Wicked Pissah, or, Not So Dirty Water

categories: Cocktail Hour

1 comment

Photo by John Tlumacki

Here is part of the latest post for my Wilf Life blog at OnEarth.org: 


“Contact!” was Thoreau’s famous cry upon encountering raw nature. More than 150 years later, it still has a nice ring to it. But how to directly experience nature in an increasingly crowded, cluttered, and technological world?


 One way, I’d argue, is by swimming in it.


My family and I are now vacationing in Massachusetts, and at each stop on our trip we have made it a point to dive into the local waters. Two days ago that meant wading into the ocean off osprey-thick South Dartmouth; yesterday it meant diving off a boat in Buzzards Bay; and today it means swimming in Cape Cod Bay. And while we may not make it back to Boston on this trip, if we do, I know just where we’re heading. The latest news—thrilling news, I think, maybe even historic news—is that the Charles River is open for swimming. Earlier this summer, on July 13th, the Charles River Swimming Club hosted a group of 144 swimmers who took the plunge, jumping off a dock in the Esplanade, and splashing around for 30 minutes or so.

They were celebrating the fact that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has deemed the river swimmable—if not all the time, then on most days. Back in 1995, when the EPA began grading the river, the first grade was a D. But the river that the swimmers were immersing themselves in last month now merits a B+, according to the agency, which means that it is deemed safe for swimming 54 percent of the time. That may not be enough to make you reach for your bathing cap and floatie, but it does make the Charles one of the cleanest urban rivers in the country.

Obviously it has not always been that way. Not long ago I published a book, My Green Manifesto, about paddling the Charles with Dan Driscoll, the visionary environmental planner who helped green the banks of the river through the promotion of native plantings. (The book grew out of an article for this magazine: “Riding the Wild Charles.”)  As we made our way down the river, Dan, who works for the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, described the Bleachery Dye Works that, less than a hundred years ago, changed the waterway’s color almost daily with its discharge: from purple to red to brown. And Dan pointed out that the river has always been at the mercy of human ideas about it, changing along with those ideas.

Read the rest at Wilf Life.


  1. Tommy writes:

    How Horrifying that a river that is safe for swimming 54% of the time is deemed a B+. Then it really is true – our rivers really are the biggest dumps we have. And yet they can treat that water and make it “safe” for drinking – amazing!

    When you flush your toilet, where does the water go? Who’s downstream from you, who’s upstream, ever wonder? I do all the time……