On the crisp fall morning of Oct. 15, I join a curious and peculiar group assembled outside the Cambridge Water Works facility exchanging parking permits for bikes and scrounging donuts and coffee provided by the Cambridge Water Department. We’ve all assembled to participate in the 9th annual Cycle To The Source tour of the Cambridge Watershed offered by CWD — a rare opportunity to bike the watershed’s route alongside Water Department staff.
Cambridge retirees make up a large contingent of the tour’s participants, all experienced recreational bikers. Suffice it to say, I was out of place — 40 years the junior of most tour-goers and riding a bike intended for a mid-sized child, while many came prepared with lavish road bikes.
The event was largely organized by Anna Van Dreser, a Birkenstock-clad department staffer who was eager to share the department’s work with participants. Van Dreser serves as a watershed management assistant, which is a fellowship-like position for recent college graduates.
In addition to the tour, CWD offers a bevy of other educational events throughout the year, including a tour of the treatment plant, workshops on invasive species, and an outdoor festival. By working with advocacy groups and community organizations like the Lincoln Rural Land Foundation, they’ve also expanded their ability to protect watershed land.
Four staffers from CWD’s Watershed Management Division, which runs the tour, biked alongside the participants: Dave Kaplan, watershed manager; Jamie O’Connell, watershed supervisor; Anna Van Dreser, watershed management assistant; and Julie Greenwood-Torelli, director of water operations.
At each stop, the staff implore us to imagine life “as a water drop,” taking in our scenery the way raindrops may absorb pollutants or be purified by the forest plant life.
Edward Carney and Stephen Conway, our Carhartt-clad guardian angels for the day, bring their bright orange work truck, stocked with food and Cambridge tap water, to every stop along the route. As reservoir caretakers, they patrol the watershed, operate the dams, and perform regular maintenance.
Cambridge is unique in the Boston area for having its own watershed and water source. Most municipalities in this region rely on the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, which provides them with wholesale water from Central and Western Massachusetts.
However, due to drought and other challenges, Cambridge has elected to source its water from the MWRA, an emergency backup measure for its otherwise self-sufficient water system, for the remainder of 2022.
Cambridge’s watershed system was built in the 1890s. Now, it sits amidst residential communities in the towns of Lexington, Lincoln, Waltham, and Weston. And where there are people, there are pollutants. Thus, the Watershed Management Division is always working to mitigate pollutants and frequently negotiates with developers to ensure that new construction doesn’t threaten the watershed.
But they can’t win every battle. Interstate highway I-95, built in the 1950s, now runs through the middle of the watershed and is a challenge for CWD. I-95’s roadway deicing operations lead to elevated sodium levels within Cambridge’s water year-round, while fuel spills and other hazmat incidents on the roadway pose an acute risk to the system.
Currently, the pollutant on CWD’s mind is Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances, or so-called “forever chemicals.” PFAS can be found in pizza boxes, cleaning products, water-resistant clothing, or non-stick pans. This year CWD staff observed elevated PFAS levels, which were expected to be highest in September. At the same time, in part due to climate change, CWD was facing the longest drought since 2016, which was itself the longest drought since 1966.
As we reach our final stop of the day at the Stony Brook Gatehouse, we’re reminded of the challenges that the department continues to face. As one staffer explains, the dam (and the Cambridge water system) is not currently providing any water; the CWD elected to change to MWRA water for the fall season starting Aug. 30 due to ongoing drought and to allow for the installation of new filters to bring PFAS levels into the undetectable range.
While the gatehouse should normally be echoing with the sounds of water rushing through its gates, it now stands silent.
Regardless, the public servants of the Watershed Management Division continue to patrol each day — keeping the watershed safe until new filters and more rainfall allow the CWD to reopen the dams. They are eager to hear the rush of water once again.