COCHITUATE STATE PARK
by A. Richard Miller

50194 visits since 970926; last updated 101209.

(Click here to go to Mass. DCR's official Cochituate State Park web page.)

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A. Richard (Dick) Miller was a founder of the Lake Cochituate Watershed Association in 1968, and he served as its full-time Executive Director from shortly after until 1977. Dick was a founding member of the Cochituate State Park Advisory Committee in 1988, has served as its Vice Chairman, and continues as a member and its historian. Through these functions and his other interests, Dick has amassed much information on the lake and its history, and a vision for the future.

Cochituate State Park is one of several local state parks created from ex-reservoirs for the City of Boston and later for the Metropolitan District Commission (whose Water Division later became the MWRA). The shoreline which was acquired for reservoir protection now serves as the perimeter strip of Cochituate State Park. It continues to protect water quality while also retaining a natural look and habitat around this chain of highly-urbanized ponds.

The surface area of Lake Cochituate is 625 acres in size, divided into three main ponds and two connector ponds. The Lake Cochituate Watershed -- which in turn is part of the Sudbury River Watershed, the larger Concord River Watershed or  SuAsCo Watershed (a strange renaming alluding to its Sudbury, Assabet and Concord Rivers), and the much larger Merrimack River Watershed in Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts -- is 17 square miles in five Middlesex-County, Massachusetts towns. These towns are Ashland, Framingham, Natick, Sherborn and Wayland.



Calendar of Events for Lake Cochituate, the Cochituate Rail Trail and related events.

Public Comment Period  (to Monday, July 16, 2012*)
*- CSPAC has voted to request a 30-day extension to mid-August.

Draft SSC Master Plan Environmental Assessment


On June 11th, 2012 the CSPAC learned of a 30-day public comment period on a previously-unknown study by US Soldier Systems Center ("NLabs"), regarding its plans to expand its activities and buildings on Lake Cochituate. Although the study has been underway since 2009 and has consulted with several Natick town boards, neither CSPAC, Cochituate State Park or its DCR Regional Supervisor had been contacted. The study envisions expansions including the construction of military housing along the shoreline, minimizes the importance of this major recreational lake (and apparently of its stewardship groups), and claims "no environmental impact". NLabs declined to attend the Lake Cochituate Annual Meeting on June 12th - at which the CSPAC voted to draft its own comment letter at its next meeting, and to request a 30-day extension of the comment period to enable that action.

You can view on-line copies of the 90-page draft master plan and the slides from an April 2012 presentation about it. The CSPAC's special committee for its reply includes Dick Miller, Lin Bradford, and Mike Lowery; your inputs are welcome.


Natick Drinks from Lake Cochituate

Unlike Framingham, Natick drinks its groundwater. The major drinking-water wells lie along Route 9, between the South and Middle Ponds of Lake Cochituate. So, does Natick drink Lake Cochituate water? That's been debated for years, but now we know: The answer is more yes than no. Depending on Natick's pumping rates, 50% to 70% of that water comes from the lake.

U.S. Army Natick Laboratories (NLabs, or SSCOM) sits on a peninsula jutting south into Lake Cochituate's South Pond. NLabs is the site of past hazardous waste spills, including carcinogens PCE and TCE, and has been spending millions of dollars (our millions, of course) to clean up its dirty groundwater before it becomes Natick's drinking water.

A mile north of NLabs on Route 9, the Springvale Wells are the largest single supply for Natick's water.  And you guessed it; those toxic plumes are heading north. So NLabs is working hard on early pump-out plans and on a thorough long-term clean-up.

In June 2001, one of the NLabs consulting firms presented another year's data on its groundwater modeling work, a computer-based approach to simulating the flows of these toxic plumes in the groundwater under various pump-out plans. This is designed to optimized the clean-up strategy, but it can deliver other interesting data as well. Tuning to match measured data has made the predictability of the groundwater model quite good. And Natick now knows that a lot of its drinking water comes from Lake Cochituate:

"Mr. Young presented Table 6-3: Summary of sensitivity analysis input and results of percent contribution of lake water to the total pumping at the Springvale Well Field. He said that they ran eight simulations covering 99.9 percent of values observed at the lake. He said that varying lake levels didn't seem to make much of a difference: a 2-foot lake level difference resulted in only a 2 to 3 percent difference in lake water contribution to the Springvale wells. He said that they found that the higher the pumping rate, the higher the contribution from the lake. He said the range was 50 to 70 percent from the lake."

