“The Forgotten River,” is what the Anacostia River used to be referred to. Many people didn’t know the Anacostia River flows from Maryland into Washington D.C. before emptying into the Potomac River. The once clean and healthy river turned for the worse when sedimentation and heavy erosion started to seep in when the area started to urbanize. “As the Washington, D.C., area grew, urbanization claimed forest and wetland habitat, altered stream flows, and fed ever-increasing amounts of sewage and polluted runoff into the river,”attributed to an article by Jeff Turrentine. Major initiatives by different organizations have given hope that a change in the future is possible. The Anacostia River Watershed Society believes by 2025 the river will be fishable and swimmable. The different organizations have different individual goals, but share the common goal, which is to clean up and fix all the problems the Anacostia River has. There is still work to be done, but this once forgotten river looks like it has a bright future ahead.
The initiative to clean the rivers all over the nation started when Congress passed the Clean Water Act of 1972. “Under the CWA, the Energy Protection Agency has implemented pollution control programs such as setting wastewater standards for industry. We have also set water quality standards for all contaminants in surface waters,” (EPA’s website). This means that not only are rivers and large rivers protected protected by the Clean Water Act, but also smaller creeks and tributaries that flow into other bigger bodies of water. This is important for he Anacostia River because the river has many tributaries that flow into the river. These tributaries are a contributing factor the river’s poor conditions. In order, the clean the Anacostia, all the tributaries that flow into the river have to be clean too.
John Coleman, the Public Information Officer of the Maryland Department of Planning said in an interview, “It started with the Clean Water Act and focusing on the biggest body of water in the area, the Chesapeake Bay. The movement to clean up the Bay has encouraged other rivers in the region to do the same. By cleaning up the water in D.C. we are improving the economic and value of the area.” Coleman said, “Cleaning up the water is also about the community buying into it. Organizations can only do so much, but its up to the people living in the area to be more eco friendly and take responsibility for the community they live in.”
A recent decision by the Supreme Court to not review a case challenging the legality of the Chesapeake Bay Clean Water Blueprints is great news for the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers, according to Doug Siglin, Executive Director of Anacostia Waterfront Trust. “This means that Congress doesn’t see the need to further investigate the Chesapeake Bay area because of the positive steps that are being taken by the different organization helping clean up the rivers,” said Siglin. It also means that the different organizations are following the Clean Water Act and not doing anything illegal. In the Anacostia’s case this is a huge momentum swing because of the shape the river was just a few years ago. This being said the Anacostia still has away to go in cleaning up the entity of the river. “In 2011, a report dubbed the Anacostia one of the most polluted waterways in the nation,” attributed to Valentine.
There are a number of organizations that are working to help clean up the Anacostia River. This is an info graph of the different organizations and their different goals in what they want to accomplish.
Quotes are from the mission/goal statements from each organization’s websites. (http://www.anacostiaws.org, https://www.nrdc.org, http://www.cleanwateraction.org, http://www.healthyanacostiariver.org/#about, https://www.anacostiawaterfront.org.)
Stopping the pollution that is entering the Anacostia is the main goal. There was a recent report done by the Department of Energy and Environment, which has pointed out the toxins that are still seeping into the Anacostia River. “The report unveiled earlier this month confirmed the existence of polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, and PCBs, chemicals that have been banned for decades can cause cancer. Pesticides, lead, and mercury were found, too,” attributed to an article by Fragoso. This report was done to help identify the locations of these pollutants and where help is needed. The findings are surprising however because so many companies have changed how they operate to be more eco friendly. “While the report says further sampling is needed to confirm sources, it points to contaminants in various locations including the Washington Navy Yard, the former Steurart Petroleum terminal and outfalls near the former Washington Gas Light Company’s coal gasification plant,” said Fragoso.
