The Scoop: Charles River Watershed Association (CRWA) is a long-standing nonprofit dedicated to keeping the Charles River clean and healthy. Since 1965, CRWA has empowered tens of thousands of volunteers in cleanup efforts, educational programs, and other revitalization projects in 35 Massachusetts watershed towns. Philanthropic individuals and couples can get involved with CRWA to make the Charles River as beautiful as it can be and make strong personal connections while they’re at it.
In 1965, the Charles River, which stretches for 80 miles in Massachusetts, was not in good shape. Sewage, industrial waste, and urban runoff had turned a once beautiful river into a toxic and inhospitable environment.
“I love that dirty water,” the 60s rock band The Standells sang about the Charles River. “You’re still my home.”
Many riverside residents felt concerned about this “Dirty Water” and came together to save the Charles River. That’s how Charles River Watershed Association (CRWA) was born.
Starting in the 1960s, CRWA began to clean up the Charles River and raise awareness about pollution and environmental protection efforts. From its earliest days, CRWA recognized that cleaning up the Charles River wasn’t a job for just one person or one group — it would take a community. So, the nonprofit partnered with government officials and citizen groups from 35 Massachusetts watershed towns from Hopkinton to Boston.
Over the last 50 years, CRWA has transformed the dirty waters of the Charles River to a clean, healthy environment where wildlife can thrive and local water lovers can relax. It took a united community effort to make this environmental dream possible, and CRWA team and its volunteers feel proud of all they have accomplished together.
Helping out a CRWA event can be a wonderful date activity for philanthropic couples because it inspires team spirit in the great outdoors.
“Today, the Charles is once again a living river,” said Madison Wolters, Communications Manager for CRWA. “And a living river in the heart of a city is a glorious thing, connecting people to nature and enriching lives.”
The transformation of the Charles River is inspirational, but the fight isn’t over. Climate change, pollution, and invasive species still threaten the health and sustainability of the Charles River, and CRWA depends on local activists to help out and make sure the waters continue to run clean for generations to come.
Cleanup Events & Volunteer Opportunities Abound
CRWA is one of the oldest watershed organizations in the U.S., and it’s also one of the most successful. You need only look at the waters of the Charles River to see how its cleanup and protection efforts have paid off.
The Charles River connects people throughout Massachusetts, and many locals are passionate about maintaining its health and beauty.
CRWA has volunteers from all walks of life, and it doesn’t require any experience or prerequisites to get involved. Some CRWA volunteers are students building experience as environmental activists, while others are corporate employees taking part in a team-building volunteer day. Many retirees lend a hand to cleanup efforts in hopes of never seeing its waters become polluted again.
Throughout the year, CRWA runs volunteer programs and hosts events to bring people to the cause. The Volunteer Monthly Monitor program has been active since 1995, and volunteer efforts play a vital role in acquiring consistent data regarding the depth, temperature, and overall water quality of the Charles River. No prior training is required to participate in this program.
Every month, over 80 volunteers go to multiple sites on the river to collect water samples record the its condition, and that data is passed on to environmental agencies that work to minimize stormwater impact and reduce sewage contamination in the river.
The Clean Charles Crew — formerly known as Friends of the Charles — is a project that raises awareness about environmental issues and discusses what needs to be done to protect the country’s water systems. Young professionals (ranging in age from 25 to 45) take part in this organization to get involved in a community of nature lovers, participate in member events, and meet people who share their values and concerns.
The Annual Earth Day Charles River Cleanup is by far the biggest cleanup event held by CRWA — and it’s actually one of the largest volunteer efforts in the U.S. as well.
The project encompasses over 3,000 people cleaning up litter on all 30 miles of the winding Charles River. This colossal effort is made possible through partnerships with Charles River Conservancy, DCR Massachusetts, Emerald Necklace Conservancy, Esplanade Association, State Senator Brownsberger, and Waltham Land Trust.
In 2019, volunteers at the Earth Day event removed over 45 tons of trash from the Charles River. For three years running, the environmentalist event has been recognized by the American Rivers’ National River Cleanup® for the most pounds of trash collected and the most volunteers mobilized in one day.
CRWA projects cover a lot of ground and ask volunteers to roll up their sleeves to remove invasive plants or dig for bugs in the stream. The association’s on-staff experts can train people to become environmental stewards and activists who look out for the river’s health. It’s a powerful experience for singles and couples hoping to expand their horizons and make their communities more beautiful and vibrant.