50-70% of Springvale's water comes from Lake Cochituate. What difference does it make? Lake Cochituate no longer is a reservoir in the strict sense. It hasn't been since 1931. But it now may qualify for additional clean-up attention under the Massachusetts program for maintaining reservoirs. And it may be just in time.


Clean Water and Swimming: A Win in the State Park

In 1968, there was no swimming beach at the day-use area. Only a small and shallow pond for kids, which on a good day quickly grew muddy, tepid and uninviting. Some park staffers still remember it -- unfondly -- as the "Mud Hole" or, less politely, the "Polio Pit". My first meeting with the Park Supervisor was at the boat ramp, on the end of a wharf. He chatted pleasantly, but I couldn't help noticing the oil slicks left by leaky outboard motors, and I worried that the cigarette butts he flicked into the lake would ignite. Users weren't swimming in the lake, so neither they nor the management cared enough to make improvements.

One of the first projects of the then-new Lake Cochituate Watershed Association solved all those problems in a single move. We pushed for a real state park swimming beach at the day-use area - at the north end of Middle Pond. The beach was installed quickly and has been one of the park's most popular features ever since. And, as predicted, it provides a continuing impetus for clean water.

Clean Water and Swimming: Not As Easy in Natick (Pegan Cove Park)

Our second, similar project took much more work to achieve. We wanted Natick to swim in its downtown end of the lake's South Pond, by acquiring a critical 22-acre parcel to be preserved for water clean-up and park purposes. It was owned by U.S. Army Natick Laboratories, which took its 100 acres from Cochituate State Park for one dollar in 1952. NLabs fought to keep this previously-abandoned section for three houses for its officers. But in 1974 it became Pegan Cove Park, and within ten years some initial clean-up experiments were installed. Despite this great success story, the experiments were mismanaged and failed to yield useful data. They did leave a poorly-designed and soon-broken dam wall, and a drained pond near the mouth of Pegan Brook. Worse, instead of featuring this wonderful park, Natick kept it a secret for 25 years. Lovely trails became clogged with poison ivy. Purposely bad signage, general neglect, fences with private gates for neighbors and locked gates for the public became the rule.

Natick's 25-year lease of Pegan Cove Park from Cochituate State Park (again its rightful owner) came up for renewal in 1999. The Mass. Dept. of Environmental Management demanded and got a better agreement from a more cooperative Natick. Watch for better trails and signs and more, in 2001.

Double the Beach and Picnic Area

Doubling, or maybe tripling! There's no denying the demand by park users on a nice summer day. But where to put them, safely and enjoyably? That's one of the goals of GOALS, a Mass. Dept. of Environmental Management planning process which currently is studying Cochituate State Park. Perhaps the GOALS plan will be completed late in 1998. Meanwhile, opportunities will disappear.  Here's my take on the plans which have been hatching in my head and many others -- for decades.

Expansion of the swimming beach at Cochituate State Park requires extending it to the north and east; at its south, it is blocked by a steep hill. With money for construction and for more staff, it could be extended up to the boat launching ramp. It could be extended beyond if the boat ramp, widest in all Massachusetts state parks, were to be cut back or moved eastward. All these steps are feasible, and the subject of future planning.

A bigger beach area brings more people who want picnic space as well. The current area can be expanded greatly if the parking can be moved away from the lake. The 11-acre triangle across Route 30 is an alternative place to park cars. Visitors could cross this busy, noisy street with a traffic light, or via a pedestrian tunnel under Route 30 where it rises to cross over the adjacent and even noisier Massachusetts Turnpike.

A Bigger, Better, Quieter Park - Move Route 30!

A far better long-range plan for the park would be to relocate Route 30 alongside the Turnpike --  west along the north side of that triangle, along the north side of the TJX parking lots, and up over Speen Street Extension to follow the Turnpike exit ramp back to Route 30 west of the traffic-jammed Speen Street/Route 30 intersection. This would work best if accompanied by a re-angling of the Route-30 bridge over the Mass. Pike, as well. Not cheap, but consider its benefits:
1. The narrow, noisy and potentially-dangerous boat ramp area of the park would be expanded into a lovely and far quieter area.
2. The new parking lot now could connect to the park without need for a street crossing (and the old parking lot would provide the additional picnic area.
3. The Speen Street/Route 30 intersection, currently rated "FF" for traffic jams and about to be improved only to "D", would be bypassed by most of the east-west traffic. While helping the park, it also reduces area traffic problems and air pollution.

