Yearly Archives: 2016


The Charles River is beautiful, but it’s boring. Just look at Prague’s Vltava River for proof of this.

By Mike Ross, 

The Charles River is beautiful, but it’s boring. Extremely boring. I now know this after visiting Prague’s Vltava River.

In the dead of winter you might see a handful of brave runners streaking down the Charles’s running paths. Maybe some winter geese, too. In Prague, you’ll see far more life.

Along the Vltava’s banks are vibrant Christmas markets where customers line up to purchase hot mulled wine and delicious sugar covered pastries called trdelnik that bake over an open fire and steam when you bite into it. There are restaurants that are open late into the evening and where blankets and open fires keep diners warm.

There are vendors perched above the cascading bridges, selling souvenirs and mementos. In short, the river is an active ribbon where the city comes alive.

Somewhere an environmentalist, wary of inviting for-profit businesses into Boston’s riverfront park, is groaning about the commercialization of nature. But it isn’t an issue. In Prague, swans, dozens of them, flock to the edges during the days and at night dance in the city’s reflections.

Runners and walkers still enjoy the raw beauty of the place, and families with their strollers wander and explore.

Boston has a history of activating its environmental spaces, but sometimes it takes a firm nudge from private citizens and the nonprofit sector. The Boston Harbor Association, which has since become part of Boston Harbor Now, helped bring foot traffic to a waterfront that was once a wasteland of parking lots. Sure, the planning and architecture in the Seaport District may be atrocious, but the area’s place as an exciting destination is now assured because people want to go there.

From this, we could learn a bit about how to treat the Charles. This is not a Boston problem. Boston has demonstrated a real interest in enlivening public spaces like Boston Common and City Hall Plaza. This is a statewide problem. Along the Charles, from Boston to Hopkinton, the river is dead. If businesses happen to line the banks, they do so with their backs to the water.

One night by the river in Prague, I enjoyed one of the better dinners I’ve had in a long time — truffles no less.

The best you can do for food along the Charles would be a hot dog.

It wouldn’t take much for the Charles to be reimagined. There’s some work underway already. The Esplanade Association’s vision document, Esplanade 2020, articulates the need to bring life to the river and revitalize discarded facilities like the Lee Pool, between Mass. General and the river, or the underutilized concession building nearby should be brought back to life. Further west, the banks should be developed with businesses that face riverward. We need open-air cafes and restaurants that celebrate — not wall off — the vistas.

As local enthusiasts acknowledged when releasing a remarkable study of the Charles’s varying depths, ours is already one of the busiest rivers in the country for boaters. It’s time it became one of the most engaging for people along its banks.

Mike Ross is an attorney and former Boston city councilor. He writes regularly for the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @mikeforboston.

Read the full article, including photos, here.


By Daniel Adams,

The Charles River Basin — at least, the one we recognize — was born on Oct. 20, 1908.

Before then, much of the waterway between Boston and Cambridge was an estuary, with expansive, foul-smelling mud flats emerging at low tide. But on that Tuesday more than a century ago, workers on the first dam at the mouth of the Charles lowered 84 massive timber gates into the water, creating the placid, lake-like river so familiar today.

Now, for the first time since it was submerged, the riverbed is coming back into view, this time in vivid digital detail. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology engineer and a longtime sailor and scientist have collaborated to create the most thorough, accurate chart of the lower Charles yet. It promises to become a foundational tool of multiple efforts to study, navigate, and manage the increasingly crowded Charles.

“The Charles is now one of the busiest recreational rivers in the country, but I can tell you from personal experience: The data that’s available out there is just not right,” said Carl Zimba of the Charles River Alliance of Boaters, or CRAB, a scientist who has sailed on the river for decades. “The focus of our project was to generate hard data on the real depth of the river.”

The lack of such data was surprising to many. After all, the Charles is teeming with boaters and located between several large cities — hardly remote or unexplored territory.

But the few existing charts of the river were approximate at best, Zimba said, cobbled together from dubious or obsolete data. So while ships in commercially navigable waters travel in channels marked with a standardized buoy system, recreational boaters on the Charles instead rely on experience, landmarks, and a complex “honor system” negotiated by various clubs and universities to avoid collisions and shallows.

