That 'Dirty Water' Isn't So Dirty Anymore

By Phillip Martin

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Jul. 14, 2011

People row on the Charles River near the MIT sailing pavilion in Cambridge. Boston's Beacon Hill is seen on the other side of the river (Luke Boelitz for WGBH)

BOSTON — The Charles River is a finalist for the prestigious International Riverprize, a $350,000 award for development and implementation of sustainable river management policies. Boston's famous waterway is in competition with the Mattole River in California and the Yarra River in Victoria, Australia.

But there was a time not so long ago when the Charles, named by England’s King Charles I after himself, was considered a 26-mile embarrassment. Indeed, the famous chorus “I love that dirty water,” from The Standells 60s rock song, is still a hometown classic.

Over time, both nature and engineering have painted the rust colored “dirty water” have repainted the “dirty water” green. And no one appreciates that more than Ralph Boynton, who manages Charles River Canoe And Kayak.

Boynton has been kayaking and renting kayaks along the river for 16 years. He feels a personal kinship to this river. He’s been swimming in it, and he’s excited about talks of opening more beaches on the river.

Just a few years ago, Boynton wouldn’t even think of swimming in the Charles.

“The crew teams that fell in would routinely get prophylactic tetanus shots,” Boynton said.

The notion of reopening beaches on the River is a measure of the impact of the $100 million dollar cleanup over the years. The Environmental Protection Agency worked with Massachusetts in the mid-1990s, vowing to make the river swimmable by 2005. Former Gov. William Weld even jumped in with his clothes on to show that there were no ill effects. But the Charles’ old reputation still lingers.

Just ask Sean Nyhan of Charlestown, who has stopped by with his wife Bridget to rent a kayak.

“Obviously it’s not even urban legend that you don’t swim in the Charles River and on a hot day like today it would be great to swim,” Nyhan said. “But obviously, I think if you’re local it’s known that you don’t swim in the Charles.”

So even if the Charles wins the International Riverprize, Massachusetts’ officials have their work cut out trying to convince residents that it’s not the same dirty old water.

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