IT WAS unthinkable 20 years ago that the Charles River would ever be clean enough to win the world’s leading environmental prize for river restoration. Back then, human feces lapped at the Museum of Science. It was a river with “belly-up fish and algal blooms making dogs sick,’’ recalled Arleen O’Donnell, former state department of environmental protection acting commissioner.
For recreational kayaker Roger Frymire, a paddle between the Museum of Science and the BU bridge 14 years ago was disgusting. “I passed under the Longfellow bridge and I started smelling something awful. I kept following the smell upriver until I went under the Mass. Ave. bridge. I traced the smell to a spot near the MIT crew house. There was a grate underwater that was bobbing up and down with turds.’’
Today, the Charles is one of the nation’s cleanest urban rivers, and recently claimed the International River Foundation’s top award for river management, beating out more than 20 other countries. The award went to the Charles River Watershed Association, which was formed in 1965 to protect the river.
“The Charles in many ways is a wild river again,’’ said Bob Zimmerman, executive director of the CRWA. “If you had asked me in 1991 if that was possible, I would have said you were crazy.’’
The award provides a great moment to see what can happen when degradation spurs people to action. Former Governor Michael Dukakis remembered last week the collective shrug of the shoulder when Havey Beach in West Roxbury was closed to swimming in the 1950s. “There were no protests, no nothing,’’ Dukakis said. “The city itself was deteriorating, the town was racist and anti-Semitic. State government was corrupt. It was an angry place. The river was so polluted, it kind of symbolized the time.’’
The times for the river changed when the likes of Rita Barron, CRWA’s executive director for most of the 1970s and ’80s, worked with the Army Corps of Engineers to preserve Charles wetlands instead of just building flood control dams. Meanwhile, O’Donnell, deciding that the state’s highest-profile river was “an embarrassment to the Commonwealth,’’ pressed for reclassifying the Charles so polluters could face consequences.
“Somebody from MWRA [Massachusetts Water Resources Authority] told me that if we put in new water quality standards for the Charles, the ‘chickens will come home to roost,’ ’’ O’Donnell said. “I was told, ‘You are going to be hung out to dry by this standard that you can’t reach.’ ’’
The state’s environmental secretary at the time, John DeVillars, took reclassification to another level when he became regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency. He launched a 10-year mission to make the Charles swimmable by 2005 and began issuing annual report cards on its water quality. “There was something about establishing a goal, timetable, and a measure of accountability that helped turned the tide,’’ DeVillars said.
Towns whose sewage outflows emptied into the river as well as offending corporations were held accountable for violations, most notably the fines levied against Conrail in 1995. Pollution from its Allston rail yard resulted in $2.5 million in criminal penalties, including a record $1.5 million under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. In a move to restore public relations, Conrail also gave $250,000 to CRWA to build a water testing lab. How the CRWA came to be the recipient was a story by itself.
“A snaggle-toothed guy with bad breath came to my office,’’ Zimmerman said. “I listened to him talk about the river for half an hour. I didn’t think anything about it, but then came the Conrail headline and the money for us. It turned out that the snaggle-toothed guy was the fly-fishing writer from Sports Illustrated and he went fly fishing with senior officials of Conrail on the Rappahannock River [in Virginia]. I guess Conrail was trying to figure out what to do and they mentioned this to him and he said, ‘No question you should give the money to these guys.’ ’’
The very next summer, rowers began regularly calling the CRWA about horrible smells that turned out to be giant grease balls and collapsed sewer pipes. Armed with the new lab, Kate Bowditch, who is now director of projects at CRWA, and then-lab manager Jim Fitzgerald began to take samples. Meanwhile, Frymire’s sewage discovery near MIT became a personal mission, and he found 30 to 40 pollution sources in the Charles between the Watertown dam and the Museum of Science. CRWA trained him to take samples. It never became routine. Recalling one time he reached for a sample at the spot of a vomitive smell, Frymire said, “My whole body just started shuddering. I knew what I was reaching for. But if I didn’t, how long would it have stayed that way?’’
As Frymire reached for samples, people like Bill Walsh-Rogalski, a longtime attorney in the EPA’s New England office, reached for the law. Walsh-Rogalski’s office today overflows with charts, maps, and graphs that detail the progress that has been made by shutting down illegal sewage sources and repairing antiquated systems. By 2013, combined sewer overflow discharges into the Charles will have been reduced 99.5 percent from their levels in 1988.
“When we started, the attitude was, ‘So what, even if we fix our pipes, what about the next town?’ ’’ Walsh-Rogalski said. “But one by one, people started believing, and we hit that tipping point where people remembered that their grandmothers swam in the Charles and wanted that for themselves again.’’
Another visible tipping point of the Charles is the wildlife. The river now hosts otters, beavers, fishers, herons, hawks, herring, and migrating loons. Maury Eldridge, one of the river’s most dedicated kayaking photographers, says it has become more a “national park or wildlife sanctuary than an urban/suburban river.’’
Still, major challenges remain, such as phosphorus runoffs from car exhaust, fertilizers, and animal waste, which can cause toxic algal blooms. But the lessons of the Charles have inspired and informed river cleanups in the state and throughout the nation. Frymire is today most frequently at work on the Mystic River, where he says he has seen at least 50 source problems.
And while EPA’s report card on the Charles has improved from a D in 1996 to a B+ today, and while the river is technically swimmable on most days, the soil on the bottom remains laden with PCBs and toxic heavy metals. Removal is way beyond today’s strapped state and federal budgets.
Still, the Charles River Conservancy, which has worked hard over the last decade to beautify and improve the parklands and pathways along the Charles, has suggested swimming pavilions similar to ones in European cities.
“Swimming would be a real beacon,’’ DeVillars said. “I hope we find some vision around that instead of worrying if the budget has money for lifeguards. The final chapter is access into the river itself. It would be the crowning achievement of what government, the private sector, individual citizens, and advocacy groups can do.’’
So long a pauper among rivers, the Charles is now one of the greatest American civic accomplishments of the last 50 years. That in itself is a crowning achievement.
Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at email@example.com.