Cleaner Charles Rivers fuels new pursuit of permanent swimming area

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BOSTON >> A permanent swimming area is feasible in the Charles River given continued investments in water quality and "due diligence" efforts to address logistical challenges, according to a new study commissioned by the Charles River Conservancy.

The global design firm Stantec conducted the study, exploring the potential for a dock area near the recently developed North Point Park, which the conservancy sees as an "ideal location" for a permanent swimming area given its proximity to lawn spaces and parkland, Hubway bike rental stations, a playground and the MBTA.

The study focused on the New Charles River Basin, the stretch between the Museum of Science and the Zakim Bridge. Researchers said water quality in that location has "already been confidently established as safe for human use for swimming during most of the year."

The water quality of the Charles has improved from a grade of 'D' in 1995 to an 'A-' in 2013, according to the study, and the lower Charles River is considered swimmable many days of the year.

The Charles River Swimming Club began holding an annual one-mile swim race in the Charles in 2007, the study said, and the Charles River in 2011 won the Thiess International Riverprize, naming it the cleanest urban river in the United States.

"We want to challenge perceptions that the river is filled with dirty water," conservancy founder and president Renata von Tscharner said in a statement. "The Charles River is the cleanest urban river in America - let's create a place to swim in our river!"

In Europe, cities like Copenhagen, Berlin, Hamburg, London, Stockholm, and Geneva have built facilities to allow swimming in their rivers. In the U.S, investments have been made in waterfront amenities in places like Chicago, Minneapolis, Chattanooga, Washington, and Nashville.

Stantec senior principal Jeffrey Simon said a swimming area in the Charles "would add an entirely new dimension to the recreational opportunities for everyone in the downtown area."

The study was released in connection with Tuesday's fourth annual "CitySplash" event, and the conservancy launched a crowd-source fundraising campaign aimed at covering costs associated with overcoming challenges to implementing a swimming facility. Challenges include design and permitting, liability and financing issues, and use and operation agreements with landowners.

There are also safety considerations, such as keeping people away from potentially hazardous sediments at the bottom of the river. The study recommends a site where the water is between nine and 15-feet deep to avoid contact with the bottom. And a swimming facility "may need to be closed during events like E. coli outbreaks or after storms much like many existing Boston-area swimming beaches," the study said.

Study authors recommended that the conservancy consult with the state Department of Conservation and Recreation.

The conservancy's July 13, 2013 community swim marked the first public swim in the Charles River in more than 50 years.

"After years of hard work, we have seen a remarkable resurgence in the health of the river. Work remains, but we know we can get there, to fully restore this beloved natural system for both humans and wildlife" said Robert Zimmerman Jr., executive director of the Charles River Watershed Association.

To highlight the river's improved water quality, Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Matt Beaton last July front-flipped into the Charles River at the Fiedler Dock, holding a media availability while he was treading water and describing the part of the river he jumped in as "perfectly clean."


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