Powered by a Tight-Knit Team of Wonder Women
CRWA has hundreds of regular volunteers on its rolls and powers cleanup events throughout Massachusetts, so it may come as a surprise that such a far-reaching nonprofit has only 10 full-time staffers.
This all-women team works hard to develop science-based solutions to environmental issues and mobilize people in the community in support of the Charles River.
Executive Director Emily Norton motivates the team to stay hopeful and work hard even in the face of daunting challenges. She calls the staff “Amazonian Wonder Women” and keeps everyone laughing and smiling through tough days in the field.
“We joke around when the going is good and roll up the sleeves when the going is tough,” Madison said.
CRWA champions efforts to support a healthy ecosystem in Massachusetts, and it has inspired many singles, couples, and families to get involved.
The River Ambassador volunteer program has united environmental stewards who can help raise awareness about local issues through outreach and education. River Ambassadors represent CRWA at festivals, fairs, summer concerts, and other community events where they speak to local residents about CRWA’s mission, cleanup projects, and volunteer opportunities.
“We need help to broaden our reach,” Madison said. “As a River Ambassador, you can become a spokesperson for CRWA and an advocate for a healthy Charles River.”
One of the biggest issues currently threatening the Charles is cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae. This toxic algae has bloomed on the Charles from the BU Bridge to the Charles River Dam. During these blooms, CRWA helps spread the word to boaters and river lovers to take precautions, such as keeping their pets away from the river.
These cyanobacteria blooms increase with heat and stormwater pollution (which occurs when rain draws phosphorus, nitrogen, trash, and other pollution into the river), and the higher temperatures associated with climate change only exacerbate this problem. Thankfully, CRWA is staying on top of this major problem.
“CRWA is the only organization in the region that has consistently tracked algae blooms over the last 12 years,” Madison said. “Something we’re working on to address this growing threat is a program in which members would visually assess sites along the river for cyanobacteria blooms and report details to us through an app. We’ve applied for funding and are hoping to begin by next summer.”
Sharing Common Interests & Building Relationships
As a nonprofit, CRWA attracts folks who care about the environment and love the Charles River in particular. Volunteers may come from different backgrounds, but they share a unified spirit that helps them relate to one another. Sometimes a CRWA volunteer event can have tremendous ripple effect on people’s lives. Some volunteers have even found love in the course of these environmental projects.
Audrey Wallace actually met her fiancé, Grant Thomas-Lepore, at a CRWA networking event where they discovered a shared interest in the Charles River.
“Not only did the event and the organization give us something to talk about, but it also drew out our shared value of protecting the environment,” Audrey recalled. “That first date had a lot more influence than we ever could have imagined.”
Two years later, the couple is still working together to make the world a greener place. Grant is Vice President of the board of directors, and Audrey is CRWA’s Development Manager.
“There’s just something about CRWA that strikes people,” Madison said. “The Charles River used to be known as Boston’s infamous Dirty Water, and now it’s one of the cleanest urban rivers in our country. Such monumental change isn’t coincidental.”
CRWA’s secret to success lies in the highly dedicated people who help out on a regular basis. CRWA has inspired a close-knit community of outdoor enthusiasts and environmentalists.
Madison told us that many of CRWA’s volunteers have been helping out for years or even decades. These citizen scientists, retired teachers, working professionals, and local activists support the organization because they care about the Charles River.
“CRWA and the community members of the Charles River watershed have fought hard to restore a river that most people had given up on,” Madison said. “That kind of fight is a shared value that exists today in our new and experienced volunteers — it’s what continues to bring us together.”
CRWA Unites Activists in an Environmental Mission
In the 1960s, CRWA started a statewide push to turn the dirty waters of the Charles River into the clear, healthful river people know and love today. Its community-driven activism and sustainability efforts have yielded great returns, but the work is far from over.
As climate change impacts the Charles River, CRWA faces increasing challenges to maintain its ecosystem. Thankfully, many volunteers have stepped up to help the team monitor the river as it changes and tackle any threats to the wildlife and waterway’s longevity.
“The Charles we all cherish depends on relentless loving vigilance — and that is our full time job,” Madison said. “We are proud to have delivered ‘the cleanest urban river in America.’ But, for a river intertwined with 80 miles of bustling cities and towns, ‘clean’ is not an endpoint, it’s a verb — and it’s still our unwavering mission.”