Turtles bask on logs in the Charles River/ Credit: Needham Observer

The Charles River winds around Needham like a liquid necklace. Today it’s a peaceful oasis free of crowds, a gem cherished by boaters, walkers, birders and fishermen. However, the river once was a cesspool of sewage, trash and pollutants.

“The cleanliness of the river shows how people can do extraordinary things when they try,” Emily Norton, executive director of the Charles River Watershed Association, told an audience at the Needham library last month in a presentation sponsored by the Friends of the Library. 

The polluted and unsafe water of 70 years ago clearly required visionary action, as Norton illustrated with photos and descriptions of mounds of trash from the Milford town dump slipping into the river and pink discharge from the Medway Dye Company.

“By the time the river reaches Cambridge, it is foul, polluted by offal and industrial waste, scummy with oil, unlikely to be mistaken for water,” read a 1955 Harper’s magazine article Norton quoted.

In 1965 a group of citizens formed the CRWA. Their work to restore and protect the river deserves much credit for its current health. The Needham section, along with parts of the river from Medfield to Waltham, received an A grade in CRWA’s most recent report card two years ago. 

Needham has the distinction of being surrounded on three sides by the Charles, which means cars and people pass over it on their way into or out of town. But so much is gained by getting out of the car and exploring it on foot or by boat. 

Vicki Krupp, a longtime Needham resident who has kayaked nearly the entire river, said she finds the Needham section the most beautiful.

“I love the peacefulness of the river and the scenery and wildlife,” she said. “I don’t see many houses because of the trees and bushes, so it feels remote. I feel like I’m 100 miles away from civilization even though I’m a mile from my home.”

On any given day, boaters can expect to see swans swimming gracefully or great blue herons standing stock still eyeing fish before lifting off on impressive wings. Rows of turtles bask on logs, oblivious to approaching boats, and tall domes of logs and sticks mark the lodges of beavers. Red winged blackbirds and other birds call and sing, frogs croak and brook trout, perch, sunfish and bass swim beneath the surface. 

“It’s important to celebrate the progress we’ve made, but not declare mission accomplished,” Norton said.

Great Blue Heron along the Charles River/ Credit: Needham Observer

The most pressing issue in Needham is phosphorus flowing into the river. Phosphorus, which can be found in fertilizer, gasoline, pet waste and leaf litter, enters the river after heavy rain, such as the August 2023 storm that caused serious flooding in parts of town.

“Stormwater runoff comes from every paved surface in the watershed,” Norton said. “Any time it rains or snows and the water hits paved surface, whatever is on the surface goes straight into the storm drain and into the river untreated. That causes the growth of invasive species and bacteria.”

Norton praised Needham for its efforts to improve river water quality. This year, the town instituted a stormwater utility fee as part of the water and sewer bill, and it is using those funds to reduce phosphorus by capturing stormwater runoff. The fee amounts to about $38 a year for most homes.

“Kudos for Needham, for paying a stormwater fee, and a shout-out for hiring a sustainability manager,” she said.

Gabby Queenan, the town’s sustainability manager, said the town is exploring a variety of solutions to absorb stormwater runoff and keep it from flowing into storm drains. Measures include rainwater gardens, bioretention basins and wetland restoration. CRWA selected Needham as a priority site for wetland restoration, specifically Alder Brook near the DeFazio complex parking lot and the town reservoir, which experienced serious flooding last summer. The town has used grant money to fund concept designs, and the next step is to obtain funding for a full design, she said.

“The gardens and basins have plants and soils selected because they have the ability to absorb phosphorus,” Queenan said. “And wetlands mitigate flooding and stormwater runoff because they absorb large amounts of water. With climate change, there will be increased stormwater runoff, so these steps play a big role in our resiliency to climate change.”

What’s more, the town’s drinking water is affected by stormwater runoff, as the town pumps most of its water from the watershed, treats it and stores it in wells and water towers. Whatever doesn’t come from the ground is supplemented by Massachusetts Water Resources Authority water.

“It’s more expensive to treat polluted water,” Queenan said.

Dams, particularly larger ones such as the Natick Dam and the Cochrane Dam on South Street near the Dover line, also threaten river health. That is one reason Natick recently voted to remove the town-owned dam, even though it is beloved as a picturesque destination. The Cochrane Dam, however, is owned by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which has jurisdiction over it. About 70 dams have been removed in the state, mostly town-owned or private, and pressure is growing for the state to remove more of its dams, said Lisa Kumpf, CRWA’s senior restoration program manager. 

NHS graduate Will Whiteley built this bench for his Eagle Scout project at Charles River Peninsula/ Credit: Needham Observer

“When a dam is placed in a river, it’s like a wall in a flowing system,” she said. “It slows down the water behind it, and that causes sediment to accumulate, which a lot of times has pollutants from an industrial past. And stiller water is warmer, which is an environment for invasive plant species and toxic algae blooms. These reduce oxygen in the water, which hurts aquatic life. It’s a cascade of problems, but it’s kind of amazing that when dams are removed you see the problems recede in one or two years.”

Down the street from the Cochrane Dam, the Charles River Peninsula — 29 acres of riverfront trails and meadows owned and managed by The Trustees — attracts dog walkers such as Will Whiteley and his family. Whiteley, who just graduated from Needham High School and will study engineering at Colorado School of Mines, did his Eagle Scout project there, constructing a picnic table, bench and footbridges over path sections that get muddy.

“It’s a great area and really pretty,” he said. “We go to get our feet wet and watch our dogs swim and run and jump through the fields. The project went really well, and I’m glad that people can use and appreciate what we built.”

The Charles River Peninsula has a parking lot at Red Wing Bay on Fisher Street, where people can launch boats. Other launch options are on South Street across from the Needham Reservoir, which also has a short riverfront trail, and Central Avenue across from the Walker School. 

The area is also a bird watchers delight, with grasslands that are home to bobolinks, savannah sparrows and other ground-nesting birds (hence the requirement that dogs be leashed from May 15–Aug. 15), as well as bluebirds and tree swallows. The property once was part of Gordon Walker Dairy Enterprise until it was given to The Trustees in the 1950s.

“It’s a very special place that we manage primarily for grassland habitat, which is important because so many grasslands in the region and state have been developed or become forested,” said Mike Francis, a senior regional manager for The Trustees. “And to encourage public use, we established a trail that winds along the perimeter of the field and ducks into the wooded buffer along the river. It’s special to have so much river frontage on a small property. You could go there just for half an hour to refresh your spirits.”

And who doesn’t need that?

CRWA is looking for volunteers to help monitor the health of the river, particularly cyanobacteria (toxic algae) blooms. For information, email Ryan Smith, rsmith@crwa.org.

Jody Feinberg is a retired reporter who has lived in Needham for 40 years.

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