No More Loving that ‘Dirty Water’

The once notoriously toxic Charles River is now one of the cleanest and most active urban rivers in the country

When Virgin Islands native Franz Lawaetz first moved to Boston 19 years ago, the concept of an unswimmable body of water was completely foreign to him. Lawaetz grew up swimming everywhere — plunging himself into lakes, in the ocean and, most distinctly, in rivers.

When he started the Charles River Swimming Club in 2005, Lawaetz was met with pushback, both from the city and from the public.

“The Charles is dirty,” people told him. “You can’t swim in it.”

But, he did.

Now, every summer Lawaetz’s club holds an annual Charles River Swimming Day, where athletes and non-athletes alike swim a mile across the Charles. The event has grown exponentially in size. In the past few years, upwards of 200 people have plunged into the river.

Since the late 1990s, the cleanliness of the Charles River has vastly improved, due to the efforts of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) 1995 Clean Charles Initiative.

Now, the Charles holds the title of one of the cleanest urban rivers in the country, and organizations like Lawaetz’s are urging city-dwellers to alter their mindsets about the water. However, there are still challenges involving dangerous bacteria and biological nutrients that continue to hamper the cleanup.

"The Charles has seen big improvements in water quality thanks to a strong local partnership working hard to clean up the river, but there is more work to be done to see even more improvements in the future, and we are committed to that effort," said Deb Szaro, EPA’s Acting Regional Administrator.

Since 1988, the amount of wastewater in the Charles has decreased from 1.74 billion gallons to 6.88 million gallons.

A Dirty History

The Charles hasn't always been this clean.

The river snakes for 80 miles, beginning at Echo Lake in Hopkinton and running through 23 towns and cities before emptying into Boston Harbor.

The river has historically been an important resource for the people who lived around it. In the pre-colonial era, Native Americans of the Massachusett tribe used the Charles as a source of food and a mode of transportation that linked southeastern Massachusetts to northern New England. Following European colonization, the river drove the settlers’ industrialization efforts, powering the mills that were laid along its shores.

Over time, a total of 19 dams were built along the river to accommodate the urbanization and growth of the city. These dams slowed the flow of the Charles, interfering with its ability to clean itself and leading to pollution.

Landscape architect Charles Eliot proposed building a dam at the mouth of the river to keep out the tides from the Atlantic. In 1908, the dam was completed and turned the dump-filled estuary into the Charles River Basin where today, the waterfront hosts a myriad of activities and recreations including the popular Head of the Charles Regatta and the Charles River Swimming Day.

The construction of the Quabbin-to-Boston water supply system in the 1930’s increased human activity in the Metro Boston area and subsequently the amount of waste thrown into the river. By the 1960’s, raw sewage from wastewater plants, toxic outflows from factories and discarded appliances were all submerged in the river. In response to the worsening conditions of the river, the Charles River Watershed Association (CRWA) was formed in 1965.

An American rock band called The Standells released a song in 1966 called “Dirty Water” with the lyrics “Well I love that dirty water,” throwing some shade at the Charles’ sorry reputation in that era.

In response to the worsening conditions of the river, the Charles River Watershed Association (CRWA) was formed in 1965.

With the passage of the national Clean Water Act in 1972, the CRWA promoted the building of modern wastewater facilities in the Upper Charles River and helped impose strict limitations on industrial waste into the river.

Since the launch of the Charles River Initiative by the EPA in 1995, the CRWA and the Charles River Conservancy have worked to restore the river’s water quality through policy and environmental efforts. To track the improvement, these organizations continuously test the river’s quality. Over the past several decades, their work has brought significant improvements to the river’s overall health and biodiversity.

Beneath the Surface

On a Monday morning along the Esplanade, one can see the ways the Charles River is used. Runners with their dogs stop by the water for a breather. Rowers are out for their early morning practice. Sailing teams are training out on the open water. On a sunny morning, some people may even dip their feet in the water along the docks as they enjoy the weather.

With this picturesque scene, it's easy to ignore what's going on in the river itself. Ten feet below the surface, the Charles hides its murkiest secrets: it is home to harmful bacteria.

