Once A Sewer, The Charles Is Cleaner — No, Really

By Phillip Martin

Jul. 15, 2011

Rowers take to the Charles early on a November morning in 2010. (Luke Boelitz for WGBH)

BOSTON — The Charles River is a finalist for the International Riverprize, awarded for visionary river-management policies. The cleanup of the Charles resulted from citizen advocacy led by the Charles River Conservancy, as well as evolving governmental policy. But the International Riverprize nomination may not be enough to convince those who use the river that it’s safe to go in.

So now, Massachusetts officials are trying to reclaim the narrative about the Charles.

Earlier this summer, about 100 well-conditioned athletes dove into the Charles for the third-annual One-Mile Swim. That pleased Fred Laskey, who directs the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, to no end.

“They look like Johnny Weissmuller swimming out there, and there was no risk,” Laskey said, referencing the Olympic swimmer who went on to star as Tarzan.

Standing on the dock of Community Boating, Inc., he looked out on the river towards Cambridge. “The cleanup of the Charles is one of the great environmental success stories in the history of this nation,” Laskey said.

The river, he said, has come a long way. “I mean keep in mind; back a hundred years ago, they used to wash body parts out of the hospital into the river. That was the state-of-the-art sewer system at the time,” Laskey said.

So it wasn't that the sewage system was broken: Laskey said all of the flows from Waltham, Brookline, Cambridge, Watertown and Boston were designed to overflow into the river and by carried out to the ocean.

But the $100 million re-engineering that began in 1995 -- spurred in part by lawsuits -- helped bring the river back to life.

"Going street by street, separating sewers, new pump stations, new holding tanks, just an incredible amount of work by the MWRA and the cities along the river, including Boston, Cambridge and Brookline," Laskey said.

And the water is tested frequently.

"The testing that’s done in this river is extraordinary, to assure that it’s clean. The EPA has rated us a B+ in water quality. So it’s not surprising to me that this river is being viewed as a great international success story, because it’s well deserved," Laskey said.

Forty-five years after a rock song about the Charles River, The Standells' "Love that Dirty Water," put the legendary waterway on the map, it is again being singled out. But this time, it's for an international could help change the lyrics in the minds of those who swim and sail on the Charles.

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