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OUR RIVER: The Anacostia

It has been a long struggle – over 25 years of effort – but the Anacostia River has finally received a passing grade.  Last month, after ten years of issuing F’s, the Anacostia Watershed Society (AWS) released its annual Report Card and the overall grade was a D.  While this may not appear to be a level of improvement worth celebrating, the Society is a tough grader and it took a lot of effort and measurable improvement for them to settle on a D.  But that is only part of the story.

The passing grade reflects a substantial change in the water quality of the river; in fact the overall mark went from 49 to 63 in just one year, a 29 percent improvement. Furthermore, the data used are from 2017 and do not reflect the major benefits that have already come from this May’s start-up of the DC Water tunnel system to capture, store underground and ultimately treat what used to be regular overflows into the river of the combined storm and sanitary sewers.  DC Water estimates that the new system has already diverted hundreds of thousands of gallons of sewage that would have otherwise entered the Anacostia.

As AWS President Jim Foster said, “Today’s announcement is a victory for 25 years of citizen activism and government leadership.”  Tommy Wells, Director of the DC Department of Energy and the Environment, added, “The Anacostia is steadily being restored to a healthy state, thanks in part to ongoing cooperative efforts with our partners in Prince George’s and Montgomery Counties.”

A lot of celebration for a D grade.  But the D is one way to make clear to the public that the job is not done – far from it if you look at the various parts of the AWS analysis.  The Report Card is made up of eight separate measures, six water quality indicators and two remediation (or clean-up) indicators.  Of the six water quality indicator grades, three are still F’s; these are for dissolved oxygen, water clarity and stormwater runoff volume.  What is interesting about these is that they will all be given a big boost up the scale by the DC Water Tunnel project, which keeps the polluted, low oxygen and muddy combined sanitary and storm sewers out of the river and stores it in the tunnels until the Blue Plains Treatment Plant has available capacity to treat it and release it into the Potomac.  The same is true for the fecal coliform indicator, which got a D; this is a direct measure of raw sewage so should improve rapidly with the tunnel in operation. The remaining two water quality grades are a B- for chlorophyll aand an A+ for submerged aquatic vegetation, which has come roaring back.

The other two indicators both received F’s for progress to date.  These are toxic remediation and trash reduction.  The toxics issue is heavily tied to old industrial sites and contaminated sediment areas in and alongside the nearby River.  These are all part of a clean-up plan under development by the City, the National Park Service (which owns the bottom) and the facility owners; the Plan is to be ready to implement by the end of 2019.  The trash issue is more complicated; much is washed in upstream by storm sewers into which it floats.  The ultimate solution is to educate the public and change littering habits.

The bottom line is that nearly all the indicators are poised for major improvements in the near future, with the water quality measures seeing the most immediate and rapid change for the better.

Using the River on the Upswing
Meanwhile, more and more people are using the River.  Hundreds of young people from schools and colleges throughout the area are on the river from Benning Road to Bladensburg nearly every weekday afternoon, learning and practicing their competitive water sports in everything from kayaks to 12-seat sculls.  Rentals and put-ins are appearing up and down the River, and programs are expanding. Riverkeeper has announced free Friday night catch-and-release fishing for kids every Friday this summer from 5 to 8 p.m. at Yards Park.  The opportunities for all to enjoy the river keep expanding as the water quality gets better.

New species are being returned to the river.  Last month the AWS worked with the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the University of Maryland to deploy young Eastern Lampmussels in small floating baskets and silos at different locations along the River this summer to track their survival. This is the first effort to restore freshwater mussels to the Anacostia.

A fully fishable and swimmable river by 2025, just seven years off, at last seems a reasonable and achievable goal.  But it will take a lot of work., a lot of volunteer hours, a lot of public funds and a lot of political pressure.  All these need constant vigilance, dedication and a willingness to engage and energize the public.  That’s us.

By 2025, we need to have completed the full set of tunnel projects and related DC Water improvements to keep the sewage out of the Anacostia.  We need to make sure the plan to deal with the contaminated sediments is being carried out expeditiously.  We need to continue the work upstream, especially with storm sewer renovation – storm sewers have a nasty way of accumulating illegal sanitary sewer tie-ins, we are discovering.  We need to assure safe removal and/or containment of any toxics in and near the River.

By 2025, we need to have an extensive system of permanently protected streamside and riverside parks and natural areas throughout the watershed, with an 11thStreet Bridge Project in place and careful development that protects public access and use of the river.  As it becomes cleaner, the development value of adjacent areas will skyrocket and constant vigilance will be needed to keep it in check.

By 2025, we will have hikers and bikers and fishers and boaters and swimmers and picnickers and we will need to make them all feel welcome and fulfilled.

By 2025, we will have birds and beavers and shad and stripers and native plants and habitat for all.

And by 2025, we will have natural resiliency so that storms will refresh and replenish the lands and waters and not erode and flood them with silt and debris.

And it looks now that all this is going to happen — if we keep watch, keep the pressure on and, above all, reinforce the depth of our support by getting out there and learning to enjoy the lands and waters of OUR watershed.

Bill Matuszeski writes monthly about the Anacostia River.  He is the retired Director of the Chesapeake Bay Program,  a DC member the Citizens Advisory Committee on the Anacostia River and a member of the Mayor’s Leadership Council for a Cleaner Anacostia River.  He is also Board Vice-Chair of the Friends of the National Arboretum.

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