ONCE notorious as a polluted, smelly city waterway, the Charles River is cleaning up its act.
Thanks to federal cleanup funds, changes in industrial technology, and improvements in sewage treatment, much of the pollution that fouled the river for decades has disappeared.
Now, on this 80-mile river that winds its way through metropolitan Boston, people are swimming, fishing, canoeing, sailing, and windsurfing. Home to the world's largest sailing program, the Charles draws visitors from near and far.
"It's a river that supplies enjoyment for millions and millions that visit Boston each year, so it's a resource for many people beyond those that just live and work along its shores," says Anne Blackburn, environmental affairs coordinator for the Charles River Watershed Association, a private conservation group.
The Charles is a river overflowing with history. Originally called "Quinobin" or "meandering" by the Indians, Prince Charles of England later renamed the river after himself in 1615.
Early settlers have since used the water power of the Charles for running mills and factories. Now, with 20 dams, the Charles River stands as one of the most intensely managed rivers in the country, say environmentalists.
"The Charles is an enormously regulated, altered, and controlled river," says Andrew Gottlieb, acting director of the Office of Watershed Management of the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).
Dams and other man-made intrusions have affected the river's natural ecosystem. Garbage dumps, for example, were begun on the river's wetlands, threatening wildlife and vegetation. During the river's dirtiest days in the 1800s, raw sewage, industrial wastes, and even refuse from riverside slaughterhouses fouled it.
At the turn of the century, a cleanup effort helped establish a park system along the water as well as a new dam. But by the 1960s, pollution again built up. Multiple cleanups
So, during the early 1970s, another cleanup began. With federal grants under the the 1972 Clean Water Act, new waste-water treatment systems were built. And riverside factories cut down on dumping chemicals into the river. Faced with strict regulations for discharging chemicals into the river, industry became more proficient at reducing its use of toxic chemicals.
Today the river is as clean as it has ever been since the 1970s, says Arthur Johnson, environmental analyst for Massachusetts' DEP.
Despite progress, problems still linger. Raw sewage from rain-overloaded pipes seeps into the river during storms. Nonpoint pollution, or pollution that doesn't come from a particular pipe or source, is also a concern. This includes lawn fertilizer or pesticides that wash into the river after storms or "urban runoff" such as oil and antifreeze that wash away from city streets. Much now swimmable
Nevertheless, approximately 70 miles of the 80-mile river is now swimmable except after storms. The river's clean section stretches from the town of Hopkinton, where the river begins, to the Watertown dam, just west of Boston. But the nine-mile Charles River Basin, which starts at Watertown and winds through Boston, is not considered swimmable.
As a result, city dwellers may not fully appreciate the Charles. The river's brownish color turns off some people. Yet the color is simply tannic acid, a natural coloring from the vegetation.
"The prevailing notion that the Charles is a real ugly river simply isn't true," says Robert Zimmerman, executive director of the Charles River Watershed Association. "Ten thousand years ago, it would be the same color. It has nothing to do with pollutants,"
But with progress in cleaning up the river comes a new challenge: water depletion. Riverside businesses, residences, and towns are drawing more and more water from the aquifers that feed the river.
The resulting low river levels concentrate pollutants and promote aquatic weed growth which depletes oxygen for fish and slows river flow. Mr. Zimmerman estimates the Charles loses 40 million gallons a day in the summer months and 80 million gallons a day in the winter months. The lost water, which is used in homes and businesses, is primarily pumped from aquifers that feed the Charles. Much of the water passes through the Boston-area sewage system, ending up eventually in Boston Harbor. He says the stat e and local agencies overseeing the Charles should not issue so many water-use permits.
But Andrew Gottlieb, DEP's acting director of Office of Watershed Management, says low rainfall in recent years is why the water levels are so low.
"That is a phenomenon driven by what the rainfall patterns have been and not the withdrawals," he says.
Zimmerman, on the other hand, says that permit decisions should be made in terms of the effects on the river as a whole, instead of the impacts at one isolated point.
Currently several different agencies have jurisdiction over issuing permits. No one government agency oversees the river as a whole.
"We need to start thinking about the watershed as an ecological [system] and base our permitting, licensing, and planning on the ecosystem," Zimmerman says.