Waterways headed in right direction

Source: The Boston Globe
By Peter Schworm
NEW BEDFORD – On the count of three, the rowers hoisted the eight-man shell high above their heads and rumbled down the metal ramp to the dock. A teammate bundled the oars like kindling and ran to catch up.
The crew team lowered the boat gingerly into the water and they were on their way, skimming over the shimmering water past a line of weathered scallopers.
People lining the shore Saturday looked on in amazement.
New Bedford Harbor, once among the nation’s most polluted, and the Acushnet River that flows into it, were hosting a high school crew race, a graceful symbol of the water’s revival and this port city’s renewed sense of promise.
“This is what we’ve been striving for,” said Paul L’heureux, who has worked for decades to clean up the harbor, a former Superfund site, as a civil engineer for the Army Corps of Engineers.
From a bench in the sun, L’heureux took in the scene with a clear sense of accomplishment, even as he cautioned that the harbor still has a ways to go.
“This was the most highly polluted waterway in the United States, if not the most polluted site,” he said. “But it’s good to see it coming back to life.”
Launched two years ago amid improved water quality, the crew program has marked a series of milestones this spring. For the first time, high school league teams from outside the region traveled to New Bedford to compete Saturday, boosting the city’s hopes that the restored waterway could become a regular venue for competition.
On Sunday, it will host a championship race among five area colleges.
And this summer, New Bedford Community Rowing, a city-sponsored program that organizes the events, will hold three weeklong rowing programs for city teenagers.
“By the end of summer, we hope to expose hundreds of New Bedford kids to rowing,” said Anne Eisenmenger, the group’s director.
More broadly, the program seeks to transform the public perception of the harbor, long seen in a gritty, industrial light, to that of a recreational destination.
“Certainly, supporting the fishing industry is priority number one,” said Matthew Morrissey, executive director of the New Bedford Economic Development Council. “But this river is just a natural course.”
The city has been marketing itself as a layover for boaters and is targeting the shoreline of the Acushnet for a major overhaul. Plans for a river walk are underway, with construction to begin this summer, and old mill buildings are slated for redevelopment.
City officials are also hoping the river, which lends itself perfectly to crew races, will become a prime draw for big races and help spur tourism.
“I think the growth will be geometric,” Morrissey said.
As the starting times drew near, racers rigged their boats and cars poured into the marina parking lot. Spectators gathered along the banks of the nation’s largest fishing port – as judged by value of catch – to watch a sport considered thoroughly Ivy League.
As he watched the shells on the water, Morrissey savored the moment.
“Eights all over the harbor,” he said with admiration. “In an old industrial port.”
Edward Anthes-Washburn, director of the city’s harbor development commission, said the upper Acushnet was one of the nation’s worst Superfund sites in the 1980s, a casualty of years of industrial contamination. Years of dredging has brought the river back to life, although the recovery is far from complete.
“All of the really bad areas have been taken care of,” he said. “But the scope of the contamination is pretty widespread.”
The water itself is clean, but the sediment remains polluted, officials said. Fishing in the harbor remains largely catch-and-release, L’heureux said.
“We still have a long way to go,” he said.
But given the extent of the contamination, the water’s recovery has been striking. He used to see sickly, ulcerated fish that could barely make their way through the water.
“Now you see the blues and stripers come up and they’re breaking water,” he said.
Dave Darmofal, harbor master in neighboring Fairhaven, said water quality has dramatically improved in just a matter of a few years.
“Visibility in the inner harbor can be 14 feet,” he said. “A few years back, two would have been good. It’s getting better and better every day.”
As quality has improved, officials have begun to see the possibilities.
Volunteers in recent years have worked to encourage recreational boaters to lay over in New Bedford and enjoy the sights of an authentic fishing town.
“It’s been a huge outreach effort and it’s been very successful,” she said. “Shell rowing just seemed like the next step.”
Laurie Bullard, who chairs the rowing program’s board, said the races mark a new day for the harbor, and a new vision for the city.
“We’re still the number one fishing port in the country,” she said. “But it’s much more than that.”
Looking out at the pleasure boats docked at the marina, she took an expansive view.
“There’s lot of room to share,” she said.
April 29, 2012
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