The charting effort began in 2015, when a friend at the Head of the Charles Regatta asked Zimba for a chart to help place booms and buoys along the race course. Finding none of usable quality, he contacted a friend, Michael Sacarny, a research engineer at MIT’s Sea Grant College developing technology for autonomous boats. Could one of the university’s robot boats map the Charles?

Sacarny was game, and he commandeered MIT’s 16-foot autonomous catamaran Rex. To the boat’s suite of sophisticated cameras, lasers, and other sensors, he added a relatively ordinary gadget: a sonar fish-finder of the kind found in most outdoor-equipment stores.

With Sacarny and Zimba in a chase boat, Rex swept a portion of the Charles by MIT in a neat, lawnmower-like grid, pinging the bottom with sonar pulses from the fish-finder. The sonar data and GPS coordinates were loaded into map-making software that wove the raw numbers into a high-resolution chart.

“We intentionally used proven, off-the-shelf technology,” Zimba said, “because it allows you to go back in five years, measure the same areas again, and know that you’re comparing apples to apples.”

Encouraged, Sacarny and Zimba drummed up money to fund a full-scale survey of the 9.5-mile section of the lower Charles to the Watertown dam.

As they moved into the shallower, narrower waters upriver, however, the team had to dock Rex in favor of a conventional motor boat. The autonomous ship struggled to navigate tight quarters, and its safety system killed the engines whenever rowers and other boaters got too close — which was often.

Over the following months, the two took numerous trips, squeezing the simple sonar-and-GPS rig into every cove along the way. They had to adjust depth readings to account for changes in the water level because of rain or releases by the dam.

The chart, now nearly finished, hints at the Charles’s past: Trenches of deeper water trace the narrower river channel that existed before the 1908 damming. The mud flats that once surrounded that channel, meanwhile, show up as large plateaus of uniform shallowness. And underneath the Harvard Bridge, the chart reveals a channel where a swing span once rotated to allow larger ships to pass; it was replaced with a fixed span in 1924.

The map also spotlights areas of potential concern, including a shallow shelf of sediment near the Watertown Yacht Club. Another mound, where the Muddy River joins the Charles near Kenmore Square, is just 18 inches under the surface, a hazard to all but the smallest boats. Follow-up studies will measure how quickly the sandy muck is piling up.

“You can get out and stand on it,” Zimba said. “It’s a problem.”

A second “side-scan” sonar unit recorded fuzzy images of objects under the water, including tires, pilings of wrecked piers, and a tangle of bent pipes, probably the remnants of a defunct “bubbler” system the state installed decades ago in an attempt to oxygenate the fetid waters.

Peering at the hidden underwater world is “almost magical,” Sacarny said. “There are undoubtedly stories that go along with all these things.”

The team plans to publish its chart in several formats, including as a printed booklet, an interactive digital chart, and a format for Google Maps and Google Earth.

Before the MIT-CRAB project, the most recent chart was published in 2000 by the United States Geological Survey as part of a pollution study. However, it is outdated and imprecise: Researchers videotaped the screen of a fish-finder and transcribed the depths by hand later. The 2000 version gives boaters only a rough picture of the bottom and is a static image, not an interactive chart.

Yet with the cleaned-up waters of the Charles drawing ever-larger numbers of boaters and tourists, river groups and state agencies badly need a good picture of the Charles’s depths.

Last winter, for example, the state spent $800,000 dredging an accumulating sandbar near Watertown where boats were running aground. And with the Charles River Conservancy planning a swimming area near the Museum of Science, it will be crucial to understand how and where polluted muck at the bottom of the river moves over time.

“Once we have high-quality information everyone can get behind, instead of just anecdotes, then you can have a more rational discussion about, ‘Now what do we do?’ ” Zimba said.

Conservancy president Renata von Tscharner said the new chart will make boating safer and boost efforts to study and use the river.

The new mapping data might also be useful to Northeastern University professor Ferdi Hellweger, who’s working on a digital simulation of the river’s flow. His software could be used to determine when swimming areas should close by predicting how bacteria and other pollutants travel through the Charles after heavy rain.

Boston Duck Tours, whose restored World War II-era amphibious vehicles take tourists on tours of the Charles, helped fund the charting project. Jim Healy, the company’s safety officer, said the lack of a reliable chart forced him to take his own depth readings several years ago to check the routes his boats took and to find locations where a duck boat could exit the river in an emergency.

