A Victory for Clean Water: Citizen Science Data Leads to Change

The following news is reprinted with permission from the Mystic River Watershed Association:

For years, the Mystic River Watershed Association (MyRWA) and its volunteers have helped to document water pollution problems in the Town of Belmont. This week, that hard work paid off.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has issued an Administrative Order on Consent with the Town of Belmont over years of water quality damages. Over the next five years the town has agreed to make a significant investment in repairs to its storm water system, which is discharging pollutants, including human sewage, into waters of the Mystic River watershed. We congratulate Belmont on their commitment to improve water quality to tributaries to Alewife Brook.


This is a success story for citizen science and for non-profit environmental collaboration with government agencies. Data acquired by MyRWA volunteers and shared with EPA was key to making progress. This has been a group effort—from the dozens of volunteer monitors who go out each month to collect samples, to the tireless work of others like Roger Frymire, who spent countless hours finding sources of pollution in the Alewife Brook area.

Since 2000, volunteers through the MyRWA’s Baseline Monitoring Program have generated water quality data that is shared with state and federal agencies. Each year the EPA in conjunction with MyRWA issues a water quality report card for the Mystic River watershed.
The 2015 water quality report card for the Belmont area tells the story: Alewife Brook earned a D grade with 50% compliance with boating and swimming standards for bacteria; Little River a D- grade at 44% compliance; and Winn’s Brook an F grade at 33% compliance.

One powerful aspect of the Baseline Monitoring Program is that it is poised to document success as well as problems. As infrastructure repairs are made in Belmont, we fully expect these grades to improve. We look forward to documenting and celebrating water quality improvements to Alewife Brook, Little River, Winn’s Brook, Wellington Brook—and the Mystic River itself—over the next five years!

Congratulations and thanks to everyone who continues to work with us for protecting clean water.

Dragonflies and Damselflies and Algae, Oh My!

Here in the Greater Boston area we’ve just had a discharge of the combined sewer overflow system due to recent heavy rains. This affects the entire Mystic River watershed of which the Alewife Brook watershed is a part.

Sewer separation work in Cambridge, Mass. residential area, July 2013
Sewer separation work in Cambridge, Mass. residential area, July 2013

The announcement of the overflow comes at a time when I need a reminder of the reasons why I can’t get onto and off of my street these days—construction crews are separating what is now a combined sewage and stormwater system into separate systems.

Damselfy  at Fresh Pond by In the Big Muddy, July 2013
Damselfy (tentatively identified as a Blue-fronted dancer) taken at Fresh Pond by In the Big Muddy, July 2013

This  work will eventually—when this ever ends!–mean a great deal less toxics and untreated sewage flow into Charles River and Alewife Brook. Currently, only 40% of the collection system in the City of Cambridge has been separated in this way, according to the city’s department of public works. Kudos to the many people who support, volunteer, and work for clean water in this area, in particular, the members of the Mystic River Watershed Association.

On the playing-outdoors front, battalions of parents have been organizing a terrific event called “Getting Ready to Honk!,” in which kids who live or go to school in our little corner of Cambridge, Mass., will make dragonfly and damselfly costumes and algae handpuppets in preparation for the Honk! Parade on October 13th.

The “Getting Ready to Honk!” event, from 3:00 to 5:00 p.m. on Saturday, August 10th will be held at Fresh Pond Reservation. Co-sponsored by Tobin Friends of Fresh Pond Club (er—that would be me, actually)  and open to any and all Cambridge families with kids ages 5–11 (ummmm…what was I thinking?), this crafty and unusual project is just the beginning of a massive and massively community-building undertaking: Fresh Pond Creatures at Honk!.

If you are a local, please come, either to participate with your kids or to help out. If you’re not from these parts, please send positive vibes and any algae or odonata items of interest toward me as I navigate the thin line between puppetry and chaos. I will be covered in hot-glue, panty hose, and pipecleaner stab wounds by the time the afternoon is over and I will need to lie down on the peaceful boardwalk and watch real damselflies at Black’s Nook for half an hour to recover from the event.

