Sarah Jane Caban: “Dirty Water” Awareness

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“Down by the banks of the River Charles…Well I love that dirty water, Oh Boston, you’re my home!”

The song by the Standells is catchy. But tragic. The refrain–“Well I love that dirty water, Oh Boston, you’re my home!”–not only acknowledges the putrid state of Boston’s most iconic river, but effectively glorifies it. Once a  popular swimming and recreation destination in the 19th and early and 20th centuries–my grandparents recall floating along the Charles– sewage, urban wastewater and runoff caused the waterway to become so polluted that, in 1955, an article in Harper’s Magazine called it “foul and noisome, polluted by offal (refuse) and industrial wastes, scummy with oil, unlikely to be mistaken for water.” Beaches were shut down to swimmers, and those who had the misfortune of falling into the river were advised to get tetanus shots.

Unfortunately, the story of the Charles River is hardly an anomaly–more the rule than the exception. When I sat down to write a blog post about freshwater this year, I realized that the “Dirty Water” ditty was the refrain of my childhood.


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Massachusetts’ Concord River, which practically ran through my
neighborhood in the suburb of Bedford, is a tributary of the Merrimac
River. The Merrimac was classified as one of the ten most polluted
waterways in America in the 1960s following decades of pollution,
particularly from mills, mines, and tanners situated along the river’s
banks. Growing up, my perception of the Concord River was as “nasty” or
“sick” in my tween-age vernacular. I remember seeing signs advising
against eating fish–should one actually attempt to catch them–and
hearing a story of a friend’s parent who had toppled out of a canoe,
thinking it a most horrible fate. Most of the time, however, I barely
acknowledged the river’s existence, except when the spring floods came
and my family would walk down to gape at the houses with backyards that
had been flooded.

BedfordConsLand-FawnLake-rocks-4-14-02-JB.jpgAmong other bodies of water in my town was Fawn Lake. More a pond in my
opinion, but at the time of its construction in 1875, it was one of the
biggest manmade waterholes in the state. In the 1800s, Fawn Lake was
the site of the Bedford Springs Resort, a destination for wealthy
travelers seeking the purported medicinal properties of the area’s
sweet water springs. The resort included a laboratory where healing
potions were developed from the sweet water; the whole compound
remained in operation until the early 20th century. I have fond
memories of skating on this once-magical pond as a young child. In my
teenage years, the pond became too bumpy to skate on, a result of
rampant aquatic plant proliferation caused by unchecked eutrophication.

And so there I was, a kid surrounded by tainted water everywhere I
looked. How could this happen? After all, ancient cities were built
around sources of fresh water. The same was true in America, where the
initial development of colonial territories, westward expansion, and
industrial growth were largely facilitated by the waters of rivers,
lakes, and manmade canals. Of course, the same processes that were
catalyzed by the country’s waters were often the chief culprits of
their demise.

How could we have gotten to this point where we had degraded our most
precious natural resources? In Massachusetts, we no longer dreamed of
relying on local lakes and rivers as sources of drinking water,
transport, or nearly any other purpose, aside from the occasional
recreational foray. Yes, I sometimes paddled a canoe down the Concord
River or built a tree fort along its banks, but my most salient
association with the river was of decreased property values from
flooded homes.

Of course, my experience is unique to my particular geographic
upbringing. Other parts of the United States are blessed with more
pristine waters. Still others are beset with drought and freshwater
scarcity–water was certainly abundant in Massachusetts, if dirty. But
it’s amazing how much one’s specific geographic context, particularly
that experienced during the tender formative years, can shape later
perceptions.

The good news is things are getting better, at least in Massachusetts.
It turns out that not everyone loves dirty water, or accepts it as an
irrevocable reality. In 1965, the Charles River Watershed Association
was established with the goal of protecting and rehabilitating the
Charles River. Sewage overflow and storm water runoff were curtailed,
and a dam was built to reduce saltwater contamination from the ocean.
In 1995, the EPA set a goal of making the Charles River swimmable by
2005. The Charles River Masters Swim Race was held in 2007, the first
swimming event conducted in more than 50 years.

Three wastewater treatment plants were built along the Concord River in
an effort to clean up that waterway, and they are making progress.
However, heavy metals and PCBs remain lodged in the riverbed sediments,
necessitating a continued ban on fish consumption. A plan is underway
to tackle the eutrophication of Fawn Lake.

But we need to do more, in Massachusetts, across the country, and
around the globe. We need to appreciate our local water bodies not just
as sources of recreation or scenic beauty, but as essential components
of our broader ecosystems, homes to myriad animals, stewards of soil
health, and natural water catchments. In fact, some of the most clear
or pristine-looking lakes are the most plagued by acidic conditions and
denuded of life! We need to understand the components of healthy water
systems, and put practices in place to restore them.

Luckily, bloggers have been offering great ideas for how to do this
throughout the week. It begins with awareness. National Geographic Education’s Sean O’Connor’s
suggestion to become a watershed citizen is a fantastic first step, and
we must start early in life. We need to teach our children to become
actively engaged as water keepers, both locally and globally. The
Geography Collective’s
freshwater missions are another great tool to
get kids thinking about water critically and exploring local water
bodies.

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National Geographic’s Action Atlas, described by Director of Conservation and Special Projeccts Frank Biasi, can connect families and school groups who want
to expand their reach with organizations conducting freshwater projects
across the world. And National Geographic’s freshwater web portal,
highlighted several times on our Geography Awareness Week website,
provides all kinds of resources and interactives for learning about
freshwater.

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Each one of us contributing to National Geographic’s Freshwater
Initiative, our Education Programs, and to this Geography Awareness
Week blog-a-thon are doing our part to raise awareness about these
critical issues among our nation’s youth. So thank YOU for a week of
inspiring blog posts, and thanks to the Geography Awareness Week staff
and state coordinators for a year of impressive work. Hopefully, our
kids will soon be “Rolling Down the River,” rather than singing about
“Dirty Water!”

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Sarah Jane Caban, My Wonderful World Blog Editor

Images of Charles River, Concord River, Fawn Lake, Mission:Explore, Freshwater Calculator courtesy In the Freying PanWikiVisualAppalachian Mountain Club, the Geography Collective, National Geographic.

2 responses to “Sarah Jane Caban: “Dirty Water” Awareness

  1. A real eye opener to all. We all like to talk about all these issues today, but nobody wants to go beyond that. I really hope people start taking action in small ways and realise that it is for a healthier future,for one an all.

  2. Your blog is an Eye Opener Jane. Though I have never been to the US. Your pictures & writing transported me to the location .We seem to have misused water . This is indeed a Global problem . The irony is we know our problem , we know the solution . But do we want to bring about the change is the question. At least this is how it has been viewed in India. The attitude of the policy makers , politicians & the citizens should change.

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