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Hands Across the Mystic
Protecting a vital watershed brings Tufts and community advocates together

Photos by Richard Howard

What's in a Watershed
The Mystic Watershed,
indicated above by the light green area, is a network of water spanning 76 square miles and comprising 21 communities. Topography determines its borders; within this terrain all water flows to the Mystic River and eventually to Boston Harbor. With its long industrial history, the watershed has suffered more than its share of pollution. Past surrounding industries such as tanneries and chemical processing plants have been heavy polluters; and several hundred hazardous waste disposal sites have been identified as well. Two Superfund sites are located in the Mystic watershed—one, in Woburn, was documented in the book and movie A Civil Action, in which residents argued a link between water toxins and leukemia clusters. Protected areas such as the Middlesex Fells, a 2,575-acre reservation, grow appreciation for the watershed’s complex ecosystem and its recreational possibilities. The potential for new outdoor opportunities, such as turning abandoned rail beds into “bike paths to the sea,” are quickly gaining momentum and add to the public’s appreciation for a healthy watershed shared by all.
Michele Cutrofello strides into the Mystic River with confidence. As an engineering student studying pollution patterns in the Mystic watershed, she’s used to standing waist-deep in water. It’s tricky today, though, as the water level, higher than normal after recent heavy rains, nearly crests at the top of her hip waders.

But on this bright October afternoon, Cutrofello is focused on her science, not comfort. She’s inspecting the condition of sensors at one of five Tufts’ river-monitoring sites, most just five minutes’ drive from the Medford/
Somerville campus. The devices are keeping tabs on the levels of oxygen in the water, its temperature, depth and other parameters.

As traffic swooshes by on busy Route 60, Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering John Durant explains. The project, known as EMPACT—Environmental Monitoring for Public Access and Community Tracking—provides “real time” monitoring of water quality; the sensors feed data every 15 minutes into data loggers sealed in boxes on shore. The loggers transmit the information back to Tufts, where it is captured and fed into a website. Solar-powered panels keep the batteries charged and ensure that the project runs around the clock. Ultimately, this relay run supports an important predictive tool. Watershed managers and the public soon will be able to forecast the suitability of the river for recreational use: swimming, fishing or boating.

“It’s a great project,” says Durant. “The availability of timely information on water quality is important because people may unknowingly expose themselves to potentially harmful levels of waterborne pollutants. It gives us an opportunity to make data immediately available to the public and ensure that recreation is healthy for everyone.”

EMPACT is compelling simply by what it suggests: that the Mystic River, a river characterized by both beauty and industry, could become a popular urban recreational mecca. But that ambitious vision is typical of a pioneering university and community partnership, the Mystic Watershed Collaborative (MWC), drawing on the strengths of Tufts University and the Mystic River Watershed Association (MyRWA).

By working together, the collaborative promises to dramatically increase the chances for watershed improvement at the same time it enriches learning experiences for students and research opportunities for faculty and graduate students. Faculty have won more than $1 million in federal funding for basic science and engineering research projects in the Mystic watershed, scrutinizing complex pollution issues. Collaboration priorities have impacted the Tufts’ curriculum, with faculty offering watershed projects that encompass habitat restoration, public access and environmental justice. And Tufts’ resolve to integrate watershed issues with volunteer opportunities is instilling in students a sense of civic duty.

Paul Kirshen, a research professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering, and a driving force in the collaborative, says that the collaborative’s success comes down to a basic truism: there’s strength in numbers. Tufts can reinforce local watershed leadership by contributing academic resources and critically needed research. But the partnership also brings new awareness to the fact that Tufts’ Somerville/Medford campus lies entirely within the Mystic River watershed, something already appreciated by the Tufts sailing team, which practices on Upper Mystic Lake, and by the Tufts crew team, which recently moved from the Charles River to the Malden River.

“One of the appeals of Tufts is that it is close to the river,” said Kirshen. “But even though it’s a marvelous resource worth protecting and making available to everybody, not that many people know about it. So by collaborating with a community organization we can help reawaken interest in the Mystic as a place to recreate and enjoy nature. We not only restore water quality but also restore the watershed as a destination, as a place where people want to go.”

An Urgent Mission
Sun pours through the tall windows of the headquarters for the Mystic River Watershed Association, where executive director Grace Perez and two staff members run the day-to-day operations. The small office, located in a renovated high school on a side street in Arlington, Massachusetts, belies an umbrella organization linking 225 members and more than 100 volunteers.

