The Mystic River flows from the Mystic Lakes in Winchester, seven miles south to the Tobin Bridge and Boston Harbor.
It’s Boston’s other river — less well known than the Charles. But, like the Charles, for centuries it was assaulted by industry, development and backed-up storm drains, which overwhelmed it with raw sewage and all kinds of other pollutants.
EkOngKar Singh Khalsa, or “EK,” calls the problems of the Mystic the problems of prosperity.
He’s executive director of the Mystic River Watershed Association, which is working to reverse the ravages of industrialization that almost killed the river.
“Great, rich communities were built,” says EK. “Wonderful industry was created, and we weren’t so good about how we managed our waste, and so we had to pay a price.”
But EK is an optimist. Despite hundreds of industrial waste sites along its shores — the power plants, oil tanks and the long legacy of industrial contamination, he says there’s hope for the Mystic.
And he points to an unlikely place for proof — a little gritty piece of land along the river in Somerville called Draw Seven Park, right behind the Assembly Station Orange Line T stop.
“We have a parking lot. We’re right on top of the river. There are two new fishing piers, there’s access to this location from the Orange Line and from Assembly Row. But, as you can see, there’s chain-link fence. We’re not quite there. But this is, in so many ways, the story of the Mystic River watershed right now. This is all the potential of the Mystic, to serve 500,000 people in these 22 communities.”
That makes the Mystic one of the most densely populated urban watersheds in the state.
The Mystic’s Historic Legacy
We head across the bridge from Somerville to Medford, and EK makes the point that the Mystic is also packed with history. Take, for example, the public boathouse on the Somerville side. It has the the lyrical name, Blessing of the Bay Boathouse.
“Blessing of the Bay was one of the first wooden ships built in America,” EK tells us, and that’s not all he knows about the history of the river. There are three centuries of industrial history from which it’s trying to recover, but there’s also history that helped define this country.
“The Mystic saw revolutionary battles,” EK says. “Paul Revere’s ride wasn’t through the Allston-Brighton tolls on the Massachusetts Turnpike, his horse rode along the banks of the Mystic to Lexington and Concord. The Mystic powered American industry and we’ve got the scars to show that we did that.”
Despite those scars, there’s evidence that the Mystic is healing. At one point, part of the river was choked by an aggressive invasion of water chestnuts. But, thanks to an eradication program, the plants are mostly gone and the river is flowing again.
There are also a series of water quality and improvement programs that have actually made long stretches of the Mystic safe for boating and recreation. Parts of it are even swimmable — but there’s a lot more work to do.
You can’t help but compare the Mystic River to the Charles. Once upon a time, the Charles was dangerously contaminated. Today, it’s one of the world’s cleanest urban waterways, which provides a kind of model for what the Mystic River Watershed Association wants to do.
“The Charles tells us what happens when you restore an urban river,” EK says. “It activates both the river and all of the space around it. It tells you, also, that it changes how people feel about their lives and about their neighborhood and about their community. And I think one of the challenges we have at this point in the Mystic is to change the perceptions, because water quality in the river where we are now is very, very good. Not quite as good as the Charles, but approaching it. And certainly, in this section of the river, it’s entirely boatable.”
“Boatable” is a standard for E. coli contamination, which EK says is the big issue in the Mystic, and itwas the big issue in the Charles.
“For boating standards, as you might imagine, the amount of E. coli allowed in water is fairly high. It’s not a very rigorous standard, as you might imagine, because the exposure that you have while you’re boating is fairly minimal. You’re splashing water on your face, maybe you’re swallowing a little water, so it’s a very different standard from swimming.”
‘This Is The Mystic’
We climb aboard a powerboat and head downstream, through the locks at the Amelia Earhart Dam in Somerville.
“So now we’re heading into saltwater,” EK tells us. “This is the Mystic.”
On the Everett side of the river, we see the site of a heavily contaminated former Monsanto chemical plant where cleanup has begun. It’s where Wynn Resorts is spending $1.7 billion to build its resort casino. EK says the watershed association has done its very best to ensure the building of a huge resort casino is actually good for the future of the Mystic.
“We determined that if a casino got built in the Mystic River watershed, that it would do great things for the river,” says EK. “We’ve actually worked really closely with the Wynn Resorts group to encourage some changes in the way they interface with the river. Rather than putting a hardened edge along the river, we said, ‘Look, there’s no heavy traffic up here, why not create a new salt marsh? Why not create a living shoreline? Why not restore these tidal areas and see if we can bring back life?’ And, to their credit, they loved that and they’ve really embraced that idea.”
But what’s involved with cleaning a waterway? In the case of the Charles River, the big hurdle was simply stopping the sewage from going into the river, not so much cleaning or dredging the water.
“That’s a real essential first step,” says EK. “If you don’t have good water quality it’s hard to recover the general conditions. Bacterial contamination, sewage overflows, sewage leaking through storm water pipes, all of these are problems of urban rivers. We also are concerned about sediments and what contamination remains in the sediments from all of these former industrial activities. We’re unclear about that, and that creates problems in terms of recreational use because people are concerned. ‘Well, should we put a boat ramp here or not? Should I get my feet in the water or not?’ It’s just a big open question.”
From Sewage To Swimming
So, what about that question of swimming in the Mystic? Could there soon be a time when we’ll want to go for a dip?
“It depends what section of the watershed you’re talking about. You can have a great time swimming in the upper Mystic Lakes right now. Shannon Beach is used by thousands and thousands of people every summer.”
But the saltwater section of the Mystic is a different story.
“I don’t know that I would spend a lot of time swimming here, but I’d definitely dive off that landing,” says EK.
But he also says he’d be very surprised if, in the next 10 years, the Mystic isn’t a swimming river, which seems amazing. And there was a time when EK would’ve had trouble imagining that would be possible.
“We have a good friend who’s lived in the Everett area for a long time, and he tells a great story of falling out of a rowboat with his 7-year-old friends and coming out of the river absolutely covered in oil and God knows what else, and then going home and having his mother scrub him in the bathtub for half a day to get that oil and all of these other contaminants off him. So, clearly we’ve come a long, long way.”
We turn around and head upstream, back through the locks, past the Blessing of the Bay Boathouse and into a tranquil stretch of the Mystic. Great Blue Heron stand sentry along the lush green river banks and geese swoop ahead of us. Here, the river looks as it might have three centuries ago.
“This beautiful stretch of river, which moves between the cities of Medford and the city of Somerville, is really quite a treasure,” says EK. “What’s interesting about the Mystic right now is that very few people know that. So, if you put your canoe or kayak in this water, you have it to yourself. And you can paddle all the way from here about four miles up to the Mystic Lakes and go for a beautiful swim.”
Part of the reason why this lovely section of the Mystic is empty is because it’s hard to get to. You have to be brave enough to go underneath Route 93 and find it.
“The Mystic is this hidden treasure,” says EK. “We have barricaded it with big highways and chain-link fences and prevent people from getting access because we’re dotted with brown fields. All these old industrial sites that have yet to be cleaned up, but it’s here. The Mystic is this splendid place and it offers the same promise of every urban river, which is this wonderful, open green space.”