The Charles River Reservation has come full circle over the past hundred years. Throughout the country’s history, great rivers have served as major industrial resources and modes of transportation. The Charles River is a prime example of river shoreline development in an urban setting.
During the 1800s, dams along the river and industrial pollutants severely damaged the ecological health of the Charles. To improve water quality, the Metropolitan Parks Commission (the predecessor to MDC and DCR) in the 1890s acquired much of the 18 miles of unprotected, undeveloped banks of the upper Charles River Reservation. The next forty years saw continuous river improvements and park construction. During this time period, the river was used extensively for canoeing, boating, swimming, walking, and fishing.
Beginning in 1930, the water quality drastically declined due to unmanaged sewers and industrial wastes discharging into the river. Parklands along the river fell into disrepair. Fortunately, another water quality shift occurred with the environmental movement in the 1970s. Through the efforts of public agencies like MWRA and the MDC, and citizen action groups like the Charles River Watershed Association (CRWA), the river's water quality was significantly improved.
Today, clean up efforts continue and the river is now safe, on most days, for contact recreation such as kayaking and sailing. Nevertheless, the river is still not pristine. The main cause of water pollution is stormwater runoff. After rainstorms, storm water carries pet and wildlife waste, trash, sediments, oil and grease, and other contaminants from paved surfaces to storm drains that discharge directly into the river. This pollution adversely impacts the river’s fish and wildlife. The river is also polluted by illegal sewer connections and combined sewer overflows that flow into the Charles. However, advocacy groups, federal, state and municipal environmental agencies are all working to solve these problems.
With greater understanding of the river as a living system, new park projects have an increased focus on habitat enhancement, invasive plant management, proper storm water treatment, and indigenous plantings. The quality of the river today allows the public to once again enjoy the river, as in years past, and empowers them to serve as stewards for the river’s health.