Actually, We Don’t Love “Dirty Water”

Anthony Iarrapino

Wikipedia describes the Standells’ 1965 classic “Dirty Water” as “a mock paean to the city of Boston and its then-famously polluted Boston Harbor and Charles River.” Though fans of local sports teams have embraced the song that plays so often over stadium loud speakers, most people would agree that they’d rather not have their capitol city mockingly identified with “famously-polluted” waters. That’s especially true in these hot summer months when you want to be able to swim at a City beach, fish from an urban jetty, or paddle a local river without fear of contacting raw sewage and toxic algae scums.

Nearly thirty years ago, CLF embarked on a clean water campaign to end Boston’s “Dirty Water” era. CLF lawsuits spurred significant public investments in cleanup of the Boston Harbor and have paid huge dividends as evidenced by all the restaurants and bars that have popped up along the Seaport District waterfront as the Harbor became cleaner. This past weekend, Boston even hosted the Red Bull Cliff Diving championships with divers plunging straight into the Harbor wearing nothing but speedos–something that would have been unthinkable in the years when the Harbor was essentially an open sewer.

CLF works for water that is safe for fishing, even in urban environments. Photo by Chris Devers @ Flickr Creative Commons

We’ve made great progress, but there is still work to be done. The Clean Water Act, which turns 40 this year, promises water that is safe for swimming and fishing regardless of whether local waterways lie in a major tourist district or are situated in a neighborhood where industrial activity and working waterfronts are still part of the urban landscape. Securing Clean Water Act compliance is as much about protecting the health and quality of life of Bostonians in every city neighborhood as it is about making the Hub a desirable place for tourists and the businesses that cater to them. The good news, as reported on the front page of the Boston Globe, is that CLF, EPA, the Boston Water and Sewer Commission, the City of Boston, and numerous other partners are redoubling efforts to deliver on the law’s promise for the benefit of all Bostonians.

As today’s Globe headline proclaims, Boston is embarking on a new “effort to curtail sewage” and deal more effectively with polluted runoff and sewage discharges from storm drainage pipes. The effort comes as a result of another lawsuit filed by CLF against the Boston Water and Sewer Commission for violations of its Clean Water Act permits. EPA joined the suit in 2010. Shortly thereafter the parties turned their attention to negotiating a solution to Boston’s remaining water woes with emphasis on:

  •  removing illegal sewage connections that can send household sewage to Constitution Beach, Tenean Beach, and other popular swimming spots
  • monitoring to quickly detect and eliminate illegal sewage connections, and
  • implementing innovative techniques to filter pollution from urban runoff using more natural elements such as trees and gardens specially designed to absorb stormflows.
  • Inspecting active construction and industrial sites to ensure proper pollution controls are in place

The settlement recognizes that, even if we solve all of the sewage problems, the foul brew of metals, bacteria, oils, and other harmful pollutants that can run off the urban landscape after rainstorms and snowmelts must also be addressed before we can put Boston’s “Dirty Water” era into the history books once and for all. To get to a sense of what that cleaner, greener future will look like as City officials begin redesigning pavement-heavy public spaces like City Hall Plaza, visit the Charles River Watershed Association page, which features a report on green infrastructure in and around Boston.

CLF is proud of its role in the cleanup of Boston’s iconic waterways. The investments in clean water spurred by CLF’s advocacy are paying off and will continue to do so if all of those who are responsible for pollution control follow through on Clean Water Act commitments. When that happens, it will be time for a new song about how much Bostonians love their clean water.



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