Can a floating island in the Charles River rescue its water quality?

By Bob Dumas
Boston 25 News

BOSTON — Since early in the summer of 2020, a man-made island has been floating right in the middle of the Charles River.

It’s part of a science experiment focused on curtailing harmful algae blooms.

The small island, which sits in the shadow of the Longfellow Bridge, is designed to replicate a local wetland.

It’s about 700 square feet, the size of a typical one-bedroom apartment. It has 3,000 plants, representing about two dozen species native to New England, covering the structure, which is comprised of 24 interlocking pieces.

“The floating wetland is an experiment,” explained Laura Jasinski, Executive Director of the Charles River Conservancy. “It’s a pilot program to study how adding good ecology back to the river could make the Charles more adaptable and fight the algae blooms.”

Algae blooms are harmful to people because they release toxins which can cause skin irritations or more serious problems if ingested. Pets can also suffer health problems when exposed.

The Charles River Conservancy is focused on getting the water quality in the river to the point that people can regularly swim in it.

Jasinski said great strides have been made over the last 30 years.

“The EPA has a grading system for the river. In 1990, we were at a D, almost a failing grade. As early as 2017, we were at an A-,” she said.

Paul McDougall grew up in Cambridge and remembers swimming and skating on the Charles River.

“You go back the 50s and 60s, you had a lot of industry going on,” he explained. “Of course, back then that’s where they dumped all their excess chemicals and things.”

Those days may be long gone, but the algae blooms are now becoming more frequent, due to increasing water temperatures and storm runoff.

The floating wetland is a novel experiment, looking at a new way to control the algae, according to Max Rome, a PH.D. student at Northeastern University. He says the natural food chain has broken down over the years which has allowed the algae to flourish.

Today, a natural predator for the algae has a hard time thriving in the Charles River basin.

Rome is testing whether this floating wetland gives these organisms, known as zoo plankton, a better chance at surviving.

When the island was built last spring, it was designed to be porous, allowing the roots of the plants to dangle in the water, providing a habitat for the zoo plankton.

“Some people who study these algal blooms kind of consider these algal blooms and this type of water pollution to be the biggest water quality issue in the world right now,” said Rome. “This type of solution is super applicable to any urban water body, any developed water body, where re-establishing wetlands is difficult.”

The experiment in the Charles River will last two years.

Jasinski hopes it will ultimately make her dream of a swim-able Charles River a reality.

“It’s really exciting to think about what a fully usable Charles River could be for Boston and Cambridge,” she said. “A lot of people have to go to a public pool or drive a significant distance to get to a beach or a natural body of water.”

Algae blooms are popping up in other parts of the state. For example, some of Cape Cod’s freshwater ponds have been repeatedly closed due to algae blooms.

Swimming area proposed on Charles

Watch reporting and read article online

Artificial Island Launched Into Charles River To Improve Local Ecosystem

WBZ NewsRadio

The first human-made island is 700 square feet and located just past the Longfellow Bridge, in the Charles River basin.

Laura Jasinski is the executive director of the Charles River Conservancy. She told WBZ NewsRadio’s Chris Fama’s why the nonprofit decided to create the island and drop it off into the Charles River.

“To bolster the natural ecology of the river,” Jasinksi said. It’s also important to remove the harmful algae blooms that have been growing in the river.

“That algae can be harmful to humans and pets if they get near it or touch it,” Jasinksi said. “So we’re looking at a new way to try to help combat that issue.”

The island contains over 3,000 different plants.

WBZ NewsRadio’s Chris Fama (@CFamaWBZ) reports

Read article and listen online

Charles River Conservancy, Northeastern University announce floating wetland project

Cambridge Chronicle

The Charles River Conservancy and Northeastern University’s department of civil and environmental engineering, in partnership with Foth, an engineering consulting firm, and the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, have announced the installation of a floating research wetland in the Charles River designed to explore an ecological approach to further improve water quality.

Planted with more than 15 native wetland species, this 700-square-foot, human- made island is the first of its kind in the Charles River basin and a model for resiliency projects across the commonwealth. It will be located downstream of the Longfellow Bridge, near the mouth of the Broad Canal.

Born from the Charles River Conservancy’s Charles River Swimming Initiative, this project aims to build on the EPA’s Charles River Initiative and the dedication of governments, environmental groups and nonprofits to improve the Charles River and focus on the growing threat of harmful algal blooms.

