Tear Down This Fence!
Making Fresh Pond back into a Pond
Jesse Gordon, (617) 320-6989
1770 Massachusetts Avenue #630, Cambridge MA 02140

Cambridge's Fresh Pond is misnamed. In terms of recreational use, it's just a circular foot path - we're kept from the pond itself by a tall and uninviting fence. Ask anyone why the fence is there, and they'd reply, "You can't swim in a reservoir." That's a misconception, and I'd like to explore why, and then challenge the City Council: "Tear down this fence!"

The fence around Fresh Pond indeed keeps people out. But it doesn't keep much else out. Anyone who frequents Fresh Pond sees that dogs regularly burrow under the fence and jump in for a swim. Plentiful leaves from plentiful trees fall right into the pond at this time of year. Dirt, gravel, and dog droppings wash in with every rainstorm - there's no barrier for anything smaller than people.

That sort of stuff running into the reservoir is nasty for drinking water, but that's why we have water treatment. The city is just finishing up the construction of a multi-million dollar water treatment plant at Fresh Pond, and the Water Department proudly tells us that our water is healthier than Boston's because of all the modern treatment methods. State-of-the-art filtration and chlorination means we don't really have to worry about stuff running into the reservoir.

So why not allow swimming? Doing so would mean a little more human sweat for the filters to filter out. And judging by the amount of swimming that occurs along the Charles River, it's not much more human sweat. The purpose of removing the fence would be to improve the FEEL of Fresh Pond, not to encourage swimming. Without a beach, and without much parking, most "swimming" will be toe-dipping, like in the Charles.

What about liability? Sure, the city would have to worry about some kid drowning in Fresh Pond. But they're liable for that now anyway, and the fence doesn't stop determined teenagers. There's no fence - and no lifeguards - along the whole length of the Charles, and the liability issues there don't require that we can only observe our river through a fence.

Here's a secret about Fresh Pond: the water is all piped in from a big reservoir that straddles Rt. 128 in Waltham. And here's my secret: I've swum in that reservoir lots of times, along with dozens of other people who hike through some woods to get there. The Waltham reservoir gets PLENTY of nasty road runoff from Rt. 128. We're fooling ourselves if we think that Fresh Pond's water is "pristine" - we have to trust our filters, and adding swimming residue to the stuff filtered out doesn't matter at all.

The real activity to restrict from reservoirs, if you ask water quality experts, is power boating. Oil and gasoline discharges build up over time, and are difficult to filter out. I certainly don't advocate power boating on Fresh Pond, but canoeing and kayaking is simply not a health problem either.

Then there's the question currently on everyone's mind: What about terrorism? The answer is: If terrorists attack our water supply, it will not be by attacking our reservoirs. The phrase in the water industry is "Dilution is the Solution." The amount of stuff you'd have to dump into Fresh Pond is enormous, if you want to harm people. Sure, it was scary when that airplane buzzed the Quabbin Reservoir, but the fact is that an airplane-load of anthrax would not be enough to contaminate dozens of square miles of reservoir.

In testimony before Congress on Oct. 10 about how to deal with terrorism against America's water resources, the FBI concluded: "Contamination of a water reservoir with a biological agent would likely not produce a large risk to public health because of the dilution effect, filtration and disinfection of the water." And with regards to chemical attack: "The amount of hazardous industrial chemical needed to contaminate the drinking water supply is enormous (truck loads)." The water treatment plant at Fresh Pond filters 18 million gallons of water a day - it would take a lot of trucks dumping crap into Fresh Pond to do anything, and we can trust the police to notice dozens of trucks pulling off of Fresh Pond Parkway before they achieve a terrorist goal.

That's not to say that terrorists can't attack our water supply. The FBI report to Congress details how we should focus on attacks at the water treatment plant itself, or in the pipes of the distribution network. But terrorist attacks on a reservoir are simply not an issue. And even if they were, the fence that's there is not much of a deterrent.

But the fence DOES deter our enjoyment of Fresh Pond. Take a look at the typical activities along the Charles on a nice day - people sunning themselves, strolling shoeless along the riverbank, lots of picnics and bird-feeding - those activities just don't occur at Fresh Pond, because the fence makes them uninviting. There is a real economic cost to keeping the fence up - foregoing those activities, for thousands of Cambridge residents, means a loss of recreational value. The magnitude of that cost is readily apparent if one observes the number of people who swim in the MDC pools on any hot summer's day. This cost is borne primarily by poorer people, who have fewer opportunities to commute out to Walden Pond or other natural swimming areas.

The reason we fence off Fresh Pond is because we FEEL like we SHOULD fence off our water supply. The value of that feeling is artificially high because people don't understand how small is the risk to the water supply. The value of that feeling, in my calculation, is far lower than the lost value of recreational activities like swimming and kayaking. Those activities CAN occur there, with no risk to our water supply. We have in our midst a wonderful resource that can enhance all of our lives, if we recognize it enough to Tear Down This Fence!