Community Invited to Swim in the Charles River

by Erin Baldassari, Wicked Local Cambridge
Cambridge —

The “dirty water” romanticized in The Standells’ song of the same name may not be so dirty anymore.

More than a half-century after high pollution levels prompted the state to shut down the Charles River for swimming, the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) and the Charles River Conservancy are inviting residents to take a dip on July 13.

While the water is safe to swim most days of the year, DCR spokesperson SJ Port cautioned it’s still not available for public swimming. Port said the unique opportunity is meant to celebrate the achievements in water quality improvements and bring attention to the ongoing effort needed to maintain those achievements.

“And, it’s fun,” Port added. “We get asked all the time why we don’t allow swimming in the Charles, and often have people – especially students – jump in during big events, like July 4th, just to say they swam in the Charles. So, we wanted to participate in offering a venue in which to safely swim the Charles.”

Conservancy founder and president, Renata von Tscharner, said the swim was the product of nearly two decades of working to improve the water quality in the river. Once a popular swimming spot for city residents – including Magazine Beach in Cambridge – the state prohibited swimming in the Charles River in the mid-1950s amid concerns it had become too contaminated, Port said.

The river remained polluted into the 1990s. Port said rowers and sailors were advised to get a tetanus shot if they fell into the water. That began to change in the mid-1990s with the implementation of the Clean Charles River Initiative in 1995, which was headed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, von Tscharner said.

Acting on a bill put forward by former state Rep. Alice Wolf, the legislature established the Charles River Water Quality Commission in 2009 with the aim of making the river safe for swimming, von Tscharner said.

One of the goals of the commission is to establish interest in swimming opportunities in the river, she said. While the conservancy has invited professional swimmers to the river in the past, the event on July 13 will mark the first time in over 60 years that the public’s invited to swim in the river.

Port said there are still concerns that sediment in the river is unsafe for regular swimming. von Tscharner said participants will be jumping off a dock and won’t be exposed to any pollutants.

“We hope to have regular swim events from the dock so people can become used to swimming the river,” von Tscharner said. “It’s very exciting. We’ve been working on it very long and very hard, indeed.”

Minors, ages 12-18 years, will be allowed to participate in the event as long as they provide a certificate from a swim coach or swim program establishing their ability to swim safely in open water. Participants over the age of 18 must sign a waiver asserting they are capable of swimming, von Tscharner said.

The event will be held from 10 a.m. to noon at the Fiedler Head Dock on the Esplanade in Boston between the Longfellow and Harvard bridges. For more information on how to register for the community swim event, visit: Pre-registration is required.

Contact Cambridge Chronicle assistant editor Erin Baldassari at 617-629-3390, and follow her on Twitter: @e_baldi. 


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