Yearly Archives: 2011

The Charles River used to be teeming with oysters.  Up until the 20th century, oysters could be harvested in the Charles that were up to a foot long!  These amazing bivalves are filter feeders and can process and filter up to 30 gallons of water a day and undergo nitrogen fixation.
However, due to loss of habitat through river fill, pollution, and over harvesting, oysters have not been present in the river for decades.  Thanks to a group called the Massachusetts Oyster Project, oysters were reintroduced in the Boston Harbor in 2008!  They placed 150,000 oysters at the mouth of the Charles River.  Due to the dam placed at the Museum of Science in the early 1900’s, the Charles River is no longer an ideal habitat for oysters.  The brackish water- or mix of salt and freshwater at the mouth of the Charles is the perfect spot for oysters.  The spot is also ideal because it’s an area where it’s difficult for people to harvest them.  This is especially important for oysters that also filter and process sewage- they could be carriers of salmonella or other harmful bacteria.
Each year the Massachusetts Oyster Project places more oysters that have been lost due to predation or mortality from too much silt.  To see more about this cool project, or perhaps to volunteer to help seed the Boston Harbor with oysters, please visit

Before I began working at the Conservancy I had never set foot in Herter Park, nor had I heard of this area of the parklands that is located along the riverbank in Allston, but the more I’ve learned, the more I am surprised that it’s remained under-wraps for so long.  Not only does Herter Park have a fascinating history, but it is the largest section of open parkland in the Basin.  In a city as busy as Boston, that’s definitely something to brag about!

Herter Park is worth a trip.  With two community gardens, the recently renovated Artesani Playground, a huge open lawn that draws volleyball players and picnickers, and a Charles River Canoe & Kayak rental kiosk, this area of the parkland has something for everyone. 
Like me, you probably didn’t know that this section of the park used to be home to a speedway.  It’s true!  The Charles River Speedway was constructed in 1899 to serve as a racing track and promenade for horse-drawn vehicles.  For many years the Speedway was an active venue for horseshoes, horse racing, and carriages.  But by the late 1950s the automobile had become king, and, as buggies and carriages fell out of fashion, the land was turned over to general recreational use.   Herter Park is now the finish line for two of the biggest water sports in the nation – the Head of the Charles Regatta and the Run of the Charles canoe and kayak race.

Snow Scene by Frank Costantino
With winter upon us and snow in the near future, Herter Park is a great place to cross-country ski and snowshoe, and ample free public parking is available.  The snow is coming but that’s no reason to stay indoors.  Get out and have fun in the Charles River Parklands! 

N. Twigg
Associate Director
Charles River Conservancy

(Sara Brown for

Children rush to break in the new Esplanade playspace that opened Friday.

By Sara Brown, Town Correspondent

Just a few years after neighborhood parents united to create a play area for older children, little feet scaled the climbing structure and little hands gripped the zip line at the new Esplanade Playspace.

A private group, Friends of the Esplanade Playspace, footed the $1.5 million bill for the play area, and have also raised money for its maintenance, after noting a lack of playgrounds for children between 5 and 12 years old.

On Friday afternoon, scores of children (and their parents) braved the cold to inaugurate the play area.

Charlie, 7, said he was “totally ” excited for the “ginormous slide,” while Isabella, 5, said she could have play dates at the park.

“Can they open it right now?” asked Lily, 3, who said she wanted to try a spin on that big blue slide herself.

Beacon Hill parent Laurie Dumas said her 5-year-old daughter, Emma, was already outgrowing some of the other playgrounds in the neighborhood, having mastered the monkey bars.
Just before the ribbon-cutting, state Department of Conservation and Recreation commissioner Edward Lambert and Friends of the Esplanade Playspace members Jean Egan and Tani Marinovich addressed the young, excited crowd.

“I know how anxious we are to get on the zip line,” Egan said. She said the playspace project could teach the kids some valuable lessons about not giving up, working together, and appreciating a “community that loves you.”