“The soundings I took couldn’t possibly be as detailed,” Healy said.

“The river’s never been charted to the extent that they’ve done it. It’s rather impressive.”

Continue reading here.


Editorial, DECEMBER 13, 2016, Boston Globe

The state’s plans for replacing the crumbling Massachusetts Turnpike viaduct and interchange in Allston are coming into focus, and it’s a mixed picture for the neighborhood. There’s plenty more studying and analyzing to do before construction begins, but it’s already clear that the state will need some prodding from elected officials to make good on the project’s transformative potential. The state could help reconnect Allston with the rest of the city and smooth transit in the area — or it could miss a historic opportunity.

Some aspects of the new proposals, presented to the Allston community at a meeting last week, mark definite improvements. In particular, MassDOT now envisions new parkland along the Charles River, a patch of open space dubbed the Allston Esplanade. The state has also incorporated some recommendations from the Boston Planning and Development Agency (the former BRA) and adjusted some of the street configurations. The project, which involves straightening the Pike and freeing up land for development, should create a whole new neighborhood out of what is now a spaghetti bowl of highway ramps and unused railroad tracks. The BPDA’s placemaking recommendations were aimed at ensuring that the new neighborhood would be a vibrant, mixed-use area, and MassDOT listened.

Missing, though, was a firm commitment to construct a commuter rail station at the southern edge of the parcel, where it would serve both the Boston University campus and the newly created neighborhood. Officials also cast doubt on community hopes that the project would result in improvements to bus service in Allston. The unreliable 66 bus, the main MBTA route connecting Allston with the rest of the city, follows a slow and circuitous course across the Pike. A direct north-south connection from Allston, over the Pike and toward the Longwood Medical Area, would speed transportation for nurses or researchers who live in Allston and work at Longwood; it would also make the new neighborhood a more attractive place to live. Cycling advocates are hoping for a “People’s Pike,” a dedicated bikeway that would connect to the trails along the river.

The state, understandably, is growing impatient. In an interview with the Globe editorial board on Tuesday, Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said she regularly gets warnings about the state of the existing viaduct, whose deteriorating condition was the whole reason for the project in the first place. Considering the importance of the Pike to the state’s overall economic health, it’s no wonder that officials want to move the planning process along. The state still needs to analyze three options for the area near where the Pike passes underneath Commonwealth Avenue, where the Pike, Soldier’s Field Road, and two rail lines all squeeze through a narrow throat of land.

But decisions over the next few years will shape Allston for decades, and MassDOT needs to get this right. The agency is moving in the right direction in its Allston plans, but it won’t be done until the needed transit improvements are included in the plan — and funded.

Read in the Boston Globe.


BOSTON, October 20, 2016 – The recent infrastructure improvements at Kendall Cogeneration Station eliminate thermal pollution to the Charles River and mark the completion of Veolia’s Boston-Cambridge “Green Steam” project – a multi-million dollar investment that has improved energy reliability and air quality, while reducing the region’s carbon footprint. 

“Through a close collaboration with government, environmental organizations, local citizens and industry, this significant environmental milestone was made possible,” said William J. DiCroce, president and CEO of Veolia North America. “The completion of upgrades at Kendall Cogeneration Station helps to protect the Charles River – a local treasure and national landmark – and supports Veolia’s mission to deliver clean energy while reducing the carbon footprint of Boston and Cambridge.” 

