Community Swim in the Charles River in Boston this Saturday


Newton TAB

On Saturday, July 13, the Charles River Conservancy, the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, and the Charles River Swimming Club  will be holding a community swim event in the Charles River from 9 a.m.-noon off the River Dock at the Esplanade near the Fiedler Head sculpture and the Hatch Shell, Boston.  Additional event partners include the Charles River Watershed Association, the Esplanade Association and Community Boating.  Preregistration is required for all swimmers.

Since 2007, the CRSC has hosted a popular one-mile swim race on the Charles from the same location, which was held on June 1 of this year. This swim race, however, is an exclusive competitive US Masters swim, which is not open to the general public.  The July 13 community swim event is intended for the general public; people seeking a recreational swimming experience in the Charles River.

This public swim event marks an historic moment for the Charles River.  Recreational swimming has not been legally permitted in the river since the 1950s when swimming was banned due to an awareness of pollution and related health risks.  Once a popular activity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries at Magazine Beach in Cambridge, along the Esplanade, and downstream from the Longfellow Bridge in Boston, the industrialization along the river and surrounding area took its toll on water quality.

In 1995, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency established the Clean Charles River Initiative, with a goal of making the lower Charles River, from Watertown to Boston Harbor, fishable and swimmable by 2005.  Through the efforts of federal, state and municipal agencies, nonprofit organizations, private institutions and local residents, tremendous progress has been made toward achieving this goal.  Approximately $500 million has been spent on projects to improve Charles River water quality and as a direct result the river has improved from an EPA grade D in 1995 to a grade B in 2011. Today, the Charles River is one of the cleanest urban rivers in the U.S., meeting the state standards for safe swimming most days of the summer.

Thanks to the generous support of the Boston Foundation, the Swimmable Charles Working Group, which includes representatives from the Conservancy, the CRWA, TEA, EPA, and DCR, has been exploring potential locations for new public swimming areas in the Charles lower basin.  In addition, the Charles River Water Quality Commission, established by the state legislature in 2009 with members appointed by the governor, is charged with finding ways to bring back swimming to the river. This Commission is staffed by the CRC.

Although there has been great success cleaning up the river, perceptions of “dirty water” in the Charles linger in part, because of the yellow-brown color of the water.  This natural color of the Charles is due to tannins from organic matter that seep and wash into the slow-moving river.  This natural “staining” of the river is normal and characteristic of slow-moving rivers and lakes, even in rural and undeveloped watersheds. Despite this reality, memories of the once-polluted Boston Harbor and Charles River are cemented into the public’s consciousness, because of the Standells’ 1966 hit song “Dirty Water,” which has become a fun anthem for local sports fans, making people weary of coming in contact with the water.  Educating the public about the health of the Charles is an integral part of the Conservancy’s efforts to promote recreational swimming.

While the water quality is much improved and now considered swimmable many days of the year, the sediment on the river bottom contains toxic heavy metals, PCBs, and other contaminants that have built up from industry, particularly in the first half of the 20th century when tidal flow was eliminated by the construction of the Charles River dam in 1911.  As a result, to ensure public safety, only deep-water swimming is possible, which is why the swim event is permitted at the river dock along the Esplanade; the depth of the water ensures that swimmers will not come into contact with any sediments.  Water quality testing will also be completed in the days prior to the swim, ensuring the river meets the state public health standards for swimming that day — if it does not, the swim will be cancelled and rescheduled.

Registered participants will be assigned one of four 30-minute time slots.  Swimmers must be 12 years or older and youth swimmers under the age of 18, must provide documented proof of their ability to swim. For those unable to register for this swim, a waitlist has been established for future swims.  The Conservancy encourages all those interested in swimming to sign up on the wait list, which can be accessed from

On the day of the event, on-site check-in will begin at 9 a.m.  At 9:20 a.m., a short program will begin to acknowledge this historic event and the public-private partnerships that have made swimming in the Charles possible.  Meteorologist Bruce Schwoelger will serve as master of ceremonies for the program and the swim.  Boston’s chief of environment and energy, Brian Swett will also be in attendance.  The swim will begin at 10 a.m. with half-hour sessions until noon. Lifeguards and public safety officials will be present both on the dock and in the water.

Though swimming or wading is not permitted anywhere in the Charles River, except as part of these sanctioned events, the Conservancy and its partners aim to raise awareness and celebrate the efforts that have gone into cleaning the river, as well as to highlight the need for continued cleanup to enable recreational swimming in the future.

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