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Derrick Z. Jackson

Charles River’s abundance holds steady at B+

A mother duck led her ducklings in the waters of the Charles River. Derrick Z. Jackson/globe staff

Nationally, the issue of clean water remains horribly polluted by partisan politics. When the Obama administration announced the expansion on May 27 of the Clean Water Act, House Speaker John Boehner condemned the move as a “a raw and tyrannical power grab that will crush jobs.”

An array of opponents – think oil and gas interests, farmers, developers, and golf course owners — say the new rules will hurt land values, destroy crops, and limit recreation. It is as if the new mantra of the opposition is “Pollute, Baby, Pollute!”

The American Farm Bureau Federation says it is “impossible” for farmers to know whether water in their man-made ditches and artificial ponds flow into protected waters. The US Chamber of Commerce is opposing the expansion with a scare campaign that bemoans the possibility that big box stores will have to get federal permits to salt parking lots to keep customers from slipping and will have to treat their stormwater and snowmelt runoff. It says the rules, which would cover about 60 percent of the nation’s streams, rivers, lakes, and wetlands, “will have a devastating impact on businesses of all sizes.”

Thankfully, there is no such hysteria here in Boston, where the long cleanup of the Charles River and Boston Harbor continues to have a magnificent impact on businesses of all sizes, from the explosive growth of the Seaport District to the boating and festivals along the Charles. “It is a signature of what we can do when we put our minds to it,” said Curt Spalding, regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency.


This new yellow EPA buoy behind the Museum of Science monitors water quality in real time. Derrick Z. Jackson/globe staff

Spalding was at the Museum of Science Friday on the 20th anniversary of the EPA’s report card for the Charles. The section of the river between the Watertown dam and Boston Harbor earned a B+ for being boatable 91 percent of the time and swimmable 65 percent of the time.That was a slight step back from its unprecedented A- last year, possibly due to more rain than usual, said Bob Zimmerman, executive director of the Charles River Watershed Association. More rain means more runoff to pollute the river.


“It’s a little warning that we have to remain vigilant, especially since more rain may come with climate change,” Zimmerman said. “We don’t want the grade to start edging down. But for now, it’s still something to celebrate, this river with all its abundance of nature.”

The abundance was clear to me this week when I went kayaking at dawn on the lower Charles. High overhead, above the docks of boat clubs and Community Rowing, an osprey flapped, suspended in flight, then plunged into the water to snatch a fish.

A brilliant Baltimore oriole zipped across the river to land in a shaded shallow to bathe. A mallard mother with several new chicks bobbed up and down the shoreline, dodging the many rowers. And patrolling the shoreline were black-crowned night herons, crouching and angling their heads until an unlucky part of the annual herring run (a run aided by the cleanup) swam by. With explosive thrust and splashes, the herons snatched their prey and swallowed them whole.

A heron found its meal in the Charles. Derrick Z. Jackson/globe staff

The river is so alive that the EPA and the Museum of Science are teaming up to create a new exhibit on urban river environments, featuring live-streamed data from a new water-quality monitoring buoy floating just off the back of the museum. Emily O’Hara, the museum’s director of exhibit content, said it was finally time for the museum, situated at the end of the Charles, to celebrate its recovery and inspire future stewardship through interactive displays that will give visitors choices of what to build — or not build — along rivers and discover their likely impact.


It turns out that the museum was perfectly situated for the latest proof of the health of the river. Last year, the Globe editorial celebrating the A- asked, “What’s next for the Charles River? Bald eagles?” This winter, a bald eagle landed on the ice to scavenge on the carcass of what was likely a cormorant. The abundance of nature continues to grow in Boston. It would be even better if political opponents to the national expansion of the Clean Water Act could realize what we can bring back if we clean up rivers everywhere.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at jackson@globe.com.


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