Applying the Lessons of the Chesapeake Clean-Up to the Anacostia – and Vice Versa!

Our River: The Anacostia

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Chesepeake Bay Photo Andrew Lightman

In looking around for lessons from elsewhere to apply to clean up the Anacostia, we need turn only to the nearby Chesapeake, whose watershed we are really a part of.

The restoration efforts there have been underway for decades, and much has been learned about how to go about it. But what many may not realize is that we have learned a lot of lessons right here on Our River that might be well-applied to the Chesapeake. Trading experiences and lessons learned is one way we can all benefit, so let’s take a look at four possible experiences to pass each way, starting with Chesapeake lessons for us, then sending on four of our own.

Lesson Number 1 from the Chesapeake to the Anacostia: Reporting Progress in an Understandable Manner
Both the multi-agency Bay Program and the citizen-based Chesapeake Bay Foundation report progress to the public on a regular basis. The foundation gives the effort a grade each year, with most recent years getting a passing C or D. The program provides credible progress measures in a number of areas the public can readily understand – such as fish, grass beds, upstream water quality, source reductions. Progress reports show how the elements fit together and where more progress is needed, especially from agriculture.

While the Anacostia clean-up tries to report progress, it is not provided to the public on such a regular basis, and the various measures are not integrated into an overall sense of progress and what areas need to do more to keep up.

Lesson Number 2 from the Chesapeake to the Anacostia: Giving a Sense That Everyone and Everything Can Benefit from the Restoration
There is an overall sense that a well-designed and executed restoration of the bay and its watershed of creeks and rivers and nearby lands can accomplish benefits for all aspects of nature and humanity. The related message is that we all need to do our part, and that doing so provides benefits not just to ourselves, but to nature and to human communities.

In the Anacostia an additional effort needs attention, namely, assuring that all the nearby neighborhoods and communities are made aware of what is happening to restore the river, and providing knowledge to the general public of the wide range of opportunities for recreation and other enjoyment.

Lesson Number 3 from the Chesapeake to the Anacostia: Measuring Progress against Goals That are Readily Understood by the Public
The Bay Program, through such widespread information sources as the monthly Bay Journal and regular press releases, is able to keep folks informed about where efforts have resulted in progress and where more investment of time and money is needed. This is helped by adopting clear and measurable goals and making evident how actions taken affect their attainment and their relationships to other goals. This is not an easy undertaking, and the Anacostia effort should try to learn how the Bay Program has accomplished this.

While much is measured in the Anacostia, the way the different actions taken relate to each other and to progress toward goals could use refinement through a regular reporting system that the public can anticipate and react to.

Lesson Number 4 from the Chesapeake to the Anacostia: Engaging Leaders on a Regular Basis and Reinforcing Their Commitments
The Bay Program holds an annual public meeting with a private session among the governors of the watershed states, the mayor of DC, the administrator of the Federal Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agency heads to review progress and renew commitments. Meetings are critical for holding the attention and support of the top political leaders in the agencies and jurisdictions and provide a regular opportunity for recommitment to the goals of bay restoration.

Although they faithfully attend these Chesapeake annual meetings, the governor of Maryland and the mayor of DC have no similar event with respect to the Anacostia, and they should.

Lesson Number 1 from the Anacostia to the Chesapeake: Making Sure That Upstream and Downstream Communities Learn How to Work Together
The Anacostia recovery has benefited from excellent communication and joint support from communities throughout the watershed. Although the interests of upstream, non-tidal, freshwater communities differ from those of downstream, tidal and saline water communities, they have much in common and have supported efforts that benefit others more.

Admittedly, these groups are physically a lot closer in the Anacostia than the farmers and fishermen of the Chesapeake. But lessons to be learned about meeting and working together and sharing successes and failures could help the Chesapeake.

Lesson Number 2 from the Anacostia to the Chesapeake: Leading in the Development and Use of New Technologies to Increase Public Support
People take pride in their public agencies’ leadership and use of the latest means to help clean up the waters. The Anacostia has led, at least the region and maybe the nation, in a number of areas, including the highest achievable level of nutrient reduction by eliminating 98% of combined sewer overflows, and the very successful daylighting of storm sewers such as Springhouse Run through the National Arboretum – recreating streams, fish and wildlife where there was before just a pipe.

Such successes could be adopted by other areas of the Chesapeake watershed, bringing the benefits of support from the public for such impressive changes.

Lesson Number 3 from the Anacostia to the Chesapeake: Providing Recreation and Access to the Water for All Builds Political Support
Public ownership of much of the Anacostia shoreline has made it relatively easy to build access points to the water, trails along the tidal and non-tidal waters and other water-related public facilities. With good publicity, the broad range of potential users is made aware of what is available for their use and enjoyment. This is a problem area for the Chesapeake, where the absence of access to large tidal and non-tidal areas has given the public a sense that access is limited to locals and wealthy landowners of the waterside.

In addition to benefits for upstream users, innovative access programs such as hiking and biking trails, camping areas, extended waterside recreation areas and other investments can make all areas attractive and gain broad-based public support.

Lesson Number 4 from the Anacostia to the Chesapeake: Learning, from What the Federal Agencies Are Doing along the Anacostia, What More They Can Do along the Bay and Its Rivers
Because the Anacostia runs through DC, federal agencies have come forth with help in a number of areas. The National Park Service owns the tidal river-bottom and much of the shoreline; the local and federal departments of transportation have helped on building and maintaining the trails and the Navy has carried out clean-ups and provided extensive access along the shoreline. While federal lands and waters are more limited in the Chesapeake watershed, there may be opportunities to engage them in the clean-up and the provision of improved access.

While local federal officials are prone to claim a lack of funds or authority, the Anacostia experience offers examples worth pursuing and many contacts to draw upon from the local agencies and environmental groups.

We are all in this together, and we need to learn lessons from each other.

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 also serves on the board of Friends of the National Arboretum and on citizen advisory committees for the Chesapeake and the Anacostia River.