“From our Swim Park Feasibility Study and subsequent daily water quality monitoring at North Point Park for two summers, we learned that local bacteria levels have improved to where swimming could be allowed on most days in the summer,” said CRC Executive Director Laura Jasinski. “However, algae blooms, which are fed by rising temperatures and stormwater runoff, can release harmful toxins and are a growing barrier to swimming. To take full advantage of all the Charles River has to offer, we need to address these climate change realities. Climate adaptation pilot projects, like the floating wetland, are an important first step.”

The Charles River floating wetland project continues a multi-year partnership with NU-CEE PhD student Max Rome, who also led the monitoring program at North Point.

“While development along the Charles has fundamentally changed the river’s ecology, there are lessons we can learn from its original state and nature’s inherent resiliency,” said Rome. “This floating wetland project provides an important opportunity to study how the wetland can bolster zooplankton populations, a natural predator of algae.”

Foth has also been a “critically important member” of the project team. The firm has provided pro-bono services along with knowledge of Charles River and marine engineering projects.

“This project has posed some unique design challenges,” said Scott Skuncik. “We are excited to be a part of this important research effort that reflects our company’s commitment to sustainability.”

“The Charles River is an incredible natural resource situated within the heart of the greater Boston metro area offering visitors with a high level of access to state parkland and recreational opportunities,” said department of conservation and recreation commissioner Jim Montgomery. “DCR works closely with stakeholders and organizations, such as the Charles River Conservancy, in an effort to foster strong partnerships and encourage shared stewardship throughout the state parks system.”

“Protecting Massachusetts’ unique natural resources, like the Charles River, is an essential part of the Baker-Polito Administration’s strategy to mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change,” said energy and environmental affairs secretary Kathleen Theoharides. “Building meaningful partnerships at the local level to help identify vulnerabilities and develop innovative solutions is critical to our success, and I applaud the Charles River Conservancy for their work on this project, which provides an important model for future adaptation efforts across the commonwealth.”

For the Charles River Conservancy, using the floating wetland to “increase environmental literacy” is fundamental to their mission and one of the main project goals.

“The floating wetland not only provides an opportunity for research but also a focal point for engagement around the river’s ecology. Many people still think of the Charles as dirty. That is no longer true, but we still have work to do,” said Jasinski. “Although some research and activities related to the floating island have been affected by COVID-19, the CRC is continuing to work with partners to provide opportunities to learn about the wetland. “Keep a lookout for a video game created by students at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School and, hopefully soon, kayak tours.”

Read article online

Artificial island launched in Charles River; researchers hope it will help clean the water

By Matt Berg
THE BOSTON GLOBE

Workers prepared the artificial island Tuesday. The theory is that it will become home to tiny organisms that eat the harmful algae that blooms in late summer in the river. DAVID L. RYAN/GLOBE STAFF

In the latest effort to rid the Charles River of its notoriously “dirty water,” conservationists launched an artificial island full of native plants Tuesday afternoon to study whether it could reduce harmful algae blooms.

Members of the Charles River Conservancy, a group that has worked to maintain the river and its parks for decades, have visions of people swimming in the water on a sweltering summer day, or fishing with friends. They dream of restoring the river to pre-development days.

“So many people still think of it as ‘that dirty water,’ and we’ve made a lot of progress,” said Laura Jasinski, executive director of the Charles River Conservancy. “But we still have new challenges.”

Over the course of two years, scientists will study the effect the 700-square-foot floating wetland has on the river’s water quality. The island, home to 15 native wetland species, was launched near the Longfellow Bridge by the mouth of the Broad Canal Tuesday afternoon.

After collecting water samples from North Point Park along the Charles in years past, “we learned that bacteria levels were at a level where you could swim the vast majority of time in summer, but the problem is with algae blooms” in the late summer, Jasinski said.

The algae bloom predicament “is getting worse, and that’s what’s most concerning,” she said. “They’re hard to predict.”

Algae blooms are overgrowths of algae that can produce dangerous toxins. Nutrients in runoff from surrounding impermeable surfaces, such as pavement and roads, combined with high temperatures in the summer, cause the blooms to peak in July and August, Jasinski said.

The theory is that the island could create a home base for tiny organisms that eat the algae.

“What we’re going to study is how it creates a habitat for zooplankton, the natural predator of algae,” she said.

“While development along the Charles has fundamentally changed the river’s ecology, there are lessons we can learn from its original state,” Max Rome, a doctoral student in engineering at Northeastern University who is working on the project, said in a statement.

If researchers discover a noticeable difference in water quality, several islands may be launched in years to come. It’s hard to say what that might look like, but Jasinski imagines one possibility: an area surrounded by islands, allowing for especially clean water and a designated swimming area.

