What accomplishments are you most proud of over the past 16 years?
One of the things that is key to what we are trying to accomplish is cleaning the river up so that it becomes a place that people want to go. Historically, the Neponset River, like a lot of rivers in Massachusetts, was so dirty and smelly that communities organized themselves away from it. During my tenure and the organization’s tenure (which goes back 43 years), one of our focuses has been water quality and we’ve continued to see great strides there.
In the last five years or so we’ve really started to see developers orienting themselves towards the river instead of away from it and parks are starting to be developed along the river since it’s a nice place to go. People are able to enjoy a resource that they haven’t been able to enjoy for many, many years.
How clean is the river?
We do our own water quality monitoring and our data shows that for most of the watershed, we’ve made a lot of progress cleaning things up. At least during dry weather when you don’t have runoff from parking lots and streets, about 75-85% of the places we sample meet fishable/swimmable standards.
Are there parts of the river that need improvement?
The one big exception is in the estuary- the data shows that it is the least clean of the three harbor estuaries. There’s a big push to get that part of the river as clean as the rest of the river. We think we’ve found the sources and are working with folks to get them cleaned up, but that work is not done yet. The other problem is not a geographic problem area, but a temporal problem area. When it’s raining, you have water coming off streets and parking lots, and the water is not nearly as clean as it should be.
What are your goals for 2011?
We have been focusing on three big issues that we are trying to tackle. One is this polluted runoff problem; we are really starting to get the ball rolling on making progress. We have been working with communities to identify places where they can take steps to rectify the existing runoff problems. Our second big area is looking at water use. We’ve been working with several communities with tremendous results to help them reduce the amount of water they are diverting from the river. This saves a lot of energy- there’s a lot of energy used in pumping, delivering, heating and treating water. This also will, in the long term, keep down water and sewer bills. Our third area is looking at damaged habitat. Rivers are really neat systems in the sense that if you stop putting pollution into them, they have a tremendous capacity to clean themselves up. There are some problems that affect rivers that won’t take care of themselves, such as obsolete dams.
Are there a lot of dams in the watershed?
If you can believe it, there are more than 100 dams on the Neponset River. The work ethic of our forefathers was very intense- they were more committed than your average beaver in taking advantage of every bit of water power. The problem is that today, many of those dams are in a state of disrepair. They may be contributing to flooding programs and have a big impact on aquatic life in the river.
Are invasive plants a problem in the Neponset?
Yes. One of the big invasives we have focused on is purple loosestrife, which is a wetland plant that tends to take over freshwater marshes. We’ve been working with a group of about 100 volunteers who are serving as beetle ranchers. They are raising these tiny beetles that only eat purple loosestrife. They’d actually rather die than eat other plants. We’ve been working on this for about two years and are starting to see results.
What else do volunteers do for you?
The two things where we involve the most volunteers is the purple loosestrife beetle ranching efforts and water quality monitoring. Between these two projects there are probably about 250 people that are doing something once every six weeks.
What can our readers do to help their watersheds?
One tip would be to pick up after your dog, which is a big source of bacterial pollution in rivers. It’s also a nice thing to do for your neighbors. Another big one is being thoughtful about how you manage your lawn. People can go a little overboard with fertilizers, herbicides, and over-watering. The last one is to try to get more involved in your community. Be supportive of your Department of Public Works. For better or worse, the level of government that has the most impact is local government.
Interview has been edited and condensed.
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