Olympic organizers don’t envision holding any events on the Mystic River. No surprise there: In its current state, the Mystic is not exactly the face that Greater Boston wants to showcase to the wider world. The watershed routinely scores a D or worse on water-quality tests, and remains laced with some of the same kind of grime that once made the Charles River a national disgrace.
Instead, Boston 2024, the private group organizing the Olympic bid, has proposed to hold the open-water swimming event on the Charles, and has mapped out a 10-kilometer course near Magazine Beach in Cambridge. That course would allow Boston to show off the remarkable turnaround of the city’s most iconic river, which took two decades and cost billions of dollars.
But if the Games are really going to be a catalyst to make the region better, as boosters promise, then the organizers need to do more than celebrate past accomplishments. If Olympic organizers moved the swim, or another water event, to the Mystic River, the 2024 deadline could spur the long-overdue cleanup of Boston’s forgotten river.
There have been some signs of life already: The former Monsanto chemical site in Everett and surrounding waters are being cleaned up as part of the Wynn Resorts plan to turn the site into a new casino. In Arlington, a pilot program installed porous pavement, which is intended to absorb into the ground some of the fluids that drip from parked cars, so that those substances won’t make their way into the river. The United States Geological Survey is installing new water-flow gauges that will provide better data about the river’s condition. Volunteers organized by the Mystic River Watershed Association cleared up invasive water chestnut recently, and in 2014 the Legislature established a water-quality commission to investigate the river’s condition.
But those efforts are still an order of magnitude smaller than the massive attack on pollution in the Charles, an effort that piggybacked on the court-ordered cleanup of Boston Harbor that began in the 1980s. The cleanup involved modernizing Massachusetts Water Resources Authority sewage facilities that once spewed raw effluence into the river.
It will take a different strategy for the Mystic, because the causes of its pollution are not identical. In addition to occasional sewage overflows, the Mystic is surrounded by dense communities that have little unpaved ground to absorb runoff before it reaches the river (about three-quarters of Somerville is paved). The river is also frequently the victim of illegal discharges by nearby businesses.
The state task force, due to issue its finding by 2017, is expected to study strategies to clean up the river, and it should give a fuller picture of both the challenges and potential solutions. But in broad strokes, a strategy to reclaim the Mystic by 2024 would probably involve tackling remaining sewage overflows and nudging towns along the river to act more boldly to reduce the runoff of pollutants into the storm drainage system.
One innovative way to do that, patterned on systems already in place in Northampton, Newton, and a few other Massachusetts communities, would be for Mystic River municipalities to form a regional stormwater utility charged with maintaining the stormwater system and minimizing the amount of toxic gunk washed off streets and parking lots and into the river. Towns now pay for storm grates, culverts, and pipes from their budgets. But a utility could assess charges based on how much stormwater properties create, which is correlated to the footprint of pavement, buildings, and other impervious cover on their property. Municipalities would have to emphasize that it’s not a new tax: Residents already pay for local stormwater systems through their property taxes, which could be cut or redirected accordingly. Funding those services through a utility payment instead would ensure that residents are charged in a fair way that creates an incentive to use porous pavement, or simply replace parking lots with parks and trees.
A regional utility could also help municipalities enforce existing antipollution laws. The EPA expects municipalities to track down offenders who dump into stormwater pipes, but few do. New EPA regulations, expected to come into effect soon, will up the expectations on towns to crack down — but the added pressure of an Olympic deadline couldn’t hurt.
Restoring the Mystic should happen regardless, but taking advantage of the Olympics as a firm deadline to clear up environmental damage has precedent: In the 2016 Summer Games host city, Rio de Janeiro, officials are racing to reduce contamination in the waters outside Copacabana beach, where the marathon swim is scheduled to take place. Brazilians hope that improved water quality will be one of the 2016 Games’ long-term legacies.
For the Mystic, the benefit of the Olympics could be twofold. First, the Games would provide an impetus: The Baker administration hasn’t even named members to the water-quality commission yet, which doesn’t inspire confidence that officials are acting with much urgency. Just as important, holding the Games would provide a huge advertising opportunity. At least some of the Mystic’s problem is its reputation; holding an Olympics there would provide a great way to shift public perceptions that might owe as much to the movie “Mystic River” as they do to the actual environmental conditions on the river.
The cleanup of Boston Harbor and the Charles cost billions of dollars. But look at the new development around the waterfront; the new opportunities for swimming, kayaking, and other sports unimaginable a generation ago; the subtle way the cleanup has helped Boston shed its old “Dirty Water” image. Cleaning up the Charles was worth the effort. Setting, and achieving, an equally ambitious goal for the Mystic would leave a legacy to cherish too.