Water Resources and the Urban Environment, Lower Charles River Watershed, Mass achusetts, 1630–2005, P. Weiskel, et. al.

By Peter K. Weiskel, Lora K. Barlow and Tomas W. Smieszek

Prepared in cooperation with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection

Circular 1280


The Charles River, one of the Nation’s most historically significant rivers, flows through the center of the Boston metropolitan region in eastern Massachusetts (fig. 1). The lower Charles River, downstream of the original head of tide in Watertown, was originally a productive estuary and important source of fish and shellfish for the Native Americans of the region. This portion of the river has an exceptionally long and colorful human history. In 1615, the explorer Captain John Smith gave the river its modern name, in honor of young Prince Charles of England. In 1617–18, the Native American community of the watershed was decimated by an epidemic, after having continuously occupied the area for the previous 4,000 years. In 1630, the first large group of English settlers, led by John Winthrop, set foot on the Shawmut Peninsula at the mouth of the river (fig. 2), and established the town of Boston. In the 1630s, the first printing press, public park, public school, and college in the English colonies were all established on the banks of the Charles River. Almost immediately, the settlers of Boston and adjacent towns also began to modify the landscape and water resources of the watershed.

Perhaps the most important type of landscape alteration in the watershed was the filling of the extensive salt marshes and tidal flats of the estuary downstream of Watertown (fig. 2). This landmaking activity along the lower Charles River began in the mid-1600s, and did not conclude until the 1950s (Seasholes, 2003). In the early 20th century, the estuary mouth was dammed, creating a freshwater basin in the lower 9.5 miles of the river. A system of parks and parkways was built along the banks of the impounded river (Haglund, 2003). In addition to the mainstem river, virtually all of the remaining water resources in the watershed have also been altered. Most of the river’s tributaries, for example, were culverted, or placed into tunnels, and many of the ponds and freshwater wetlands in the watershed were filled to facilitate urban development.

One additional legacy of the river’s long human history is pollution from industry and sewage. By 1875, a total of 43 mills were operating along the lower Charles River between Watertown Dam and Boston Harbor (Charles River Watershed Association, 2004a). Thousands of gallons of untreated sewage and industrial wastewater entered the river daily through gravity drains, posing a major threat to public health (City of Boston, 1878). Concerted efforts to address the sewage problem began in the late 1870s. By the 1960s, the water quality of the river was significantly improved, yet still not suitable for swimming, fishing, or even boating under most conditions. In 1965, the Charles River Watershed Association was organized and the call to restore the environmental quality of the river and its parklands was heard anew. Passage of the Federal Clean Water Act in 1972 and the subsequent court-ordered reconstruction of the region’s sewage-treatment infrastructure in the 1980s and 1990s (the “Boston Harbor Cleanup”) provided additional impetus to address the river’s remaining pollution problems.

In 1995, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency launched the Clean Charles 2005 Initiative, which brought together government agencies, private-sector institutions, and environmental organizations to focus on restoring the river to fishable and swimmable conditions by Earth Day 2005. This initiative has achieved substantial improvements in water quality; sewage discharges to the river, for example, have been largely eliminated. Nevertheless, it is now widely acknowledged that full attainment of water-quality standards will likely depend upon improved public understanding of the watershed, continued efforts to eliminate illicit sewage discharges to the river, and better management of the urban runoff that enters the river both directly and from its many tributary streams.

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