Mystic Watershed Collaborative

Mystic River Watershed Association

A Partnership between Tufts University and the Mystic River Watershed Association (MyRWA)

The Mystic Watershed Collaborative (MWC) envisions strategies and catalyzes the resources of Tufts University and MyRWA to address challenges and opportunities in the Mystic Watershed. The MWC was formalized in 2000 under the leadership of President DiBiaggio. In 2005 on the 5th anniversary of the MWC, President Bacow reaffirmed Tufts University’s commitment to the restoration of the Mystic River Watershed.

Mystic River Watershed Association (MyRWA)

MyRWA’s mission is to protect and restore clean water and related natural resources in the basin’s communities and to promote responsible stewardship of our natural resources through educational initiatives. A small organization, MyRWA accomplishes its mission by forging links with citizens’ groups, universities, businesses, and government agencies. These alliances permit MyRWA to work throughout the watershed, to document current conditions, and advocate for resource management and protection. As an umbrella organization, MyRWA connects, but does not direct, the efforts of many smaller groups working in each watershed community and leads watershed-wide environmental programs. This collaborative approach has created a stronger watershed voice and is helping to attract much-needed public and private resources to the Mystic.

Tufts University

Tufts University is a private university founded in 1852. Its main campus is situated in the Mystic Watershed in Somerville and Medford, Massachusetts. As an institution, Tufts has long been committed to improving the human condition through education and discovery. Beyond this commitment, Tufts strives to be a model for society at large. Embracing both a tradition of rigorous academic research and a belief that active citizen participation is essential to freedom, democracy, and a better world, Tufts is uniquely suited to engage in a partnership such as the Mystic Watershed Collaborative. Diverse departments and student groups have worked directly with community partners through research or coursework to advance goals such as “fishable and swimmable” through activities including water quality research, capacity building with local grassroots organizations, land use surveys, media outreach strategy development.

About the Mystic River

The Mystic River headwaters are the Aberjona River starting in Reading, MA to the North. The river technically begins at the southern end of the Lower Mystic Lake on the Arlington/Medford town border and runs southeastward into Boston Harbor, where it converges with the Charles River. Along the way, it is joined by tributaries such as Mill Creek, Alewife Brook, Malden River, Island End River, and Chelsea Creek. The Mystic River was a tidal river until the Craddock Locks were built in 1909, preventing tides from affecting the Upper Mystic River. In 1966, the Amelia Earhart Dam was built near the mouth of the Mystic, preventing tidal flooding of the Malden and Lower Mystic Rivers. Before the dam and the locks were built, the river would actually run backwards as the tide came in through Boston Harbor.

Historically, Native Americans and European settlers used the river for travel and as a source of food and freshwater. The Mystic River has long been central to regional economic vitality, serving the needs of various industries, such as brickyards, shipyards, and tanneries. The lower Mystic is presently a busy industrial port with large tankers and tugs regularly seen on the water. By contrast, a dynamic biological event occurs every year as thousands of river herring swim up the Mystic River to spawn every spring, navigating past dams and other barriers to reach their goal- the shallow shores of the upper Mystic River and its tributaries.


What is a watershed?
A watershed is an area that drains into a single body of water, such as a stream, river, or ocean. Sometimes watersheds are called basins or catchment basins. The boundaries of a watershed are determined by the surface features of the land, or its topography. Watersheds can be nested one inside the other. For example, the United States could be divided into three giant watersheds: one to the west of the Rocky Mountains that drains into the Pacific Ocean, one to the east of the Appalachian Mountains that drains into the Atlantic Ocean, and one in between those two that drains into the Gulf of Mexico. However, within each one of these watersheds, there are many watersheds that drain into rivers and smaller bodies of water.

The Mystic River Watershed

The Mystic River Watershed is an area of 76 square miles in eastern Massachusetts. This watershed is home to numerous species, including over 400,000 humans in 21 cities. Other noteworthy species that live in the Mystic River Watershed are alewife, blue herons, cormorants, muskrats, fox, and even an occasional coyote. Rain that falls on the Mystic River Watershed flows as runoff or through storm sewers directly into the Mystic River, or into the Mystic River through the Aberjona River, Alewife Brook, Chelsea Creek, Malden River, Mill Brook, or numerous lakes and ponds. There are 44 lakes and ponds in the watershed. The largest, Spot Pond in Stoneham, spans 307 acres.

