It didn’t take the Standells’ hit song “Dirty Water” to educate the world about the level of pollution that once infected Boston Harbor. The waterway’s problems go back to the late 1700s, when a series of illnesses broke out thanks to the illegal dumping of animal parts and other garbage into the waters. Almost 200 years later, in the 1970s, the thought of the harbor one day being a viable place for fishing, swimming, and other shoreline recreation was an improbable one, particularly in a city where the putrid stench from the water would invade downtown.
But today, the stigma that defined Boston Harbor for so long is nearly a thing of the past, some even going so far as to claim that the Boston area coastline possesses among the cleanest urban beaches in the nation. Thanks to the city's efforts over the past 20 years, Bostonians can today take pride in and enjoy an area of the city that was often deserted not so long ago.
In 1985, Boston was found in violation of 1972’s Clean Water Act and the federal government ordered the city to begin construction of a secondary treatment plant for sewage control. That prompted a $4.5 billion venture to clean up the harbor, including $3.8 billion invested in treatment facilities at Deer Island. The state-of-the art facility, the central component to the harbor’s improvement, allowed for a more efficient treatment of waste, and its disposal into the deeper waters of Massachusetts Bay.
In addition, the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority has spent $850 million on other sewer overflow projects to protect beaches, shell fishing beds and other waters from overflows due to heavy rains. The combination of resources has had a positive effect on Boston’s shoreline. Fishing and swimming are now safe activities to enjoy in the harbor, and the beaches are clean of sewage and other waste that once littered its shores.
A Shore Thing
The Environmental Protection Agency now calls the Boston Harbor a “great American jewel.” Harbor seals and porpoises are now common sights in the water. The harbor islands are a popular seasonal oasis. Eight miles of beaches are open to swimmers, and the lobster and shellfish industry now contributes more than $10 million annually to the local economy.
Recently, the non-profit group Save the Harbor/Save the Bay issued $30,500 in grants to 13 local organizations to sponsor events at beaches this summer, including beach, kite, and other waterfront festivals in order to re-establish the harbors as an area of social networking. The aim is for Boston to continue in its quest to become among the preeminent waterfront cities in the world, a status that might have been unthinkable 30 years ago, when the harbor was a disaster. Today, it is a burgeoning draw in Boston, thanks to the dedicated resources of time, money, and environmental awareness.