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A black-crowned night heron fishes on the Charles.
A black-crowned night heron fishes on the Charles.(derrick z. jackson/globe staff)

What’s next for the Charles River? Bald eagles? Beach umbrellas? Adults wading waist-deep and children splashing as they did a century ago? Not quite yet, but the river’s first-ever A-minus water quality rating from the Environmental Protection Agency brings such possibilities closer to reality than ever before.

In 1995, the EPA established a report card for the Charles. The first grade was a D; the river was safe for boating only 39 percent of the time, and for swimming only 19 percent of the time. “And believe it or not, it is a marked improvement,” said John DeVillars, then the EPA regional administrator, in announcing the grade back then. Before the 1970s, he noted, “the river was nearly dead.” Last year, in contrast, safe boating and swimming were possible 96 percent and 70 percent of the time, respectively. Better water means more visible use of the river, with many more kayakers, canoers, and paddleboarders than ever joining in with sailboats. There have also been clear benefits to wildlife as well on the lower Charles, with osprey diving from the skies for fish, herons snapping up juicy shad and herring along the banks, and stripers and Atlantic sturgeon being spotted just below the surface. In 2011, the cleanup earned the Thiess International Riverprize award.

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A full “A” may prove to be elusive. The riverbed is still saturated with toxic heavy metals that could cost billions of dollars to remove. There are still nagging issues with sewage after heavy rains. But as Curt Spalding, the current EPA regional administrator, said, “the next phase of the river is not about tetanus but about the ecosystem.” He even hinted at the possibility of creating a beach. Just a quarter century ago, most Bostonians would have considered that a wild fantasy.