Public Swim Follows 50 Years Of Dirty Water

A sunbather relaxes on a dock along the Charles River, where the first public swim in over 50 years was held. (Elise Amendola/AP)

A sunbather relaxes on a dock along the Charles River, where the first public swim in over 50 years was held. (Elise Amendola/AP)

BOSTON — When you think of the Charles River, a lot of things come to mind. But probably not, say, the backstroke.

However, that changed Saturday morning. It has been unthinkable for decades but members of the general public actually swam in the Charles near the Hatch Shell in Boston. Recreational swimming in the river has not been legal since the 1950s, when it was banned because the Charles was so polluted.

WBUR’s Weekend Edition host Sharon Brody spoke to the president of the Charles River Conservancy, Renata von Tscharner, about the big swim.

Sharon Brody: First of all, today’s madcap, zany high jinks — your idea?

Renata von Tscharner: Well, it has been a dream for 13 years to be able to swim in the Charles, yes.

We remember that the Charles has been a very polluted waterway. Now it’s clean enough for at least today’s swimming. How did that happen? What were the big factors in the transformation?

A lot of work and about $500 million have been spent on cleaning up that water. Much of it was to separate sewage from storm water and to separate those pipes so that the sewage goes into the island and we don’t have raw sewage going into the Charles River. That probably is the biggest effort.

Yeah, I would say getting rid of the raw sewage into the river, that probably helped.

Yes it does.

The water still appears to have that yellow-brown color. Is that an indication of less than perfect cleanliness?

I call it tea-colored. So, I think we should think of the Charles River as swimming in tea. Because it traverses areas with a lot of leaves it has tannin in the water, but the color in the water does not give an indication of the bacteria. So that is not an indication that it’s not safe to swim. But it is not safe to swim unless it is a sanctioned event like we have today, so it’s not alright to just go and walk into the river, it’s not alright just to jump in because there are many shallow spots. So, it is a celebration swim today but it’s not time for anybody to jump into the river unless it’s a special event.

What are among your biggest challenges in changing the public perception of the Charles River?

Well, there is the song about that. “Love That Dirty Water.” So, whenever people hear that song, and there are many reasons in Boston, we love to hear that song often, whenever we hear that song we need to think, “Oh, this is a different era. Times have changed, the river is cleaner, we can swim in the water.”

So, yes, perception is a big thing and the sediments are still a big obstacle to overcome. The sediments are very toxic. While the water is clean enough to swim, you do not want to touch the sediments. So we need to find technological solutions of how to handle that. You know, there’s dredging which is expensive and messy, there’s covering it up. Right now, for this particular swim, we’re just avoiding it because the swim is in deep water and nobody will be touching the sediments.

Today’s swim is for registered swimmers only. Do you anticipate doing more swims for the public in the future?

Yes. Today we have 144 swimmers registered. We are full. That’s all we could take. But we have a wait list and we encourage people to sign onto this wait list. They can sign up on our website, thecharles.org, and then that means we have a reason to have other swims and they will be first when we have future community swims in the Charles.

Right. Well, Renata, are you swimming today?

Absolutely, yes. I grew up in Switzerland swimming in rivers and when I first immigrated in 1979 that was my first wish. I then became a volunteer water tester and then when I started the conservancy in 2000 that was the top thing on my agenda, to bring swimming back to the river.

Well, thank you and your Swiss roots.

Well, it’s wonderful to bring this, to make that happen here on the Charles River.

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  • http://about.me/mitchlabuda Mitch Labuda

    50 years, is a statement, of how poor our water, air and land is treated and it’s not just the Charles. Many rivers have been restored in Mass., from decades of misuse as sewage dumping places, industrial pollution.

    Had regulations been in place, which many decry as restrictive, the $500 million would not have been required.

    • Emma S. Cousens, RN Roanoke VA

      The sewerage treatment plants had all been updated except for the Milford plant. Charles River Pollution Control District in Medway was the last plant rehabbed. The Bellingham Boxpond Association coupled with the Milford Sewer Commission were shocked when the Milford plant which had been sited for the serious need for rehab was 49th on the states list for funding. How could the river survive is the 1st plant was not updated, why stop in Medway? petitions, education, testimony and enlisting the help of all of our Legislators all worked in the River’s favor and today you see the results.

  • Emma S. Cousens, RN Roanoke VA

    When I lived in Bellingham MA in the ’80s-’90s I worked with a group of other residents to help get the 1st sewerage plant on the Charles River in Milford get moved on the priority list for updating from # 49 too the t0p 10 in order that we could curb the 1st source of pollution on the river cleaned up. We were grateful to the late Sen. Paul Tsongus, the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, St. Sen. Louis Bertonazzi and Rep. Danny Raneri among others who supported out efforts. The Charles River Watershed Association diligently worked to clean the River and with everyone’s dream it became a reality to have the longest river in the state clean and returned to the people for use.
    It’s head waters starting in Ashland State Park and then on to Bellingham’s Box Pond where it’s small group of dedicated home owners organized the effort mark the River’s first recreational use. I am proud of that group and the small way in which my efforts as a then member of the Bellingham Board Of Health made such a difference for our beloved Charles River.

  • Dee Stonewall
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