Confluence of Interest

Back in the summer of 1966, a rock group named the The Standells enjoyed their only major hit, "Dirty Water." The words were inspired by Massachusetts'...
by | September 1, 2007 AT 1:00 AM

Back in the summer of 1966, a rock group named the The Standells enjoyed their only major hit, "Dirty Water." The words were inspired by Massachusetts' befouled Charles River, a winding 80-mile-long stream that runs through Boston's high-tech suburbs, separates Boston and Cambridge and empties into Boston Harbor. The Red Sox still play the song to celebrate each home victory in Fenway Park. But the lyrics no longer fit the river itself: Most days, the Charles is safe enough for residents to swim and boat in its waters.

Of course, Cleveland's Cuyahoga River no longer catches on fire, either. All around the nation, water quality has improved since federal and state regulators began enforcing the Clean Water Act of 1972. But there's something more behind the Charles' remarkable comeback: Vigilant citizens, organized along the length and breadth of the watershed, are leading the charge to finish restoring their hometown river to its natural state.

Near Boston, those efforts have been orchestrated by the Charles River Watershed Association, a 40-year-old nonprofit group. Governance of the densely populated region, with some 900,000 residents, is divided among 35 cities and towns. But arguably no other institution, not even federal or the state government, has done more to clean up what had been one of the country's most polluted urban waterways.

CRWA's executive director, Robert Zimmerman Jr., seems an unlikely prospect to be leading revolutionary changes in protecting the environment. Nevertheless, for the past 16 years, the former prep-school headmaster has been recruiting some 1,200 volunteers to clean up the Charles' banks, organizing annual canoe and kayak races, and training the association's 80 members to sample water quality at 37 sites.

Zimmerman also has bolstered the association staff to include eight engineers and scientists to analyze the results to pinpoint where untreated sewage and tainted storm-water runoff discharges into the Charles. Inside the watershed, "we know more - and we can prove what we know - than governments and their agencies," Zimmerman says. With trustworthy data and broad local support, "you get to sit at the table, and you get listened to."

The association put its research to use persuading federal and state regulators to crack down on pollution to make the river safe for swimming and boating. The group has also prodded Massachusetts officials to cap groundwater withdrawals by fast-growing towns that threaten to deplete the river's flow. CRWA's credibility demonstrates how citizen-led organizations are stepping up where the federal-state-local environmental partnership most often breaks down and leaves serious threats to fester beyond the effective reach of government control.

Around the country, federal and state officials concede that they'll never command enough money and manpower - or the uncontested political authority - to complete the job of cleaning up America's impaired waters. Nor can local officials be expected to force their constituents to take on the burden of cleaning up rivers or streams when communities many miles downstream will reap the clearest benefits. To make continued progress, "what you need to do is devise new ways to get local citizens engaged in solving the problem," says William D. Ruckelshaus, who served as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's first administrator in the early 1970s. "That's what watershed groups are doing."


Nearly four decades after EPA was established, federal and state regulators are still puzzling over how to deal with less visible "non-point" pollutants that run off with the rain from farms, ranches, logging operations, construction projects, streets, parking lots, yards, gardens and other sites. Standard top-down regulation by federal and state agencies is too cumbersome - and often too controversial - to effectively manage cumulative threats that literally come from people's backyards. As Ruckelshaus points out, "the same programs don't work for non-point sources; there's just too many of them."

So governments are turning to the grass roots for help. One approach, being tried all over the country, is to work directly with local citizens who organize themselves along natural watershed boundaries instead of by city, county or state lines. Instead of dictating solutions, government environmental officials now sit at the table with businessmen, farmers, ranchers, loggers, hunters, boaters, hikers and others to seek common ground on protecting the watersheds in which they live and work. Governments "have never had and never will have all the resources to do what the public expects and law clearly requires," says Don Elder, director of River Network, a clearinghouse in Portland, Oregon, that assists local groups around the country. "They need eyes and ears in the watersheds."

Carol M. Browner, Clinton's EPA chief, called that "place-based" environmental protection; similarly, the Bush administration's "collaborative conservation" initiative defers to local community efforts to deal with environmental issues as close to the ground as possible. Roughly 6,000 watershed groups are now at work to protect rivers that run through industrial neighborhoods in inner cities as well as blue-ribbon Rocky Mountain trout streams. Some gather once a year for trash pickup drives or a stream-bank restoration work day, but about 3,500 have established formal structures supported by private donations, foundation grants and government fiscal and technical assistance. The Oregon Legislature created and funds groups in all the state's watersheds; Washington State gives watershed-level organizations key roles in implementing growth management and salmon recovery programs.

Some groups operate like conventional environmental advocates, but many prefer to partner with other interests to build community consensus on balancing environmental and economic needs. Their focus goes beyond "not-in-my-backyard" resistance to a single landfill or sewage plant. At both the federal and state levels, environmental authority remains split between natural resource and wildlife conservation departments and pollution-control agencies with much different cultures and responsibilities. While government regulators are still bogged down writing pollution permits and fining violators, many watershed groups are working out common-sense local solutions to meet national environmental goals more effectively - then persuading governments to go along.


