Taking the Plunge in a Once-Filthy River

06-01-2003 // Steve Nadis

I'VE LIVED in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for 25 years, never far from the Charles River--a meandering, 80-mile-long waterway that flows from Hopkinton to Boston. In that time, I've walked, run, bicycled, skated, skied, kayaked, and played volleyball and Frisbee on, or alongside, the river. But I'm a swimming fanatic and I had never been able to swim in the Charles. For years, I dreamed of taking a dip just a few blocks from my home.

It remained a distant vision, as the Charles was notoriously filthy for decades. Ten years ago, rowers received tetanus shots before venturing on the river. When former Governor William Weld jumped into the Charles in 1995 to celebrate the state's Rivers Protection Act, many people considered him foolhardy. But since then, much of the river has made a dramatic comeback. Recent conversations with officials at the Charles River Watershed Association (CRWA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) convinced me it is clean enough for swimming right now.

So on a warm afternoon last September, I finally took the plunge. Following a tip from Bob Zimmerman, CRWA's executive director, I found an idyllic spot in Waltham--a small rocky beach nestled between trees. The setting was surprisingly rustic, given its proximity to Interstates 90 and 95; all I could see were open waters, wooded hills and the ducks and Canada geese that had taken over a nearby island. I hesitated before diving in, even though the water looked clear. But once I was in, I reveled in the notion of swimming in the Charles after all these years.

How did a river made famous in the 1965 music hit "Dirty Water" become a prime recreational spot? Much of the credit goes to conservationists such as the professionals and volunteers at CRWA, a nonprofit organization that has monitored the river since 1995, sampling the water for bacteria and toxic substances to track down pollution sources. EPA has provided the enforcement muscle by fining or threatening to fine numerous polluters. By ordering cities along the Charles to fix illicit sewer connections, the agency has also kept more than a million gallons of untreated wastes from entering the river each day. "In dry weather we're meeting swimming standards virtually all the time," says EPA's William Walsh-Rogalski. The current goal is to make the river fishable and swimmable even after big storms by 2005.

"This is an urban success story--a river running through downtown Boston that's clean enough to swim in," says National Wildlife Federation water resources expert Kari Dolan. "I don't know of another U.S. city that can make that claim. The success with the Charles shows that there's hope for other urban waterways."

The improvement is reflected in EPA's annual report cards. The Charles received a D in 1995 when water-quality testing began, but has earned a B annually since 1998. There are other signs of progress, including the increased presence of wildlife along the river. "This river was written off for 50 years, but most Bostonians don't write it off anymore," says Zimmerman.

Although the Charles has come a long way, there's still much to be done. Going from a B to an A in EPA ratings will be much more difficult than going from D to B, mainly due to all the contaminants lodged in river sediments. Removing them would require dredging--a costly job. And to many experts, cleaning up the Charles is only half the story.

"The Charles and many other rivers in Massachusetts are drying up in the summer months," says Pam DiBona of the Environmental League of Massachusetts. "That's only the most visible sign that our current ways of managing water do not work." With help from her group and NWF, the CRWA is also focused on preserving the river flow through strategies that keep rainwater in the Charles River watershed--a 300-square-mile basin--rather than discharging it through sewers into Boston Harbor. "Water quality and water quantity are extricably linked," explains Zimmerman. "We need to ensure that our rivers have enough water to assimilate wastewater discharges, provide for adequate supplies of drinking water and support other river uses."

While such plans are essential for the long-term health of the Charles, my one-track mind is still fixated on swimming. After my inaugural dunk last fall, I'm already planning repeat visits this summer and for years to come.

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