Operated by Veolia, and acquired with joint venture partner I Squared Capital in 2014, the Kendall Station Combined Heat and Power (CHP) plant produces electricity and recycles thermal energy used to supply Veolia’s 20-mile steam distribution system.  Through its efficient CHP operations at Kendall Station, combined with a 7,000-foot steam pipeline extension completed in 2013, Veolia has doubled its transport of environmentally friendly thermal energy, or “Green Steam,” to Cambridge and Boston metro customers via recovered heat – an accomplishment that has increased overall energy reliability, capacity and efficiency, in addition to reducing the region’s carbon footprint.
In October 2016, Veolia’s $112 million dollar “Green Steam” infrastructure investment culminated with the completion of a retrofit of Kendall Station. By replacing the plant’s original once-through cooling system design with an Air Cooled Condenser (ACC), Kendall Station now leverages ambient air for use in its thermal cycle, instead of Charles River water – an engineering and environmental achievement that eliminates heated water discharge to the river, protecting the aquatic habitat of this precious natural resource.
The path to this environmental feat began nearly 20 years ago when the Charles River Watershed Association and the Conservation Law Foundation fought to eliminate the plant’s environmental impact on the Charles River.  This partnership resulted in a 2011 Administrative Order from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency calling for a 95 percent reduction in cooling water and discharge flow to the Charles River.
“This project is a win for the environment and the communities of Cambridge and Boston. Ending the discharge of heated water to the Charles River will help protect fish, restore habitat and reduce the severity of cyanobacteria blooms,” said Charles River Watershed Association’s Executive Director Robert Zimmerman, Jr.   “‘Green Steam’ further protects the environment with reduced greenhouse gas emissions and improved air quality. Charles River Watershed Association is honored to have worked with Veolia, Kendall Cogeneration Station, the Conservation Law Foundation and other partners to forge this creative solution to the heat pollution that has plagued the Charles River.”
“The success of Kendall Station is proof that energy production, environmental protection and economic prosperity need not be competing forces,” said Veronica Eady, Director of Conservation Law Foundation Massachusetts. “This project offers a model that can be replicated around the nation — a blueprint for how to use, and even profit from, heated water from a plant rather than dumping it back into already-imperiled fish habitats.”
Support and leadership from state and local government were also critical factors to the success of this reconfiguration project.  In 2012, the Massachusetts Green Communities Act reinforced the importance of investment in clean energy technology and provided opportunities to “find clean energy solutions that reduce long-term energy costs and strengthen local economies.”

“The recently enacted comprehensive energy diversification legislation, paired with Governor Baker’s Executive Order establishing a statewide climate change strategy, lays a foundation for Massachusetts to safeguard our precious natural resources while securing our clean energy future,” said Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Matthew Beaton. “By replacing water with ambient air cooling at the Kendall Station Combined Heat and Power (CHP) Plant, Veoila’s vision will both provide additional clean, reliable energy and heating resources, and ensure tremendous environmental, climate and economic benefits.”

“We are truly lucky to have this unique energy infrastructure with Kendall Station.  Businesses, healthcare providers and biopharma manufacturers in our community have access to this green, resilient energy – making it a differentiator for businesses looking to expand or grow here,” said Mayor E. Denise Simmons of Cambridge.  “Efforts such as the Kendall reconfiguration, which protects our community and environment supports our objectives of ensuring a growing and resilient Cambridge.”

“This effort is not about the contributions of one group or individual; it’s about the actions, large and small, made by many.  Today, we recognize those individuals and organizations that have demonstrated the leadership and vision for a greener, more livable Cambridge and Boston,” said DiCroce.

Green Steam by the Numbers:

  • 80% by 2050 – “Green Steam” supports Boston and Cambridge’s goal to reduce GHG emissions by 80% by 2050
  • 61%/36% – Reduction of the region’s SO2 and NOx emissions, respectively
  • 75% of district energy heat supply consists of recycled “Green Steam”
  • 311, 936 labor hours supported the construction of the “Green Steam” project
  • 70% of Boston’s high-rise buildings served by Veolia

View online.


By Shachar Peled, CNN, Wed October 19, 2016

Watch the video on

(CNN) Would you drink a beer originating in what used to be one of the most polluted rivers in the country?

