Tuesday, July 23, 2024

An Alewife Floater specimen. (Photo: Vermont Center for Ecostudies)

Rainfall-driven eruptions of raw sewage into the Charles River, the Mystic River and especially the Alewife Brook take place on a regular basis. This is exactly as bad as it sounds. On a rainy day, you flush your toilet in parts of Cambridge and Somerville, and the odds are that whatever you’ve whisked away will reappear at a downstream location near you. 

In the Alewife, especially, the sewage isn’t treated at all, other than some pass-through screens that accomplish “floatables” control – essentially, removing things such as tampons and toilet paper from the surface so things don’t look too obviously disgusting. 

The health risks flow unimpeded.

At a well-attended public meeting last week on this problem – called combined sewer overflows – the disconnect between the professional speakers and the community was striking. The community was, in a word, apoplectic. Or to add a few more words: disgusted, dismayed and near despair. This summer, photos emerged of babies in strollers wheeled through Alewife’s flooded paths, the parents unaware, apparently, of the sewage contamination they waded through. It’s been something like 35 years since CSOs have been under a court mandate to be cleaned up. The original “long-term control plan” expired years ago, without control being achieved. We’re now in an extended period of planning for a new long-term plan.

This extension partly explains why the professionals, a joint group of Cambridge, Somerville, Massachusetts Water Resources Authority engineers, planners and consultants, were so calm, explanatory and unrushed as they laid out the issues. None of the hard decisions have to be made yet. And there are indeed hard decisions, as they made clear. Some options involve tens of millions of dollars, construction snarls along Massachusetts Avenue and other roadways, region-disrupting upgrades along miles of piping and the massive facilities at Deer Island, the installation of treatment facilities along what are already space-starved roads and parks and houses … 

Toward the end of the meeting one resident seemed to be processing the message that in the hands of the experts, this problem is not going to get better any time soon – or possibly ever, if cost-benefit analysis is strictly followed – and asked: “So … what can we do to help make a difference?”

The answer, which boiled down to, “Just keep expressing your concerns,” brought to mind a Monty Python skit in “Life of Brian”: A group of doctors in a delivery room forget their pregnant patient, so eager are they to show off their new birth technologies (“The machine that goes ‘ping!’”). When she asks, meekly, what she is supposed to do, they reply: “Nothing, dear. You’re not qualified.

To the officials’ credit, when challenged on this, they backtracked a bit. But it would be easy to miss, in their brief and unforthcoming concession, just how much power is in the community’s hands – your hands, that is, if you are an area property or business owner, or someone who influences those owners (i.e., a renter, or client or frequent shopper). 

Part of this power is of the usual political-pressure sort. “Cost-benefit” calculations change when we signal the benefits really matter to us, or increase the costs of official inaction through protest. If you want the waterways on all sides of Cambridge-Somerville-Arlington-Medford-Watertown to be less sewage-y, join Green Cambridge, Save the Alewife Brook, the Mystic River Watershed Association, the Charles River Watershed Association. Sign up for CSO notifications, which will keep you aware of when the sewage dumps occur (in rainy years such as this one, it’s often). Show up at further meetings.

But the real power that we have comes under the heading of “green stormwater infrastructure.” Combined sewer overflows happen because stormwater threatens to overwhelm the pipes that carry both sewage and rainwater – and the system is designed to dump the whole mess into the nearest river rather than have it back up into your basement. But what if stormwater didn’t have to overwhelm the system in the first place? What if we could have it soak into the ground instead?

It seems, if you’ll pardon the expression, a pipe dream. And at the meeting, officials cast doubt on its potential, pointing out that in densely settled areas such as Cambridge and Somerville, there just isn’t enough room for green infrastructure to make a big difference – just narrow little strips of land alongside roads, for example. But cities such as Philadelphia have implemented transformative efforts that save money, beautify the city and even help with workforce development. 

More fundamentally, the perception of limited space is wrong: Perhaps only a small portion of land is directly under government control, but residents and businesses have the rest of it. And we can change things: Install rain capture systems (even simple rain barrels) that have advantages in rainy and dry years. Install permeable paving, green roofs, rain gardens and swales. Landscape our yards to slow the flow of water. Plant trees. The government can help by incentivizing such home and business improvements, and it would be a lot cheaper, more beautiful and property-value enhancing, to encourage such broadly distributed, even democratized, interventions than invest in decades of disruptive pipe construction. 

If there was ever a win-win-win on government investment, green stormwater infrastructure is it. We should be pouring it on, not trickling it out – especially with climate change bringing ever more extremes our way.

To all of this I want to add one more thing that’s vital for us to do, and entirely in our hands: Love and prioritize our parks and green spaces – and yes, that includes the beleaguered Alewife Reserve, and the natural areas along the Mystic and Charles rivers. If we ever properly calculated the value of the “ecosystem services” provided by the wild, we’d realize that our debt extends to the air we breathe, the food we eat, the mental and physical health we enjoy. 

All of which brings us to Alewife Floaters. No, they’re not a problem – though my title (and the term ‘floatables’) may have mischievously suggested they were. They are an unambiguously good thing. But there is something we need to do about them. 

Alewife Floaters are a species of freshwater mussel that as adults live embedded in the sand and mud, but as larvae have evolved an ingenious way to reach new areas of a river system: They hitch a ride in the gills of the Alewife herring (as well as related fish, such as the blue-back herring and the American shad). When its host fish were so abundant that they were a pillar of Massachusetts tribal sustenance, and fertilized soil for the early European colonists, the mussel must have been abundant, too. What does it do for a body of water to have such a species in it? Consider this: A single mussel can filter 15 to 20 gallons of water a day, capturing and cycling nutrients, structuring the stream bed as a habitat and forming the basis of a food web for other species. Mussel beds can revitalize an urban river.

Even now, when Alewife Brook is mostly bereft of its fish because of its quality, sometimes you see a Floater shell or two. Maybe you, like me for the longest time, assumed they were archaeological, or someone’s lunch dumped in the river. But no: They are evidence that despite the pollution, the shallowness, the channelization, the gunk that’s accumulated – some fish do make it through. And some Alewife Floaters hitch a ride. Nature is that powerfully resilient, that ready to come back. To provide ecosystem services, once we know to value them.

So here is what we need to do: Imagine if we invested in the quality of the waterway, constructed wetlands that would be habitat for fish, for plants that filtered, for mussels. There’s an argument to be made that CSOs aren’t the worst of the problems (the experts were only too happy to make that argument). That if we helped our rivers and brooks grow in resilience, they could shake off the worst of the effects of what we dump in them. But to get there it would take a thorough reconsideration of all the factors that have led to today’s problems – and enough tenacity and insistence to start undoing them. That comes from love. Save the Alewife Brook’s and the Mystic River Watershed Association’s recent successful campaign to get the state to do a dredging study of Alewife is an excellent start.

So there you have it: What you can do beyond negotiate with, and wait for, the forces of central planning to install “gray” infrastructure. Just love the green – love the land – and let the Alewife Floaters ride back in.  


Greg Harris is the founding editor of the literary magazine Pangyrus and the founder and co-director of Harvard LITfest. His essays, reviews, and stories have appeared in The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Harvard Review, Jewish Fiction, Earth Island Journal and elsewhere.