OK, so 2012 wasn’t exactly a headline year for environmental issues.
Maybe with the Olympics, elections, superhero movies, and the legalization of gay marriage and marijuana, people’s minds were simply elsewhere. But while the world had its back turned, intrepid environmentalists and policy makers marched onward with their earth-mending projects.
And one of those projects is the ongoing cleanup of the Charles River, which has been nearly a decade in the making. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) kicked things into gear in 1995 with the Clean Charles River Initiative, and the result is a river populated with collegiate boathouses and canoe rentals, even boasting an annual swim race—hardly recognizable as having once been one of the dirtiest urban rivers in the country.
Human impact on the Charles can be traced all the way back to 1634, when the Grist mill dam was built at Watertown. This was the first of 43 industrial mills that would eventually populate the Lower Charles, according to EPA New England.
Since then, the river has been subject to all sorts of human abuse, from filled-in marshes to increased runoff from roads and buildings. But it was the introduction of a public water supply that has had the biggest impact, said William Walsh-Rogalski, council for special projects at EPA New England.
Somewhat ironically, the system that brought clean water to the residents of Boston also polluted the Charles to the point where being in the water was a serious health risk.
“There are stories that in the ’60s, people who fell into the Charles were immediately taken to the hospital for tetanus shots,” Walsh-Rogalski said. “It was just dangerous to be in contact with the water.”
The source of this irony lies buried under the city—the original sewer was installed in the early days of indoor plumbing. As Fred Laskey, executive director of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA) explained, Boston has a combined sewer system, which has only one pipe to carry both sewage and storm water.
Combined sewer systems can work just fine in dry weather, but after a heavy rain or snow melt, the system can be overwhelmed and unable to carry all the water to a treatment plant. To combat this, overflows designed to carry waste—raw sewage and all—directly into the Charles were built into the system.
Eliminating these overflows, and thus the largest source of bacterial pollution in the Charles, was stated as a main goal of the Clean Charles River Initiative and has been the focus of most cleanup efforts.
Laskey said the MWRA has spent more than $1 billion on projects involving combined sewers—a combination of separating the pipes, creating storage for overflow, or basic screening and chlorination treatment for wastewater.
When all of their projects are completed, overflows into the Charles will have been reduced by 98 percent, Laskey said. And of those remaining, 85 percent will receive some treatment before entering the river.
In accordance with a 2006 settlement with the EPA, the projects to reduce combined sewer overflows into the Charles will be completed by 2015 and will be followed by five years of assessment, Laskey said.
Even prior to the completion of the MWRA projects, water quality in the Charles has improved dramatically.
In 1995, water from the Charles met state bacteria level safety standards for boating 39 percent of the time and for swimming only 19 percent of the time, according to the Charles River Report Card maintained by the EPA. In 2011, the river met boating standards 82 percent of the time and swimming standards 54 percent of the time.
However, there is still work to be done. Even once the sewer overflows have been dealt with, the Charles will not be totally out of the woods. The river is still threatened by nutrient pollution, especially large amounts of phosphorus. This excess of nutrients contributes to the growth of toxic algae and other invasive plants in the river, said Amy Rothe, director of advancement and communications for the Charles River Watershed Association, in an email.
Walsh-Rogalski said the phosphorus pollution will be the next thing the EPA takes on.
In the meantime, the MWRA has its projects to complete and the EPA will continue to monitor the Charles with the assistance of the Charles River Watershed Association, an advocacy group that organizes water quality monitoring and other activities aimed at cleaning up the river. But the steady progress made so far has those closest to the project thinking optimistically.
“It will be swimmable in our lifetime,” Walsh-Rogalski said. “Hopefully long before it looks like the end of our lifetimes.”
WANT TO KNOW MORE? MAYBE EVEN GET INVOLVED? CHECK OUT THE CHARLES RIVER WATERSHED ASSOCIATION AT @CLEANCHARLES AND CRWA.ORG