Upstairs, Perez talks about MyRWA’s territory: 76 square miles encompassing 21 communities. The surface and groundwater of the Mystic watershed flow downstream into the Mystic River via its tributaries—Alewife Brook, Chelsea Creek, Mill Brook, Sweetwater Brook, the Malden River and the Aberjona River. This geography is seriously threatened by urban sprawl. Roads, parking lots, rooftops and driveways that support half a million residents also prohibit infiltration of rainwater, and, instead, carry stormwater runoff directly into more than 40 lakes, ponds and wetland areas.

Perez points to a thin blue thread on a large wall map and traces the course of the Mystic River as it winds toward the Atlantic Ocean, where it merges with its more famous neighbor, the Charles River, at the mouth of Boston Harbor. “We can see that connections are being made across jurisdictional lines by the water that’s carrying debris along with it,” she says. “Contaminants from upstream are working their way right past Tufts. You can’t ignore the watershed perspective when you look at the river because it’s affected by the land around it. I’ve seen the worst pollution in the watershed in some of the weirdest places, usually in the corners of towns, where no one really wants to take responsibility. So from the perspective of the watershed, where a town begins and ends makes no difference to which way the water moves.”

MyRWA’s mission has perhaps never been more urgent. The passage of the federal Clean Water Act in 1972 set a national goal to eliminate all water pollution by 1985. But by the 30th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, the United States is still far from its goal. According to the EPA, 45 percent of surveyed lakes, 40 percent of rivers and streams, and 50 percent of estuaries are still polluted.

A Mystic River cleanup turns up trash of all shapes and sizes. The hard work fosters civic responsibility among students who want to make a difference in Tufts’ backyard.

For MyRWA, pollution is one of the many “top tier” priorities to restoring the watershed. A key concern is what are commonly called CSOs, or “Combined Sewer Overflows,” that discharge raw sewage directly into waterways during heavy rainstorms. MyRWA is also very interested in the cleanup of Superfund sites on the Aberjona River. At the same time, access and proposed development projects call for new ideas about land use. MyRWA, for instance, would like to create a “Mystic Link” trail from the Bay Circuit Trail in Andover through the Mystic Watershed to Charlestown, but bridges and roadways block parts of the proposed path.

In the meantime, MyRWA is taking an ambitious approach to education. Hundreds turn out each spring for the “Herring Run,” a 10-km foot race that celebrates the annual return of migrating herring to the Mystic. From river cleanups, canoe trips, walks and lectures, and a volunteer-based water-quality monitoring program, the organization is enjoying a resurgence of interest in protecting the watershed. “Our major challenge is simply helping people understand what they can’t see: that water that flows into storm drains, whether it is in Woburn, Medford or Everett, ends up in Boston Harbor,” says Perez. “So we can focus on what they can see: improved access, safe fishing, swimming and boating. We need to show that the Mystic can be a place to go for fun. The more people we can bring down to the river, the more we can teach them about the fantastic history and the flora and the fauna, the more they will appreciate what they have.”

Coming Together
Paul Kirshen is one of many faculty who see what the Mystic has to offer as he jogs along a curving, tree-lined route from Tufts to the Upper Mystic Lake: other joggers, a kayaker, the occasional motorboat puttering down to the homeowner’s backyard dock, the dog walkers. “We’re people who just enjoy the river for the river’s sake as well as being interested in engineering and science,” he said. “We’re always talking about the river, the curriculum, graduate programs, research, and when we run we do a lot of our best thinking.”

Kirshen founded and now directs the best example of that University-wide preoccupation with water, the WaterSHED Center (see sidebar). The universality of water and its critical role in sustaining all life on Earth opens infinite possibilities for University-wide teamwork. Still, Kirshen was looking to expand its reach when, in the summer of 1999, he attended a workshop hosted by the University College of Citizenship and Public Service (UCCPS). Newly founded by former president John DiBiaggio, UCCPS invited faculty to engage in discussions about integrating the values of democracy and civic leadership into the curriculum. For Kirshen, suddenly it clicked.

“I thought that the WaterSHED Center and Tufts as a whole could focus a great project on the restoration of the Mystic River,” he said. “It’s local. It’s full of all sorts of interesting social, economic, scientific and engineering problems. It seemed full of golden opportunities.”

The idea led to discussions with MyRWA, where Tufts already had a strong link in John Durant, a MyRWA board member. “It was a great opportunity for a partnership,” said Durant. “The Watershed Association is understaffed and underfunded, but they have all sorts of projects and Tufts has a lot of expertise and resources, and we have students who are looking for challenging opportunities.”

