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Talkin’ Trash About Our River

Like all urban rivers, our Anacostia has a long history of being lined and laced with trash. In addition to being ugly, trash suggests there are other kinds of pollution, it is dangerous to wildlife, and it can be fatal to fish who consume its micro-plastics. Much of the trash is part of the runoff from sidewalks and streets entering streams and sewers that empty stormwater into the River. A remarkable percentage is wrappers and plastic and bottles from fast food.

The trashing of Our River began early with soil erosion from tobacco fields up in the watershed, which produced large amounts of sediment that was carried into the River. As the city expanded and neighborhoods grew up along the River, more and more trash was washed in. In the upstream areas, the sources were either natural streams or storm sewers. In the older parts of the City, the problem was made worse by sewers that carried both stormwater and sewage.

These “combined sewers” were a 19th century engineering solution to the need to regularly flush out the sanitary sewers – just use the rainwater. The problem was that as the City became more paved and built up, the impermeable surfaces grew and the stormwater runoff increased. At that point, the only two solutions were to install overflows to the River or to let the combined sewage and stormwater back up into everyone’s basements. An easy choice, so all combined sewage and its trash and paper was dumped into the River whenever the rain was heavy.

Fortunately, most of this is now behind us, and we are among the few in America and in this metropolitan area who can say that! So what has been going on to reduce the trash? It starts with more frequent and effective street sweeping operations. The DC bag fee, which goes into a clean-up fund, and bans on styrofoam and related plastics in DC and Prince Georges and Montgomery counties have helped; plastic bag use in DC was reduced 72% in the first 5 years of the fee. Trash traps along streams have also been a factor; there are no less than eight of these along streams entering the Anacostia that remove thousands of pounds of trash a year. Regular trash clean-ups sponsored by various civic groups have engaged many to help along streams in their neighborhoods and have educated young people about the need to control trash. Once trash ends up in the River, DC Water has two recently upgraded skimmer boats to gather it up and dispose of it.

But undoubtedly the most important change has come from the opening last March of enormous storage tunnels to gather and hold the combined sewer discharges in underground tunnels. These reach clear to the Blue Plains Sewage Treatment Plant, where the combined sewage can be fed in over time for treatment and disposal into the Potomac. It is estimated that when in full operation, the new system to handle combined sewers will reduce overflows to the Anacostia from once a week to once a year!   Over 2.8 billion gallons of combined sewage and stormwater was diverted from being discharged to the River in just the first six months of operation. And the trash removed and properly disposed of by this new system from March to September is estimated at over 140 tons. As additional parts of the new combined sewer system are put into place, even more trash will be removed.

So now the attention must turn to the newer areas of the city and suburbs where the sanitary and storm sewers are separate. While the sanitary sewage can be sent to ever improving treatment plants, the storm sewers will continue to discharge into the streams and the River, so we need to keep introducing measures to reduce trash at the source and control or remove it from the stormwater. This means more programs to educate the public about littering; more volunteer efforts to clean up the trash along street and roads and public places as well as in our yards; and more ways to capture and treat the trash which enters the storm sewers and streams and ends up in the River.

One cool project funded by the City’s Community Stormwater Solutions grant program is the Litter Letter, a 40-foot set of trash receptacles in the form of letters spelling out “TrashFreeDC”. The grant was from the DC Department of Energy and the Environment to Riverkeeper, which employed local welding students in Anacostia. It is located in front of the Education Building in Anacostia Park and selfies and social media posts are encouraged.

A trash free Anacostia – how close are we? Photo: Bill Matuszeski

Meanwhile, we should start to see some major improvements in trash along the Anacostia, and many old-timers say it has never looked cleaner. But it is still an urban river and we need to remain alert. In fact, in recent months some have said that the level of trash has risen, and if true there may be some explanations. We have had heavy rains for many days in September and October, and that always brings in trash with the stormwater.

We also know that the Potomac was running at very high levels. Its much larger watershed pulls from mountain and rural areas in Virginia and West Virginia that were heavily hit and water levels were remarkably high in our area as a result of the increased flow. Such high water conditions on the Potomac can slow the ability of the Anacostia to drain into it and can back up its waters. Since we are also subject to tides moving up the Potomac, some of that Potomac water may have come up into the lower reaches of Our River and brought trash with it to spread along the shorelines. Remember, after all, the Potomac has yet to see a combined sewer control system in operation like ours. Right now, in addition to their storm sewers from the northern and western reaches and the suburbs, their sewers in the older parts of the City are discharging the combined storm and sanitary sewers with all their trash into Rock Creek and the Potomac.

So times are changing! And now after a rainstorm, the trash and sewage levels on the Anacostia are looking better than along the Potomac.   While they will catch up in a few years, we should celebrate our progress and urge them on to complete theirs so we can all enjoy rivers free of trash!


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.

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