Sunday, July 22, 2007

Boston's Charles River is Swimmable Again!

A Forbes editor was kind enough to tell me that it's "old news" that the greeness of older U.S center cities such as Boston, New York and Chicago is on the rise after decades of offering an environmental gross out. My point didn't merit publication in their "On My Mind" section. Maybe I should have suggested that they consider it for their "Out of their Mind" section? While my writing may stink, I take some consolation that the New York Times recognizes that this general point is newsworthy (see below).

I am now in Boston cleaning out my old house. It looks good and I am flashing back thinking through all of the good times we had here. We have found some very funny old pieces of our past. For example, I found a letter that my mother in-law wrote us the day before we married (ten years ago) outlining her recipe for having a happy marriage.

Tomorrow, I will attend the first day of the NBER Summer Institute meetings on environmental economics. Some of the papers actually look interesting and then I have to make a 10 min. discussion comment on a new paper investigation economic growth in regions and clusters as a function of agglomeration and convergence effects.

New York Times
July 22, 2007
A Boston River Now (Mostly) Fit for Swimming

BOSTON, July 21 — There were a few things swimmers needed to know before slipping into the Charles River for the big race on Saturday.

No diving start to this race, lest that stir up the toxic sediment at the bottom of the river.

Do not expect to see the river bottom. The water is too murky.

Be prepared to encounter bits of flotsam and jetsam.

And, as Ulla Hester, director of the first official Charles River Swim Race, announced shortly before the event: Because the water is dotted with a kind of bacterium known as blue-green algae, “there is a possibility of skin irritation.”

Ms. Hester assured swimmers there would be “showers to wash off” afterward.

After all, the Charles River, the brownish, brackish body of water between Boston and Cambridge, has been officially off-limits to swimmers for more than 50 years.

Small wonder, after a couple of centuries of being a de facto sewage dump and a cesspool for slaughterhouses, mills and other factories.

“The river was always a very dirty river, since the Industrial Revolution,” said Ben Martens, whose title of “Swimmable Charles Coordinator” for the Charles River Conservancy, a nonprofit organization, “gets a lot of laughs from my friends,” he said.

Beaches and floating bathhouses that were popular on the river in the early 1900s, especially with poor immigrant families who could not afford running water, were closed around 1955 when officials realized how polluted the water was.

And in 1995, when federal officials started grading the river’s cleanliness, the Charles was given a D.

But after a multimillion-dollar cleanup, officials pronounced the river — whose most recent grade was a B-plus — fit to swim most of the time.

Not that it is yet legal to do so. The polluted sediment has so far made it impossible to create a swimming beach.

But when two avid swimmers, Ms. Hester and Frans Lawaetz, asked for permission to organize a swim race, officials eventually agreed.

“I think it’s like the canary in the coal mine,” said Karl Haglund, a project manager for the Department of Conservation and Recreation. “If we can get the river clean enough to swim in then we know we’ve made significant progress.”

The swim was originally scheduled in September, but bacteria canceled it.

“I grew up a block from the river in Cambridge, and as a kid we always wanted to swim in it,” said Rick Ackerman, 59, of Portland, Me., the oldest swimmer on Saturday. “I built a raft once and sank in the water. It felt dirty and gritty and the rocks were slimy. This, today, it’s a leap of faith.”

Kiko Bracker, 38, a Boston veterinarian, fashioned a shark’s fin from foam insulation, a sign of his enthusiasm that “the Charles is looking better,” he said. “It’s not catching on fire this year.”

The swimmers warmed up to sun-themed songs — “Walking on Sunshine,” “Here Comes the Sun.” Not included in the soundtrack was the song “Dirty Water,” a 1960s hit by the Standells, that was written about the “River Charles” and is played at Red Sox games as a victory anthem.

All told, 69 experienced swimmers showed up Saturday for the mile-long race near the Longfellow Bridge.

“A lot of my friends thought I was crazy for doing this,” said Katie O’Dair, 40, an associate dean at Boston College. “But I feel confident that the water is clean. I hope it’s the first of many swims here.”

Mike Welsch, 48, whose back is tattooed with phrases and icons of the city — the Citgo sign near Fenway Park, the Boston Lighthouse, the Boston Marathon — said swimming the race “proves I’m a true Bostonian. I’ll tell you, I’ve swum races in the Hudson, the East River and the Harlem River, and this is just as clean as them.”

And Sebastian Neumayer, 24, who won the race with a time of 21 minutes and 37 seconds, pronounced the mid-70-degree water just fine.

“I didn’t see any mattresses,” he said, “so it’s all good.”