A New Citizen Leader Along Our River

Chris Williams Arrives to Lead the Anacostia Watershed Society Photo Credit: Anacostia Watershed Society

The Anacostia Watershed Society (AWS) is an important player in the effort to clean up Our River.  It is the oldest and largest of the citizen-based organizations dedicated to the restoration of the entire River and its watershed and contributing streams. And it now has a new leader who brings an interesting background to the effort.

Chris Williams is the recently-named AWS President and Chief Executive Officer, and has settled into their offices in an historic building near the River in Bladensburg.

He has lived in the DC region for over twenty-five years and in the Anacostia watershed (with one brief interruption) for the last fifteen. He raised his kids in the upper watershed, and the family still enjoys biking along and paddling the River. He comes to AWS from American Rivers, where he was Senior Vice President for Conservation; before that he was Director of the Freshwater Program at the World Wildlife Fund where he guided and supported watershed conservation efforts across the US, Latin America, Africa, and Asia.

Chris grew up around rivers in dry eastern Washington state, where the Columbia, Snake, and the Yakima Rivers meet.  There was a range of user conflicts, with farmers needing water for crops, salmon fishermen wanting uninterrupted flow and power companies wanting to build dams. Not the same issues that we have here but just as tough to deal with.  He went on to college at the University of Washington in Seattle, and got his masters and law degrees from the Vermont Law School, which is known for its emphasis on environmental restoration and protection.

He is now eager to apply his learning to his home watershed in an urban setting.

Chris sees this as a particularly exciting time for the Anacostia

Releasing Mussels into the Anacostia
Photo Credit: Chesapeake Bay Program

recovery. The goals being pushed by AWS and its partners are ambitious – a fishable and swimmable River by 2025 – and giant steps are being taken right now to achieve them.   A massive public works project in the District to prevent sewage from pouring into the River during heavy rains is coming on line and already showing great progress at reducing pollution.

A major initiative to clean up toxic sediment in the bed of the Anacostia River is getting under way, and work to restore tributary streams in Maryland is rapidly expanding. Wetlands and wildlife restoration is ongoing in the upper river, and the DC-funded Kingman Island and Kingman Lake effort seeks to return an overrun urban island and wetland to a natural state with all-native plantings.

The priorities for the Anacostia are many and varied – stream clean-up and restoration, wildlife balance and fish recovery, trails and boating, development controls near the waters of River and streams, environmental education, and equitable restoration to right historic wrongs and to assure the future benefits all.  These are all challenging efforts and they each affect many of the others, so there need to be clear and fair plans.  The Anacostia Watershed Society is a key player in making sure this happens.

As the ASW leader, Chris Williams has his work and that of his organization cut out for him.  The landscape of engaged players is complicated: many local governments; the State of Maryland and the DC Government; neighborhood groups, Federal agencies including the National Park Service, environmental groups from national offices down to small watersheds, education institutions of all types – the list goes on and on.

Finding those places and those activities where the Anacostia Watershed Society can be most effective in moving the right things forward and holding the wrong things back will be a challenge for the new leadership and hopefully lead to new partnerships and new ideas that benefit the efforts of all.

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.