Once a week, as the tide ebbs, a team of scientists and trained volunteers motors out into Boston Harbor. Team members lower a colored disk over the side of their boat and measure how deep it goes before the murky water obscures it. They belong to one of seven environmental groups that banded together in October to start regular water-quality monitoring of what they call ``one of the worst harbors in the nation.''
The effort was supposed to be helped by $100 million in federal aid contained in the bill to reauthorize the Clean Water Act. But when President Reagan vetoed the measure on Nov. 6, Boston and many other cities - including New York, San Diego, and Des Moines, Iowa - had to put their cleanup plans on hold.
Congressional sources say the bill has strong support and is expected to be passed over the President's veto when it is reintroduced in the next session of Congress.
The delay in reauthorizing the Clean Water Act, however, will mean higher construction costs around the United States in cities that were depending on federal funds to build new, or improve old, sewage treatment facilities, says Eric Draper, campaign director at the Clean Water Action Project, a citizen lobby group concerned with water quality, based in Washington.
Meanwhile, US harbors, while generally cleaner of sewage pollutants than before the Clean Water Act was passed in 1977, are being fouled with newer, more complex toxic pollutants, says Kim Devonald, a scientist at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
A high concentration of these toxins creates a special sludge disposal problem in Boston and other cities that generate large quantities of chemical waste. The toxic byproducts of manufacturing, after being perfunctorily treated for such things as acidity and temperature, are often dumped down community sewage systems. Some find their way into the community's water supply or its recreational waters.
In Boston, they end up in the harbor. According to Marco Kaltofen, a chemist for the environmentalist group Greenpeace, 3,000 pounds of toxic wastes flow into the harbor a day, compared to 2,300 pounds a day in 1985. Because of the concentration of toxins, he says, cities cannot dispose of the remaining sludge by incineration, landfilling, or composting. These methods create airborne toxics or contaminate groundwater.
Greg Karras, speaking for the San Francisco chapter of Citizens for a Better Environment, a technical and legal support group for the environment, charges that federal ``direction encourages treatment and disposal rather than toxic reduction at the source.''
A study released by the EPA on Oct. 30 indicates that American industries could reduce by at least a third the amount of hazardous wastes they produce.
Referring to the great expense of recent suits ordering companies to clean up their toxic landfills, Mr. Kaltofen says, ``Any company that has a source-reduction plan that has minimized toxic production is obviously in a position to survive economically.'' The others, he says, are economic dinosaurs.
In Boston, the Clean Water Act veto will affect the construction of the new Deer Island treatment facilities and other planned sewer system projects, says Paul Di Natale, spokesman for the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA), an agency established 1 years ago to take charge of the water and sewage system. Mr. Di Natale sasy the cleanup, ordered by Judge Paul Garrity in 1983, will go on, but he adds that if the federal funds are not available, Boston consumers will pay higher water and sewage rates. Whether or not the bill passes, higher rates will most likely be needed.
Through what environmental critics say has been lack of political motivation, Boston's water and sewage system, one of the oldest in the US, has been inadequately funded for years. Today, Boston has one system with two plants to serve 43 cities and 2.5 million people.
Boston's treatment plants, on Nut and Deer Islands, are woefully outmoded and overloaded. Toxin-filled sludge, after being partly digested, is dumped into the harbor on the ocean side of the islands. ``Combined sewer overflows,'' antiquated storm drains, carry raw sewage directly into the harbor during heavy rains.
The waste often washes back onto nearby beaches. Many have to be closed every summer, says Betsy Johnson, director of the Massachusetts Audubon Society in Boston. Clam flats have also been closed.
People in communities upstream flush their toilets and think the waste is gone, says Thomas Ennen, executive director of the Boston Harbor Associates, an environmental group. ``It doesn't just go away,'' he says. ``It ends up here.''
The MWRA is upgrading treatment plants and is planning to fix leaking pipes, build holding tanks for the rain overflow, and construct new plants, one of which should be on-line by 1995.