It’s been 50 years since a group of volunteers came together to deal with the changes that urbanization and industrialization have brought to the Mystic River and its watershed. Now the group, a non-profit organization in its own right, is embarking on a new task: preparing the region for the ever-increasing effects of climate change.
This is in addition to its original mission: to protect and restore the river and its watershed.
Noting that New England winters are, on average, five degrees warmer than they were 100 years ago, the Mystic River Watershed Association, known by its acronym MyRWA, has launched new programs, forged new partnerships and hand to the residents of the 21 communities. that make up the watershed.
The organization, headquartered in Arlington, is playing a leading role in the work to build a climate-resilient Mystic River in the face of unprecedented climate change.
“A lot of times we think about reducing carbon emissions and preventing climate change from getting worse,” said Melanie Gárate, climate resilience manager for the Mystic River Watershed Association. “But we don’t stop to think about the fact that we already have this amount of carbon baked in – so how do we build resilience here?”
Instead of trying to control something humans can’t, Gárate says, the organization helps communities along the Mystic River and its tributaries find ways to prepare for and respond effectively to related events. to climate change.
Some of the biggest problems facing the river and its watershed are urban heat islands in the greater Boston area, substandard air quality, inadequate river water quality, and parks. and greenways along the Mystic that need maintenance, according to the association.
General Manager Patrick Herron is well aware of the environmental inequalities faced by people in the river’s watershed and what needs to be done to bring about change.
“Our challenge is to foster collective action to protect people, protect the economy and achieve environmental improvements in these areas,” Herron said.
Perhaps the most significant issue facing the Mystic River and the people surrounding it is the inequality of clean water and air among disadvantaged communities in the watershed, Herron said.
In partnership with the Boston Museum of Science and CAPA Strategies, a data analytics company specializing in urban heat islands, the association conducted a census of heat islands, called Wicked Hot Mystic in August 2021 in 17 municipalities in the watershed.
Julie Ing Stern, one of the MyRWA volunteers who took part in the heat island mapping last summer, really enjoyed her experience.
Continued:The Mystic River Watershed Association seeks to determine how hot it is
“I was so happy to be able to participate in a project that will help cities and towns plan for climate change,” said Ing Stern. Her role as a volunteer was to drive a specific route through the watershed to collect temperature and air quality data from sensors she attached to her car. She was also tasked with noting any visible activity along the road, such as construction work or traffic conditions.
As someone who has always had a passion for the outdoors, Ing Stern said she was grateful to be able to play a meaningful role in fulfilling MyRWA’s mission.
Continued:Mystic River Watershed Association enlists volunteers to remove invasive water chestnuts
“Volunteering for MyRWA has made me much more aware and appreciative of the region in which I live and work, and I have learned a lot,” said Ing Stern.
The final results of the census have not yet been made public; however, Gárate, who managed the project, identified some concerns raised by the outcome.
The census found that the lower part of the watershed, which includes cities such as East Boston, Chelsea, Everett, Revere and Malden, is significantly warmer than the rest of the municipalities surveyed. These cities have less green space compared to the rest of the watershed, according to the association. Greenways, according to the association, provide refreshment.
The municipalities that were found to be hotter than their counterparts also have a considerable portion of their population living at or below the poverty line – an average of 15.56% of the total population of the five cities, according to MyRWA.
“People who are renters, who are also disadvantaged by transportation, don’t have cars to cool off,” Gárate said. “They don’t have adequate access to green spaces or adequate access to air conditioning at home. It is a public health problem. »
The census also investigated air quality levels in the watershed, but these results have not been made public. MyRWA’s full census report will be released in the spring, Gárate said.
Herron, who has been involved with MyRWA since 2009, and Gárate both spoke about the importance of public participation in climate resilience. They highlighted how critical it is for residents to advocate for funding in their municipalities to achieve climate resilience.
Suggestions include reaching out to state and local officials, the mayor and city council, about concerns about climate change, climate resilience, and to support funding for the Massachusetts Vulnerability Preparedness Program (MVP).
The MVP is a grant program funded by the Massachusetts state budget that gives municipalities the funding needed to execute climate resilience plans. The Baker administration allocated $21 million in climate change funding distributed among 328 Massachusetts municipalities under the MVP program last summer.
Gárate said individuals can also express to their representatives the importance of improving the quality of indoor spaces such as residences, affordable housing, schools and libraries.
“[Those buildings] were meant to keep the heat in during the winter, but they weren’t made to keep the heat out in the summer,” Gárate said.
Herron and Gárate also pointed out that MyRWA’s volunteer group is the cornerstone of the organization. There are approximately 1,000 citizen scientists assisting MyRWA in a variety of capacities; fish counting as one. MyRWA is always looking for volunteers to help count the migration of river herring, a species that migrates annually between Florida and Maine.
Volunteers can also help monitor water quality, remove invasive plants, and clean up parks and rivers. They may even write letters to local and state officials to request funding or to support or oppose certain state environmental permits.
The organization also raises awareness of the importance of watershed health by providing educational programs to schools and youth groups. The children work in the field to learn more about water, biodiversity, the link between man and the environment, climate change and pollution.
“We’re really keen on developing the next generation of environmental stewards,” Herron said. “If we come across long-time residents of Medford who have never been in a canoe on the Mystic River, it tells us that no one invited them or introduced them to their local river early in life. Our effort is to try to make young people aware of the river.
Children, Herron added, take what they learn home to their families. It is a way to spread knowledge and awareness of the watershed, exactly what MyRWA is working towards.
While MyRWA may not be able to achieve climate resilience in an area as large as North Boston, the organization is committed to continuing to raise awareness and build a broader community of individuals dedicated to fostering a healthier future for the watershed and those who live there.
It’s “an area that has been impacted and transformed by 150 years of urbanization and industrialization,” Herron said. “The expectation that [MyRWA is] undoing all of these impacts in just a few years isn’t fair, but we can set the tone and level a lot of different permits, investments, and changes to a healthier watershed every year.
Kaley Brown is a journalism student at Endicott College.