Escherichia coli, or E.coli, is a type of fecal coliform bacteria. Although most strains are harmless, the CWRA explains that “the presence of E.coli bacteria in water suggests contamination by sewage, which could mean disease-causing bacteria or viruses are present.” Consumption or contact with contaminated water can cause a variety of ailments ranging from minor gastrointestinal discomfort to more serious illnesses including meningitis, septicemia and urinary and intestinal tract infections.

Death may even occur for more vulnerable demographics such as young children and the elderly.

Due to its health implications, E.coli is a key factor in assessing water quality standards for boating and swimming.

For boating, E.coli samples are usually under the prescribed limit of 630 colony forming units (cfu) per 100 milliliters of water. For swimming, it’s a coin flip whether the river is safe with a much higher standard of just 126 cfu per 100 milliliters of water.

There's a clear separation of bacteria levels between the Charles River's upper and lower basins.

The upper basin, above the Boston University Bridge, is much cleaner with E.coli concentrations well below the swimming standard for every year except 2002. In 2002, the EPA switched bacterial standards from total fecal coliform to E.coli under the notion that the latter is a better indicator of water quality.

On the other hand, the lower basin, which stretches from the Boston University Bridge to Science Park, has consistently exceeded the recommended standard. In fact, the lower basin has spiked to unsafe bacteria concentrations in the late 2010s, and passed in other years by the slimmest of margins.

Boston University uses this stretch of water for many of its recreational sports. As they are training their rowers and sailors, the bacteria poses a potential threat to the athletes. “If the concentrations of [E. coli] are above the public health standard for boating, we will alert the boathouses and they’ll fly different color flags based on the water quality,” says CRWA scientist Katie Friedman. If the Charles River far exceeds the recommended standard, the home of these sports becomes too unsafe to use.

According to the EPA, “reducing high levels of bacteria in the Charles River has been a top priority for the Clean Charles River Initiative.”

The differences in E.coli concentrations between the two basins comes from the greater urbanization and land development surrounding the lower Charles. According to the EPA, elevated bacteria levels more commonly found in the lower basin are primarily caused by three factors.

Illicit discharges are untreated excess discharge in addition to stormwater running through storm drain systems and often include sewage, bacteria, viruses, nutrients, surfactants, and various toxic pollutants.

In addition, antiquated sewer systems or treatment plants are unable to manage the overwhelming volume of water after heavy rains, resulting in combined sewer overflows releasing untreated human, industrial and other waste into the river. In 2005, the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority reached a settlement to reduce sewer overflow discharges from 1.7 billion gallons per year to a mere 6.88 million gallons per year. Since 1988, there's been a 99.5% reduction of discharges. This map shows discharges of these combined sewer overflows to the lower Charles River basin by the EPA.

Finally, stormwater runoffs occur when rainwater flows across the land carrying with it all sorts of debris, oil, nutrients and other pollutants into storm sewer systems or directly into bodies of water. In the less developed parts of the Charles’ upper basin, “areas are cleaner because they are surrounded by more of a natural green landscape that helps avoid storm runoff,” explains Dyer Wood, a CRWA project director. However in the industrial and urban areas of the lower basin, more surfaces such as asphalt driveways and streets do not allow for that natural soaking and water instead flows into systems untreated.

“I wish I didn’t spend 5 days a week on that water." -Sailing athlete Emerson Campbell

Historically, E.coli concentrations have fluctuated around the EPA standard and it's difficult to manage these levels due to factors outside of the EPA's control. The amount of rainfall heavily impacts the amount of untreated wastewater flowing into the river, not to mention the amount of waste in that water is almost entirely unmanageable.

Nonetheless, the EPA along with other conservancy groups have made significant strides in enforcing best practices to handle some of the water flows with continuing efforts to further reduce wastewater quantities, hopefully stabilizing the E.coli levels to consistently swimmable levels.

Nutrient Challenge & Emerging Threats

Along with the threat of bacteria, the EPA is concerned about increase in nutrients, like phosphorus, which play a significant role in cyanobacterial algae blooms that discolor the water with a blue-green hue.

