Our Rivers, Our Edens

Gray Day on the Charles

Our Rivers, Our Edens

As the pandemic has highlighted, the disparity of choices for a special place to escape and enjoy nature varies greatly. The fortunate have the luxury of dreaming of visiting faraway places while others have discovered their “Eden” in their community. For some, the chance of finding an oasis close to home has been diminished by the loss of public parks and decreased funding for greener infrastructure in urban areas.

The truth is, there are no “untouched” places left on Earth. Even the most remote places we perceive as idyllic have been altered by human-induced effects—plastic pollution and extreme weather events like drought, flooding, and critical habitat loss. If our ideal image of nature is one of only those places we think are pristine and remote, does that mean that we care less about nature right in front of us? 

Can places in our community be our Eden?

For Cambridge residents, the Charles and the Mystic Rivers bordering our city community have become a welcome refuge during the pandemic. They are our community’s Edens! You might have noticed while out walking there is an uptick in foot traffic along the banks of these fabulous waterways and folks tell us that the rivers have afforded them a respite from feeling stuck indoors. Family outings along the pathways have become THE destination for Cambridge residents, reminding us that these special places are for everyone and assessable to all. The beauty of Cambridge is that both waterways are just a walk away for many.

As idyllic as these rivers seem from the shore, both rivers face challenges that affect everyone. Pollution, storm runoff, drought, and outdated infrastructure like dams and combined sewage overflows wreak havoc on the health of our rivers. The climate crisis exasperates these issues.

Invasive plants species choke certain parts of both rivers, interrupting boaters but more importantly depriving wildlife of critical habitat. According to scientists at The Charles River Watershed Association, “Invasive plant species threaten terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems by degrading water quality and reducing biodiversity and flood storage capacity.” In other words, invasive species are hogging all the good stuff in the river and they need to be eradicated. It’s a big job and one that will need resolve and coordination with the State of Massachusetts—and many helping hands.

Are we experiencing drought? Well, it’s a question that people mostly don’t think about. Water is running from our taps, our gardens are thriving, and what about those big rainstorms throughout the year?

It is a deceiving picture. Drought is a complicated issue exacerbated by climate change. In fact, in 2020 91% of the State experienced drought conditions. Why do we care? Drought depletes the rivers causing them to warm and invasive plant species to thrive. Ultimately, fish die off. Climate related weather events complicate matters when there are longer drought periods followed by extreme weather.

Yes, storms are intense. The rain comes down hard. But retaining that water isn’t easy because, with impermeable roads, sidewalks and other surfaces that surround our community, we have little green infrastructure to hug that water into our living shorelines and replenish our rivers. 

The effects of drought can be seen on the river and from the shoreline. Have you seen it? That green hue in the warmer months? Our river scientists at Charles River Watershed Association explain, “Cyanobacteria, also called blue-green algae, are microscopic cells that naturally grow in rivers and lakes. Cyanobacteria populations can explode in warm water with excess nutrients, and exposure to these blooms can have negative health effects for humans, animals, and ecosystems.” Human health needs healthy rivers!

According to the Mystic River Watershed Association, “more of our precipitation is occurring as winter Nor’easters and summer thunderstorms and hurricanes, with longer dry periods in between. This new pattern is beginning to overwhelm aging stormwater infrastructure and stress native ecosystems.” To complicate matters, different municipalities have different rules that vary from town to town about drought definition and restrictions, confusing the public.

Just recently a member of Many Helping Hands 365 attended The Lobby Day for Rivers where we coordinated with environmental organizations, led by the Massachusetts River Alliance, to speak to legislators about two bills that would protect our Eden and all rivers across the State. Get educated about these two bills and reach out to Cambridge’s State Sen. Patricia Jehlen to thank her for Co-sponsoring An Act to Respond to the Threat of Invasive Species. Learn about drought and the Bill to Maintain Adequate Water Supplies Through Effective Drought Management. The Massachusetts River Alliance outlines the priorities for river health here: https://www.massriversalliance.org/advocacy and gives you the tools to be the voice of our rivers https://www.massriversalliance.org/advocacy-toolkit

Enjoy but protect our Edens!

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