New Bedford Envisions River with Room to Row
Boathouse Part of Acushnet Plan
By Brian R. Ballou, Globe Staff
NEW BEDFORD – In the mid-1900s, industries tossed tons of hazardous materials into New Bedford Harbor, transforming the once-pristine haven into one of the most polluted harbors in the country.
Marine life dwindled, property values along the shore sank, and the harbor became a punch line for jokes and the home of an alphabet soup of chemical compounds.
But now, the city is embarking on an estimated $40 million plan to develop the banks of the Acushnet River, the northernmost section of the inlet that forms New Bedford harbor. And part of that plan includes bringing the sport of rowing to the river.
It may seem a bit of a stretch to imagine crew teams sculling past the postindustrial wasteland that lines the west bank of the Acushnet. But the plan, the brainchild of Mayor Scott Lang, whose daughter is on the Fordham College crew team, has the support of rowing enthusiasts, as well as the US Environmental Protection Agency, which is in the fourth year of a long term effort to clean up the harbor.
“If you can row in the Charles River, you can row in the Acushnet,” said David Dickerson, the EPA project manager.
Rowing specialists say the roughly mile-and-half stretch of river north of the Coggshall Bridge, with its calm waters and natural barriers to wind, is ideal for the sport, which is experiencing a boom throughout the country.
With enough available riverbank to accommodate a large boathouse, docks, parking lots, and viewing areas, they say, New Bedford could become one of the best courses in New England. The harbor is easily accessible, located just off Interstate 195.
“If you build it, they will come,” said Albin Moser, a US Rowing Association official and head of the Narragansett Boat Club.
He predicted that high schools and colleges in the region would flock to the course, and eventually it might host a world-class rowing competition.
Moser said that the existing courses in the region – on Lake Quinsigamond near Worcester, the Seekonk River in Providence, and the Charles River in Cambridge – are heavily used.
“I don’t see a limit to what [the Acushnet course] could host,” Moser said.
He said he had visited the river last October at the invitation of the city.
“The one thing that I hoped for was lousy weather on that day, because that’s when you want to see a rowing course,” he said. “But this course has a significant amount of protection against the wind. The big regattas are looking for venues that are well protected.”
A team of 14 MIT graduate students is working on the design of the boathouse, the largest component of the project. The boathouse is to be located near Riverside Park, a $3.5 million recreational site built in 2005.
Construction of the boathouse, estimated to cost $1.5 million, is expected to start in the spring, said Matthew Morrissey, executive director of the New Bedford Economic Development Council.
“With these courses, it doesn’t take a lot of infrastructure,” Morrissey said. “We will probably see some shells out by the end of the spring. Some rowers have told us, ‘Hey, you put a dock up, and we’re rowing.’ ”
In addition to the boathouse, the estimated $40 million worth of renovations, funded by private developers, will include retail and grocery stores and medical offices.
In separate projects, the city is planning to build a multiuse walkway and bicycle and inline skating courses on top of the massive dike that stretches across the mouth of New Bedford Harbor where it opens into Buzzards Bay.
The city is planning to narrow Route 18, which runs along the harbor, to make the city’s historic downtown and waterfront areas more pedestrian-friendly.
City officials are also in talks with several casino owners and developers to bring a casino to the harbor, Morrissey said.
“We have a completely underutilized treasure and we want to return it to the residents,” said Kristin Decas, executive director of the New Bedford Harbor Development Committee. “We want to paint the canvas of what the future will look like in New Bedford.”
The Acushnet River is separated by three low-ceiling bridges, the northernmost of which is Coggeshall, from New Bedford’s bustling fishing port, one of the busiest in the country.
The course will be off-limits to powerboats and larger vessels, but small sailboats, canoes, kayaks, and rowboats will continue to be allowed in the river.
The EPA has been dredging the river since 2000, working 45 days a year, a schedule predicated on an annual budget of $15 million for the New Bedford project.
At that rate, the entire cleanup would take 25 years, Dickerson said. “We’re looking at ways to speed up the process,” he said.
Lang said he realizes that boaters may have questions about the safety of the harbor while the EPA is dredging up toxic muck as part of its cleanup.
“The dredging is not something that will be incompatible with this use,” Lang said. “We’ll be advising people not to roll around in the mud, though.”
Dickerson said rowers and other boaters can use the Acushnet safely, even as the cleanup continues.
“The biggest concern is PCBs, ingesting seafood caught in and around the harbor and coming into contact with contaminated soil,” he said. “We believe for the purposes of rowing, we can work through these issues.”
PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, are oily fluids or solids that were primarily used as lubricants and coolants, but were banned in the United States in the 1970s after they were linked to cancer in humans, according to the EPA. The substance does not break down.
Dickerson said that rowers will be advised to immediately shower if they come into contact with the water, which averages about six feet deep in the river.
“There should be some education and protocol on what to do and probably some signage at the boathouse,” he said.
October 6, 2007
New Bedford Envisions River with Room to Row