It’s about time: on August 14, the Army Corps of Engineers finally awarded a $30.9 million dollar contract for Phase 1 of the Muddy River Restoration Project to Charter Environmental, a Boston firm. The project is supposed to start in October, 2012, and take three years to complete—merely a quarter of the time it took to get from the first Environmental Notification Form to awarding the contract.
For folks who commute through the Fenway, it may feel like it will take a lot longer. In the name of flood control and water quality improvement, this project is going to tear open the Back Bay Fens from the Riverway to Louis Pasteur Drive, exposing the discretely culvert-clad Muddy River to the open air for the first time since the 1950’s. (In Boston, they didn’t pave paradise to put up a parking lot; they paved over a river! In a park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted! The section in question is behind what is now the Landmark Center on behalf of Sears Roebucks’ auto-enabled customers. You’ve got to admit, that takes a special kind of environmental insensitivity.)
Unfortunately, the Muddy River couldn’t take a hint. It kept reemerging outside of its culverts at inopportune times, like after heavy rainstorms. Thus, the Muddy River Restoration Project, which is supposed to improve flood control, water quality, and wildlife habitat and increase local park land, largely by “daylighting” the river, a.k.a. taking it out of culverts or, as the Army Corps of Engineers puts it, “major excavation to construct open channel sections of river.” (I do hope the Army Corps of Engineers employs an officer named Major Excavation.)
Once traffic has been snarled at Fenway for an eternity, and Major Excavation has given way to Private Landscaping Firm, someday, somehow, we will see the beginning of Phase 2 of the Muddy River Restoration project, when all the cursed invasive Phragmites australis reeds that make the Fens feel so perfect for unsavory occupations will be DESTROYED.
They’ll come back someday, after the dredging is over. But it’s nice to think that for a little while, you’ll actually be able to see all of the Muddy River, top to bottom, left to right, without waiting for another flood to send it into the Kenmore Square T Station, causing $60 milllion of damage along the way.
The irony here is that Frederick Law Olmsted, Boston’s eminence vert, designed the Back Bay Fens as a flood control project, a sort of gigantic detention basin for Muddy River floods. It never worked very well, thanks in part to the City of Boston’s miserly spending on inadequately-sized conduits for the Muddy River’s normal flow (not to mention not providing separate pipes for river water and sewage. Eyergh.) Having the Charles River dammed–changing the Fens from a tidal marsh to a fresh water basin.
Landscape history obsessives can read just how many times the the Back Bay Fens have been paved, filled, and packed into conduit in section 3.3 of the Boston Landmarks Commission’s 1983 report on the Fens.
Me, I’m looking forward to the first Back Bay Fens Waterfire, conveniently located near major hospitals.