When the Neponset River Watershed Association was Founded

by NepRWA Executive Director, Ian Cooke, Jan. 2017

NepRWA was formally founded in August of 1967, as the Neponset Conservation Association (the name was “modernized” in 1987). The founders were Harry Fraser, Hanna Bigelow, Henry Lyman, Frank Chase, Lawrence Newcomb, Nicholas DeSalvo, Charles Strumski, Edgar Grout, and Bettina S. Cottrell. I only had the privilege of getting to know one of the founders, Betty Cottrell (if you can tell us more about any of these folks, please do).

The founders and others had been meeting to work together on issues informally for at least a few years, though I’ve heard people talk about various citizen committees working on Neponset River issues as far back as the 1950s.

To place the times in context, 1967 predated the first effective federal legislation on water pollution by five years. The River was severely polluted, burdened by widespread and uncontrolled industrial discharges, as well as grossly inadequate domestic sewer systems that overflowed regularly.

Planning for the Southwest Corridor Project—a plan to bring route 95 straight into the City of Boston along, and in many cases, on top of the Neponset River, including a full cloverleaf at Paul’s Bridge on the Milton-Readville line—was moving full steam ahead.

At the time, the notion that the Neponset River ever could or should be a recreational resource or a valued wildlife habitat, that it could ever be anything other than a filthy open sewer, would have seemed fantastical.

In 1966 a small group of activists, including long-time NepRWA member George Bailey of Sharon, got the radical idea to paddle down the Neponset through Fowl Meadow to Lower Mills with a Patriot Ledger reporter in tow. The reporter described the trip this way:

The moment we set our canoes into the putrid, murky water…we were overwhelmed by the noxious odor caused by the industrial waste dumped into the river…gobs of sludge floated past us…more gobs of raw paper over a foot thick, so blocked our passage…that we were forced to carry the canoes for about half a mile until we found a clear area. (full article)

Out of that challenging but hopeful time came the Neponset Conservation Association, whose original mission statement from August 1968 still rings true 50 years later:

The Association’s primary function is to…preserve and utilize natural resources, protect wildlife, reduce and prevent stream pollution and conserve water resources, all in the Neponset River Watershed.

The Hatch Act, Massachusetts’ landmark wetlands protection legislation had just been adopted in 1965, and while legislation had authorized municipalities to establish local Conservation Commissions in 1958, it wouldn’t be until 1972 that Commissions were called on to begin administering wetland protection rules.

Dredging of the River was ongoing, part of a plan first outlined in the late 1800s, to drain the Fowl Meadow wetlands in order to reduce the River’s stench and so that this large area of “wasted land” could be paved and made available for industrial development.

The first phase of the plan—to dredge and armor the River downstream of the Fowl Meadow to accommodate the floods that would be caused by all that new pavement—was underway. Thankfully the second “paving” part of the plan never came to pass.

The Neponset River has come a long way from its days as a severely polluted industrial river. Today, most streams in the Watershed meet swimmable standards during dry weather, and much of the River has been opened up for canoeing, bike paths, and waterfront parks.