AAAS Fellows on an open skiff, motoring upstream along a verdant Anacostia River.

The Anacostia: A river on the mend

Pamela Collins, Elizabeth Zeitler
Nov 30, 2016

 The Anacostia River needs some love. For most of the 20th century, it served as DC’s sewer (or worse...), and 1960s “urban renewal” policies transformed it into a real physical barrier between two very different communities. This river does not have a reputation as a space to enjoy greenery, wildlife, and recreation. Rather, it’s been a place you don’t go.

But things are changing. On October 28, 2016, a dozen STPF fellows got to experience the Anacostia with Jim Foster, president of the Anacostia Watershed Society (AWS). On a two hour tour in an open skiff from Navy Yard to Bladensburg and back, we got up close and personal with this much-maligned river, while Jim told us about AWS’s efforts to reconnect communities to their river and make it fishable and swimmable by 2025. Starting at Diamond Teague Waterfront Park, we heard about the riparian habitat restoration work of the Earth Conservation Corps and got a quick history of the Old Capitol Pumphouse. Then we trooped down the gangway to the docks and got on the water.

Not far upstream, the river’s banks became green and forested. We saw great blue herons. And kingfishers. And cormorants and snapping turtles and mallards. A catfish jumped. Canada geese were conspicuously absent - most of them were sent to DC Central Kitchen so that newly-planted wetland vegetation could re-establish. The ospreys and great egrets had already gone south for the winter, but a bald eagle watched us from a tree. Both sides of the river sported newly-installed and well-maintained bike trails and canoe docks, and riverside events and parks (National Arboretum, Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens) are bringing people back to the water’s edge. Things did not look bad at all.

On the surface. The sediment, sadly, is another story. For over a century, the shores of the Anacostia harbored power plants, heavy industry, and landfills. PCBs and other unsavory substances are so abundant in the river bottom that to dredge and treat it all would be prohibitively expensive. Jim estimated that 50% of the catfish in the river have tumors. People catch and eat these fish, despite advisories to the contrary. Temporary barriers installed to help wetlands re-establish remain standing due to lack of funds for removal, while CCC-era walls prevent reconnection of the river to its floodplain. Invasive Phragmites australis frustrates native revegetation efforts, and trash is a perennial problem.

But things are moving in the right direction, thanks in large part to AWS’s decades of passion, commitment, and hard work. Making the river fishable and swimmable will require developing strategies to truly resolve the problems of stormwater runoff/overflow, trash, and persistent organic/metallic pollutants. And bringing people back to their river must involve inclusive advocacy and development initiatives that empower diverse communities to lead. There’s still a great deal of work that needs doing. As Jim pointed out, his generation is working its way towards retirement.

They’ve set the stage for recovery - it’s we who get to write the next act.

Pamela Collins

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This blog does not necessarily reflect the views of AAAS, its Council, Board of Directors, officers, or members. AAAS is not responsible for the accuracy of this material. AAAS has made this material available as a public service, but this does not constitute endorsement by the association.

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