The Charles River: The Waters Fine

The Charles River: The Waters Fine

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According to the local bean town folks some of the many don’ts of Boston living is “Don’t ever wear a Harvard sweatshirt” or “Ask for directions to Cheers.” One of these Boston themed gags such as “Don't swim in the Charles, no matter WHAT Bill Weld tells you” is proving that the locals might be giving out uninformed advice this time around.

The Charles River, always known as “having a healthy reputation for its extreme filth,” has a new lease on life ever since former governor Bill Weld took the dive heard round the world fully clothed around the same time the EPA announced a “Clean Charles” ready for swimmers by Earth Day 2005. Reactions concerning the river’s quality since Welds famous 1996 plunge have ranged from skepticism to complete dismissal of the cleanup promises, proving only that indeed, he “loved that dirty water.”

It’s only been recently that these former skeptics whose gag reflexes were tested at Weld’s legendary swim have started to take notice of the improving river, making the comic proverb warning people of the Charles’s unpleasantness outdated and simply untrue.

The Charles River runs approx. 80 miles between Hopkinton and Boston Harbor, running through 23 towns and cities throughout the eastern part of the state while 35 towns and cities comprise its watershed according to the Charles River Water Association’s website. A watershed being the area that drains into a river, lake or harbor. The Charles is categorized into two sections of upper and lower Charles territories, the upper known for its industrial development while the lower is reputed by its abundant recreational usage.

“I love the river. I've never used the river for anything other than rowing and there’s no better place to row than the Charles,” said Candace Saunders, a Northeastern University sociology major and former member of the women’s crew team, “I don't think that the Charles is clean at all, but this is also just because of what I've heard. It's supposedly getting better. I could say that there are worse rivers though.”

The Charles River has experienced many stages of cleanup since 1995, displayed in an annual grading system based on fecal bacteria matter present in samples taken from the river by The Charles River Watershed Association and released by the regional office of the Environmental Protection Agency, who launched the ambitious Clean Charles Initiative for many doubtful Bostonians.

For two centuries bean town folks have known nothing other than the Charles cesspool, and many even take pride in its trademark filth, saying they “love that dirty water.

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” One particular saying goes so far as to nickname the Charles “the people’s river.”

According to the EPA, the Charles River is one of the most recreational rivers in the world, lined with boathouses, sports fields, and performance facilities. Daily, the river attracts 20,000 users and during special events such as “Run Of The Charles,” a popular Charles River celebration race boasting the largest one-day canoe & kayak race in North America, hosts up to half a million people. The Charles takes in ample river enthusiasts, aware of the reputation of the Charles and cleanup measures currently in progress. In spite of everything, users of the Charles have still been repulsed by the conditions that sometimes required special bathing techniques to rid unwanted bacteria from the body that cause severe sickness.

Saunders knows of the special “after Charles” cleansing. “I have witnessed the police taking a dead body out of the water. We rowed right by it one morning. I thought of that when we won a race one time on the Charles and to celebrate we threw a teammate in. But never again because of how gross it is supposed to be. I was told to clean my ears out with rubbing alcohol and to take a shower as soon as possible after the race because the water was so bad,” said Saunders.

The Charles River Watershed Association maintains that it is always a good idea to wash after being on the river.

In 1995 swimming standards were met only 19% of the time and boating met only 39% according to the EPA, while in 1999 there were 91% safe boating days and 75 % safe swimming days.

Annually the river undergoes a test to determine the quality of its waters through a grading system put out by the EPA. Over a five year period from 1995 to 2000 the river went from a “D” to a “B,” making the river safer for boaters and swimmers more days than not during the year while setting a national standard for river cleanliness.

Although the River has idled at a “B” in 2000, 2001, 2002, and 2003, the cleanup deadline remains in place while efforts increase to find the missing element that could shoot The Charles from an average B to a sparkling and 100% swimable A.

From the “D” to the fairly respectable B, municipal sewer agencies discovered and subsequently shut down 153 illegal sewer connections drowning the Charles with more bacteria than it could handle, over 90,000 gallons a day, according to the Boston Globe. The illicit sewers flowed into storm drains that emptied into the river, corrupting it with layer upon layer of fecal bacteria.

Bill Walsh-Rogalski, head of the EPA’s Clean Charles 2005 initiative saw the sewage as a major problem in the beginning stages of cleanup, resulting in roughly 1 million gallons of contaminated flow eliminated per day, reducing the amount of raw sewage pumping into the river from 11 combined sewer overflows or pipes that back up and discharge sewage during rainstorms, according to an EPA fact sheet and The Boston Globe.