After taking charge in 1991, Zimmerman built the Charles River Watershed Association into a $1.5 million-per-year operation that gets roughly one-third of its funding from EPA, as well as state grants for water quality monitoring and analysis. The association staff "brings strong technical skills, credible science and politically astute advocacy to their work," says John DeVillars, the Clinton administration's EPA regional director for New England who now sits on the CRWA board.

Twelve years ago, DeVillars approved the "Clean Charles 2005" initiative, which committed the feds to working with state and local agencies, the association and other stakeholders. Although the effort fell short of making the river fully safe for swimming within a decade, during that period EPA's scorecard grade climbed from D to B+. In addition to detecting illegal discharges, the association works with state regulators to devise a total maximum daily load (TMDL) limit for nutrients discharged to the river. It surveys the shoreline after heavy rains to target polluted storm water, and is collaborating with federal and state regulators to tighten controls on combined sewer overflows. CRWA "is willing to work with the agencies," says William Walsh-Rogalski, an EPA attorney. "There are times they give us a kick, but it's usually for a good purpose."

Once you look at an entire watershed, Zimmerman notes, you see connections that governments often miss. EPA focuses on water quality, for instance, while state agencies deal with water supplies. To clean up Boston Harbor, EPA and Massachusetts agreed to build the huge Deer Island sewage treatment plant that will collect and treat wastewater from 48 towns for discharge into the ocean. But the region relies primarily on groundwater for drinking, and it is losing 180 million gallons every day that seep through cracked pipes into the centralized sewage system. Zimmerman points out that cleaning up the river won't accomplish much if storm-water systems and leaky sewers keep diverting so much water from the river. In effect, he argues, "we're dewatering eastern Massachusetts with a solution to the Boston Harbor problem. The solution to a symptom is creating an environmental disaster of the first order."

To help stem groundwater losses, CRWA joined with the Boston-based Conservation Law Foundation in a lawsuit that has forced Massachusetts to prohibit town drinking-water systems from pumping more than 65 gallons per person from groundwater wells per day. That success now puts the association at odds with local governments looking to drill new wells to supply growing populations. Franklin, Massachusetts, town manager Jeff Nutting has lived his whole life within a half mile of the Charles, and he once was a CRWA member. He thinks the association went too far by singling out local water utilities in its efforts to restore the watershed. "They have a right to push the envelope, but they don't have to answer to the ratepayers, and we do," Nutting says. "Their goal is to have trout in the Charles, and that will take an act of God in my view."

The way EPA's Walsh-Rogalski sees it, "groundwater recharge is a state issue, and we don't think about it a lot. But Zimmerman is really good at pushing the envelope, in this case to bring recharge and water withdrawals together. It's a good example of how a local watershed group can bridge gaps." EPA New England officials are now encouraging groups along Boston's Mystic River and other heavily urbanized watersheds to emulate CRWA's monitoring and data-collecting model.

Meanwhile, citizen-led efforts in Houston; Portland, Oregon; and Washington, D.C., also are helping to restore degraded river systems. Baltimore and Philadelphia are promoting multi-jurisdictional watershed programs to protect drinking-water sources and manage storm water. Around Birmingham, Alabama, the Cahaba River Society has been working with local governments for 20 years to strengthen sewage treatment and storm-water measures for a watershed that hosts more wild species per mile than any other North American river. The society's board includes engineers, architects and business owners; and Beth Stewart, the director, says the group operates "very much in the consensus model of getting things done."

Two years ago, however, some Birmingham corporations and developers stepped in to stymie local counties' plans for stringent storm-water rules. Stephen Bradley, a public relations consultant there, dismisses the Cahaba River Society as "basically a no-growth group. We don't really trust them." Birmingham business leaders have turned down invitations to discuss their differences, and Stewart says the society is reassessing its consensus-building strategies.


With rancorous politics and numerous jurisdictions, urban watersheds can be difficult places in which to operate. Rural Western states are even tougher terrain, but in the past 15 years, collaborative groups have sprung up where anti-government sentiments hold sway in some of the region's remote ranching and logging communities.

Montana ranchers, for example, are leading a collaborative campaign to restore the Blackfoot River that Norman Maclean celebrated in his book A River Runs Through It. The Blackfoot drains 2,300 square miles in forested mountains just west of the Continental Divide in lightly populated parts of three Montana counties. By the early 1990s, ineffective federal and state laws left the Blackfoot ecosystem falling apart. Noxious weeds crowded native plants off the range; bull trout and cutthroat trout were disappearing; and Plum Creek Timber Co. was preparing to sell its huge forest holdings to subdivision developers. Ranchers owned crucial wildlife habitat along valley floors, and they were too suspicious of government bureaucracies to cooperate with either federal or state wildlife managers.