Along with other data collected from the island, “We would like to understand the effect of proximity of the islands. Could you surround a swimming area with these? How many would there need to be?” Jasinski said.

Although it can technically support the weight of humans, the island is not open to the public, she said. Those who want to get a close look can do so from kayaks or the bridge.

She invited people curious about conservation efforts to take a look at resources on the organization’s website.

“We want to engage people in understanding the river,” Jasinski said. “It’s complicated to understand all of the water science, but we want to make it more accessible to people.”

Read article online

The Charles Has Sprouted A New ‘Island’

By Craig LeMoult
WBGH

The “floating wetland” in the Charles River. Craig LeMoult/WGBH News

On Tuesday afternoon, a team bolted together two dozen large structures off Magazine Beach in Cambridge, assembling an island like a floating puzzle.

“It’s a seven hundred square foot, human-made island, planted with 3,000 native wetland plants that we are about to tow down the river to just past the Longfellow Bridge, where it will be anchored,” said Laura Jasinski, executive director of the Charles River Conservancy.

The floating wetland is part of a research project aimed at improving the water quality by cutting down on toxic blooms of algae called cyanobacteria that have become an annual summer problem in the Charles.

The project will restore a bit of nature to an area of the river that doesn’t feel all that natural now.

“Where this is going to be, it’s a bulkhead or sea wall,” Jasinski said. “So we don’t have a river bank the way we’re used to in that area. So we’re trying to add that back, effectively, to try to boost the food chain and the river to help it be more adaptable to changing conditions.”

Jasinkski rattled off a list of the 22 native plant species planted on the floating island.

“So we have things like Rose mallow and Sweet flag, Swamp milkweed, Seaside goldenrod, Spotted Joe Pye, Monkey flower,” she said. “So lots of lots of fun things.”

Over time, the roots of the plants will penetrate the structure, creating a hydroponic garden. The floating wetland be there for two years as researchers study what happens around those roots.

“This project is all about understanding what we can do from ecological perspective to kind of help create a river that’s healthy and doesn’t have cyanobacteria blooms,” said Northeastern University PhD student Max Rome, who’s leading that research.

Those toxic blooms have become an annual problem in the Charles.

“What we’ve been seeing… is very distinct blooms that last for about seven to 14 days,” Rome said. “And it tends to occur as the water temperature reaches about 25 degrees Celsius, 77 degrees Fahrenheit. And that usually happens in late July or August.”

Rome says one way to fight cyanobacteria is by cutting pollution.

“But we think another piece that might be important is to add habitat that can help the river support higher population of the creatures that eat algae.”

Those creatures are called zooplankton. Rome will track if the floating island results in more and larger zooplankton around the roots of the plants that grow down into the river.

“It’s going answer some really fundamental questions for us about how the ecosystem changes around the floating wetland,” Rome said. “And then with that data, we’re going to be able to do some modeling and do some estimation to see at what scale could floating wetlands or restored shoreline really make an impact in terms of cleaning up the Charles River.”

Jasinski says the cyanobacteria outbreaks are only expected to get worse as temperatures rise.

“The reason we’re seeing the increased algae blooms in the river is a symptom of the rising temperatures of climate change,” she said. “So we’re looking [at this project] as an intervention to help treat that.”

And she says she hopes as people see the island, it will serve as a way to engage people in those issues.

“We really want to use this as a platform to talk to people about how polluted [the Charles River] was, how far we’ve come, but also the increasing challenges we’re seeing with climate change, rising temperatures, increased heavy rainfall that is still posing a threat to the river that we need to continue to innovate and try to protect.”

Read article and listen onine

Charles R. advocates not on board with Soldier’s Field bypass

By Emily Norton, Laura Jasinski, and Kane Larin
Letter to the Editor
CommonWealth Magazine

On Monday, CommonWealth reported that although “[n]o one thought putting a structure out over the Charles would sit well with the river’s many enthusiasts, [ ] Mike O’Dowd, the project manager, says the idea has been well received by boating groups and others who regularly use the Charles.” O’Dowd  further said that “[t]here is no reason all the current activities on the river couldn’t continue during construction.” (To hear his remarks to the state transportation boards, click here at 1:58:20.)

These statements do not accurately reflect the position of Charles River advocates.