“We’ve been highly successful in closing off the pipes and separating the sewer lines responsible for much of the River’s pollution,” said Rogalski in an interview with the Boston Globe.
Even with the elimination of rogue sewer drains, the report card remains a solid B.

Stephen Greene of the Clean Charles Coalition said via e-mail that the major challenge for meeting the fishable/swimable goal is dealing with countless tiny contributions of pollution that, when combined with the storm water, ends up degrading the water quality of the Charles River.

“The grade of the Charles River has been stuck on B because while the major sources of pollution have been dealt with, now the impact of the non-point can be seen,” said Greene.

Project heads in charge of assisting the 2005 goal investigate these “non-points,” or what Greene refers to as numerous and indiscriminate contributions of pollution.

The EPA, The Charles River Watershed Association, a non profit river advocacy group, and many other nonprofit voluntary organizations including the Clean Charles Coalition, formed by several major landowners along the Charles including MIT, work together on the Charles crackdown. The U.S. Geological Survey (U.S.G.S) is also participating in Charles River studies.

“We didn’t expect to be diving into the river right away. We still know we have a long road, but we are fully committed to the 2005 goal.” said Chuck Borstel in a Boston Globe interview. Borstel is a spokesman for the Metropolitan District Commission, an organization that oversees the Charles.

Similar to the elusive last ten pounds a dieter must lose, to get from a grade “B” to an “A” will be the final and most difficult challenge to date for Charles River advocates.

“The next phase of cleaning the river will be much more difficult to complete because of the extensive study that is needed. It’s much harder to get from a B to an A than from a D to a B,” Rogalski said.

The CRWA’s certified laboratories performed 1700 tests on sample pollutants such as fecal coliform bacteria and began testing for e.coli bacteria in 2002. Previously, they sampled the river regularly since 1995 to monitor water quality conditions at 37 sites from Milford to Boston and from June through October test four sites.

Bacteria levels are measured by counting colony-forming units of fecal coliform per 100 milliliters (about a teacup of water). These tests make up the grading system provided by the EPA. Lab manager Jim Fitzgerald operates the water analysis laboratory at CRWA.

“The source of bacteria is not easy to figure out. Current methods don’t differentiate between bacteria from humans and animals. High levels of bacteria could come from a flock of geese or a broken sewer pipe, so we investigate these spots to narrow down the cause and then take action. Newer detection methods for bacteria are focusing on DNA to help track the bacterial source,” said Fitzgerald.

“We are working with the business/institution community in our non-point assistance. We will continue with our efforts and work with organizations like the CRWA to get the answer,” said Greene.

DNA testing currently in use assesses the origin of bacteria found by the CRWA lab reports. DNA-based monitoring of dry weather and storm water discharges from storm drains will be done to better pinpoint sources of bacteria pollution to the river, according to the Boston Globe.

A DNA study is now underway to determine whether bacteria pollution in specific “hot spots” of the river are coming from humans, pet waste or wildlife. As sources are identified, be it humans, dogs, geese or ducks, storm water management strategies can be implemented to find the sources and educate the public to reduce their impacts, according to the EPA and the Boston Globe.

Only through new and innovative science will the river become clean enough for the thousands who use it. The newest target has been storm water runoff, particularly after heavy rains that push various sources of bacteria into the Charles.

Scientists and volunteers work to locate the origins of several different pollutants dirtying the water which also sets the example for Bostonians, who are encouraged in recent times to participate in cleanup labors.

“We need all the help we can get to combat these arising difficulties. There are so many issues as of now to deal with, but in general the Charles River is making progress largely due to improvements in as remaining illegal connections and sediment contamination,” said Northeastern Associate Professor of Engineering David Langseth, a known Charles cleanup enthusiast who supports the CRWA in cleanup.

According to the EPA, however, millions of dollars of data is needed to map harmful unknown sources that live in the Charles. Elbow grease and science wont cut it if the money isn’t there.

The CRWA received a grant of $106,000 in early 2003 from the EPA’s Office of Watersheds, Oceans and Wetlands, one of ten such gifts in the nation. In May of that year The EPA announced another $400,000 grant would be given to the CRWA for the Charles workforce. The grant is among nearly $15 million of grants awarded to 20 watershed organizations across the country as part of the agency's new Watershed Initiative.

The Grant’s purpose proposed that the CRWA come up with innovative ways to lower the levels of indiscriminate pollutants left in the Charles by focusing more on restoring river flow as a way to improve water quality instead of traditionally going after sewer systems spoiling the water available.

