For the third year in a row, the Charles River is open for swimming to those looking to cool off this summer. Charles River Conservancy founder Renata von Tscharner gives the water a B+ grade.
On Tuesday, 200 brave Bostonians boldly cannonballed where few have cannonballed before — into the Charles River, which, until two years ago, was deemed unswimmable.
Yes, for fun. In the Charles.
We all know Boston’s anthem talks about our “dirty water,’’ but, turns out that’s not so true anymore. The Charles is not only swimmable, it’s the cleanest urban river in North America, according to Theresa Doherty, project coordinator at the Charles River Conservancy.
That title would’ve been unimaginable even a few decades ago.
Swimming was first prohibited in the 1950s because the polluted waters posed a health risk. Clean-up efforts didn’t start until 1985, when the Massachusetts Legislature established the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, which focused on the Boston Harbor.
At the time, the EPA said 1.7 billion gallons of a sewage-rainwater mix flowed into the river every year. Even though the cleanup was court-ordered, there was no progress until 1995, when the EPA launched the “Clean Charles Initiative’’ in 1995. The organization gave letter grades to river water in America. The Charles and got a “D,’’ which meant that the water met the standards for “some boating, but not swimming.’’
The EPA found that the same pipes that were meant to transport clean rainwater also carried sewage. This was mostly due to the fact that Boston implemented its first sewer system in 1876, which was long before environmental regulations were in place. Sewage treatment plants weren’t planned until about 1940, but they didn’t filter out all of the sewage.
The drainage system could transport water to the treatment plants as long as water levels were low. But if it rained and the system got backed up, both the rainwater and sewage would flow directly into the Charles.
Even though dumping debris into the river is a Boston tradition (after all, it did start with tea in 1773), the most obvious step to a cleaner Charles was to make sure sewage stopped flowing into the river. Officials developed a plan to close seven sewer overflow systems to stop waste from entering the river.
Since 1995, the initiative has eliminated more than one million gallons of sewage from stormdrains that run from Watertown to the Boston Harbor, according to the EPA. Their goal was to make the Charles swimmable and fishable by 2005.
That didn’t happen. However, not everyone was deterred. Some might remember when Gov. William Weld jumped in the river to celebrate the state’s River Protection Act in 1996, and needed to receive a tetanus shot after the fact — just in case.
Tetanus shots are no longer a post-requisite for swimming in the river. The water was finally deemed safe for the general public in 2013. In that year, the water received a grade of “A-.’’ Now, it’s a “B+.’’ But that doesn’t mean something bad happened, said Alexandra Ash, a coordinator at the Charles River Watershed Association. It just means it rained more.
“Our volunteers test the water for E. coli and blue/green algae once a month,’’ she said. “Those levels have stayed pretty consistent. But the rainwater run-off can impact the toxicity and then the grade.’’
No matter the letter score, the water must be tested 48 hours before a public swimming event to ensure it’s safe. Then, a permit is issued for the general public for that day and that day only. The water had been tested for Tuesday’s event and passed, leaving it all clear for the swimmers.
Doherty said she believes, one day, the water will be safe enough that no permits are needed and people won’t hold the stigma that you shouldn’t touch the river with even your pinky toe. But, in the meantime, they’ll keep holding public swimming events.
If you missed out, don’t worry. The city is holding a second swim event on Saturday, July 25. And, if you’re still not convinced, those who got out of the water said it felt great.
Photos from the swimmable Charles event: