The Restoration Project
The Muddy River Restoration Project is a far-reaching, large-scale engineering effort—a collaboration between federal, state, and local governments—that addresses long-standing concerns about flood risk, environmental degradation, and historic preservation along the Muddy River’s 3.5 miles. The US Army Corps of Engineers, the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), City of Boston, and Town of Brookline are working together (along with a number of sub-contractors) to improve climate resiliency and recreational use of the River and its adjacent parks. The most visible work has involved dredging approximately 90,000 cubic yards of accumulated sediment from the River bottom, removing invasive plants, and restoring the historic park shoreline.
Decades of environmental neglect made the Muddy River increasingly prone to catastrophic flooding. Floodwaters overwhelmed the River banks in 1996, causing damage to the public transit system in Boston and Brookline, as well as nearby residences, businesses, academic, medical and cultural institutions. Damages exceeded $70 million.
At the same time, citizens groups voiced concerns about the degradation of the Muddy River’s historic parklands and the compromised ecosystems for fish, birds, and other wildlife. The need for a comprehensive restoration effort became clear by the late 1990s.
The Muddy River Restoration Project will be completed in 2023.
The Muddy River Restoration Project is a multi-faceted environmental improvement effort that will fortify the River’s flood control systems, improve water quality, enhance the aquatic/riparian habitats, and rehabilitate the landscape and historic resources—all while ensuring that the benefits of the Project have lasting impact.
Along the 3.5 mile-long River that spans sections of Brookline and Boston, the US Army Corps of Engineers’ contractors have dredged sediment to ease the flow of Our Muddy and remove invasive species like Phragmites from the wetland areas. Preservation and restoration of the historic park shoreline will bring a diverse array of new plantings, including emergents (water plants), wetland species, shrubs, and trees. Stable habitats are being created for fish, turtles, and amphibians.
The Restoration Project was designed in two phases. Phase 1 involved daylighting a section of the River near the Landmark Center in Boston, where Our Muddy had been buried for decades under a large parking lot. The installation of large culverts under city roadways removed a significant choke point, facilitating water flow during storm events. Phase 1 work was completed in 2016 and is now the site of the Justine Mee Liff Park.
Phase 2, which began in 2020, is expected to be completed in 2023 with the handoff of maintenance responsibilities from the US Army Corps to the non-federal sponsors. Phase 2 involves dredging and ecosystem restoration in 13 distinct work areas that span the length of the River from Leverett Pond in Brookline to Charlesgate in Boston.
With the safety of the public in mind, temporary construction fencing has been installed to ensure protected work sites for the contractors and their specialized equipment. During the construction work, detour signage will direct pedestrians and cyclists throughout the Muddy River parklands. Fences will be removed and full pedestrian access will be restored in phases as the landscaping efforts in each work area are completed.
In total, the cost of the Project is estimated to be $90 million. Federal funds for the dredging work were originally authorized through the United States Congress as part of the Water Resources Development Act of 2000. Significant additional funding, particularly for the environmental restoration dimensions of the Project, is being provided by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, City of Boston, and Town of Brookline.
Following completion of the Project, ongoing maintenance costs will be borne by Boston and Brookline.
The public has been involved in the Muddy River Restoration Project since the early 1970s. In the 1990s, Secretary of the Executive Office of Environmental Affairs Bob Durand authorized the creation of an independent public oversight committee to ensure public participation in the Project, protect the public investment, and provide independent oversight of the maintenance and management of the park system. Oversight is the core mission of the Project’s Maintenance and Management Oversight Committee (MMOC).
Our Muddy’s Future
The Project intentionally reflects the original vision of the 19th-century landscape architect of the Emerald Necklace, Frederick Law Olmsted. Once the dredging work is complete, 130 trees (all native species from Olmsted’s original tree list), more than 3,500 emergent wetland plants, 6,500 ferns, and 9,000 shrubs will be planted in areas affected by the work.
The restored riverbanks will be allowed to naturalize, resulting over time in a mix of site-adapted native plants and plants that arrive of their own accord. Open upland areas intended for recreation will be seeded with lawn. Installation of boulders and logs in the River will create stable habitats for fish, turtles, birds, and amphibians.
A primary goal of the US Army Corps’ Muddy River Project is flood damage reduction. For the non-federal sponsors, Boston, Brookline, and the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation—and especially the public— preservation and rehabilitation of the historic Frederick Law Olmsted landscape are equally important.
With these purposes in mind, and with input from the MMOC and its member organizations, the sponsors and the Army Corps developed detailed, strategic plans to minimize the impact of Phase 2 construction on healthy trees. The goal: to maximize the rehabilitation of the landscape in areas affected by the dredging work.
Although every effort has been made to maintain a healthy tree canopy along Our Muddy, approximately 112 trees have been removed during the construction work. Reasons for tree removals vary: some trees were in poor health, some were growing on the river’s edge in the limits of the excavation area, some were invasive species, and a few required removal to allow dredging equipment to access to the River. Efforts to preserve and protect as many trees as possible were explained by the Town of Brookline in August 2020 and by Brookline Town Arborist Tom Brady at the MMOC’s meeting for the public on June 30, 2020.
Once the dredging work is complete, 130 trees (all from the Olmsted tree list) will be planted in affected areas.
The primary species of concern during the Muddy River Restoration Project are common reed (Phragmites) and Japanese knotweed. These plants crowd out native plants and inhibit water flow.
The Army Corps modified its contract to extend invasives removal throughout the Project area. This will bring positive environmental benefits and a dramatic visual change to the Muddy River and its parklands.
The Restoration Project will result in direct conveyance of Muddy River water to the Charles River during major storms. Newly restored wetland ecosystems, largely free of invasive plants, will serve as a natural sponges, decreasing the speed of water flow and simultaneously reducing the sediment load. Native plant communities established adjacent to the River will help to keep the areas surrounding the Muddy River self-sustaining.
Beyond flood control, the Project has implemented Best Management Practices (BMPs) for improving water quality before it ever reaches the River.
These efforts will help to mitigate a variety of potential harms that may come from more frequent and severe storms.
While the Project has not been explicitly designed to further the essential goals of greater equity and inclusion, it reflects the fundamental value of healthy, resilient urban parks. By making the parklands less prone to flooding, eliminating fire-prone reeds, planting native trees and shrubs, and restoring the missing link in the Muddy River, the Project represents a the highest ideals of greenspace accessibility.
The MMOC hopes that by securing a future for these long-neglected urban parks, the Project will promote greater use and exploration by all citizens. We aim to engender citizen activism and stewardship so these treasured environments have the appropriate support and financial resources going forward. We invite you to explore, enjoy, and get involved in the stewardship of Our Muddy!
Birds, fish, amphibians, and reptiles are much-loved members of the Muddy River ecological community. Wildlife impacts were considered throughout all phases of the Project, with active oversight by the Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program (NHESP).
The dredging operations brought short-term disruption of animal habitats, including destruction of shelter spots, breeding grounds, and nesting sites. Licensed habitat specialists have inspected the work areas weekly to identify the locations of turtle nests, for example. Early in the Project, a mature snapping turtle was discovered and relocated to an area outside the active construction site. Most animals were able to relocate themselves to nearby, undisturbed habitats.
Over the long term, installation of features like habitat logs and boulders, as well as the newly planted, resilient community of food plants, will provide healthy habitats for Muddy River species.
The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MASSDEP) classifies the Muddy River as a Class B waterway, “designated as a habitat for fish, other aquatic life, and wildlife, including for their reproduction, migration, growth and other critical functions, and for primary and secondary contact recreation.” While the Restoration Project is making measurable progress toward that benchmark, the water does not currently meet the standard.
Looking back, the Muddy River served as an informal urban sewer system for well over a century. A variety of toxic substances have accumulated in its sediment over time. While the quality of the water has improved significantly through efforts by Boston and Brookline to eliminate pollution sources, the River is still considered “impaired,” meaning that it exceeds the allowable state standards for a number of pollutants, most notably bacteria and phosphorus. The recent EPA grade of C-minus will continue to spur the water quality efforts of local environmental agencies.