The Charles River, victimized in the past decades by over development, could potentially reestablish natural water flows with the conceptual “flow trading” idea backed by the EPA.

The river flow increases and the pollution subsequently gets diluted, a backwards approach compared to previous attempts of removing the waste from the poor water levels.

“All we’re trying to do now is reestablish what nature did before all the development took place,” said CRWA executive director Robert Zimmerman in a recent interview with the Boston Globe, “The theory is that it may be less expensive to recharge clean rainwater to the ground than remove more pollutants from their waste streams,” said Zimmerman, who is solely responsible for making sure the EPA’s Grant went to the Charles River clean up effort.

“Smart Storm,” the latest improvement by the CRWA used with grants from the EPA, has helped with the endeavors to restore water to the Charles and the community. “Smart Storm” is a mechanism used to collect rainwater off the roofs of homes and then deposited in a “perforated underground tank”, where the rainwater is then put away back into the soil, then finally the river to complete the cycle.

Normally the river’s water levels are low due to rainwater losses into sewer drains caused by urban pavement or development, disallowing the water to penetrate the ground and reestablish itself into the river.

It is estimated that over 55,000 gallons of rain drains off one roof annually, according to the EPA. With the “Smart Storm,” the river levels will rise, and residents will receive more drinking water, in a virtual “trading system” of water, thus restoring the water cycle in the Charles River area.

Recycling and reusing rainwater is a high priority for the CRWA, particularly from April through December during the high rain fall months, because it will boost in-stream flows in the river and help eventually ensure ample drinking water supplies for Upper Charles communities.

The CRWA has already embarked on a project in the town of Bellingham to encourage homeowners to install Smart Storm systems that capture runoff, according to the CRWA’s website. Thirty homes are outfitted with the Smart Storm system at present.

“Storm water continues to challenge our efforts to make further improvements because the storm water carries pollution from the land to the river. We’ve worked hard to implement ways to control storm water runoff and our Smart Storm Rainwater collection systems we’ve installed,” said Fitzgerald.

Combined attention to detail in the current stages of cleanup by organizations involved have collaborated scientific innovations, new methodology, and a strict work ethic. These approaches still don’t close the deal for a totally clean Charles, whose potential swimmers have always found themselves standing at the edge of the river only to see…well nothing.

Limited visibility among the murky waters has always been the chief problem that any rational swimmer of The Charles River faces, who probably still thinks to themselves in a very literal sense, “What am I getting myself into?”

“There is a state standard in Massachusetts requiring there be at least four feet of visibility,” said Rogalski in a statement for an online article titled Everybody into the Charles, “And for a long time, those who did not want to advance the issue of swimming said, ‘don’t waste your time.’”

“I would never jump into the Charles, but I have come off the water soaked after practice and I was fine,” said Saunders.

“The water is generally better. I know this only because the water color is always a natural dark brown. That will never change. It’s cold, but sure I’d dive in headfirst,” said Mark Jacobson, manager of Boston Canoe and Kayak in Newton. Boston Canoe and Kayak assist other organizations in the cleaning by picking up trash along the river way. MIT has a similar program in the form of a special cleanup boat students take out to aid the swimmable 2005 aim, helping to further along the process of a luminous, modern Charles River system.

And overall remains a tiny glitch in the nonexistent “Boston Social Guidebook”, an inaccuracy that has been changing ever since 1995, being that The Charles River isn’t clean enough for human use. Admittedly, it is true that one would be sure to receive stares diving face first into the Charles River, however that supposedly daring swimmer knows a secret that others haven’t clued into; that Boston’s Charles River has been working hard on its cleanliness, and is in fact much improved.

Nay Sayers aside, the Charles River cleanup plan looks promising as it sails towards it goal of cleaning river quality and correcting past wrongs to Boston’s precious ecosystem.

Whether or not the goal of a fishable and swimmable goal by 2005 Earth Day is met, every time a splash is heard in the Charles, Bill Weld gets his wings.

But between the all the hype and the critics of the “Clean Charles 2005,” there are more than 20,000 people willing to tell their story of a cleaner Boston. Come Earth Day two years from now, a nation will surely be looking towards Massachusetts for inspiration to clean their own beloved “dirty water.”

Take off your Harvard sweatshirt and dive in the Charles, no matter how unpopular the idea may seem. The time has arrived to get rid of tired local taboos and harvest the hard work that many have brought to urban environmental causes such as the Charles.

Bring along a bar of soap and your best pair of tinted sunglasses, the secret’s not quite out yet.
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