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Prof. Hellweger wins the 2012 New England EPA Environmental Merit Award

April 11, 2012

Prof. Ferdi Hellweger won the Environmental Merit Award from the New England Office of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in recognition of his exceptional work and commitment to the environment. EPA's Environmental Merit Award is an annual award that recognizes outstanding environmental advocates who have made significant contributions toward preserving and protecting our natural resources. Ferdi has been a leading researcher and advocate for water quality in the region as highlighted through his monitoring and modeling of water quality in the Charles River. Congratulations to Ferdi!

Source: News @ Northeastern

The Charles River has a long his­tory of pol­lu­tion — Boston’s anthem, “Dirty Water,” was first recorded more than forty years ago. But taking a dip was common prac­tice until the 1950s, when people started to realize that indus­trial waste and sewage runoff were making swim­ming hazardous.

Since joining the North­eastern fac­ulty in 2004, envi­ron­mental engi­neering asso­ciate pro­fessor Ferdi Hell­weger has been working to make the river swim­mable again. Ear­lier this month, the New Eng­land Region of the Envi­ron­mental Pro­tec­tion Agency hon­ored him with an Envi­ron­mental Merit Award for his effort.

Today, after decades of work by many people to clean up the Charles, the river is swim­mable approx­i­mately 70 per­cent of the time.  But, Hell­weger explained, the problem is pin­pointing that time.

I can go out now and col­lect a water sample, but I have to filter it, incu­bate it and wait 24 hours before I know it’s good. If I’m inter­ested in swim­ming, I want to know if it’s good now,” he said. “We’re trying to find a way to pre­dict where and when it is safe to go swimming.”

Hell­weger said two main cul­prits pre­vent swim­ming in the river the remaining 30 per­cent of the time: fecal bac­teria like E. coli and toxic algae.

Fecal bac­teria, he said, orig­i­nate in sewage, which can enter the river because of the way Boston’s sewer system was orig­i­nally designed. Unlike in modern sys­tems, there is one set of sewer pipes that move both rain­water and san­i­tary sewage to a treat­ment facility. On rainy days, those pipes would over­flow into the river. Today many pipes have been sep­a­rated, but some remain com­bined and many illicit sewage con­nec­tions endure.

Toxic algae, specif­i­cally cyanobac­teria, grow in the river and pro­lif­erate when the tem­per­a­ture and nutrient con­di­tions are just right. On very hot days, algae take over.

Hell­weger is working to model the Charles’ water quality with the even­tual goal of devel­oping a com­puter pro­gram or appli­ca­tion that can pre­dict how swim­mable the river will be from one day to the next.

The vision is to have a weather fore­cast for the river,” he explained. “The idea is you go to a web­site for a weather fore­cast, and you see not only the tem­per­a­ture for tomorrow but also whether you can swim at the beaches.”

In other cities such as Zurich and Bern, swim­ming in urban lakes and rivers is part of the cul­ture. Hell­weger believes that the Charles River is an under­uti­lized but impor­tant resource with great poten­tial, noting, “If we could swim in the river, it would tremen­dously increase the quality of life in the city.”

Gov­ernor Patrick has ini­ti­ated a com­mis­sion to study the water quality with the hope of opening the river to swim­ming within five years. If suc­cessful, the Charles would be the first urban river in the country to wel­come swim­mers within the last sev­eral decades.