The play area represents a remarkable collaboration, she said, with the Friends members working with other groups, including the Department of Conservation and Recreation and The Esplanade Association, to bring the project to fruition.

Shortly afterward, kids flooded onto the playground, anxious to test out the large and enduring gift from their community.


Xiaodan with two samples

As a member of the Charles River water quality monitoring team – a collaboration between the Charles River Conservancy and Northeastern University – I’ve experienced the joys and challenges of being out on the river every single day, for two summers in a row now!
Another member of the monitoring team at work
During the summer of 2011, we followed a day-to-day procedure of sampling, monitoring and analyzing the water quality to help determine the safety for swimming. There were three spots along the Charles spreading out from upstream to downstream under our monitoring. We had a cycling team including Kellie, Robert and myself to access all these spots and perform water collection every day. After we collected the samples we took them back to the environmental lab at Northeastern University to process and analyze them.
The most challenging day of this project was when Hurricane Irene swept over Boston. Under the severe weather conditions, we collected the precious samples as usual in the midst of flying branches and collapsing trees. It was worth the risk though.
Cyanobacteria under the microscope
The data obtained over the past two summers helps build up a foundation to study and understand the Charles under various conditions and will help to bring people back to swim in it. We’re looking forward to having you join us to help get the Charles cleaner.

Xiaodan Ruan
PhD Candidate
Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering
Northeastern University
Note: Results from this summer’s testing will be available in the coming months.  The Conservancy looks forward to sharing the details with you.
photos courtesy of Dr. Ferdi Hellweger, Northeastern University  



News Release
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
New England Regional Office
International Award Recognizes Successful Ongoing Work to Clean the Charles River
(Boston) – The river in Boston’s backyard, once derided as a lost cause to pollution and visits to a doctor’s office if you fell in, was recently awarded an international prize for cleanup efforts coordinated between federal, state and local governments, private organizations and environmental advocates to improve the health of the lower Charles River.

The Charles River is the 2011 winner of the International Riverprize, recognized as one of the world’s most prestigious environmental awards. The designation, bestowed by the International River Foundation’s “Thiess International Riverprize,” is awarded for visionary and sustainable excellence in river management. River projects from over 20 countries competed for this year’s award. One of the key partners in the effort to restore the Charles River to ecological health, the Charles River Watershed Association (CRWA), accepted the Riverprize award on Sept. 27 at the 14th International River Symposium in Brisbane, Australia.

Upon the award, the CEO of the International River Foundation, Matthew Reddy, compared the Charles to other iconic rivers of the world: “Charles River should be congratulated for their achievement; it joins the ranks of iconic rivers like the Thames,

Danube and Mekong.”

Begun in 1995, the effort to make the Charles River both “fishable” and “swimmable” as key measures for ecological health has thus far been a 17-year effort with significant contributions from the US EPA, the Massachusetts Dept. of Environmental Protection, the Cities of Boston and Cambridge, the Massachusetts Water Resources Agency (MWRA) and the CRWA. As this work continues, the goal of a river that is healthy and supports many recreational activities becomes closer to an everyday reality.

“This international recognition for the sustained accomplishments of our many partners speaks to a unique and excellent partnership,” said Curt Spalding, regional administrator of EPA’s New England office. “The work to clean the Charles River spans nearly two decades, and has won the support of elected and appointed officials from both political parties, three generations of EPA leadership and scores of unheralded professionals who have applied their brainpower and energy to finding solutions to the pollution problems which once plagued the Charles. We still have more work to do to ensure the Charles is a great resource for Bostonians, but we can all be proud of the work we have done.”

“In the world of river management, this is akin to winning the World Series – CRWA’s science and advocacy may have been the catalyst, but the heavy-lifting was done by EPA, MA DEP, and the cities and towns in the watershed,” said Robert L.

Zimmerman, Jr., CRWA’s Executive Director. “It’s truly a trophy, however, for the people that live and work in the communities that comprise the Charles watershed, and for everyone who loves this river.”

