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Cleaning up that Dirty Water

Efforts Continue to Make the Charles River Swimmable by 2005

By Pey-Hua Hwang

Being a freshman at MIT means trying out lots of things for the first time. For Jaryn S. Finch ’04, crew seemed like the perfect way to start something new. Little did she know that the Charles River is not only good for rowing, but is also good for getting eye infections.

“I contracted a viral infection from that nasty river, which meant that I couldn’t wear my contacts for approximately two and a half months. My eyes turned bright red, and I went to the doctors five times in the space of a week,” Finch said. She said that participating in crew became difficult because of the blinding glare off the water. “I’ll definitely be more careful in the future on that river,” she continued.

Surprisingly, just this last April the Environmental Protection Agency upgraded its rating of the Charles River to a B. A B rating means that the water is clean enough for boating 90 percent of the time and meets swimming standards 65 percent of the time. Five years ago, the Charles River was failing with a D rating. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, it was only meeting bacteria boating standards 39 percent of the time and swimming standards 19 percent of the time.

Luckily for it, the Charles River had friends in high places, and the Clean Charles Coalition was put together to pull up its D grade in 1995 to an A in 2005. This organization consists of area colleges including MIT, corporations ranging from Polaroid to Stop and Shop, and Triumvirate Environmental Incorporated.

Denise Breault, one of the TEI’s representative in the Coalition, said, “We work closely in conjunction with the EPA,” and “went on frequent cleanups.” Some of the things that have been found on these clean-ups include shopping carts, mattresses, hubcaps, and even whole cars. The Coalition is primarily focused on educating riverside industries about ways to reduce waste in stormwater.

MIT Environmental Officer and member of the Coalition Zhanna Davidovitz spoke about on how MIT wasn’t afraid to get its hands dirty either. “There was a push before Earth Day last year to clean the banks of the Charles,” she said.

The ten communities in the lower Charles also contributed greatly to the improvement of the water by evaluating their storm drains for illegal tie-tins from sewer pipes. Removing these connections reduced illicit discharges by one million gallons a day over a period of several years.

However, improvements aside, Bob Zimmerman, executive director of the Charles River Watershed Association, which is responsible for collecting water quality data, said that he still awaits the year when “pollution problems are history.” Currently color coded flags are used at boat houses to inform the public about days when water quality poses health risks.

This August a new type of barrier, called the Gunderboom, used for filtering suspended solids and bacteria, was instituted as a pilot program at Magazine Beach. Kristin Finn, the external relations coordinator for the CRWA, said that “unofficially the ‘Gunderboom’ did not perform as well as hoped.” The EPA has not yet released official results of this pilot project.

The general opinion around the MIT campus about this issue is that the condition of the Charles has improved but that work still needs to be done. “I don’t think that the water has been cleaned enough, and I definitely would not want to be swimming in it. However, I applaud the efforts of those who are cleaning it up,” said Kimberly G. Chao ’04.