• Vermont swimmer hates dirty water, but covers entire Charles River in Mass.
     | November 13,2004

    BOSTON Christopher Swain climbed out of the Charles River on Friday after completing the final leg of a monthlong swim to raise awareness about water pollution and promptly gargled some hydrogen peroxide to kill bacteria.

    Swain, a 36-year-old husband and father from Colchester, Vt., who also swam the lengths of the Hudson River and Lake Champlain this year, is highlighting an effort to clean the Charles by Earth Day 2005.

    "People call it a crazy dream, but the Charles River could be swimmable every single day of the year," the wetsuit-clad Swain said from a waterfront walkway, where empty beer cans and a dead rat sat close by.

    The Charles is a notoriously dirty river memorialized by The Standells' 1966 hit "Dirty Water" with the pollution dating back to the Industrial Revolution.

    In the past decade, however, water quality has improved because of clean-up efforts. In federal bacteria testing last year, the Charles was considered swimmable 46 percent of the time. That's up from just 19 percent in 1995.

    Swain, an acupuncturist and former Boston resident, knows firsthand that the cleanup has a long way to go. He began his 81-mile journey in Hopkinton on Oct. 12.

    "I dodged everything from refrigerators to cars and old appliances to PCBs, heavy metals and pesticides which I couldn't see," he said.

    He swam about four days a week, putting in six-hour days. The "swim" included hikes through tunnels, around 20 dams and crawling on a boogie board through mud. Along the way, he led trash cleanups and spoke to schoolchildren. He suspects bacteria he swallowed led to a swollen lymph node in his neck.

    "We have some of the best minds on the planet living here," Swain said. "Some of the most determined people in history have grown up here and gone out to do great things. I know we can clean up the Charles River."

    Bob Zimmerman, Jr., executive director of the Charles River Watershed Association, said the problem starts with river bed sed-iment, a result of the Industrial Revolution, among other things. The Boston Manufacturing Co.'s success using the power loom sparked other industries, including the Waltham Watch Co., which pioneered the process of mass production with interchangeable parts, according to the Charles River Museum of Industry.

    "All the ordnance for the North for the Civil War were made at Watertown Arsenal on the Charles River," he said. "All of those metals are still on the bottom."

    Oil, grease, pesticides and animal waste are carried into the river through storm drains every time it rains, he said.

    Zimmerman wouldn't put a pricetag on it, but said it's possible to drastically reduce pollution by capturing runoff and putting it back into the ground. A city would have to "behave as if it were a forest," he said.

    "You could change this pretty rapidly," he said.

    In addition, illegal dumping of raw sewage continues. Last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ordered Watertown, Brookline, Newton and Waltham to find and remove any "illicit pipes discharging raw sewage" into the river from their banks.

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