For One Day A Year, The Charles Welcomes Swimmers

By Craig LeMoult

Swimmers leap into the Charles River on Tuesday. Craig LeMoult/WGBH News

Last week, the EPA released a report downgrading the water quality of the Charles River from a B+ to a B. But that didn’t stop hundreds of people from jumping in the river and going for a swim Tuesday. Nobody seemed to hesitate as they enthusiastically leapt into the Charles.

As Sally Graham of Dorchester waited her turn to take the plunge, she said this was something of a bucket list item.

“When I first moved here, it was almost like Lake Erie,” she said. “You could almost set it on fire. And the fact that there’s been a huge investment in the infrastructure to clean it up, I think is very exciting.” She also said she had no concerns about it. “I don’t swallow. I wear goggles. I wear earplugs. So most of the places where I could develop infections are covered.”

As he came out of the water, Josh Posner seemed exhilarated. “The water is great,” he said. “Nice and fresh. Great temperature.” He pointed out, Boston’s a city with a river just right there.

“We see it everyday,” he said. “Who wouldn’t want to dive in?”

That’s what the Charles River Conservancy believes. SJ Port is with the group, and says although this is just a one-day-a-year event, they’re hoping in the future it will be more regular.

“We are proposing a designated spot off of the public dock in North Point Park,” Port said. “And the reason we’re doing it there and not in the Esplanade where we’ve held our City Splash events is that this is a prime boating area down here, and we’d like to keep the boaters as our friends.”

The question people might have, of course: Is it safe to swim in the Charles? Port says yes.

“It is safe to swim in the Charles, as long as the water quality is tested beforehand,” she said.

Port wasn’t discouraged by last week’s report that downgraded the Charles from a B+ for water quality to a B. The EPA report was based on monthly water sample tests.

“Some of those samples this year were taken during or after rain events. Rain events, we know, cause a rise in E. coli and other bacteria in the river because you’ve got all the stuff washing off the roads and off the parks into the river,” she said. “And it also includes winter months, when most of us aren’t interested in swimming.”

The Conservancy hired Max Rome, an environmental engineering graduate student at Northeastern to test the water quality every day this summer. Rome pointed out that Boston has forgotten that back in 1940, people used to swim in the river off Magazine Beach in Cambridge on hot summer days.

“What happened since then was that as we started caring more and more about sanitation, perversely we built more and more wastewater treatment plants and sewer systems that ended up dumping into the river,” he said.

In recent years, though, since the cleanup of Boston Harbor began, we stopped that kind of dumping and the water quality has improved.

“And then the next place after that is, where are there places where our storm water system is connected to our sanitary sewer system?” Rome said. “That’s kind of the trickier problem. Places where those systems are connected, when it rains really hard, some sewage can end up getting washed out into the Charles River. And basically, Cambridge, Boston have done a really good job. As you go father up the river, there’s a lot more work that needs to be done.”

So, it’s actually cleaner in the more urban area.

Another concern these days is outbreaks of a blue-green algae known as cyanobacteria, which is pretty toxic. But Rome says that tends to show up later in the summer, when the water gets warmer.

“We test every single day, we’re kind of looking under the microscope to see who’s swimming around in there. And there’s not much to speak of yet.”

It was a sunny one, and pretty hot. Port gave one more guarantee this was a good idea: “This is safe for your health, it is good for your health,” she said.

And that was enough to encourage anyone, including a radio reporter, to jump in the Charles.

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