In early August, Newton, Massachusetts-based water technology company Desalitech withdrew 4,000 gallons from Boston’s Charles River. After purification, the water was delivered to six local breweries for a beer-making competition.
“The Charles River is one of the biggest icons of Boston. Being able to drink it is really tapping in one of the biggest symbols of the town,” said Nadav Efraty, Desalitech’s CEO. “Our company has reinvented the purification and reuse process in a way that enables us to almost completely eliminate the waste of water.”
The company upgraded a traditional process called reverse osmosis to treat the water and clean it for reuse. Reverse osmosis uses special membranes to block salts and contaminants, producing purified water and a stream of concentrated pollutants.
Reverse osmosis systems typically operate around 75% water efficiency, wasting about 25 gallons for every 75 gallons of purified water, according to Efraty. For the Brew the Charles project, he said, there was 98% efficiency.
According to Bob Zimmerman, executive director of the Charles River Watershed Association, swimming or boating in the river was once unheard of, let alone drinking from its waters.
“Fifty years ago, when my organization was formed, the Charles literally ran in colors” stemming from local industry waste, he said. “If someone were to offer me a beer that had been made in the 1970s from Charles River water, my reaction would have been ‘No way; that’s death in a bottle.’ “
As recently as 1996, raw sewage pollution in the river was severe enough that it failed state swimming standards up to 80% of the time over the course of the year, Zimmerman recalled.
Then, authorities launched efforts including preserving wetlands to filter out pollutants; promoting construction of modern wastewater plants, reducing sewage discharges; and enforcing the 1972 Clean Water Act.
Thanks to the ongoing efforts of the Watershed Association and local authorities, the US Environmental Protection Agency gave the river a B+ in 2015, up dramatically from its D in 1995.
According to Renata von Tscharner, founder and president of the Charles River Conservancy, about $500 million has been invested over the years to clean up the water and bring the region’s main waterway back to life.
“It’s still got its issues, but you can boat on it safely, occasionally swim in it safely, and we’re working hard to get it the rest of the way,” Zimmerman said.
The shift in the way locals perceived the river was captured by the 1966 song “Dirty Water” by the Standells. Once a gloomy depiction of the city and its river, it is now the closing song for victories when baseball’s Red Sox win at Fenway Park. Zimmerman sees it as “an anthem of rejuvenation and restoration for the city.”
In September, about 1,000 people attended the closing party for Boston’s HUBweek innovation festival, tasting beers made from the Charles’ water.
Adam Romanow, founder and president of Castle Island brewing company — which won the People’s Choice Award — grew up in the Boston area and typically uses the Quabbin Reservoir in Central Massachusetts as his brewery’s main water source.
“We don’t normally use the Charles River, but we got lucky this time,” Romanow said. “The water that we got was actually slightly better than the quality of water that we usually get straight out of the tap.”
Tasters appeared mostly intrigued and undaunted by the beers’ origins. “Why would I be concerned? It tastes great,” Rachel Motz said.
The event was also part of an initiative to create a permanent swimming area in the Charles.
“There used to be swimming in the Charles River until the 1950s. So, many people have fond memories of swimming in the river,” von Tscharner said.
Until then, fans will have to settle for drinking it.

Underfunded, understaffed agency struggles to raise the rent

by Colman M. Herman and Bruce Mohl, October 10, 2016, Commonwealth Magazine

THE HEAD OF THE CHARLES Regatta is a major draw for Massachusetts. Attracting more than 11,000 athletes and tens of thousands of spectators from all over the world, the October regatta is to rowing what the Boston Marathon is to long-distance running.

For the Department of Conservation and Recreation, the state agency that owns the Charles River and its shores, the regatta also presents a dilemma. Should the agency offer access to the river and its shoreline as a public service, or should it share in the profits from the event and use the money to bolster the agency’s tattered finances?

DCR faces these types of questions on a daily basis. The agency is the largest landowner in the state. It owns the Esplanade, the Walden Pond State Reservation, Nickerson State Park, and many other parks and beaches. It also owns 2,000 buildings, four working piers, three ski areas, two golf courses, two summer theaters, six bocce courts, and assorted ice rinks and pools. In all, the agency owns 450,000 acres of land.

Despite its massive responsibilities, DCR has the image of a sad-sack state agency. Over the years, governors have used the agency as a patronage haven, commissioners have come and gone at lightning speed, and the agency’s budget and workforce have never kept pace with its responsibilities. The parks, pools, and rinks that DCR oversees generally keep operating, but day-to-day financial management of many of the agency’s properties, particularly those leased to third parties, has been neglected.

Four years ago, CommonWealth reported that some DCR tenants had been operating for long periods of time without leases and other tenants were paying rents that were either well-below market rate or not paying anything at all (“Freeloading,” CW, Winter ’12). State Auditor Suzanne Bump was called in and in 2013 she recommended a number of initiatives to put the agency on solid footing. The Legislature also passed a law in 2010 authorizing DCR to negotiate long-term leases with yacht and boat clubs that for years had been paying cut-rate rents.

Progress has been slow, painfully slow. DCR has yet to implement many of the recommendations in the audit report. Some DCR tenants continue to pay no rent, while the yacht and boat clubs are just now being required to increase their payments. An outside consulting firm brought in more than two years ago to help the agency get a handle on all its leases is still on the job, running up a tab that will reach $777,000 next year.