Here’s a preview of the prototype dragonfly wing apparatus, sans pantyhose (“bring me your tired, your worn…”). Eyepieces are in development. I think they’ll be worn like headbands. The tricky part is making it all easy for kid-parent pairs to assemble. Then I get to worry about making sure everyone saves their costumes and remembers to come to the parade on a Sunday in October (falling on a three-day weekend).

wing armature for dragonfly/damselfy costumes for Honk! 2013
wing armature for dragonfly/damselfy costumes for Honk! 2013

I’ve proposed to some parents of older kids in the city the making of a giant puppet or puppets to add biodiversity to the blue heron backpack puppets that Michelle Lougee and I made last year (rather frenetically, at least on my end). Alas, the event comes nearly at the beginning, not the end, of the school year, and some wheels turn slowly.  I’ll be thrilled to bits to see a giant raccoon sashaying down Mass Ave, held aloft by a triumphant corps of Cambridge Public School middle schoolers. Maybe it won’t be this year. Maybe the idea will percolate enough by 2014 to come to fruition.

Two great blue heron backpack puppets at Honk! 2012.
Two great blue heron backpack puppets at Honk! 2012.

My kids will be glad that I don’t plan to burn the midnight oil again this year dressing and painting those babies like I did last year. They’ve (the herons) have hung out in various nooks in our household all year. Currently, one heron has a reprieve from the basement and is in our living room, very much in our way.

Apropos of dragonflies, I am a new follower of the blog The Dragonfly Woman, written by professional odonatologist Chris Goforth of North Carolina, who, among other things, has a form for reporting static swarms of dragonflies. Her project is an interesting example of citizen science:

Have you seen a dragonfly swarm? I am tracking swarms so I can learn more about this interesting behavior.  If you see one, I’d love to hear from you!  Please visit my Report a Dragonfly Swarm page to fill out the official report form.  It only takes a few minutes! Thanks!

via Swarm Sunday (On Monday) – 7/14/2013 – 7/20/2013 | The Dragonfly Woman.

Apparently, dragonfly swarming (the static, feeding-related kind, that is) happens most frequently at dusk and dawn. Goforth displays swarm report information she collects on a map, updated periodically. I like the unrequited love she expresses for all things odonata on her blog. Perhaps these creatures (bless them, they eat mosquitoes!) aren’t to everyone’s taste, but one must ask why the bird and not the dragonfly captures the imagination of so many.


Our Tobin Friends of Fresh Pond club made algae hand puppets in the spring during one of the last sessions.

Scenedesmus (unfinished), made by G. (fourth grade)
Scenedesmus (unfinished), made by G. (fourth grade)
Chlamydomonas, made by H. (fourth grade)
Chlamydomonas, made by H. (fourth grade)

At “Getting Ready for Honk!” on  August 10th, kids will be able to make these as well. It kind of goes with the white-glove brass band-turned-upside-down idea, doesn’t it?

Lyngbya, made by F. (4th grade)
Lyngbya, made by F. (4th grade)

Speaking of Backyards: Environmental Justice on the Lam

Really? Oil waste is exempt from federal hazardous waste laws even when it contains the same contaminants that would otherwise be highly regulated?

“You elect officials to protect you and you put laws in place to protect not only individuals but communities. I guess we fell through the cracks,” says one nearby resident, who reportedly has kidney cancer.

Grand Bois neighbors say oil waste site in backyard causing cancer | wwltv.com New Orleans.

We have to ask why this is happening in Louisiana. Kudos to the WWLTV reporter who reported the story.

Drink This Pearl

No, this is no Alice in Wonderland admonition.

Among doctors, “pearl” is shorthand for “pearl of wisdom.” The ones that are the most commonsensical are the most valuable. This is Drinking Water Week—we’re in the middle of it right now—something to “celebrate” as its sponsor, American Water Works Association, suggests? The availability of potable water is disastrously inadequate in so many places. I’m not keen on doing much celebrating. I do, however, feel grateful to the people who manage my local watershed; to my Cambridge, Mass. neighbors who don’t pour awful things into the storm drains, and to everyone who stays off the roads and walks or bikes or takes the T and thereby makes non-point-source pollution of the water a little bit better.

My tap water.

Drink this pearl—a beautiful rant by Dr. Bernard Lown. Enjoy with a chaser of tap water.