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River's revival is more than a pipe dream

The Muddy River is expected to stop flooding upstream once underground stretches, where pipes restrict its flow, are replaced with open channels. The Muddy River is expected to stop flooding upstream once underground stretches, where pipes restrict its flow, are replaced with open channels. (DAVID L. RYAN/GLOBE STAFF)

The Muddy River near the Fenway may soon begin to look like a river again, thanks to federal, state, and local money -- but the dollars to restore the river's ecosystem remain in the pipeline.

Some $10 million to prevent the river from flooding, by taking the water out of two narrow underground pipes into open channels, is included in the federal Energy and Water Appropriations Bill, which passed the US House of Representatives last month. Approval by the Senate and President Bush is expected, but not for several months.

Bringing water into open channels along Park Drive between the Riverway and Louis Pasteur Avenue in the Fenway would prevent future flooding because the pipes are not wide enough to accommodate extra flow in times of heavy rains, according to Mike Keegan, project manager at the Army Corps of Engineers. When that happens, water backs up since it has no place to go and floods areas upstream.

The Muddy River flooded in the fall of 1996, shutting down the MBTA's Kenmore Station for two months and cutting off the Green Line from downtown.

The environmental portion of the Muddy River Ecosystem Restoration/Flood Damage Control project has yet to receive funding, however, said Army Corps of Engineers spokesman Tim Dugan, because "at this point it hasn't been approved by higher headquarters because of high cost."

Only one type of fish, carp, can survive in the river because the water doesn't have sufficient amounts of dissolved oxygen, Keegan said. Sediments that have accumulated on the riverbed consume the rest of the oxygen.

Dredging would increase oxygen levels, allowing other aquatic life, such as alewife and turtles, to return.

Dredging would also remove contaminants such as arsenic and lead, as well as two types of carcinogens -- polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). The latter two have been measured in Muddy River sediments at levels several times above state standards for disposing of them in landfills, according to Kate Bowditch, director of projects for the Charles River Watershed Association.

"Disposing of those sediments will be very expensive," said Bowditch, "because some of them are contaminated."

For example, along the Riverway between Boston and Brookline, tests of the sediment found concentrations of arsenic more than twice the standard, and concentrations of PAHs four times the state maximum, Bowditch said.

The contamination is even worse in the Fens area of the river in Boston, where concentrations of arsenic and PCBs are around three times higher and PAHs 15 times higher than acceptable levels. Lead levels are just over the standard for disposal in lined landfills, Bowditch said.

In addition to environmental benefits, dredging the sediments would also lessen the danger of flooding, said Bowditch, since the accumulated sediments have left the river only a few feet deep -- and at some points only a few inches deep. According to Bowditch, in some areas the river used to be at least 12 feet deeper than it is today.

Although funding for environmental dredging is not in the current fiscal year budget for the Muddy River project, the expectation is that the work will be included when the Army Corps of Engineers project eventually enters its second phase, said Tom Brady, the Muddy River project manager for Brookline.

"To not have funding in place for the entire project is not unusual," he said. "In government, you cannot forward-fund."

Even if no dredging is done, said Army Corps official Keegan, simply uncovering the river will improve its health. Fish, Keegan said, "don't like going through pipes, fish like seeing daylight."

According to Margaret Dyson, director of historic parks for Boston's Parks and Recreation Department, a portion of the river was channeled into the underground pipes in the 1930s and 1940s, probably because "it was a period in history where we thought man-made structures were better than natural structures."

As soon as the portion of the river was put underground, she noted, people began using the land on top of it to park their vehicles.

Dyson said that although the flood-prevention work will take place on the Boston portion of the river, Brookline residents will reap benefits since it's the Green Line that goes out of service when the river floods.

Muddy River restoration design work is scheduled for completion in November, and if the bill passes, construction will begin in the early spring, Keegan said.

"It's going to look like a river. Right now it looks like a parking lot," he said.

Because the MBTA is the main thing that floods when the Muddy River floods, the state has agreed to cover 35 percent of the project's cost, up to a total of $42 million, Dyson said. The Patrick administration has committed $6.5 million in this year's budget. Boston and Brookline have also agreed to share a portion of the costs.

The project's total cost, including ecosystem restoration and bridges at Brookline Avenue and Park Drive, is estimated at $69.4 million.

Julie Masis can be reached at greenelephant888@hotmail.com.

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