Each summer blooms of cyanobacteria exceed the threshold for recreational water, posing major ecological hazards and have the potential to severely limit ecosystem functions. For instance, the algae deplete oxygen to levels below those suitable for marine life in a process known as eutrophication.

More daunting are the potential effects to humans. When cyanobacteria cells die, they release toxins into the water around them. External exposure may lead to mild complications such as dermatological and respiratory symptoms. If ingested, the damage may be far worse, potentially leading to fever, gastroenteritis, diarrhea, organ damage and even death in high enough concentrations.

More terrifyingly, these algal blooms aren't included in the EPA letter grade.

The potential danger has Emerson Campbell of the Northeastern Sailing Team worried.

“I wish I didn’t spend 5 days a week on that water. I’ve always known the Charles is incredibly contaminated and disgusting, but didn’t realize why it was so bad.”

Campbell said she attributes physical sickness to her time spent in the water.

“I had a terrible experience last year and was sick all year because I spent so much time on the water, with it on my hands and all over my clothes,” Campbell said.

The consequences of eutrophication can be disastrous for some bodies of water. The EPA has made phosphorus reduction a key focus in their cleanup initiative, and made considerable progress in restoring the Charles to a healthy state.

In collaboration with the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, the EPA has accounted for the major ways through which phosphorus enters the river.

One of the EPA’s actions include requiring “certain industrial, commercial, and high-density facilities...to apply for a Clean Water Act permit for stormwater discharges to the Charles River.” These permits will reduce phosphorus through a variety of stormwater management practices such as construction of infiltration chambers, installation of permeable pavement, and the use of high-efficiency street sweepers.

Though not a continuous improvement, phosphorus has slowly decreased, from 0.07 milligrams per liter to 0.04 milligrams per liter.

While efforts have succeeded in reducing phosphorus concentrations, there has been no change in algal growth, according to the CRWA. On July 21, the CRWA issued a public health advisory warning all boaters to avoid the water because of a spike in toxic cyanobacteria algae.

Unlike E.coli, there's no way to count the amount of cyanobacteria in the river. Max Rome, a Northeastern University PhD candidate who is researching the health of the Charles, counts each cyanobacteria cell.

"A really challenging technique that I've been using for the last three summers is to literally count [these cyanobacteria] under a microscope," Rome said.

With the data the EPA provides from the Charles River Buoy, Rome is figuring out a method to measure how much cyanobacteria is present in the lower basin. By measuring the murkiness and nutrient concentrations, he hopes to give an accurate estimate of cyanobacteria in the Charles to fix the problem.

“Runoff from rain and snow is one of the most significant sources of pollution to the Charles River, as it negatively impacts fisheries, habitat, aquatic flora, recreational uses and aesthetic beauty,” according to the CRWA. As a result, they’re “ focusing on stormwater management, financing, and creation of stormwater by-laws.”

What's Next?

Despite the progress made by the EPA and conservation groups, it is the responsibility of the citizens of Boston to maintain these efforts. The EPA’s goal is to further reduce phosphorus discharges to the lower Charles by 54 percent in order to restore the river to a healthy state. E. coli levels are down but still regularly above the safe level. Efforts to clean up illicit discharges and storm runoffs have helped but a period of heavy rain can result in high levels of toxins.

“A lot of people think of the Charles as something that’s been completely cleaned up, but we do have a long way to go." said Lisa Kumpf, an aquatic scientist at the CRWA. "Especially if we do want the progress we’ve had in the past few decades we have more threats due to climate change that are coming, especially increased precipitation and higher temperatures. There’s a lot more work to be done and this is something that needs to be on people’s checklists when they think about local problems that are affected by climate change.”

“A lot of people think of the Charles as something that’s been completely cleaned up, but we do have a long way to go." said Lisa Kumpf, an aquatic scientist at the CRWA. "Especially if we do want the progress we’ve had in the past few decades we have more threats due to climate change that are coming, especially increased precipitation and higher temperatures. There’s a lot more work to be done and this is something that needs to be on people’s checklists when they think about local problems that are affected by climate change.”

Produced by students of the Northeastern University School of Journalism. © 2019