In August, a report commissioned by the administration of Gov. Charlie Baker documented in stark terms how DCR is poorly managing state piers in New Bedford, Fall River, Plymouth, and Gloucester. In New Bedford, for example, the consultant says accurate revenue and expense reports for the pier did not exist, but guessed that DCR suffered a $28,000 loss operating the pier in 2015.

Against this backdrop of mismanagement, DCR’s permit arrangement with the Head of the Charles Regatta might seem like small potatoes. Yet the lease with the nonprofit that runs the regatta is symptomatic of the agency’s mindset, a mindset that DCR commissioner Leo Roy hopes to change.

DCR offers the regatta access to the Charles River and eight designated areas along the shore for 13 days for a base fee of $45,000, plus reimbursement of any agency expenses in excess of that amount. In 2015, DCR collected a total of $97,650 from the regatta organization.

By contrast, the nonprofit brought in $3.1 million last year from the event, and a third of that amount was pure profit. While DCR struggles to maintain services with a declining budget, the nonprofit’s tax return indicates it has built up a $5.1 million endowment. The regatta’s executive director, Frederick Schoch, is paid $306,489 a year, more than twice the salary of the DCR commissioner.

Roy, a little over nine months on the job, says it is time for DCR to start collecting fair-market rents on the properties it leases. He says many of the agency’s permits and leases go back decades, and reflect the attitude that below-market rents are acceptable if the tenant is providing a public service in line with DCR’s mission.

“I approach this on a fairness basis,” Roy says in a telephone interview. “If I let one group use a piece of riverbank on the Charles River at a below-market rate, that’s revenue that I’m starving from the system as a whole. So maybe there is a park in the central part of the state that’s not getting the resources it needs because I’ve got a below-market situation here. What I’m trying to do over time is really systematically get all of the rents across the system up to a market rate, or up to a near-market rate. It’s a multiyear effort.”

Read the full article in Commonwealth Magazine



The Charles and the Mystic, two of America’s most historic waterways, are located just miles apart. Why did one flourish while the other suffered?

The majestic Charles River wasn’t always so majestic. Through the 1980s, anyone who fell into its tea-colored depths was wise to seek medical care and a tetanus shot. Spanning 80 miles from Hopkinton into the lower basin that divides Boston and Cambridge, the Charles ran adjacent to some of our nation’s earliest mills, stockyards, and munitions depots, withstanding centuries of industrial punishment and urbanization. Yet none of that compared with the damage done by antiquated sewer lines and illegal plumbing hookups that funneled billions of gallons of raw sewage into the river. Human excrement, urine, used sanitary napkins, sullied condoms, and anything else that could be flushed down a toilet found its way in there, accompanied by trillions of harmful microscopic bacteria. When the Standells cemented the river into pop culture with the 1966 hit “Dirty Water,” they were actually being quite polite.

Then everything changed. The Environmental Protection Agency spent the 1990s shaming polluters in the press and suing them into submission. The water cleared up quickly, and today the Charles is among the most widely touted environmental rags-to-riches stories in the world. So much so that on a sweltering Tuesday afternoon in July, something extraordinary happened: 278 people jumped into it.

While swimming is not permitted, the Charles River Conservancy had organized the well-publicized dip to show how safe the water has become, and it is urging the city to build a permanent swimming dock near the Museum of Science. As the Boston area experiences its own renaissance, we are in love with the Charles like never before. “I’ve lived on this river or near this river for 20 years, and being in it just makes you feel differently,” said Ed Lyons, a 44-year-old computer programmer, as he dried off near the bike racks. “The river defines the city.”

What about our other famous river, though, the Mystic? Would Lyons take a swim in that? “Uh, no,” he says, followed by a hearty laugh. “I hear there are a lot of cars at the bottom.”