The Clean Charles initiative was the brainchild of former EPA New England Regional Administrator John P. DeVillars, who led EPA’s Region 1 office from 1994-2000. “The Clean Charles Initiative is a textbook model for effective collaboration between EPA, other Federal and state agencies, NGOs, and the private sector,” said DeVillars. “The results speak for themselves – a river whose polluted state was once the topic of popular song -”Love that Dirty Water” – is now a swimmable urban oasis. Hats off to all involved!!”

Following the 1990’s phase of the Clean Charles efforts, the project continued to be aggressively pursued under the leadership of Robert Varney, who was EPA Region 1 Administrator from 2001-2008. Mr. Varney said, “Congratulations to the Charles River Watershed Association for this well-deserved honor. The CRWA`s successful collaboration with government agencies and diverse stakeholders, combined with its commitment to sound science, measurement of results, public accountability and innovative solutions, provides a dynamic blueprint for river organizations across the world.”

The efforts to improve water quality in the lower Charles River reflects the coordinated efforts by government and local groups to identify sources and reduce bacteria levels, in turn making water quality safe for boaters and increasingly for swimmers. Despite remarkable progress reducing bacteria levels, there continues to be heightened concern about elevated levels of nutrients, especially phosphorus, in the Charles River. Both EPA and MassDEP are engaged in efforts to limit the discharge of phosphorus into the River.

“The Charles River is treasured natural resource for those who live, work in and visit Massachusetts. We congratulate the Watershed Association for their many stewardship efforts to revitalize this beautiful waterway and vibrant river habitat,” said Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Richard K. Sullivan. “On behalf of the Commonwealth and Governor Patrick, I want to thank our federal and local partners for helping us to protect the Charles River today and for years to come.”

The Charles has improved dramatically from the launch of EPA’s Charles River Initiative in 1995, when the river met boating standards only 39 percent of the time and swimming standards just 19 percent of the time. In 2010 (the most recent year where season-long water quality data are available), the Charles met boating standards 86 percent of the time, and swimming standards 66 percent of the time, according to data collected by the Charles River Watershed Association (CRWA) between Watertown Dam and Boston Harbor. The swimming percentage is the highest recorded since the EPA began grading the river in 1995.

More information:

International RiverFoundation’s Thiess Riverprize ( EPA’s Charles River Initiative (

Charles River Watershed Association (
– and related video (


You may have noticed the beautiful fall foliage along the river.  Autumn is a great time to observe the leaves changing from green to a beautiful oranges, reds, and yellows.  But have you ever wondered why the leaves change color?

The process has to do with the changing of pigments in the leaves.  Chrlorophyll which is normally present in the leaves produces a green pigment that acts as the dominant color throughout the season.  During autumn, the chlorophyll, which allows leaves to manufacture sunlight into food, stops being produced and therefore allows the the other colored pigments, such as carotenoids to show through.  Cartenoids produce yellow, orange, and brown colors (also found in foods like corn, carrots, and bananas).  Anthocyanins produce shades of red in the leaves and are produced only in the autumn, when bright sunlight and excess plant sugars are available inside the leaf cells (anthocyanins produce the red colors in cranberries, red apples, cherries, and strawberries).  Now when you look at the leaves you can think about all the cool processes that are happening to create this beautiful fall display.  But don’t trust me- check it out for yourself!

If you’re looking for more beautiful fall foliage, and perhaps a day trip or hike, then call the Forest Service’s Fall Color Hotline at 1-800-354-4595 for the most up to date details of the fall color display.


Union Park Press | October 20, 2011 | Meg Muckenhoupt


Harvard Raft Race, circa 1980

Once upon a time, when I had the misfortune of assisting with an entry in the annual Charles River Raft Race for Unusually Bored Harvard Undergrads, I was informed by one of my rather moist companions that Harvard University Health Services recommended tetanus shots for anyone who had come in contact with the Charles. No one was standing at the finish line to administer said shots, and our raft didn’t make it anywhere near the finish line anyway, so I simply went home, had a hot shower, and scrubbed very, very hard.