Is such a road realignment feasible? Yes. A few miles to the north, Route 126 in Concord is about to get just such a realignment in order to attach Walden Pond State Park to its parking lot. The Mass. Pike exit ramp is a part of our solution; the Mass. Pike is slated to have all tolls phased out and to be shifted back to State Highway status by the year 2007, so a realigned Route 30 could join that ramp. But the Framingham and Natick Planning Boards don't seem to believe in this date -- and by ignoring it, may encourage the State to reconsider. Natick, Framingham and the MDEM all have failed to trade for a future right-of-way with TJX, although that company is swapping money and amenities for the right to overbuild -- far beyond its zoning limits -- next to Cochituate State Park.

Leave the Car Home

Both Massachusetts and the Federal government have new programs to entice riders out of their crowding and polluting automobiles. The proposed, 4.0-mile Cochituate Rail Trail would provide safe, lovely, and hill-less bicycle and pedestrian access to Cochituate State Park from the Natick Mall, many office buildings, the Sudbury River in Saxonville, and downtown Natick with its commuter rail station.

Acquire Available Land (TJX)

Appropriate land adjacent to Cochituate State Park should be acquired by the park whenever possible. Although land-acquisition money is tight, some such parcels come free. Consider the 11-acre MDC triangle (north of Route 30 and east of the TJX corporate headquarters on the Framingham-Natick town line) and the 33-acre Massachusetts National Guard Armory (just north of Route 135 on Speen Street in Natick). Both these significant parcels are about to become surplus land from State agencies, and the surplussing process gives first dibs to State agencies.

However, some local companies have been meddling with that sequence of events, encouraging State Legislators to work on their behalf. TJX, owner of the TJ Max stores, appears ready to buy the 11-acre MDC site -- which shouldn't be up for sale. But buy, borrow and return are being confused here in a rather creative and unfortunate manner. By buying this land and then leasing it to the state park, TJX can claim more acreage to justify an otherwise grossly-oversized (based on current zoning and, in the opinion of many, on good sense) 62% expansion. The TJX offer of money has excited some, but won't help the state park because that money ultimately disappears into future years' park-budget allocations from the Mass. Legislature. (Traditionally, when the park has more money, the Legislature allocates it that much less.)

The lure of money that can't help the park also works to harm its interests. After TJX uses the land to qualify for its overbuilding, it would "return" those 11 acres to the state park -- but not with clear title. TJX intends to continue holding the land, under some sort of a conservation restriction for use by the state park, instead. What problems will that lack of clear ownership bring? Will the state park be able to use these acres for future parking, once TJX has used their credit for its parking? Also, the Town of Natick, seeing value in such temporary sales and their market value, is rezoning and planning more such favors for other abutters to Cochituate State Park.

Shield Cochituate Dam from the Massachusetts Turnpike

One parcel of land appears to be coming to Cochituate State Park without money-making deals. In 1997 the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority declared the land to the north of MassPike Exit 13 to be surplus to its needs, and undertook with Framingham to study "how best to develop it." A plan with a large office building plus 150 units of "leasominiums" was proposed -- a dodge around Framingham's moratorium on additional new apartment buildings. All this, close by a narrow and noise-impacted, although relatively wild, section of CSP near the dams on North Lake. The CSPAC and neighbors succeeded in broadening that question to "whether" this land should be developed, and the conclusion was that it should not.

Now State Legislators and the MDEM are pursuing the transfer of this surplus MassPike property to CSP, where someday it can grow woods to provide much-needed visual and sound screening. However, negotiations have stalled for more than a year. MassPike, like a greedy corporation rather than a public-minded state agency, has been avoiding this transfer while holding out for something in exchange from Cochituate State Park. Late indications are that MassPike wants to place full-time commuter parking in the park, on the 11-acre parcel which TJX already manipulated from its originally-intended inter-agency transfer!

Restore the historic Cochituate Gate House (Cochituate Aqueduct's water faucet)

Cochituate Reservoir was Boston's first public drinking water reservoir, and in the second half of the 19th Century it was highly celebrated. Between Cochituate and Boston lay the great Cochituate Aqueduct. Between Cochituate's North Pond and the Aqueduct stood the Cochituate Gate House, which regulated the flow of water - a city-sized water faucet! A granite wall shielded its underwater inlet door and the silt beneath from wave action, and thus kept that drinking water clear.

These historic facilities still remain, but they are in shabby condition. They deserve repair, if only to celebrate the once-great Cochituate Reservoir. Once properly preserved, perhaps they also can serve in new ways.

Take an online tour of the Cochituate Gate House. backhome



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