River water is not suitable for drinking or swimming, nor should fish caught from the Muddy River be consumed.
One of the core goals of the Project has been to maintain pedestrian and bicycle access through the Muddy River parks. Along all of the 13 work areas, signs point to temporarily revised routes as required by the contractors.
The US Army Corps of Engineer has developed comprehensive work plans to protect the ecosystem from impacts by the dredging work. This includes minimizing erosion and soil compaction, protecting trees, preventing spills of harmful chemicals, and maintaining water quality.
You may notice floating orange or yellow booms stretching across the River near dredging equipment. These are turbidity curtains that are designed to minimize the amount of churned-up sediment that flows downstream. Water quality is monitored daily upstream and downstream of each active dredging location, and work is halted when levels are found to be in violation of water quality standards.
A wetlands scientist and environmental monitor evaluate the work of the contractor on a regular basis to ensure the work complies with all regulations and permits.
The US Army Corps of Engineers are the managers of the Restoration Project. Charter Construction, which is its contractor, has implemented best-practices COVID-19 safety protocols.
If you spot something or someone working in the Park that seems unsafe, please let us know. For your own safety and the safety of others, please follow all notices in the parks and be mindful of closed-off areas where work is currently under way.
The MMOC appreciates citizens acting as the eyes and ears of the historic Muddy River parks to ensure their cleanliness and safety.
You might be concerned about:
- Speeding on the parkways
- Road blockages
- Potential criminal activities (quite rare)
- Graffiti and other acts of vandalism
- People feeding water fowl (not allowed in the parks)
- Fallen tree branches
We encourage you to contact Boston 311 or BrookOnline.
Here’s an effective and easy way to address concerns to the City of Boston: take a photograph and upload it to the Boston’s 311 Smartphone App with a brief description of the problem.
Concerns can also be directed to the MMOC by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. We will pass along your question to the appropriate parties.
The corrugated structure that spans the River at the Landmark Center is a cofferdam. It was used to divert water around the active work area during Phase 1 of the Project (2009-2016). The dam remains in place as a mechanism for regulating floodwater levels during storms that might occur before dredging of the Back Bay Fens is complete. Once the dredging work is finished, the cofferdam will be removed.
Geese, goslings, and other waterfowl have founded Our Muddy to be a hospitable home. However, feeding water fowl is against the law in both Brookline and Boston. The Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) notes that feeding geese along the Muddy and elsewhere contributes to “poor nutrition, spread of disease, unnatural behavior, pollution, overcrowding, and delayed migration.”
Geese populations contribute to a loss of plant cover on sloped banks, which leads to unsightly bare areas and increased erosion, not to mention abundant goose droppings in areas frequented by people and pets.
Brookline and Boston parks departments engage in a variety of creative strategies to ensure geese and humans can coexist. They ask you to enjoy Our Muddy’s waterfowl from a distance and refrain from feeding them.
The dredged material from the River has been trucked from each of the 13 work area to a staging area located near the Victory Gardens in the Back Bay Fens. There, the sediment was allowed to dry and undergo chemical treatment before being loaded onto trucks for delivery to landfills.
Dredged material that contains toxic materials in excess of state or federal standards has been segregated and delivered to a licensed disposal facility.
We invite all friends of the Muddy River to follow this important flood control, environmental restoration, and stewardship Project. Find out what’s happening in the park near you: Olmsted Park, Riverway Park, Justine Mee Liff Park, Back Bay Fens, and Charlesgate. We look forward to keeping you updated on all phases of the construction project, from fence installation to lane closures, and we always invite your questions.
Most important, we hope you will take advantage of our treasured urban waterway. Visit often. Send us your photos. (We’re featuring your photos on our website’s Muddy River Habitats page.) Attend one our monthly meetings and join us for events like our annual Muddy River Symposium.
Stay tuned for upcoming opportunities to help maintain the healthy river environment we are all working to protect.
Do you have questions for the MMOC? Contact us: email@example.com