Others at Tufts shared that enthusiasm. In the fall of 1999, University and community members gathered at a “Futures Search” conference and emerged with major watershed restoration themes. The venture later attracted almost 100 people to another meeting at Tufts. A steering committee of Tufts faculty and students, MyRWA staff, the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs and citizens took shape, and by the spring of 2000 a veritable alphabet soup of Tufts advocates had shown their support: UCCPS, Tufts Institute of the Environment, the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies (CIS). Tufts representatives and members of the Mystic Watershed Association devoted the next several months to planning, and by spring, ideas had gelled around the new partnership called the Mystic Watershed Collaborative.

“Most important about the Mystic Watershed Collaborative was that it became a true university-community partnership focused on achieving specific outcomes,” said Rob Hollister, dean of UCCPS. “Across the United States, the vast majority of university-based community service activities are driven more by the interest of higher education than by community priorities. And they lack sufficient outcomes orientation. So I’m proud that the Mystic Collaborative has been a real joint effort from the very beginning.”

The collaboration was officially announced at a press conference in spring 2000, with President DiBiaggio and various state and federal officials showing their support as well. The press conference was held in Somerville on a Mystic River site known as Blessing of the Bay, home to a Boys and Girls Club boathouse and a few park benches. Here, Governor John Winthrop, on the edge of his sprawling 600-acre farm, launched the Blessing of the Bay, the first ship ever constructed on the river, in 1631.

On this historic site, the collaborative made its own history by officially pledging to make the Mystic swimmable and fishable by 2010. “It’s fair to say that a deadline is needed to get work done,” said Molly Anderson, director of the Tufts Institute for the Environment (TIE) and the Tufts liaison to MyRWA. “We’re actually playing catch-up. Our sister river, the Charles, has gotten a tremendous amount of state and federal support over the years and has always had a higher visibility. We saw the Mystic as being urgently in need of attention, and if we didn’t set a deadline, efforts would likely drift along. We wanted to get it out there and we wanted accountability from the parties that were committed to change.”

Developing Ideas
The cause has been taken to heart. TIE jumped on board with a conference, “Think Future, Act Now: Restore the Mystic Watershed!” and a film festival. UCCPS has also provided support. To diversify the collaborative’s financial base, UCCPS initiated connections with funders and supported a grant writer. These investments have helped the collaborative to land a major federal grant and a significant private foundation grant. UCCPS also steers several of its Omidyar Scholars to the Mystic Watershed each year to learn from community partners and design their own projects, mentored by MyRWA staff and board members.

On the technology front, the Berger Family Technology Transfer Endowment has funded the development of an interactive website, the Mystic Watershed Collaborative Clearinghouse (www.tufts.edu/tie/mwc), to consolidate and make accessible the wealth of information available on the watershed as well as related watershed information. The web-based resource makes available to the public reports, data, historical maps and the capacity for creating new maps with Geographic Information System (GIS) data.

And across the curriculum, the watershed issues have surfaced among faculty with an eye toward incorporating local issues into the classroom. Rusty Russell, an environmental law lecturer in the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning, for instance, “wanted to make law come alive by developing legal questions in the form of team exercises. MyRWA and I connected, and together we identified a set of issues that were of top priority to the watershed.

“I felt pretty confident that students could have a positive impact on real environmental problems if they worked with the watershed association. Typically, those groups are very aware of what the pressing environmental problems are, but [they] lack the resources to move ahead. So it’s a great synergy,” he said. In terms of efficiency of time and effectiveness of teaching, “working in teams and drawing on community resources is a great way to convey key concepts,” he added. “And the watershed’s chief concerns and challenges are awash with legal issues.”

One of the most successful curriculum-citizenship endeavors to come from the MWC is the River Institute, now going into its fourth year. The River Institute offers a seminar and internships for students interested in a comprehensive approach to addressing watershed issues.

Sociologist Dale Bryan, co-director of the Peace and Justice Studies Program and experiential learning coordinator at the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies, has nurtured the River Institute from a seed of an idea to a program that appeals to students both at Tufts and across the country. This past year, the summer seminar was facilitated by an interdisciplinary team of faculty. Some nine students were taught skills of active citizenship while also learning about watershed community issues through internships.

“As my colleague and co-director [John Durant] has said, “I used to think that by using our extensive engineering knowledge we could fix most any problem,” paraphrased Bryan. “I have learned from working in the River Institute that watershed restoration work is really community restoration!”

Tufts engineers and researchers also have taken up the Mystic mandate. The EMPACT grant exemplifies one important approach to understanding a complex set of water-quality concerns. It brings together the expertise of Tufts faculty and students—John Durant, as well as Civil and Environmental Engineering professors Steve Chapra, Paul Kirshen, Lee Minardi and Laurie Baise, graduate students Matt Heberger, Kim Oriel and Cristina Perez—in addition to the city of Somerville and
MyRWA. But there are others as well. Chapra is working with Durant, Rich Vogel and Paul Kirshen, for instance, on an EPA-funded study of nutrient flows and management. One of only four EPA-funded projects aimed at developing national water-quality models, the project looks at phosphorus and nitrogen levels, chemicals involved with eutrophication, or stagnation, caused by pollution such as lawn fertilizers and sewage.

