This summer, as the heat index begins to rise, Americans turn to water-based festivities in an attempt to escape the scorching sun. For residents of the District of Columbia, the Anacostia River is beginning to be a favored destination for aquatic pastimes like fishing and kayaking. Once called the “Forgotten River,” the Anacostia is now experiencing a revival owing to developments around the Navy Yards area, the new Anacostia River Trail, and kayak rentals from Diamond Teague Park and Bladensburg Water Park.
The revival is possible because of important restoration efforts that have been on the rise through collaborations among DC government, nonprofit organizations, and universities. The efforts are supported with research done by various groups such as one at Gallaudet University, in Northeast, a mile and a half from the Anacostia River. Led in the past four and half years by Prof. Caroline Solomon, deaf and hard-of-hearing students have focused on how much nitrogen goes into the river from anthropogenic sources and how it influences the biodiversity of microbes such as viruses, bacteria, and algae.
Students from Gallaudet and other universities have been involved with this research during the academic year and as part of a summer internship program. Camac Kyre, an intern, changed his perspective when it came to the importance of taking care of rivers because of participating in this research project. “Working on the Anacostia River gave me a profound insight on how bad the pollution truly is,” said Kyre. “Growing up seeing pictures of many plastic bottles polluting rivers, beaches, etc. did have some effect on me prior to this internship, but seeing the reality with my own eyes, along with data in our hands, the impact personally is overwhelming, an eye-opener.”
Giovanna Vazquez, Prof. Solomon’s research assistant, saw an opportunity to give back to the community through the research. “Working on the Anacostia River gives me a firsthand experience of how land use and trash and sewage outfalls have an impact on the river. I was able to contribute to the research and give back to the community by being involved.”
The research would not be possible without the collaboration between Gallaudet and the Anacostia Riverkeeper, an advocacy organization with the goal of restoring the river. The Anacostia Riverkeeper provides a boat for the water-sampling trips. Students collect water samples and bring them to the laboratory at Gallaudet to be analyzed for nutrients, viruses, bacteria, and algae. Using equipment to measure dissolved oxygen, temperature, and salinity, students have observed that oxygen levels are consistent across the river but decline near combined-sewer outfalls in the lower Anacostia.
The data serve as indicators of how healthy the Anacostia is and how it is changing. Sewage and stormwater that directly enter the river bring excess amounts of nitrogen, and this has an impact on the presence of different types of algae. While the excess amounts of nitrogen lead to algal blooms that have many detrimental effects, it is important to investigate which form of nitrogen is available for which species of algae. For instance, near Bladensburg Water Park, one form of nitrogen, nitrate, is more available and supports a community of algae called diatoms. Farther downriver, past the CSX railroad bridge, other types of algae, the smaller chlorophytes and cyanobacteria, appear because they are more tolerant of another form of nitrogen, ammonium. These analyses can help inform restoration efforts.
Kiel Callahan, a summer intern for this research project in 2016, agreed with the importance of doing research. She explains, “The best part about the internship is that I was able to tackle an issue that is occurring in our present-day environment. It’s mandatory that we continue research like this, to better understand the present relationship that we humans have with what has been provided to us such as the Anacostia River.”
By sharing data with stakeholders such as the Department of Energy & Environment and the Anacostia Riverkeeper, Prof. Solomon sees hope for the Anacostia River. More people are appreciating the river, she notes, for canoeing, kayaking, boating, exploration, and watching the wildlife thrive.
Swimming and fishing in the Anacostia River are possible as the community comes together and strives to work toward improvement of the ecosystem. As Anna McCall, an intern from 2013, says, “The community can contribute to improving the quality of the river as well as help educate others.” Prof. Solomon and her students are contributing to this goal through their research and outreach efforts.
Contact Prof. Caroline Solomon at [email protected] with questions or to talk with former and current interns about this research project. The research is supported by grants from the DC Water Research and Resources Institute and Maryland Sea Grant.
Gabrielle Humlicek is a biology major at Gallaudet University and an intern under Prof. Caroline Solomon.