By Joseph A. Curtatone
(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries of The Somerville Times belong solely to the authors of those commentaries and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville Times, its staff or publishers)
The environmental wellbeing of the Mystic River is essential to Somerville, but the river has been cut off from the rest of the city by highways and heavy industry for too long. Today, we are undoing those mistakes of the past, with the gorgeous revitalization of Baxter Park at Assembly Square the first step in reconnecting Somerville with its riverfront, an achievement for which we owe thanks to the Department of Conservation and Recreation and our partners at Federal Realty. Assembly Square is Somerville’s newest neighborhood, but the opening of Baxter Park was really a rebirth—a recapturing of our waterfront and our history. It’s the riverfront park our community has always deserved. Six acres of waterfront green space, a new dock, and accessible walk and bike pathways along the Mystic, crowned by an amphitheater—perfect for a community as devoted to the arts as Somerville.
Restoring parkland along the Mystic’s shores can only be the first step. This water system needs cleaning and care so it can continue to be a vital resource for our community and so we can reclaim it as a recreational and environmental jewel. Our state Rep. Denise Provost has submitted a bill currently before the House of Representatives that would establish a Mystic River Water quality commission, which would undertake the important work of studying this significant natural resource for Somerville and 21 other cities and towns. For decades the Mystic—one of the three major rivers flowing into Boston Harbor—has suffered from industrial uses and contamination. Now we are reclaiming it and this bill is a critical part of continuing that reclamation.
Envisioning the inherent potential in the waters of the Mystic requires only looking to the other iconic waterway flowing into Boston Inner Harbor. Every day, the Charles River is scattered with kayaks and sailboats, with people relaxing on the shore and wildlife in abundance. Swimming is now allowed by permit.
This could be the Mystic, too. A reclaimed Mystic River with wildlife, boating and yes, even swimming, is not only an environmental achievement but a catalyst for a different kind of economic potential, one that eschews the industrial economy of the past that used the river as a dumping ground and instead embraces the river as a resource onto itself that can spur the vibrancy that makes our other neighborhoods so successful. In dense cities, green and open space is social space. It’s where we meet our neighbors and new friends, where we play and relax, join in community events and take part in the social fabric of our community. That in turn supports local businesses. It’s that outside life that makes a great city. Our home doesn’t stop at our front doors—it’s extended throughout our neighborhoods because of inviting open spaces like Baxter Park and, in the future, along the shores of the Mystic River.
While efforts to restore the Charles began decades ago, it accelerated in the mid-90s when the EPA officially made a swimmable Charles one of its goals, and the Legislature passed and Gov. William Weld signed the Rivers Protection Act. Since then, the Charles’ water quality grade from the EPA has risen from a D to a B+. The Mystic River still has a D grade. If we can commit to cleaning and restoring the Mystic the same way we committed to the Charles, starting with the passage of Rep. Provost’s bill, we can make the same dramatic turnaround a reality on Somerville’s shores.
Fortunately, we have partners already committed to the cause. The Mystic River Watershed Association and Tufts University collaborate to undertake the challenges of cleaning the river. Earlier this month, we celebrated the second year of a state grant that helps restore the Mystic by removing invasive water chestnut plants that choke the river, impacting both recreational opportunities on the water and the river’s ecology. The Mystic River Water Watershed Association has been a huge contributor to this effort, inviting volunteers on four days this summer to remove water chestnuts, with the final event scheduled for the second weekend in August.
Somerville is also doing its part to restore the Mystic through active stormwater management—from the way we clean our streets, to continually improving our below ground infrastructure, to building innovative sustainability features into our parks and open spaces that reuses stormwater, so that instead of running off into the Mystic and overcharging our water and sewer lines, it’s helping us sustain our green spaces.
Envision a Mystic that is swimmable. That is the goal and we can achieve it together, if we can commit to a course of action. The Charles River is a undeniable example of what we can accomplish when we set a goal and put in the work. Let’s do it for the Mystic, too.