Now, it’s the week of the Head of the Charles, and no one is talking about injecting rowers with anything at all. The Charles River is safe for boating and safe for swimming below the Massachusetts Avenue bridge most of the year, according to the Charles River Conservancy. It hasn’t always been safe to swim. Heck, the lower Charles River wasn’t even a fresh-water river until 1910.

Therein lies the tale; human intervention nearly destroyed the Charles River, and human intervention has been restoring it to  health, or at least safe swimming.

Waltham's Watch Factory along the Charles River, photo by Josh Reynolds for the Boston Globe

Waltham’s Watch Factory along the Charles River, photo by Josh Reynolds for the Boston Globe

The Charles River was once a free-flowing tidal estuary, with salt water tides bathing the Back Bay mud flats. Europeans changed all that. The Back Bay was filled with gravel and charming townhouses, and the Charles River Watershed Association reports that by the end of the 19th century, there were more than 43 mills along the Charles and 20 dams. The dams blocked the river’s flow, the mills dumped pollution right into the water.

Despite the river’s transformation from a seaside water course into a strong-smelling industrial waste channel, far-seeing landscape architect Charles Eliot saw that it could become Boston’s most prominent park. As the landscape architect for the Massachusetts Metropolitan Park Commission from 1892 until his death in 1897, Eliot said the Charles River was “destined to become the central ‘court of honor’ of the Metropolitan District, and “lobbied hard” to create a fresh water basin at the mouth of the Charles, according to the Esplanade Association’s history of the Charles River. After Eliot died, banker and former Harvard crew team captain James J. Storrow convinced legislators to finally finish the job and make the Charles River fresh forever by damming it in 1910.


Charles River Dam, built in 1978

Charles River Dam, built in 1978

But sometimes a river feels not so fresh. The mills closed, and many dams were abandoned, but in the 20th century the Charles started suffering from another problem; raw sewage. More people moved to the suburbs along the Charles, and local sewage treatment simply failed. As the Charles River Watershed Association writes,

“By the mid-1960′s the river was in sorry shape after several years of lower-than-average rainfall. Raw sewage flowed from outmoded wastewater treatment plants. Toxic discharges from industrial facilities colored the river pink and orange. Fish kills, submerged cars and appliances, leaching riverbank landfills, and noxious odors were routine occurrences.”

Over the next two decades, the Charles River started turning around (well, it still flowed downstream). The Charles River Watershed Association (CRWA) was founded in 1965 to clean up this mess. Strangely enough, that was also the first year the Head of the Charles Regatta was held by members of the Cambridge Boat Club. I cannot confirm that the CRWA was founded in response to the foul conditions for the Regatta, but I do wonder.

Gentle Giant Rowing Club, photo from the Boston Globe

Gentle Giant Rowing Club, photo from the Boston Globe


The CRWA was energetic from the start, but it had a lot more success in getting sewage plants and industrial polluters to stop fouling the river after the federal Clean Water Act was passed in 1972. In 1974, the Army Corps of Engineers started to protect the Lower Charles from flooding by buying wetlands in the Upper Charles River, eventually acquiring 8,103 acres in Massachusetts. The final push to get the Charles River cleaner came from the Conservation Law Foundation, which sued federal and state officials in 1983 to force them to clean up Boston Harbor. You can’t clean the harbor if there’s sewage coming downstream, so state was compelled to start cleaning up Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs.)

CSOs are very simple structures that have terrible effects. In older sewer systems, the same pipes that carry sewage to wastewater treatment plants also carry storm water away from streets when it rains. If it rains too much, the pipes can’t handle the water, and the overflow goes into a CSO… and straight into the nearest pond, river, or stream. In his recent Boston Globe piece on the Charles River’s recovery, columnist Derrick Jackson writes:

“For recreational kayaker Roger Frymire, a paddle between the Museum of Science and the BU bridge 14 years ago was disgusting. ‘I passed under the Longfellow bridge and I started smelling something awful. I kept following the smell upriver until I went under the Mass. Ave. bridge. I traced the smell to a spot near the MIT crew house. There was a grate underwater that was bobbing up and down with turds.’

