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Profile of the Charles River

The Charles River is a small, relatively short river, draining a total land area of 308 square miles. Some 80 brooks and streams, and several major aquifers feed the Charles River. The watershed contains 33 lakes and ponds - most of them manmade. The river drops about 350 feet in its unhurried journey to the sea, flowing out to the very edges of its watershed at times. Boston marathoners race 26 miles from Hopkinton to Boston, but the Charles River twists and turns on an 80-mile course between the same points. Because of its meandering nature, the river flows through 23 communities, adding many political complexities to watershed management.
Lacking speed and force, the slow-moving Charles River will always be brownish in color, no matter how clean it becomes. River water literally steeps like tea through the abundant wetlands along its path.

From Water Route to Power Source (pre-1900's)

Prior to the last century, the Charles River was valued mostly for pragmatic purposes. Native Americans used the river for local transportation and fishing, and as a link in the route from southeastern Massachusetts to northern New England. Early European settlers harnessed the river for industrialization. As early as 1640, entrepreneurs on the Neponset River engineered a diversion of water from the Charles River to power their mills.
Over time, a total of 20 dams were built along the Charles River, mostly to generate power for industry. The dams slowed the flow of the Charles River, hampering the river's ability to cleanse itself with uninterrupted flow. Dams also caused the flooding of pastureland and haycutting areas and cut off migratory fish from upstream reaches.

In some places, the dams created new stretches of shoreline, and expanded water and land habitat. The best example is the Lakes District where construction of the Moody Street Dam in 1814 to power cotton mills created a 200-acre "mill pond" with many lovely bays and inlets between Newton Lower Falls and Waltham. This scenic area drew thousands of boaters from Norumbega Park around the turn of the 20th century. The premier social and recreational spot of its time, Norumbega featured several boathouses, canoe rentals and two steamboats that made trips through the Lakes District in the summertime.

Dams and mills, however, also brought pollution. Byproducts from mill processes were dumped into the river as well as waste from houses, roads, and settlements that built up around the mills. Fish populations, which had been abundant, disappeared. In 1875 a government report listed 43 mills along the 9.5-mile tidal estuary from Watertown Dam to Boston Harbor. The Charles River was so polluted from industrial and domestic wastes that the report recommended abandoning cleanup efforts on the river from south Natick (its midpoint) to the ocean, and focusing instead on the upper half.

Transformation of the Basin (1900's to 1960's)

Fortunately, visionaries like landscape architect Charles Eliot, an apprentice of Frederick Law Olmsted, came to the rescue. He and others convinced political leaders to move industry back from the Lower Charles River, build a dam at the mouth to keep out tides, and finally in 1908 to turn the stinking tidal estuary into the man-made Charles River Basin. Now a world-famous metropolitan water park, it has replaced the Norumbega Park stretch of the river as a recreational mecca. The basin offers one of the world's largest public sailing programs, is home to several rowing and yacht clubs, and is the setting for a world-class rowing regatta, the Head of the Charles.

The Esplanade, 4th of July celebration

After significant improvements to the basin and its management in the early part of the 20th century, human activity continued to have a major impact on the Charles River with the construction in the 1930's of the Quabbin-to-Boston water supply system. This engineering feat fostered growth density in Metropolitan Boston that would not have been possible for a city dependent on local water supplies.
Fueled by this new, extensive water supply, the area grew faster than the capacity to treat domestic, municipal and industrial wastes. The Charles River's capability to cleanse itself was once again overwhelmed. By the mid-1960's the river was in sorry shape after several years of lower-than-average rainfall. Raw sewage flowed from outmoded wastewater treatment plants. Toxic discharges from industrial facilities colored the river pink and orange. Fish kills, submerged cars and appliances, leaching riverbank landfills, and noxious odors were routine occurrences.

Citizen Activists to the Rescue (1960's to 1980's)

The Charles River Watershed Association (CRWA) was formed in 1965 in response to increasing public concern about the environment and the declining condition of the Charles River. Since its earliest days of advocacy, CRWA has figured prominently in major cleanup and watershed protection efforts, working with other citizen groups and with local, state, and federal officials.
After the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, CRWA was successful in promoting construction of modern wastewater plants in the Upper Charles River and strict limitations on industrial discharges into the river. CRWA advocacy also helped close landfills on the shoreline and bring smaller polluting manufacturers into compliance. Cleanup efforts intensified in 1983 when Conservation Law Foundation sued federal and state officials to force the cleanup of Boston Harbor. Several billion dollars later, extensive sewer system improvements undertaken by the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA) have significantly reduced regular raw sewage discharges into the Charles River, especially near Boston where it empties into the harbor.

Flood control was also an important focus in the 1980's. CRWA was instrumental in preserving 8,000 acres of wetlands under the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Charles River Natural Valley Storage project. The wetlands prevent downstream flooding, provide extensive natural habitat, replenish water supplies, and filter out many pollutants.

On the Rebound (1980's to present)

These initiatives and others over the past four decades have significantly improved water quality in the watershed and approaches to watershed management. Fish have returned to the river and 74% of the Charles River is suitable for swimming in dry weather. But serious challenges still remain. Stormwater continues to pollute the Charles River after heavy rainfall. Unchecked growth in the I-495 corridor threatens regional fresh water supplies. CRWA is identifying and promoting long-term solutions to both of these problems.

With high growth rates in suburbs west of Boston, there is increased demand for public drinking water and/or expanded sewer systems - both of which jeopardize water levels in the Charles River. New public wells tap into aquifers that are already showing signs of stress - as evidenced by restrictions on water use in many suburban communities during the summer. In some towns that use watershed groundwater as their water source, the waste is transported to the Deer Island treatment plant in Boston Harbor instead of being treated and discharged locally where it can be reabsorbed into aquifers that feed the Charles River. Using innovative computer models, CRWA is conducting a comprehensive analysis of interactions in the watershed so that it can help communities anticipate the long-term impact of development on water supplies. CRWA is advising towns about demand management, conservation, wastewater treatment, land use, and building plans that minimize impact on the watershed.
In addition, CRWA remains committed to reducing point sources of pollution, a major component of US Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Clean Charles 2005 initiative. CRWA is working with EPA to implement innovative features in the federal permitting process that will further upgrade wastewater treatment at plants on the river to reduce discharged pollutants. The association is monitoring water quality in the Charles River Basin and measuring the decline in bacterial contamination as the MWRA implements a ten-year capital improvement project to minimize sewage overflows into the river during storms. CRWA also supports EPA's efforts to eliminate illegal hookups of sanitary sewers into stormdrains. We identify pollution "hotspots" through our year-round water quality monitoring program at 37 sites along the river and report them, when necessary, to the state Department of Environmental Management's Strike Force.
Lastly, CRWA promotes methods to abate non-point sources of pollution such as runoff from paved areas and shoreline erosion. Rain water falling on pavement and compacted lawns carries pesticides, herbicides, fertilizer, animal feces, oil, grease, metals, salt, sediments, pet waste and more into stormdrain systems that discharge into the Charles River.

The Balancing Act

In general, CRWA urges that decisions about water quality and usage be based on the watershed as a whole. The organization's goal is to promote watershed management designed to leave the river's natural systems healthy enough to withstand the effects of continuous withdrawals and discharges, and non-point pollution. A healthy river must also be resilient enough to recover from unpredictable shocks from natural events like floods and droughts, and from human-caused spills and accidents.