Less than a week after TV news crews captured families splashing around in the Charles, the Mystic River has its own moment in the spotlight when dozens of out-of-towners pile into a bus at PORT Park, in Chelsea. Industrial eyesores loom in every direction. To the right of a basketball court is a 50-foot-tall mountain of salt that will be used to melt snow on the roads this winter. To the left is a commercial dock set against a backdrop of oil tanks. Across the street sits the brick-and-mortar headquarters of Boston Hides & Furs, once deemed a public nuisance by the Chelsea Board of Health and ordered by the feds to pay nearly $1 million to settle allegations of overworking and underpaying its employees. This might seem like an odd spot for a bunch of tourists to kick off a bus tour, but it makes perfect sense if you’re part of a disaster-preparedness conference organized by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

Compared with the Charles, the main body of the Mystic is not very long, running 7 miles. Its northernmost tip, marked by two freshwater lakes, is pristine, with a shoreline dotted by mansions and the Tufts University Boathouse. As you head downstream, the river juts out into half a dozen polluted tributaries, including Winn Brook, in Belmont, which earned an F in water quality last year from the Environmental Protection Agency, and Mill Brook, in Arlington, which earned a D. The scenery along the shore deteriorates in the lower basin as you head past Everett and into Chelsea. Here the Mystic defines the city’s southern border and branches off into two heavily trafficked industrial inlets: Island End River and Chelsea Creek.

“Along the Chelsea Creek we store 70 to 80 percent of the region’s heating fuel and 100 percent of the jet fuel that’s used at Logan International Airport,” says our tour guide, Roseann Bongiovanni, who’s talking over the PA system and pointing out the bus window. As a kid growing up in Chelsea, she says, there were no parks along the shores and the Mystic was just an afterthought, an invisible private-sector workhorse cordoned off by fences and security gates. She didn’t even know her hometown had a waterfront.

Unlike the Charles, a pleasure garden for Cambridge and the Back Bay, the lower Mystic is a playground for polluters. Over the past two decades, episodes have included a 15,000-gallon diesel oil spill from an ExxonMobil terminal; MassPort’s proposal to bury contaminated soil at the bottom of Chelsea Creek; Global Partners’ plan to store carcinogenic asphalt along the shore; and a proposal by Cape Wind’s parent company to put a diesel power plant near an elementary school. “I see a lot of raised eyebrows,” Bongiovanni says, smirking at the skeptics on the bus. “You think this is crazy? This shit is crazy. I kid you not, this happened.”

In light of the Charles River’s remarkable makeover, the persistent onslaught of industrial pollution and development here seems cruelly lopsided. The most heavily industrialized parts of the Mystic are within eyeshot of our beloved Boston Harbor and right in the backyard of some of the city’s trendiest neighborhoods. Eight of the most environmentally overburdened communities in the state are located along the Mystic River Watershed. These places, including Everett and Chelsea, tend to lag far behind their counterparts along the Charles in terms of household income and tend to have higher rates of cardiovascular disease and asthma.

Technically speaking, Everett, Chelsea, and East Boston are classified as “environmental justice communities” and should be afforded special safeguards to counter the decades-long laissez-faire approach to pollution in these working-class areas. Yet to those who’ve been paying attention, it looks like the regulators and legislators who control the Mystic’s fate have thrown in the towel. “Over the years there has been a great deal of attention by officials at the highest level of government toward addressing pollution problems along the Charles,” says Brad Campbell, president of the Conservation Law Foundation. “You haven’t seen any such action along the Mystic.”

How is it that two of the country’s most historical rivers, located just miles from each other, forged such drastically different legacies? On a superficial level, the Charles is the river that Matt Damon crosses on the Red Line to visit his Harvard sweetheart, while the Mystic is where Sean Penn ruthlessly murders an innocent Tim Robbins. But it’s far more than Tinseltown depictions—the rivers’ divergent paths highlight Boston’s deepest, longest-running divides.

Read the full article Boston Magazine.


Drink This Now: ‘Brew the Charles’ Beers From Castle Island, Idle Hands, and More

In honor of HUBweek, six Massachusetts companies brewed with purified water from a notorious source in Boston.

Brewing a crisp pilsner just made sense to Idle Hands owner Chris Tkach. He wanted to create something that would put the soft quality of the Charles River water on center stage, rather than mask its presence with hops.

“The nice thing about a Czech pilsner is that there’s nothing to hide behind,” Tkach says. “If there’s something that’s off in the water or brewing process, or ingredient-wise, it’s going to show through in the end product. This didn’t [do that] at all—it’s exactly the way we wanted it.”

