans annually.


“It’s one of those things that the public just doesn’t see,” Blatt said recently.


The state’s responsibilities to monitor water quality and come up with plans to control pollution – known in technical jargon as setting “total maximum daily loads” – stem from the federal Clean Water Act.


DEP has to identify water bodies that do not meet water quality standards for at least one intended use, such as swimming or fishing. Then the agency has to determine how much pollution each of these impaired water bodies would be able to handle without violating the standards and develop a plan to reduce contaminants below that level.


This is a complex process, requiring DEP to identify pollution sources and sometimes develop more than one plan to deal with multiple pollutants in a single water body, said Beth Card, assistant commissioner for DEP’s Bureau of Resource Protection.


“It’s nothing you can do easily,” Kimmell said. “Each one is different.”


The problems that Bay State waterways face are widespread.


DEP listed some 770 sections of lakes, ponds, rivers, brooks and estuaries considered impaired as of 2010, many by multiple pollutants. They range from bacteria to mercury to phosphorous, which is often found in fertilizers that wash into rivers.


Of rivers and streams the DEP assessed from 2002 to 2010, roughly two-thirds were impaired in one way or another, according to EPA summaries of the state’s data. A majority of lakes, ponds and estuaries also had problems.


Amid cuts, Kimmell said DEP is focusing addressing on the most impaired waterways and most widespread types of pollution while using other tools, such as tighter pollution discharge permits, to address the same problems.


“What people see is that the rivers are polluted,” said Blatt, of the Rivers Alliance. “They might be smelly, they might be dirty, they might have things floating in them. … But most people have no idea how you fix a river, how you protect it.”


(David Riley can be reached at 508-626-4424 or driley@wickedlocal.com.)