Alarmed by talk that Congress could declare the Blackfoot a federally protected Wild and Scenic River, landowners began meeting over pie and coffee at Trixi's Restaurant and Bar in Ovando (population 71). Then they invited government land managers and conservationists to sit in on the discussions. "At first, the government people were there to listen, but as our relationship grew, we started to play more of a role," says Greg Neudecker, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist. Eventually, landowners, conservationists, and local federal and state agents formed a nonprofit group called the Blackfoot Challenge to forge mutual strategies for restoring the watershed.

Challenge participants follow what they term "the 80/20 rule," focusing discussions on problems where agreement is likely instead of getting bogged down in battles over a few emotionally charged issues. Now local landowners are working with Trout Unlimited, a national fishermen's group, to stabilize the Blackfoot's banks and restore its naturally flowing character. It's also teamed with Powell County officials to control invasive knapweed and leafy spurge.

With money from Congress and help from the Nature Conservancy, the Challenge also has brokered a precedent-setting purchase of 88,000 acres from Plum Creek Timber. Most will be turned over to the U.S. Forest Service and state agencies or sold to adjacent ranchers. But the group plans to hold on to 5,600 acres to create a community forest reserve as part of a 40,000-acre cooperative conservation area that will be managed for recreation as well as timber production.

In rural areas such as the Blackfoot, environmental agencies may accomplish more "by being good neighbors, versus telling people what to do," Neudecker says. "Native fish numbers in the Blackfoot have rebounded by 400 percent since the effort started. "You've got to have sound biology to do that, and that's strong evidence that collaborative conservation can work," he adds. "We haven't had a lot of hard-core environmental group action in the Blackfoot. That says something about our approach."

Last year, Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government gave the Blackfoot Challenge an award for innovations in government. The award came with a $100,000 grant that this summer funded workshops for similar groups from eight Western states. Montana alone now has 50 watershed organizations, and state regulators and county conservation districts fund efforts to come up with local approaches to complying with federal water-quality standards. On Montana's Big Hole River, ranchers and fly fishermen banded together to revise irrigation rules to keep enough water flowing during droughts to preserve an isolated Arctic grayling population. The group also persuaded conservative commissioners in three counties to enact setback ordinances that keep trophy homes from encroaching on the river's prized trout fishery.

The Bush administration is promoting collaborative community-level approaches to thinning fire-prone national forests. National environmental organizations, however, remain skeptical that collaborative groups are making much lasting progress. Oregon and California watershed groups faltered after their founders moved on to other challenges. Some academics contend that grass-roots, watershed-level cooperation so far has produced more feel-good tales of homegrown cooperative spirit than measurable environmental improvement. Judith Layzer, an environmental policy professor at MIT, says: "You can't just abdicate to local groups and expect the environment to come out better."


William Ruckelshaus, though, is convinced that enlisting local communities in devising on-the-ground solutions will be crucial to further progress. A Seattle resident since 1975, Ruckelshaus is now leading a bold effort to restore Puget Sound's dwindling Chinook salmon runs that the federal government has listed as endangered.

Joined by former U.S. Senator and Washington Governor Dan Evans, King County Executive Ron Sims and other influential leaders, the former EPA director pulled together a nonprofit alliance called Shared Strategy for Puget Sound. The group then persuaded the National Marine Fisheries Service to let the region try drafting its own salmon-recovery plan instead of imposing federally prescribed habitat restoration measures. With Ruckelshaus actively involved, Shared Solutions spent five years working with the sound's 14 watersheds to draft separate plans for repairing salmon habitat in a 16,000-square-mile region. Some sessions got off to "stiff and accusatory" starts, Ruckelshaus recalls, "but then they started to listen to each other." In 2005, the 14 watersheds' separate proposals were wrapped into a 50-year strategy for bringing the Chinook populations back. NMFS approved the plan in January.

"That's huge, almost epic in scale, and it's amazing they pulled it off," says University of Washington professor Craig W. Thomas, who's studied collaborative conservation initiatives around the nation. Washington Governor Christine Gregoire tucked $50 million into the state's budget to begin implementing the salmon plan, and also named Ruckelshaus to head a state Puget Sound Partnership that will coordinate an $8 billion comprehensive cleanup program. Ruckelshaus acknowledges that monitoring plans for salmon recovery efforts remain "embryonic at this stage." Eight watersheds came up with solid plans, but others "need more work," he adds.

There are signs that county commissioners remain reluctant to follow through. But Ruckelshaus is confident that other watershed councils "will put peer pressure on the watersheds that drag their feet." Federal scientists - including Ruckelshaus' daughter Mary, the chief NMFS biologist for Puget Sound salmon recovery - may well have come up with stronger habitat protection in a federally dictated recovery plan. But William Ruckelshaus contends that "if you can't get the local citizens on your side, you're going to spend all your time in court or the state legislature or Congress fighting with them. That doesn't work for anybody."

The Puget Sound Partnership instead applies watershed collaboration on the largest scale ever attempted. "That makes it doubly difficult: It's complicated to think about what's necessary for an entire ecosystem, and you've got all the jurisdictional and social and economic complications to deal with at the same time," Ruckelshaus says. "It takes people who are willing to try new things from a governance standpoint to address this."