That’s what a CSO smells like. Frymire found 40 discharges just like that between the Watertown Dam and the Museum of Science. Frymire, the Charles River Watershed Association, the Environmental Protection Agency, and dozens of other people have worked since 1988 to get CSOs on the Charles shut down, and it’s worked; by 2013, it’s projected that annual CSO discharge into the Charles will be one half of one percent of 1988 levels.

You may not have noticed how much the river has improved, but the fish have; shad are returning to the Charles River where they haven’t lived in significant numbers since 1850. The Charles River Watershed Association is stocking them, to give the wild fish a bit of company; the Association estimates the Charles could support 30,000 shad, as long as they keep away from Boston fishermen.



This year, the Head of the Charles Regatta anticipates 300,000 spectators watching 9,000 competitors rowing close to 2,000 boats. There will be plenty of people at the finish line, but no vaccinations–and probably no shad. If I were a fish, I’d head for the Upper Charles until all the boats, the crowds, and garbage-eating gulls are long gone. Personally, though, I haven’t acted like a fish in the Charles since my last Raft Race, so I’ll try to get there and see the lovely river in its beautiful, clean, completely unnatural state.

Meg Muckenhoupt is the author of Boston’s Gardens & Green SpacesFor more information about the Head of the Charles Regatta, scheduled for this Saturday and Sunday (October 22-23),see this blog post from the 2010 Regatta. Information is all the same, just swap in those 2011 dates!


By Penny Cherubino

Do your weekend plans include joining the 300,000 spectators who will line the riverbanks for the Head of the Charles Regatta? It is fun to watch the athletes in action and enjoy the colorful aspects of the event. Here’s a bit of information about the race and the sport of rowing.


Crew or competitive rowing has been a part of the Charles River scene since 1844 when members of Harvard’s

class of ‘46 purchased an 8-oared boat and organized the first Harvard Boat Club. On the Boston side of the river, the Union Boat Club was founded in 1841. Collegiate women joined the action when Wellesley College organized a rowing program in 1875.

The Regatta

The Head of the Charles Regatta, first held in 1965, is now the world’s largest two-day rowing event. The competitors you see passing on the river are not racing one another side-by-side. In a “head” race, each boat is timed and the fastest time wins.

The starting line is opposite Boston University’s DeWolfe Boathouse. The finish line is 3.2 miles up river by Herter Park. This is also where boats launch for the race. Once on the water, the crews row along the Boston shore and circle in a waiting area, just west of the Massachusetts Avenue Bridge, until they’re called to begin their race.

The racers compete for prizes in many categories. Boats are grouped by the number of rowers onboard- singles, doubles, fours, and eights. All eights include a coxswain who doesn’t row but is responsible for steering and giving race commands. Some fours also have this additional crew member. There are divisions for men, women, and mixed crews, and for collegiates, masters, youth, and other special groupings.

Nine thousand rowers will have to learn the ins-and-outs of the course and the rules that make this race a model for safety and sportsmanship. The large number of boats on the river, six bridges, and the curving course make completing this race, without incident or penalty, challenging. Penalties for infractions, like going off course or interfering with another boat, are added to a crew’s time and can hurt a winning effort.

Beyond the Race Itself

This October happening has a festival atmosphere with a Rowing and Fitness Expo and a carnival of food vendors.

Reunions along the river are a race tradition. Organizers call “The Reunion Village” a place for, “clubs, schools, alumni groups, parents, boosters and ‘Friends’ to connect and enjoy themselves.” Elsewhere along the river, you’ll see tents erected and blankets spread as people gather informally to enjoy the race, the season, and old friends.

This will also be a weekend of volunteerism and charitable giving. More than 1500 volunteers assist with the race. And, since 1998, the event’s charity program has raised more than $800,000.

