Urgent Evoke

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Not far from where I live, the Charles River flows between Cambridge and Boston, out into Boston Harbor. Here's an excellent example of a water-system greatly affected by human intervention.

The Greater Boston Area currently gets several benefits out of the Charles River Basin:
  • Economic / recreational, the river basin is a popular center for sailing, the river has fish again, swimming is again possible on parts of the river
  • The wetlands the river flows through provide a buffer against flooding, as well as a haven for wildlife
  • Drinking water (both directly pumped from the river and from aquifers in the watershed)
The slow-moving but reliable river was tapped as a source of power in the early industrial revolution, a keystone in the Boston area's early economy. Consequently, the already slow-moving water was slowed further, and the river became polluted from industrial runoff. The river percolates through many wetlands on its course to the ocean, and industrial pollution turned many of the wetlands from healthy ecosystems into dead and stinking swamps. In 1875, the government recommended that cleanup efforts on the downstream half of the Charles River basin be abandoned as infeasible.

Fortunately, that didn't happen. The landscape architect Charles Eliot came up with a bold plan for the river basin in the early 1900s. A dam was built to limit the backflow of ocean water into the tidal estuary. Eventually, the estuary itself was filled in with earth from some Boston hills and fortified with stone bulwarks. With this somewhat faster flow, the river thrived, for a time, until increased urban development (brought on, among other things, by improvements in water infrastructure) again overwhelmed the capacity of the river. That prompted the founding of the Charles River Watershed Association in 1965, which has fought a largely successful (but ongoing and uphill) battle to clean up and preserve the river-system. Increased demand for water and sewage capacity, increased pollution runoff, and changes in climate all present challenges that threaten the usefulness of the watershed system as a wh***.

Water-system management is nothing new. People have been working on this problem for a long time. Sometimes it's better to look at those who were visionary decades ago, especially if their vision worked.

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