The Charles: Idyllic Visions of A Clean River

Cleaning up the Charles River is like cleaning up the Augean Stables: some folks think it can be done, but so far, mere human agencies haven't quite managed to do it.

There are plenty of agencies trying--B.F. Porter Jr. listed 23 different city, state, federal and private agencies concerned with one or another aspect of the Charles in the Boston Globe last month--and the Charles unquestionably looks a lot cleaner than the Cuyohoga River in Cleveland or the River Rouge in Detroit or the Houston Ship Canal or the East River in New York City. When a crew overturns, none of its members dies. Nevertheless, no one thinks of swimming in the Charles--and it's illegal for people to try--even hough most of the agencies agree that with surprisingly conceivable amounts of time and money, the Charles could be swimmable again.

"We'd all like to clean up the Charles," Richard R. Noss '72, assistant sanitary engineer at the Metropolitan District Commission, explained recently. "But it's very hard to get a nice coherent administrative machine to do it, and it's sort of an economic problem."

There are a number of different sources for the pollutants in the Charles, Noss said. Surprisingly enough, industrial polluters play a comparatively minor role--at least according to most government officials. Considerable amounts of industrial pollution, some of it illicit or illegal, apparently continues. One company is still dumping waste cyanide in the river, two years after the MDC was notified, according to the Globe. The Cott Beverage Company dumps waste soda pop, its contents high in sugar, a highly concentrated polluter, into the river. There are other cases too. But officially at least, these things aren't most important.

More important are things like the 63-year-old Leverett Dam. There are plans for a new dam, but the old one can't be changed because the Science Museum is on top of it. The dam lets sea water leak into the Charles Basin, where it settles to the bottom because it is denser than fresh water, slowing down the water's circulation and helping to stratify the Basin. "Eventually," Noss said, "there's a layer so dense that normal river current just flows over it and it's not freshened, so to speak, by the fresh water."

Even the fresh water isn't all that fresh. In fact, even the Charles of 200 years ago wouldn't have met Massachusetts standards of swimmability, if modern Massachusetts officials can be believed. They say that the Charles fails to meet one of the two standards of swimmability--transparency, indicated by the visibility of a white and black disc four feet underwater--because upstream swamps and marshes release organic acids that turn the water dark. "As far upstream as you go, it's brown," Noss insists. Chlorinating the river would help solve this problem, but it would do little to meet the more serious objections to the water's quality.

The other standard for swimmability that the Charles fails to meet concerns its bacterial content. The biggest single reason for the river's high bacterial content, Noss said, is that during storms the sewer systems of Boston and Cambridge overflow, flooding the river with raw sewage. There are a number of plans for over $16 million worth of new collector sewers and new treatment plants, including one for storm overflows near the B.U. Bridge which will include a huge, one-and-a-half million gallon holding tank. But the new facilities probably won't solve the problem completely.

"The overflows relate directly to the sewer system itself, which is--well, if wasn't built yesterday," Noss said. "It's very costly to put in a new sewer system and it tears up the street for a long time; it's an inconvenience. There are some overflows up near Eliot Bridge, and to build a sewer system that far up may not be prohibitively expensive but it is quite expensive. Besides, the major sewer systems are under Memorial Drive and Storrow Drive and you don't really want to tear them up either."

"And even if you could you probably wouldn't be finished," he continued. "That assumes that there are no unknown overflows from unsuspected sewer taps and so on. You can sort of sit in an office and suspect, but it takes a lot of money to go out and find them--so it wouldn't be undertaken 'til after the known overflows are cleaned up."

Even if sewer seepage were reduced, the Charles would still be able to use considerable help in cleaning itself out--help only partly provided by even the most grandiose of the planned treatment facilities. One such plant is a $250,000 experiment which might be extended to the whole river (via a large plant at Watertown Dam) if it succeeds in cleaning up Storrow Lagoon next summer. The plant will treat water already in the Charles with chemicals that bind with river water "to form a matrix in a fluffy kind of stuff," as Noss put it. There's some skepticism as to how well the plant will work: Sabin Lord, the engineer in charge of the lower Charles, has said he thinks the Metropolitain District Commission was sold a bill of goods. There are also as yet unapproved plans for a $500,000 plant in the Basin, which could handle four times as much polluted water as its competitor in Storrow Lagoon.

But some processes are tough to reverse, and pollution is prominent among them. Most of the Charles's fish are dead, for example, although there are still occasional schools of goldfish to startle the unwary passerby. "The first ones to die are the nicest ones, really," Noss said mournfully. "Trout need five parts oxygen per million, and carp need only point five parts. And down at the bottom of the Lower Basin, it's constant by now, really, there's almost no oxygen at all, so there are no organisms to clean it up for you."

Massachusetts will spend about $53 million on this year's river-related projects, and that's without including federal projects such as the new dam, a $43 million baby of the Corps of Engineers. There's supposed to be a comprehensive river cleanup plan by June 1974.

The Corps of Engineers wants to buy up 8500 acres of land along the Charles, with $7.5 million of federal funds. But because no construction lobbyists would profit from the plan and because Massachusetts is not President Nixon's favorite state, the plan may run into greater difficulties in Congress or in obtaining a presidential signature than it would face on its merits. Nevertheless, the Corps of Engineers' plan, because it would bring large stretches of the Charles's banks under governmental control, is probably the most likely first step in the direction of the idyllic Charles the Department of National Resources says it would like to see: a long clear river, with parks and recreation all along its banks.