At the the Head of the Charles Regatta’s official website ( you can learn more about the history of the race and the sport of rowing.


  • By Pin-Yu Chen, Beacon Hill Times

The Charles River, once considered an open sewer, has turned around to such a degree that the group largely responsible for its clean-up just won the largest environmental prize in the world.

The Charles River Watershed Association bested projects from more than 20 countries to snag the 2011 International Riverprize, the prestigious environmental award for maintenance and sustainable implementation in river management, in Brisbane, Australia, Sept. 27.

Along with the award came a cash check for $250,000 and a $100,000 grant to share its river restoration expertise with a river organization in another country.

“The CRWA will use the prize money to invest in our major programs: Blue Cities and Blue Cities Exchange, dealing with remediating the impacts of storm water, smart sewering, and our monitoring and computer modeling work,” said Robert L. Zimmerman Jr., the CRWA’s executive director.

The Charles River was once notorious for its high level of pollutants but is today safe for boating 90 percent of the time, largely thanks to the efforts of the CRWA in 1965. The group cooperates with government agencies and citizen groups to protect, preserve and enhance the Charles River and its watershed.

“The association is the catalyst behind every major development concerning the Charles and its restoration,” Zimmerman said.page1image14488

The river is now heralded as the cleanest urban river in the United States by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, according to the association.

“The river’s renaissance is due to the hard work and dedication of organizations such as the Charles River Watershed Association, in partnership with federal, state and city agencies, and it is gratifying to see that success recognized by this prestigious international competition,” Gov. Deval Patrick is quoted as saying on the CRWA website.

The Riverprize also means a lot to Beacon Hill residents. “Probably the most important thing is that it helps CRWA continue to do the research and develop the solutions that will improve and restore the river, even in Boston, right out Beacon Hill’s front door,” Zimmerman said.


By Derrick Z. Jackson, Boston Globe

IT WAS unthinkable 20 years ago that the Charles River would ever be clean enough to win the world’s leading environmental prize for river restoration. Back then, human feces lapped at the Museum of Science. It was a river with “belly-up fish and algal blooms making dogs sick,’’ recalled Arleen O’Donnell, former state department of environmental protection acting commissioner.

For recreational kayaker Roger Frymire, a paddle between the Museum of Science and the BU bridge 14 years ago was disgusting. “I passed under the Longfellow bridge and I started smelling something awful. I kept following the smell upriver until I went under the Mass. Ave. bridge. I traced the smell to a spot near the MIT crew house. There was a grate underwater that was bobbing up and down with turds.’’

Today, the Charles is one of the nation’s cleanest urban rivers, and recently claimed the International River Foundation’s top award for river management, beating out more than 20 other countries. The award went to the Charles River Watershed Association, which was formed in 1965 to protect the river.

“The Charles in many ways is a wild river again,’’ said Bob Zimmerman, executive director of the CRWA. “If you had asked me in 1991 if that was possible, I would have said you were crazy.’’

The award provides a great moment to see what can happen when degradation spurs people to action. Former Governor Michael Dukakis remembered last week the collective shrug of the shoulder when Havey Beach in West Roxbury was closed to swimming in the 1950s. “There were no protests, no nothing,’’ Dukakis said. “The city itself was deteriorating, the town was racist and anti-Semitic. State government was corrupt. It was an angry place. The river was so polluted, it kind of symbolized the time.’’

The times for the river changed when the likes of Rita Barron, CRWA’s executive director for most of the 1970s and ’80s, worked with the Army Corps of Engineers to preserve Charles wetlands instead of just building flood control dams. Meanwhile, O’Donnell, deciding that the state’s highest-profile river was “an embarrassment to the Commonwealth,’’ pressed for reclassifying the Charles so polluters could face consequences.

