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The Boston Herald
The nonprofit overseeing the Charles River wants to open up a public swim park, even though tests of the water show frequent blooms of a dangerous bacteria that can cause skin rashes, vomit-ing and even neurological problems and liver damage, the Herald has learned.
The Charles River Conservancy, a local nonprofit, is exploring the idea of a public swim park off the dock of North Point Park in Cambridge, near the Museum of Science. The group will hold its second public meeting to share ideas and hear feedback from locals May 17 in Cambridge.
But while the Environmental Protection Agency has given the Charles River good grades on cleanliness in recent years, experts say the agency focuses on E. coli bacteria levels and does not account for cyanobacteria, or "blue green algae" blooms, which have been spotted in the water during nine of the past 11 summers.
"The threat that they potentially pose to humans and other animals is that they can actually produce toxins which can cause various acute responses in humans or in dogs," said Julie Wood, director of projects at the Charles River Watershed Association. "Sometimes attacking our brains or our nervous systems, or our livers."
Spending a few hours in the water during a bloom could leave swimmers with nasty skin rashes and eye irritation at the very least, Wood said. The Watershed Association's 2016 annual report, which came out in April, named cyanobacteria as "an emerging threat" and predicted it "will likely be a more common occurrence in the future."
In a 74-page study outlining the project's logistics, the conservancy references the EPA's annual grade of the river, which has hovered in the B to A- range since 2011, as evidence of the river's cleanliness.
When asked about cyanobacteria, conservancy founder and President Renata Von Tscharner said water quality remains "a major concern" in the group's plans.
"It is definitely a hurdle," Von Tscharner said. "It is something that we are taking very seriously."
Von Tscharner said swimmers would not be permitted in the water on days when high levels of cyanobacteria are in bloom.
But according to Wood, blooms are not isolated - nor are they always immediately detected.
"Anytime we see a bloom, essentially, you're in bloom conditions for two weeks. More commonly they last for about two months," Wood said, calling the bacteria "super survivors."
Cyanobacteria blooms closed two local ponds to swimming - Newton's Crystal Lake and North Andover's Stevens Pond - for a large part of the 2012 summer season.
The lower reach of the Charles between Boston and Cambridge is dammed on two sides, which keeps the water relatively still and warm during summer months. Storm runoff from surrounding urban areas carries an overabundance of phosphates directly into the river, which feeds the bacteria and allows it to grow out of control.
In September, the bacteria turned that part of the Charles green and led the state Department of Public Health to issue public health advisories against coming in contact with the water.
"Sometimes people say it looks like pea soup, sometimes people say it looks like a paint spill," Wood said. "However, sometimes they have no visual indicators, or you go out and the water looks like it always looks."
The conservancy said the swim park would be a privately funded endeavor made possible through millions of dollars in donations from individuals and foundations. Construction of the park is realistically still several years away, giving the group time to find a solution.
The group raised $25,661 in an online Indiegogo campaign that closed in September. Von Tscharner said the conservancy has hired a graduate student who will test the water every day during swim season.
Despite her caution, Wood said she has swum in portions of the river, when conditions are right.
"We'd love for it to be clean enough all the time for swimming," she said.
But with the threat of toxic bacteria in the water, would people still be willing to dive in?
"If it was a dare, by my friends, I'd probably do it," said Nicolas Duenas, 21, of East Boston. "For kicks."
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staff photoS by CHRIS CHRISTO, ABOVE, AND ANGELA ROWLINGS, LEFT