Until recently, MassDOT’s project team, led by O’Dowd, had professed their intent to avoid impacts to the Charles River during construction of the I-90 interchange project. Indeed, last fall, MassDOT declared that the temporary effects on parks and open space of the selected design would be limited to fully occupying the “throat area” and relocating the Paul Dudley White Path. Then in May, MassDOT did an about-face, announcing a proposal to “temporarily” locate Soldiers Field Road and the Paul Dudley White Path in the Charles River for an estimated period of up to 10 years.

Based on information currently available to us, locating the road in the Charles River would significantly disrupt the river and those who use it for nearly a decade, if not longer. Nothing we have seen so far suggests that MassDOT has sufficiently planned to mitigate impacts like storm water runoff, increased contamination levels, or habitat and sediment disturbance. This is especially troubling at a time when the Charles is already seeing increases in toxic algae blooms, triggering public health alerts and warnings for people and pets to stay away from the water.

The rowing and boating community’s ability to use the river is also at stake. Contrary to Mr. O’Dowd’s reported statements, as a river user community, we have not indicated support for the proposed plans. We are still gathering information and assessing the road’s impacts on our use of an already constrained watersheet throughout the construction period. At present, we believe those impacts are likely to be significant.

All of this is why our organizations and other advocates wrote to MassDOT and the MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board in September to express our “deep concerns” about the proposal to locate Soldiers Field Road in the river for an estimated period of up to 10 years, which we found “alarming.”

We urged MassDOT to avoid river impacts, conduct a thorough alternatives analysis, and minimize impacts if it was ultimately determined that some impacts could not be avoided. We also urged the project team to do all of this in an open, collaborative setting with the project task force and state permitting agencies like the Departments of Environmental Protection and Conservation and Recreation. To date, none of this has happened.

To suggest that Charles River advocates and enthusiasts are on board with a road being located in the river for a decade or more is a gross mischaracterization of our position and ignores our ongoing efforts to raise concerns about the serious harm this would cause to the river and river users. We will continue to voice these concerns, because the future of the Charles depends on it.

Emily Norton is executive director of the Charles River Watershed Association, Laura Jasinski is executive director of the Charles River Conservancy, and Kane Larin is in charge of special projects for Community Rowing Inc.

Read article online

Babylon had its hanging gardens; one day the Charles River basin could have floating gardens

By adamg
universialhub.com

The Charles River Conservancy hopes to install a “floating wetlands” at North Point Park next spring to test whether the reintroduction of wetlands to the Charles River basin could shield enough microscopic animals to eat and so control the bacteria that now sometimes turn that stretch of river into a hazard to both man and beast.

Working with Northeastern PhD candidate Max Rome and the Penelope Taylor Studio, the group would install a roughly 700-square-foot floating platform to plant a variety of wetlands plants to determine whether that could be used to shield zooplankton from the fish that have been increasingly drawn to the Charles as its water quality improves.

The floating wetland will be planted with over 20 native wetland species. Plants like rose mallow, cardinal flower, and milkweed will be arranged to create a unique floating garden, an attraction for human and non-human visitors. Throughout our study, we will monitor the plants to understand which species succeed in this novel environment.

If it works, the zooplankton in turn could begin to devour the cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, that now can explode in numbers, creating toxic blooms that can kill dogs that swim in the river and make people sick.

The small platform itself would have no noticeable effect on the overall basin, the group says, but proof of its success could be the impetus to install far more of the platforms – or to plant more permanent wetlands vegetation in what has long been more of a lake than a river, one that, despite clean-up efforts over recent decades, remains chock full of the phosphorus that encourages the growth of the bacteria.

Read article online

You Can Once Again Jump into the Charles River This Summer

By TESSA YANNONE
BOSTON MAGAZINE

A dip in the Charles River might not sound like a particularly pleasant activity at this moment in time, but do you remember how hot last summer was? When heat waves swept over the city, a splash in the city’s iconic river would have been happily welcomed. Well now, on June 15 you can do just that.

The Charles River Conservancy and the Charles River Swimming Club have joined forces to bring you a Charles River swimming day that will include the City Splash event and a one-mile race. The Globe reported this is the first time the two events have ever been held on the same day and it will even include an after party in Cambridge.

If the cleanliness of the water is top on your list of concerns though, rest assured, because the Charles is clean. It received a grade of an A- from the EPA in 2017 which means that the water quality “almost always met standards for boating and swimming.”

The one-mile race will take place first at 8 a.m. on June 15 and will begin on the River Dock near the Arthur Fiedler head statue and you’ll swim a loop course between Harvard and Longfellow Bridge. The race is capped at 200 swimmers and the club advises that this is not for novices—you should be able to swim one mile comfortably in 40 minutes or less.

