Blog - Charles River Watershed Association

Green Streets: A prescription for water pollution

Posted by Nick King

4/24/18 10:58 AM

Guest blog post by fisherman, retired Boston Globe writer and CRWA volunteer Nick King

I woke up recently with a nasty case of pavement anxiety disorder. I was anxious about all the potholes on my street and why they weren’t being fixed. But I was even more anxious about the sheer expanse of pavement everywhere - and how that was holding Mother Nature’s rainwater hostage.

Catch basin

Last fall catch basins were installed at Edenfield Avenue. The project will be completed this summer.  

Desperate to reconcile these conflicting sentiments, I found myself driving down Edenfield Avenue in Watertown in search of a cure. The Rx: Several blocks of this lengthy urban byway are becoming “green,” meaning it is being creatively landscaped to allow rainwater to seep into the ground, rather than run off the pavement into the nearby Charles River.

Managed by CRWA and Watertown DPW, the Edenfield Avenue Green Street Demonstration Project is a laboratory for retrofitting streets and sidewalks in order to capture and treat rainwater runoff—in effect, mimicking natural conditions. The makeover consists of installing green infrastructure—namely replacing impermeable pavement and concrete with a series of tree trenches and bioswales with native plants—that together will help filter storm water and return it to God’s good earth as intended.

The project is still under construction, with plantings and final landscaping to be completed this summer. When it’s finished, Edenfield won’t look quite like Eden but more like a typical tree-lined street. But don’t be deceived: it’s what lies beneath that really matters: namely 12-18 inches of gravel and well-mulched soil that enables the ground to act much like a sponge so rainwater can seep, nurture and replenish the ground.

Edenfield is one of several such green infrastructure demonstration projects a part of CRWA’s  Blue Cities Initiative, including a porous alley in Boston, Peabody Square in Dorchester, Everett Street in Brighton and the Waltham Watch Factory in Waltham.

Because Massachusetts is so heavily paved (Watertown alone has 74 miles of roads), well over 50 percent of the rain in a typical year quickly becomes wasted runoff, washing directly into rivers and streams or down combined sewer and storm drains to be discarded with sewage. CRWA’s Edenfield project, like the others, is designed to reverse this process and allow rain to once again serve as a natural asset that replenishes aquifers, reduces storm water pollution and ameliorates the risk of flooding from storms.

Green Street | City of Portland

A green street in Portland, Oregon. Source: City of Portland.  

This kind of re-engineering and retrofitting of urban landscapes can be very effective in helping to retain valuable rainfall in that immediate area. And water conservation and preservation are increasingly important as we cope with the weather extremesfrom floods to droughtsbrought on by climate change. But these kinds of projects have their challenges too: cost, upkeep, limited scope. Nonetheless they are catching on in other communities including Burlington, VT., Seattle, Portland, OR., and Philadelphia, largely thanks to the initiatives of environmental advocates such as CRWA.

Knowing these initiatives are in the works has certainly helped ease my pavement anxiety disorder. But given how much time I spend driving, parking or walking on paved surfaces, there’s still a long paved road ahead before it’s cured.



Topics: Charles River, Stormwater, Stormwater Management, Green Infrastructure, Blue Cities, Stormwater Runoff

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About Charles River Watershed Association:

One of the country's oldest watershed organizations, Charles River Watershed Association (CRWA) was formed in 1965 in response to public concern about the declining condition of the Charles. Since its earliest days of advocacy, CRWA has figured prominently in major clean-up and watershed protection efforts, working with government officials and citizen groups from 35 Massachusetts watershed towns from Hopkinton to Boston. Initiatives over the last fifty years have dramatically improved the quality of water in the watershed and fundamentally changed approaches to water resource management.