Neponset boosters see slow, steady progress

Paddleboarders explored the Neponset river estuary at last Saturday's Riverfest. Photo courtesy NepRWA

As executive director of the Neponset River Watershed Association (NepRWA), Ian Cooke knows that while change can occasionally cascade like water rushing over a dam, more often than not it mimics the languid current of the Neponset in late July.
Last Saturday during a sweltering third annual Neponset River Fest, Cooke, clad in a wide-brimmed hat and protective gloves, manned the NepRWA information tent along with a small team.

“We had a bit lighter turnout this year because of the weather predictions,” he said. While a handful of children played in a fountain and zipped down an inflatable waterslide, many of the 500 or so attendees lounged in the shade and guzzled water. The pace of the day could be seen as a metaphor for the long but steady progress of improvements along the riverfront. 

The association was founded 52 years ago by a team of conservationists organized against plans to extend Interstate 95 into Boston through Fowl Meadow, a 5,000- acre wetland ecosystem on the Neponset River just south of Boston. Their activism, which eventually spawned a citizen lawsuit, worked; I-95 now skirts the edge of the wetland area, and Fowl Meadow remains intact instead of an eight-lane highway.

Since that initial victory, the association has achieved slow but steady progress in cleaning up the once heavily-polluted Neponset and restoring it to its natural condition.

One of the NepRWA’s core initiatives in recent years has been removing the Baker dam and the Tileston & Hollingsworth dam, two obsolete structures on the Neponset that for years have prevented fish from migrating to breeding grounds upstream. The battle to remove the dams, which Cooke has dubbed “the world’s slowest moving project,” has dragged on since 1995.  

“It’s a huge impact because, you know, for every fish you have in the river, you’ve got to have a bird or an eagle or a beaver or a muskrat, so it’s this whole system that sort of feeds on itself...when you start to take out one little piece, the whole thing gets a little less rich, a little less robust. A healthy ecosystem is more than the sum of its parts.”

The NepRWA had a breakthrough on the issue five years ago when a Citizens Advisory Committee agreed on a plan to construct a “nature-like fishway” that would allow fish to effectively pass through while still maintaining the structure of the dams. For Cooke, the compromise was a demonstration of community input done right.

“It was a good solution [since] we ended up with a consensus among representatives from the Baker Condos, the Lower Mills Civic Association, Mattapan groups, Hyde Park groups – anyone we could find who cares about this,” he said. “Everybody kind of understood each other’s point of view and came up with this alternative idea...the notion that people who are on opposite sides of a mission for something sitting down and listening to each other and coming up with a solution is totally radical.”

Yet, years after the bipartisan solution consensus, the plan for the fishway remains mired in regulatory red tape. The fish issue is entangled with another problem: the presence of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, a group of chemicals banned in 1978 that tests show remain concentrated in the sediment behind both the Tileston & Hollingsworth dam and the Baker dam. 

The PCBs are a grim reminder of the Neponset’s polluted past, when factories along its shores would dump their chemical waste into the water. Chris Hirsch, NepRWA’s environmental scientist, says regulation has come a long way since the mid-20th century, thanks in large part to the Clean Water Act of 1972, which helped to eliminate what he called “point sources” of industrial waste like the T&H factory. But before then, regulation was practically nonexistent. 

“There were a lot of paper factories upstream, and there would just be globs of paper pulp, and I’ve heard that the river would be whatever color they were dyeing that day--so it would be red, or yellow, or green, depending on the day,” said Hirsch.

Such brazen pollution no longer plagues the Neponset. Today, the biggest threat to water quality comes from storm runoff, said Hirsch.

“The biggest issue facing the country, quite frankly, is storm water and how to manage storm water and how to deal with the pollution that’s associated with it,” he said, “and how to deal with volume and flooding. Especially in a changing climate, that’s a huge challenge.”

Nancy Fyler, the organization’s outreach director, added that possible river pollutants include “anything that’s on the street; it could be fertilizer, it could be chemicals from a car, you know, oil, gasoline. Even dog waste, people who don’t pick up after their dog. It sounds like a basic thing, but it’s a huge problem.”

Currently, the Neponset is considered to be safe for boating, fishing, and swimming, but the latter is not recommended in certain parts of the river and after heavy rainfall. The Environmental Protection Agency is in the process of determining whether or not to classify the Neponset as a ‘cleanup site’ due to the presence of the PCBs.

But that classification — and any federal funding that might come with it — is contingent on the legal matter of determining responsibility for the pollution, which involves researching past practices and assigning culpability. That has been bogged down in legal murkiness for years.

“One of the ironic problems with all this is if there was nobody who was responsible, you could pursue grants to get the funding...either we’ve got to get somebody on the hook and make them pay for it, or determine if somebody’s responsible,” said Cooke.

He hopes the agency will reach a decision by the end of this year, but is also wary that “the EPA can work at a pretty glacial pace.” Hence, the world’s slowest moving project is contingent upon action from a notoriously slow-moving agency.

In the meantime, the NepRWA continues to put the bulk of its energy into legislative advocacy, working with state and city officials to obtain funding and keep an eye on regulatory practices. But even that work can often feel like swimming against the current, said Cooke.

“A big one for us in the last couple of years has been working with groups across the state to try to restore the operating budget for Mass DEP, which is the state regulating agency,” he said. Both the DEP and DCR were gutted financially in the aftermath of the recession, with cost-cutting measures resulting in each department’s staff being slashed 30 percent. “It shows,” Cooke said.

If you’re an environmental regulator and you have no employees, you don’t regulate,” said Cooke. “It’s a little shocking the things they can’t do,” he added.

But this week, the Massachusetts River Alliance, a statewide advocacy network of local conservation groups like the NepRWA, secured a victory as the state Senate and House signed off on a FY20 budget that included additional funding for the group’s three top river-related priorities.

While Cooke views the news as a step in the right direction, he hopes the additional funding is put towards putting more feet back on the ground at state agencies.

“We would hope to see Mass DEP adding new staff in the water quality, pollution prevention and wetlands areas, all of which are key functions that have been severely understaffed in recent years,” he said.