Heavy human use of the watershed has led to some major environmental problems. The land in the watershed has been developed right up to the river’s banks, so natural flooding now can damage buildings and homes. Few natural or undeveloped areas are left to provide habitat for the watershed’s wildlife. Without open ground to filter and clean runoff water, non-point source pollution from lawn fertilizer, other nutrient sources, and oil residue on roads runs directly into the river.

Polluted waters and river sediments are also a problem in the Mystic River Watershed. Dangerous chemicals and waste products have been dumped into the river and on its banks since the watershed was first used for industrial purposes. During intense rains or when domestic water use peaks, untreated sewage sometimes spills from overflowing combined sewer networks into the Mystic River. In addition, the Mystic River has abnormally high levels of the heavy metals arsenic and chromium.

To find out more about the Mystic Watershed, we recommend going to the website of the Mystic River Watershed Association. There you will find maps and a more detailed history of the watershed, as well as information about its hydrology and ecological significance.

Related Links:
Massachusetts Water Resources Authority
United States Environmental Protection Agency: Office of Water
United States Environmental Protection Agency: Adopt Your Watershed

Links For Kids:
United States Environmental Protection Agency: Kids Activities


The Mystic Watershed Collaborative (MWC) provides an opportunity for Tufts students, faculty, and staff to join citizen-initiated outreach and service projects that can benefit the watershed and our host cities, Medford and Somerville. There are several ways to contribute, even if you have little time or little experience. See the volunteer opportunities below for some ideas.

You may want to review the research that has been done in collaboration between Tufts faculty, students and staff, MyRWA and local community partners. In many cases, there has been some previous research or resources available; and you should be aware of them as you begin your work. Many of these questions could be incorporated into class projects or constitute the base for an individual directed study, thesis, or research proposal.

MWC has worked with several other institutions at Tufts that sponsor research, service, and volunteer opportunities. The Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service works with MyRWA and local community partners to make the values and skills of active citizenship a hallmark of a Tufts University education. Tufts Institute of the Environment focuses its activities on environmental research, technology, policy development, and education to improve environmental quality as it relates to human health.

Volunteer Opportunities

Water Quality Monitoring – Water quality monitoring allows us to analyze trends over time and better understand the assets and problems in the watershed.

Find It and Fix It – Join a Stream Team in your neighborhood to look for nonpoint source pollution problems. MyRWA’s Find It and Fix It program is recruiting volunteers to do shoreline surveys of local waterbodies. The time commitment is low- approximately 6 hours, including a training meeting, the shoreline survey, and a follow-up meeting. Possible sites include: Aberjona River, Little River, Malden River Winterhill Brook, Sickle Brook, Munroe Brook, Mill Brook, Ell Pond, Spy Pond, Winter Pond, Belle Isle Marsh, the Upper Mystic Lake, Chelsea Creek, and Mill Creek. The surveys done by volunteers will provide the basis of the fix it portion of the project, which will help to clean our waterbodies.

Join A Committee – Join one of the Mystic River Watershed Association’s committees, including: Policy, Water Quality, Development, and Outreach.

Organize Events – The MWC organizes and plans fun and exciting events in the watershed, largely with volunteer labor. Work with the Mystic River Watershed Association’s Outreach Committee to organize the following events:

  • River Cleanups
  • Annual Mystic Herring Run Festival: The festival, which includes a 5K race, 5K walk, 3 and 11 mile paddle races, music, educational exhibits, a student poster contest, and children’s activities brings the community to the Mystic River in order to celebrate the river and the annual migration of herring and alewives.
  • Mystic River Watershed Association Winter Speaker Series: Help to organize the annual speaker series that educates the public about watershed topics.
  • Walks in watershed
  • Canoe and kayak events

Reach Out – Education and outreach both inside and outside the Tufts community are important objectives of the MWC.

  • Create an exhibit for the MyRWA about a specific issue or topic.
  • Help small organizations in the watershed to raise funds for specific projects.
  • Disseminate information about the watershed in public places.
  • Build a model watershed for display.
  • Assist with mailings.
  • Create GIS maps.
  • Edit Mystic River Watershed Association webpage.
  • Write articles or op-eds on watershed topics.
  • Assist with publicity for events.
  • Staff tables at local events and distribute educational materials.
  • Assist with creation of video about safe recreation in the Lower Mystic River.
  • Translate materials into other languages.
  • Educate students about the watershed at various summer programs.

If you are interested in volunteering, email or call 781-316-3438.