A “hidden” section of the South River, behind a commercial strip on Route 139 in Marshfield.

On December 1, 2011, thanks to major improvements in water quality, 313 acres of shellfish beds on the South River were opened for the first time in twenty years. Twenty years! This is definitely a cause for celebration . . . even for vegetarians like me, and for others with not a glimmer of interest in clams, whether steamed, chowdered, or fried. Barring a red tide, the beds will remain open until June.

I have to admit; I never thought I’d see the day . . .

I first began working with the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, (NSRWA) in 1990, while I was in college. During summers and school breaks, I would hang out in the Norwell office doing menial tasks – mostly data entry (on a Macintosh SE!) and stuffing envelopes. I enjoyed the work because the company was good and I was doing my small part to support the rivers that by then had become part of my sense of “home.”

Even though they embrace the town of Marshfield, where I grew up and presently reside, the North and South Rivers were largely unfamiliar to me until mid-adolescence. Kindergarten through second grade I went to South River Elementary, where a chain link fence divided the school playground from its namesake. To me, the river – overgrown and dark — was an intrigue, but due to its inaccessibility, it remained simply that. The giant willow tree that stood on its banks at the far end of the playground was a magnet for us second graders. We played under it every day.

My fascination with our locals rivers began when I was 15, thanks to a guy named Ted. Many readers have heard this story before: how on our first date, he led me on a protracted slog through marsh grass that was taller than me. We dragged a small inflatable boat over muddy creeks (some of which I not-so-gracefully fell into), and eventually arrived at the North River, down which we floated in said boat, dipping a paddle into the water ever so often to steer our course. I hated him that day – him and his treacherous path to the river. And before long, I loved him, and I loved that river too. We and our friends spent a lot of time there those next few years – swimming, rope-swinging, canoeing, and “floating,” Ted’s term for our trips in the inflatable boat.

Like most teenage romances, the fire soon burned out, but the love for the rivers that Ted imparted to me only grew stronger. After college I returned to Marshfield and found jobs working on the rivers’ behalf — first at the North River Commission, and then at the NSRWA. Part of my job was to oversee the annual River Watch Sampling program, for which I dashed around, at high tide, to ten sites, for eight weeks each summer, acquiring water samples, which I then rushed to the lab for testing. The goal: to ascertain whether the water was safe for swimming and shellfishing.

When this began, more than half of the test sites of the North River proved safe, except within three days of a rainstorm, when counts of fecal coliform spiked. The South River, on the other hand, was rarely clean. For years, because of those bacteria, the shellfish beds on both rivers had been closed.

To make a long story short, the NSRWA began an effort in the 1990s to restore water quality in the rivers. This involved finding the sources of pollution and – with the help of volunteers, citizens, town departments and government officials — abating them. By 1996 the North River shellfish beds were reopened: a triumph!

The South River took a lot more time. The NSRWA’s South River Initiative, launched in 1996, identified the problems and laid out plans to resolve them. It seemed impossible at the time, but 11 years later, thanks in large part to Marshfield’s five-year sewer extension project, a rigorous sampling program, and the dedicated work of Harbormaster Mike DiMeo . . . success!

This past fall my son, Abel, enrolled in kindergarten at South River Elementary. A chain link fence still marks the playground boundary. Aside from some brush-clearing and the construction-in-progress of the South River Park on the other side, it’s still the same old river — a little murky; definitely mysterious. But it’s not the same old river at all. Downstream, we can swim in it; we can harvest shellfish.

My first day volunteering with the NSRWA I noticed a quotation, posted on the office bulletin board. “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

It took 20 years to reopen the South River shellfish beds, one small step at a time. This indeed is how we change the world. You can bet I’ll be pointing out the South River to my son next time I’m at school with him. This is a story he – along with his classmates – needs to hear.

by Kezia Bacon-Bernstein, Correspondent
December 2011

Kezia Bacon-Bernstein’s articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168 or visit To browse 15 years of Nature (Human and Otherwise) columns, visit