This report will help organizations like the Clean Water Action who has been working with the Anacostia for numerous years. The organization focuses on the water quality of the Anacostia and this report identifies the chemicals in the water. This information can help Clean Water Action focus in on how get rid of the specific chemicals in the water. “Restoration efforts with Clean Water Act goals have been ongoing in the Anacostia River for more than 20 years, due to red tape and the lack of adequate funding required to eliminate toxins such as, sediment remediation,” (Clean Water Action website). Brent Bolin the Chesapeake Region Director for Clean Water said in an interview, “We are going to be doing a lot of work to make sure that clean up moves forward. We are about the people and the environment and we will always work towards making the area a better place for the community.”
These locations will help the Anacostia River Watershed Society narrow their immediate initiatives. “Watershed is an area where water collects to flow into a river, lake, or another large body of water” (Watershed website). The Anacostia has 13 major tributaries creeks that affect what flows into the river. Jorge Montero, the Anacostia River Watershed Society’s Steward Program Director of Natural Resources Montero said in an interview, “We have to manage the storm water, manage the legacy toxic sites and fix the sewage systems. Right now the springtime is our busiest time because we have to focus on the regeneration of the ecosystems. We especially have to monitor our bigger gardens to make sure they are managing the storm water successfully.”
This is an audio clip from Montero as he describes how important it is to have a clean Anacostia River for the community.
An article published by the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) promotes their recent initiative to get involved with the Anacostia’s major problem of runoff storm water. “Its called low-impact development or sometimes green infrastructure, this solution involves measures that meld technology with simple common sense: strategically placed beds of native plants; rain barrels; vegetation-covered “green roofs”; porous parking lots, sidewalks, and courtyards; and other tools that help rainfall evaporate back into the atmosphere or soak into the ground instead of sluicing downhill and into the river,” attributed to Turrentine. This effective and affordable solution will be following the plans that other organizations are taking. This the first time the NRDC has made a recognizable effort towards the Anacostia River, according to the NRDC’s website. The NRDC is protoming their low-development program this upcoming year. Montero said, “Its great to see the NRDC contributing with what looks like a plan that could be very effective.”
A contributing factor that the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative looks to turn around is the poor community that surrounds the river. “The project involves spending $10 billion over 30 years to turn the river’s beleaguered shoreline into a vibrant and dynamic asset to the several communities—most of them poor or working-class—that flank it. Its vision for the Anacostia is one in which the many abandoned and derelict stretches of waterfront are transformed into parks, recreational facilities, bike and walking paths, and commercial centers that will create jobs,” according to Turrentine. The river has to be much cleaner before this can be done. “The D.C. government has issued warning not to eat the fish that are caught out of the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers, but still, a study commissioned by the Anacostia Watershed Society found that 17,00 people eat the fish they catch out of the river each year, despite signage warning them not to. Most of the fishers in the study were African American or Hispanic, and many were sharing the fish with hungry people who approached them, begging for fish,” attributed to Valentine. If these fish contain toxins that could be cancerous tumors, it could be a factor of cancer in humans.
United for a Healthy Anacostia River is an organization that was founded in 2014. This organization works specifically in managing and cleaning up the pollution in the legacy toxic locations. Robert Shwartz, the Communications Consultant, said in an interview, “We know that the sewage systems and managing storm water gets a lot of attention, so we are focused in cleaning up the toxic sites. We feel that this is the biggest problem because so much pollution has accumulated throughout the years. We understand that the pollution has died down, but there is still pollution seeping into the river.”
The Anacostia River was once one of the most polluted rivers in the nation. All of the organizations are working to help make sure the image of the Anacostia River changes. Bolin said, “It’s about taking pride in the area that you live in. Everyone should have the opportunity to use the rivers that is around them.” Each organization has a specific focus in helping the river. Whether its specifically cleaning the legacy toxic sites or managing the storm water runoff, everyone knows their role. There is a bright future for the once “Forgotten River,” that many people thought would never be possible. The goal to make the Anacostia swimmable and fishable by 2025 won’t be easy. All of the organizations are willing to do what is necessary to make sure this goal is met. “We take each season as a new opportunity to make sure what can be being done is being done,” said Montero. “There are a lot more eyes on the river today. People are starting to take responsibility and I feel we can only go up from here in making the Anacostia River healthy again.”
By: Joseph Iraola