If strapping on a swim cap and goggles isn’t much of your style, then on the same day head down to the DCR’s Fiedler Community Dock on the Esplanade for casual swimming in the afternoon City Splash event, just be sure you feel comfortable in deep water.

And if you can’t make it to the river for this all-day swim experience, you might be able to hold out hope for a more permanent way to take advantage of the natural swimming pool in our own backyard. Back in 2016, the conservancy launched a study in partnership with design firm Stantec, to propose a swimming-hole like structure at North Point Park near the Zakim Bridge.

The Globe asked Laura Jasinski, executive director of the Charles River Conservancy, about it and she saidthey’re still developing design drawings and working on an operations plan to assess how to operate and program a facility like that for seasonal use.

In the meantime, enjoy your one day to take a dip. After all, the Charles is the cleanest urban river in America.

For more information on City Splash: thecharles.org. And to sign-up for the one-mile race: charlesriverswimmingclub.org

Read article online

Grab your swimsuits: Charles River Swimming Day is coming in June

By Steve Annear
THE BOSTON GLOBE

Wednesday marked the first official day of spring, which, for the more optimistic, means that summer is just a few months around the corner — lingering March snow piles be damned.

To herald the change of the seasons, the Charles River Conservancy and the Charles River Swimming Club announced this week they’ve combined forces to host Charles River Swimming Day, a daylong celebration where people can plunge into the city’s biggest tea-colored swimming pool.

On Saturday, June 15, the conservancy will revive its annual City Splash event — it went on hiatus in 2018 — at the Fiedler Dock along the Esplanade. That same day, earlier in the morning, the swimming club will host its 11th annual 1-mile swim down the river.

It’s the first time the two events have ever been held on the same day, and to top it off, Charles River Swimming Day will include an after party across the river, in Cambridge, officials said.

“We’re really excited to bring back City Splash and looking forward to combining the two events to have a full day of river swimming,” said Laura Jasinski, executive director of the conservancy. “There’s certainly some benefit for us to be able to share resources and the date to get people swimming, whether you’re an athlete and want to do the 1-mile swim or just do it casually at the dock.”

Jasinski said due to its popularity in the past, additional time slots will probably be added to the City Splash event so more people can hop into the water. The event is also being hosted on a Saturday so that people don’t need to rush out of work to take a dip, as they did in years past.

The conservancy also is trying to put together a celebrity cannonball competition, though plans for the contest haven’t been finalized.

“It’ll be the culminating splash event for City Splash,” Jasinski said. “We’re working on finding some VIPs for that.”

The dual swimming event in the river, which received an “A-” grade for bacterial water quality from the Environmental Protection Agency in 2017, is a partnership between the conservancy, the swimming club, and the state Department of Conservation and Recreation.

Leo Roy, commissioner of the department, said in a statement that Governor Charlie Baker’s administration “strives to foster strong partnerships with stakeholders” like the conservancy and the swimming club to make these types of events possible.

“Importantly,” he said, “Charles River Swimming Day provides a unique experience for Massachusetts residents and visitors alike to access the Charles River during this community event.”

Last year, for the first time in five years, the Charles River Conservancy put City Splash on hold so it could focus on bringing a permanent, seasonal swimming location to the river.

In 2016, the nonprofit unveiled plans for a floating dock at North Point Park, near the Zakim bridge, so swimmers could jump into the river more than just once a year. The project is still in its early stages, however.

“We’re still developing design drawings, learning some precedents from other parts of the world, and working on an operations plan on who can use the facility and how to program it and how to operate it,” Jasinski said.

In the meantime, a double-dose of Charles River swimming in June will have to suffice.

Registration for City Splash will begin in May, officials said. Sign-ups for the 1-mile swim opens Thursday, March 21, and is capped at 200 swimmers, according to event details. Participants may sign up for both events.

Read article online

The Swiss woman who made a splash in Boston

By Susan Misicka In Basel
SwissInfo.ch

Swiss architect Renata von Tscharner has spent the past two decades championing the cause of the Charles River in Massachusetts.

In 2000, she founded the Charles River Conservancy (CRC), a nonprofit group dedicated to improving the urban parklands along the waterfront.

Having grown up swimming in the River Rhine in Basel, Renata wants to get people swimming in the once badly-polluted Charles. The CRC is developing plans for a swim park that would give Bostonians the chance to enjoy the river that inspired the song “Dirty Water” by The Standells.

Subscribe to our podcast on iTunes to ensure that you don’t miss the next one.

Read/listen online