“The Tufts proposal did a good job of combining three basic elements that the EPA was looking for: decision support, basic science and measurements of a complicated system, and the development of better water-quality computer models,” said Durant. “When you’re developing a water model for a water body, you have to have a good understanding of how the system behaves. And it can be very complicated: you have water, heat, light, carbon, nitrogen, biological matter, and all these and other variables interacting dynamically. We first need to develop a good physical understanding of the river; this will be critical to the development of the water-quality and decision-support models that will ultimately be used by managers to reduce nutrient inputs to the system.”

Durant is also working on another project with Al Robbat in the Chemistry Department and with the United States Geological Survey to characterize sediment pollutants. The research includes developing a “real time” chemical measurement tool that could be used in the field to measure pollutant levels in sediments.
Will the collaborative’s commitment to make the Mystic fishable and swimmable by 2010 be achieved?

Durant is cautiously optimistic. “Realistically, some of it will be hard to achieve,” he said. “I think swimmable is possible. Fishable is harder because there are stricter standards. It took 150 years to get to where we are now. If we can simply prevent more deterioration, that would be a victory. If we could see a reversal in the trends, that would be another victory. If we could generate sufficient momentum to lead us to a time where we could actually think about using more of the river for swimming and fishing—that would be a tremendous triumph.”

And philosophically, Durant realizes that good engineering and science are only part of watershed solutions. “If you want to improve water quality on an urban scale you can’t just fix a leaky pipe,” he said.

“Science tells you what the problems are, and engineering tells you what the solutions can be. But the community has to tell you what they’re willing to do.”

River Advocates
How communities make informed and wise decisions, of course, depends on developing this deeper understanding of the watershed and how severely pollution influences or restricts recreational possibilities. For now, MWC members agree that it’s still too soon to know if towns and cities will realize their stewardship responsibilities and make the best choices not only for themselves but for future generations.

Still, the process of collaboration offers hope. Kwabena Kyei-Aboagye Jr., regional planner in the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, has observed the workings of the collaborative as Mystic watershed team leader for the Massachusetts Watershed Initiative. The MWC, he said, is a good example of how “bottom up” change can work—success comes, traditionally, when local groups are empowered and dedicated to the future of their communities. “Tufts has essentially adopted the Mystic as its own,” said Kyei-Aboagye. “The University is giving something back to the community by working with it—and it’s doing a great job.”
Tufts’ commitment is also noteworthy for its economic potential; faculty can compete for and win research grants that surpass modest state budgets. “When Tufts brings in applied research and technical support, they help fill in the gaps,” he said. “They bring in money that otherwise the state wouldn’t be able to provide. Some of the grants are quadruple what the entire annual state funding is. That in itself is a major plus.”

Longtime volunteers like Lisa Brukilacchio, BSOT 80, a member of the MyRWA Advisory board and the MWC Steering Committee, adds that Tufts and MyRWA have an exciting opportunity to establish new university and community relationships. “This is pioneering work,” she said. “The most effective path forward may be unclear for a while. We are asking lots of critical questions. How do we best combine the resources of a research university with the larger community context to focus on watershed issues? How do we define community here? Can we deal respectfully with the reality that most of the area’s decision makers are white and middle class when many of the residents reflect a more ethnically diverse population? How do you schedule meetings to address the time priorities of both faculty and community members? How do you balance the mission of MWC with the visions and struggles of citizen groups? We are just beginning to explore these questions. We’re trying to stretch our own and other people’s understanding of what is involved in collaborative work on community-based environmental issues. Engaging a wide range of players adds to the complexity and the learning involved, but this is part of the journey toward the long-term vision of regional ecological vitality and improved quality of life for area residents.”

In the end, the collaboration enables Tufts and MyRWA to work together successfully on projects that neither entity could have accomplished alone. “The approach has created a stronger watershed voice and is beginning to direct much-needed public and private resources to the Mystic,” said Perez. A case in point is a new grant from a private funder to identify who uses the Mystic River—and why and how. “They wanted a community recipient, but they also let us know that they liked our work with Tufts,” she said. “We couldn’t have gotten it if Tufts wasn’t involved. We’ve established a solid reputation as a fact-based organization because in part Tufts gives us an added level of credibility. We now have a seat at the table.”