“Somebody from MWRA [Massachusetts Water Resources Authority] told me that if we put in new water quality standards for the Charles, the ‘chickens will come home to roost,’ ’’ O’Donnell said. “I was told, ‘You are going to be hung out to dry by this standard that you can’t reach.’ ’’

The state’s environmental secretary at the time, John

DeVillars, took reclassification to another level when he became regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency. He launched a 10-year mission to make the Charles swimmable by 2005 and began issuing annual report cards on its water quality. “There was something about establishing a goal, timetable, and a measure of accountability that helped turned the tide,’’ DeVillars said.

Towns whose sewage outflows emptied into the river as well as offending corporations were held accountable for violations, most notably the fines levied against Conrail in 1995. Pollution from its Allston rail yard resulted in $2.5 million in criminal penalties, including a record $1.5 million under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. In a move to restore public relations, Conrail also gave $250,000 to CRWA to build a water testing lab.  How the CRWA came to be the recipient was a story by itself.

“A snaggle-toothed guy with bad breath came to my office,’’ Zimmerman said. “I listened to him talk about the river for half an hour. I didn’t think anything about it, but then came the Conrail headline and the money for us. It turned out that the snaggle-toothed guy was the fly-fishing writer from Sports Illustrated and he went fly fishing with senior officials of Conrail on the Rappahannock River [in Virginia]. I guess Conrail was trying to figure out what to do and they mentioned this to him and he said, ‘No question you should give the money to these guys.’ ’’

The very next summer, rowers began regularly calling the CRWA about horrible smells that turned out to be giant grease balls and collapsed sewer pipes. Armed with the new lab, Kate Bowditch, who is now director of projects at CRWA, and then-lab manager Jim Fitzgerald began to take samples. Meanwhile, Frymire’s sewage discovery near MIT became a personal mission, and he found 30 to 40 pollution sources in the Charles between the Watertown dam and the Museum of Science. CRWA trained him to take samples. It never became routine. Recalling one time he reached for a sample at the spot of a vomitive smell, Frymire said, “My whole body just started shuddering. I knew what I was reaching for. But if I didn’t, how long would it have stayed that way?’’

As Frymire reached for samples, people like Bill Walsh-Rogalski, a longtime attorney in the EPA’s New England office, reached for the law. Walsh-Rogalski’s office today overflows with charts, maps, and graphs that detail the progress that has been made by shutting down illegal sewage sources and repairing antiquated systems. By 2013, combined sewer overflow discharges into the Charles will have been reduced 99.5 percent from their levels in 1988.

“When we started, the attitude was, ‘So what, even if we fix our pipes, what about the next town?’ ’’ Walsh- Rogalski said. “But one by one, people started believing, and we hit that tipping point where people remembered that their grandmothers swam in the Charles and wanted that for themselves again.’’

Another visible tipping point of the Charles is the wildlife. The river now hosts otters, beavers, fishers, herons, hawks, herring, and migrating loons. Maury Eldridge, one of the river’s most dedicated kayaking photographers, says it has become more a “national park or wildlife sanctuary than an urban/suburban river.’’

Still, major challenges remain, such as phosphorus runoffs from car exhaust, fertilizers, and animal waste, which can cause toxic algal blooms. But the lessons of the Charles have inspired and informed river cleanups in the state and throughout the nation. Frymire is today most frequently at work on the Mystic River, where he says he has seen at least 50 source problems.

And while EPA’s report card on the Charles has improved from a D in 1996 to a B+ today, and while the river is technically swimmable on most days, the soil on the bottom remains laden with PCBs and toxic heavy metals. Removal is way beyond today’s strapped state and federal budgets.

Still, the Charles River Conservancy, which has worked hard over the last decade to beautify and improve the parklands and pathways along the Charles, has suggested swimming pavilions similar to ones in European cities.

“Swimming would be a real beacon,’’ DeVillars said. “I hope we find some vision around that instead of worrying if the budget has money for lifeguards. The final chapter is access into the river itself. It would be the crowning achievement of what government, the private sector, individual citizens, and advocacy groups can do.’’

So long a pauper among rivers, the Charles is now one of the greatest American civic accomplishments of the last 50 years. That in itself is a crowning achievement.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at