Boston — Nearly a month after departing from Sheffield on a statewide canoe journey, Denny Alsop, a 69-year-old grandfather from the Berkshires, arrived on the banks of the Charles River in downtown Boston.
Alsop’s journey — a repeat of a similar trip he made in 1988 — was intended to draw attention to the importance of clean water for Massachusetts, and the challenges that continue to face our rivers and streams.
"Twenty-eight years ago I paddled this very canoe across Massachusetts to raise awareness of the condition of our rivers, and I've seen many changes," said Alsop. "In a lot of places, our rivers are much cleaner than they used to be. But there is still more work to do — especially on my home river, the Housatonic."
Since Alsop’s first trip, the health of Massachusetts’ rivers and streams has dramatically improved thanks to the federal Clean Water Act, as well as state and municipal policies and efforts by local watershed groups. However, significant pollution problems remain in waterways across the state, from the Housatonic to the Charles.
Local advocates and supporters of clean water gathered at the Charles River Esplanade to welcome Alsop and celebrate his journey.
“Denny’s journey has helped to remind us just how important our waterways are,” said Ben Hellerstein, State Director for Environment Massachusetts. “Our rivers and streams are a big part of what makes Massachusetts such a great place to live. We’ve made a lot of progress, but there’s more work to be done before all of our waterways are protected.”
Last year, the EPA gave the Charles River a B+ for water quality, up from a rating of D in 1995. The lower Charles River met state water quality standards for bacterial levels 91% of the time for boating and 65% of the time for swimming.
Stormwater runoff and combined sewer overflows after heavy rainstorms continue to have a major impact on water quality in the Charles River.
“We have made huge strides towards clean urban waterways throughout New England, including finalizing a stormwater permit last week that will help communities do a better job preventing stormwater pollution,” said Curt Spalding, U.S. EPA Regional Administrator. “There are still challenges ahead. Climate change impacts pose continued threats to the iconic water resources we value here in New England.”
“Today, the Charles River is a natural treasure for Boston and the other 22 communities along its route,” said Bob Zimmerman, executive director of the Charles River Watershed Association. “But there is more work to do to protect the river from pollution and runoff, and ensure that the water is safe for swimming, fishing, and wildlife.”
Alsop spent the first week of his journey on his home river, the scenic, yet environmentally troubled, Housatonic. For more than 40 years, General Electric dumped PCBs, chemicals that are linked to developmental and cognitive problems, into the Housatonic River.
The Housatonic continues to suffer from pollution. According to Wasting our Waterways, a report from the Environment Massachusetts Research & Policy Center, the top point source water polluter in Massachusetts in 2012 was Onyx Specialty Papers, Inc. The company, based in South Lee, discharged approximately 3,256 pounds of chemicals linked to cancer, including formaldehyde, into the Housatonic River.
Alsop traveled on waterways including the Housatonic, the Connecticut, the Blackstone, the Sudbury, and the Charles River. Officials, advocates, and citizens joined Alsop for events in Sheffield, Pittsfield, Springfield, Worcester, Concord, and Boston.
"Water pollution is not just an environmental problem, it's a major public health and economic threat," said Elizabeth Saunders, Massachusetts Director for Clean Water Action. "Whether it's toxic runoff in our rivers or lead in our drinking water, damage to our waterways is detrimental to our health, our economy, and our quality of life."
Last year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finalized the Clean Water Rule, a regulation to restore Clean Water Act protections to more than half of Massachusetts’ streams, including the drinking water sources for 4.9 million people. The rule is currently tied up in the courts, leaving Massachusetts’ waterways at continued risk of pollution and development.
"One month ago, General Electric announced it was backing away from plans to clean up millions of pounds of toxic PCBs in the Housatonic," said Alsop. "I love my river and all our waterways in Massachusetts. Let's see what we can all do together to clean up the Housatonic and every river and stream across the Commonwealth.”