The Charles River has been a tourist attraction in Boston for years, drawing people to see the sailboats and events such as The Head of the Charles River regatta. Yet for many years the Charles was not a swimmable body of water, with swimming being banned in the 1990s. In fact, throughout the 1990s, rowers and sailors who fell into the waters were advised to get tetanus shots. However, after years of efforts made to clean up the Charles River, the public safety of the river is finally showing significant improvements.
In September of 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) gave the Charles River a cleanliness rating of A-. This is the cleanest grade that the Charles has received since the watershed started receiving grades from the EPA in 1995.
"The Charles River is now the cleanest urban river in America," said CRC project Manager Theresa Doherty. "We must meet very specific water quality standards set up by the Department of Public Health in order to receive an events permit for a swim from the Department of Conservation and Recreation, who operates the Charles and the parks around it."
There are still swimming restrictions for the Charles, and permits are seen as necessary to ensure public safety for the use of the river for recreational purposes. The Charles River must also meet bacterial standards as well as provide lifeguards in order to ensure safe use of the river by the public.
Bacterial standards of the river can influence the ability for the water to be used for swimming and can change based on environmental conditions, such as heavy rainfall. Large amounts of water can put stress on the Combined Sewer Overflow system, and while it is rare to have a sewer overflow--a scenario in which the system is overwhelmed causing an outflow of sewage and rainwater--it can still happen. This would dangerously increase the E. coli count in the water.
The Charles River Watershed Association (CRWA) has been instrumental in the improvements in the quality of the Charles River. The Association's mission states that they are “protecting, preserving and enhancing the Charles River and its watershed through science, advocacy and the law.” The CRWA formed in 1965 in response to the public concern that surrounded the deteriorating quality of the Charles River. The CWRA’s main efforts were placed toward major clean ups and the watershed protection efforts.
The Charles River Watershed encapsulates 35 Massachusetts watershed towns, making the cooperation of all of these areas important to the recovery of the quality of the Charles River Watershed.
Additionally, the Charles River Conservancy (CRC) has worked to promote the swimability of the Charles. Since 2013, the CRC has hosted community swims that are growing in popularity. In 2013, for the inaugural community sessions, the CRC had 144 people swim with 100 more people added to a wait list. In 2014, more than 200 people hit the water and in 2015, the CRC is striving to double the amount of swimmers with additional park programming that includes events and expanded swim hours.