I Swam the Charles

June 1, 2013
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By Jario Garcia, Kresge Implementation Fellow, Second Nature

Last month I commented to my colleague, Fellow Axum Teferra, about my desire to swim the Charles River. Axum, who used to work for the Charles River Conservancy, mentioned that there was a possibility: once a year, members of the Charles River Swimming Club are allowed to swim in the river. I immediately searched for the organization and registered for the “One mile Charles River Race”. The competition takes place once a year and only if the weather and the water conditions are optimal for swimming. Since the first competition began in 2007, the event has been canceled two consecutive years because of bad water quality.

Twenty years ago it was unthinkable to swim in the Charles River. The river, treated as an open sewage for the city of Boston and its vicinities for over 150 years, was polluted to unimaginable levels. Chemicals, human feces, algal, and dead fish were a “normal” view of the river.

Then the miracle of the EPA occurred and with it visionaries such as Rita Barron, former director of the Charles River Watershed Association (CRWA), former state department of environmental protection action commissioner Arleen O’Donnell, and John DeVillards, regional administrator for the EPA. These leaders created strategies to save the river and implemented new regulations including heavy penalties for pollution.

Their dream to turn the Charles into a swimmable river became a reality in 2005. In 2011, CRWA received the prestigious Thiess International Riverprize award, from the International River Foundation, in recognition for the development and implementation of outstanding, visionary, and sustainable programs in river management. By 2013, discharges caused by sewer overflow had been reduced by 99.5 percent from 1988 levels. While the EPA’s report card has improved from a D in 1996 to a B+ today, and the river is practically swimmable during most of the year, the soil on the bottom remains very toxic and the removal is beyond state and federal budgets.

After the exhausting One mile Charles River Race last Saturday, swimmers were delighted with the news that the river, for the first time in more than 50 years, will be open to the public this summer.

Walking back to my apartment via the esplanade, I stopped for a moment to contemplate the majestic river from the Dartmouth Street Landing, and to mull over the quality of our air treated like an “open sewer” as was the Charles River some decades ago. I was wondering how bad our air must become before we take serious action at national and international levels to protect it. My thoughts were interrupted by a strange noise coming from the aquatic grass along the riverbank. To my delight, and to the delight of the couple beside me, fish as big as my legs were intertwining with each other in a frenzied dance, revealing the resilience of nature when it has a chance and demonstrating that the Charles River is alive again.

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