Adam Romanow had similar feelings about brewing Chuck. The Castle Island founder compared the cleanliness of the water delivered by Desalitech to what the brewery normally uses, if not better. To play up that clarity, he brewed a light cream ale. Romanow finished the beer by dry-hopping it, which he says added some punchy aromatics and a “pillowy” mouthfeel.

Above all, both Tkach and Romanow say these beers are aimed at promoting the uptick in the river’s water quality. The Charles has come a long way in recent years, and it’s only getting better. Let your paranoia fall to the wayside and give these river beers a try.

“I’ve heard it all,” Romanow says. “Is this safe? Is this beer going to make me glow? Did you guys find any school buses in the water when you were emptying it into the tank?”

If you can’t make it out to Brew the Charles, you can still drink these beers around town. Idle Hands is sending a few kegs of Czech For Charles out for distribution, as well as tapping it at the Malden taproomCastle Island canned a portion of Chuck, and there are still a few 4-packs left at the Norwood brewery.

Read the article in Boston Magazine.


6 Mass. Breweries Are Competing to Make the Best ‘Charles River’ Beer

And a leading local water purification company is lending a helping hand.

– Lifestyle Editor, 7/25/16, Bostinno

Six Massachusetts breweries are about to embark on a competition to brew beers using an ingredient from a rather unlikely source: the Charles River.

“Brew the Charles” is the first competition of its kind from HUBweek, the weeklong innovation celebration kicking off September 25, during which Cape Ann Brewing Company from Gloucester, Norwood’s Castle Island Brewing Company, Harpoon Brewery, Malden’s Idle Hands Craft Ales, Ipswich Ales and Sam Adams will all create an exclusive brew using “that dirty water.”

To ensure proper quality control, Newton-based water purification company Desalitech will oversee the withdrawal of water from the Charles and treat it using its breakthrough in the traditional process known as reverse osmosis. In a nutshell: Dirty water is pushed against membranes with tiny pores that only allow water molecules to pass through and nothing else. So, “dirty” water goes in, clean water comes out.

“As industry turns its attention more and more to water reuse and sustainable business practices,  we are proud to be a Massachusetts company that is helping large businesses and municipalities rethink their conventional water sources and reuse more of their water,” said Nadav Efraty, CEO of Desalitech. “We are thrilled to join with HUBweek and the Bay State’s creative local breweries to educate the public about the importance of water efficiency and the future of our natural resources.”

Before you turn your nose up, remember that the Charles is not only clean enough to swim in, but last year was called “the cleanest urban river in America” by the Charles River Conservancy, the same group currently raising money to bring a permanent swimming destination to the river.

Last year at HUBweek, Desalitech partnered with Harpoon to brew a one-off beer using Charles River water called Charles River Pale Ale. (I tried it and lived to tell the tale, so there’s that.)

“We had so much fun brewing the Charles River Pale Ale last year, we jumped at the chance to do it again this year. The Charles is a local treasure and the idea that we get to work with some friends in the industry to highlight its importance is outstanding,” Liz Melby, Harpoon’s director of communications, told me.

This year’s competition builds on that success, opening the floor to six notable local breweries who will be judged by a panel of experts, fellow craft breweries and the audience on hand at a yet-to-be-named site to deem whose was most successful.

“The Brew the Charles competition is an exciting opportunity to showcase the amazing work going on across the region, highlighting the growing beer industry right here in our own backyard,” said Linda Pizzuti Henry, co-founder of HUBweek. “We’re thrilled to partner with Desalitech and the six local breweries to reimagine–and taste–one of Boston’s most famous natural resources—the Charles River.”

It’s a bit early to know what types of beers we might expect. But it sounds like the participating brewers are taking the “competition” part of this to heart.

“Most of us have grown up in the Boston area and the Charles has always been an iconic landmark close to our hearts,” Castle Island Brewing Co. Founder Adam Romonow told me. “When we heard about the opportunity to tackle this unique challenge while promoting conservation of the river, we immediately knew we had to get involved. Plus, we always love a good competition.”

Read the article in Bostinno.


Who wants to drink that dirty water?

Some of New England’s leading breweries will compete Oct. 1 to see who can turn the questionable water of Boston’s Charles River into the tastiest suds.

Six area breweries have signed on for the first ever “Brew the Charles” challenge, a highlight of HUBweek, a weeklong Boston-area festival celebrating innovation in art, science and technology.

View the full article in the Boston Herald.