City, News

Dredging aimed to preserve Back Bay Fens’ Muddy River

In an effort involving city, state and federal government agencies, along with a local citizen committee, the Back Bay Fens’ Muddy River is in the midst of a restoration project that could have lasting impacts on the watershed’s flow, quality and biodiversity.

jogger runs through the back bay fens in boston
The Fens. Multiple government agencies and a local citizens committee are completing a restoration project to preserve the Back Bay Fens’ Muddy River, which the committee provided updates on in a Wednesday meeting. SHANNON DAMIANO/ DAILY FREE PRESS STAFF

Managed by the Army Corps of Engineers, phase two of the project began last June with contractors dredging between one and eight feet of sediment from the river bed.

Tuesday night, the Colleges of the Fenway Center for Sustainability and the Environment held its 15th annual Muddy River Symposium, in which student researchers presented their work on the tributary.

The Maintenance and Management Oversight Committee, a citizens committee tasked with helping supervise progress and future needs of the landscape, met Wednesday night, providing updates on the restoration.

In an interview, Frances Gershwin, who serves as the chairperson of the MMOC, described water quality improvement as one of several goals of the committee.

“Definitely a local Boston, Brookline, Commonwealth goal: improvement of water quality and institution of best management practices with respect to stormwater management,” Gershwin said.

While the Charles River scored high marks in a 2019 Environmental Protection Agency report, the federal agency assigned the Muddy River tributary a D- rating due to high traces of E. Coli and other bacteria. Erica Holm, field operations coordinator at the Emerald Necklace Conservancy, noticed that grade.

“The Muddy River is currently the worst water quality tributary of any of the tributaries that go into the Charles,” Holm said. “This project itself has been needed for over a decade.”

Addressing the goals of the MMOC, Gershwin, who also presented at the symposium, pointed to the committee’s ability to navigate layers of government jurisdiction to succeed.

“There’s always a tension,” Gershwin said. “Sometimes our function is really being a watchdog, but our goal is to be collaborative as much as possible and to support what the governmental agencies are doing.”

In guiding those agencies, Gershwin said the committee attempts to develop collaborative relationships.

“It’s not just, ‘You have to do this,’” Gershwin said. “What gets you through the tension is developing good, solid, supportive working relationships, and we have worked very long and very hard to make that happen.”

Such a dedication to partnership has been noticed by those outside the committee, including Director of the Colleges of the Fenway Center for Sustainability and the Environment Cynthia Williams, who said its work is “a model for citizen oversight.”

Williams added the collaboration at Tuesday’s event mirrored that of the committee.

“It’s sort of in the consortium’s sense of identity to do things in a multi-institutional way,” Williams said. “We can derive environmentally relevant knowledge from any discipline, and it’s got to be all hands on deck.”

Associate Professor of biology at Simmons University Anna Aguilera, who also attended the symposium, observed the dynamic of students in a breakout session that focused on projects related to the Muddy River.

“There was this really cool synergy with what these kids were doing,” Aguilera said. “Everyone was working on a similar problem at a different scale, but no one was repeating the wheel.”

In addition to researching across academic disciplines, Williams said higher-education institutions have a unique ability and responsibility to partner with local neighborhoods.

“We really need to get off the campus and into the communities,” Williams said. “There’s a real momentum to integrate what’s going on in the academic community with what’s going on right outside our doors.”

While dredging operations on the Muddy River are currently underway by the Army Corps of Engineers, Gautham Das, an associate professor of civil engineering at Wentworth Institute of Technology, pointed in an interview to the potential presence of PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, as a looming problem in the watershed. PFAS are man-made chemicals that do not break down over time and can stimulate adverse health effects.

Although PFAS are often found in everyday items, there is evidence they can cause harmful effects on the human body. And according to Das, they may be present in the Muddy River.

“All those chemicals that are there on the leaves and on the surrounding areas leeches all of that out into the river, which forms PFAS,” Das said. “When it’s released in water, it does go through the human body and it causes a lot of issues.”

But it’s not just humans that may have trouble ahead. Das said the process of dredging can have disastrous side effects on the wildlife and organic population.

“When you dredge the river, you kill everything else in there,” Das said. “When you pull out all the sand from it, what are you pulling out? All the fish, and the crab, and whatever and all the other stuff, and then they’re going to take it and they dump it somewhere else.”

In an interview, Holm advocated for ensuring that the Emerald Necklace — which includes surrounding parks and the Muddy River — is restored and preserved for posterity. She said she approved of the Army Corps’ work.

“If we don’t take care of these resources, they may not be here for the next generation,” Holm said. “The really important thing to focus on is to look at the parks holistically, not necessarily segmented out park by park, but look at the whole of the green space and what it offers to people.”

Holm added that the park remains critically important as the pandemic continues.

“It’s really important that these parks are a place of escape,” Holm said. “Especially during COVID and during other crises that people may be going through in their personal lives.”

Taylor Brokesh contributed to the reporting of this article.

More Articles

Comments are closed.