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Our River: The Anacostia

The Anacostia Riverkeeper is part of the Waterkeeper Alliance, which operates along rivers and their watersheds all around the world. There are 18 Waterkeeper organizations operating throughout the Chesapeake watershed alone.

The interim Anacostia riverkeeper is Trey Sherard, who has spent the past eight and a half years working with communities along our river. Sherard also serves as chair of the Anacostia Watershed Citizen Advisory Committee hosted by the Metropolitan Council of Governments. And he is a member of the Mayor’s Leadership Coordinating Council for the River. Sherard grew up along the Atlantic coast in Wilmington, North Carolina, and studied marine biology at Duke.

I spent some time recently learning what the riverkeeper is doing, and asked about progress on the Anacostia.

Engaging the Public
The riverkeeper’s main task, I learned, is to reach out and engage the public in the clean-up progress along the Anacostia, and to assess the work to be done and how to make it happen. Depending on the issue, the job is to engage communities, neighborhoods, families and/or individuals. This includes learning what is possible through such activities as fishing, kayaking, boat tours and citizen monitoring of water quality.

“We also demonstrate green infrastructure actions at churches and other large community gathering places that you can carry out at home on your property – such things as controlling stormwater runoff by installing rain barrels or rain gardens, Sherard says. “Also, there are some issues where the political clout of organized citizens is the best way to assure a positive response from government or the private sector.”

Measuring Progress
Sherard is quite pleased with progress to date and is looking forward to more. One of the big issues is the handling of combined sewer overflows or CSOs. Nearly all the older US cities, for the last century or more, have used stormwater runoff to flush out the sanitary sewer effluents from houses and businesses. But the engineers who designed and installed these systems failed to envision the increased stormwater flow from development and paving over the years.

Since it would be a disaster to allow the combined sewers to back up into basements or overflow into the streets, they were designed to discharge directly into rivers and streams during a storm. Soon there was a call for clean-up, and since separating the sewer lines was prohibitive, in many cities the decision was made to build tunnels to store the combined sewage until it could be handled by the treatment plants.

DC has been leading this effort nationally, and the system designed for the Anacostia, which is well underway, is the best in the region. There has already been a 90% reduction in combined sewer overflows in the Anacostia, and when the tunnel system is complete in 2023 that will go up to 98%.

Sherard is also pleased with the new trash collection boats run by DC Water, which appear to be doing a good job of gathering up much of the trash that has entered the system through direct runoff, sewers or other sources.

Communicating and Monitoring
As Sherard sees it, “The key now is to establish a credible information system to designate what is safe to do where – swimming, fishing or whatever. The combined sewers are not the only sources of pollutants, so more needs to be done. And there must more efforts supported to engage the public in helping monitor water quality and cleanup efforts themselves to know what is safe, when and where.”

Sherard also believes that control and reduction of toxic pollution has been helped by DC’s recent legal settlement with Monsanto related to PCBs, a particularly nasty family of toxic chemicals found throughout much of Our River and known to cause cancer and life-long learning disabilities in children born to mothers exposed to them. PCBs were produced by Monsanto and used in paints, sealants, caulking and electric appliances until they were banned in 1979. They have ended up in air, water, soil and fish and do not break down. The company has agreed to pay $52 million to help pay for the clean-up.

In another important action, the Department of Energy & Environment (DOEE) has  delivered the interim record of decision (ROD) to define how they will clean up contaminated sediments in the River. “The ROD is focused on a number of sites where the most serious pollution is evident,” says Sherard, “but the clean-up of these early action areas will be just the first big steps toward the successful cleanup of over a century of toxics entering the River.” The interim ROD and other related reports are available at www.anacostiasedimentproject.com.

More to Be Done
All this is not to say that everything is fine. As optimistic as Sherard is about the progress, he has a list of things that still bear watching. “First, we need to develop the means to tell the public quickly and accurately about safe and unsafe areas and conditions – increasing investment in DOEE’s volunteer water quality monitors and adding real-time spill advisories by DC Water for overflows and breaks in sewer lines.”

“Second,” he notes, “we need to make sure that progress continues on toxic clean-ups beyond just the early action areas in the Interim ROD, in particular Kenilworth Park (formerly landfill), the cove below the site of the old Pepco powerplant above Benning Road, and Lower Beaverdam Creek in Maryland, which empties lots of toxics into the river at the DC line.”

“Third,” he continues, “there are numerous toxic hotspots just below the threshold for early action under the interim ROD. They should not be forgotten while the bigger problem areas are being treated.”

“Fourth,” he adds, “we need to know how setting the channel depths on the river for the toxics cleanups will impact the river’s capacity to handle flash floods and large water volumes from storms now and in the future. Once the channel depths are set and capped to control the toxics in the sediments, it will be difficult and expensive to deepen them, if allowed at all.”

“Finally, plastics are a pervasive pollutant difficult to capture and remove, so significant effort needs to go into preventing their widespread distribution. Single-use plastic bottles, for example, comprise up to 60% of the floating trash in our river. Existing laws on plastic bags and foam need to be better enforced.”

These are the tough problems. If you want to help in finding solutions and keeping the pressure on to make progress, feel free to check in with Sherard and the Anacostia Riverkeeper offices at www.anacostiariverkeeper.org or by e-mailing trey@anacostiariverkeeper.org. You will find them a great bunch of folks to work with on practical solutions.

Bill Matuszeski is a member of the Mayor’s Leadership Council for a Cleaner Anacostia River and the retired director of the Chesapeake Bay Program. He serves on the board of Friends of the National Arboretum and on citizen advisory committees for the Chesapeake and the Anacostia.

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