Tommy Wells has been Director of the DC Department of Energy and Environment for eight years, and in that role has given special attention to the recovery of the Anacostia River. In part that is because he was a City Council representative for the eight preceding years for Ward 6 which runs along the river, but also it is because he has loved to canoe and bike along the Anacostia for even longer. And prior to his service on City Council, he served on the DC Board of Education and as an ANC Commissioner, and held a number of jobs in child welfare. It adds up to more that thirty years in public service here in DC.
All this helps us to understand why he has now been tapped by the Mayor to become Director of a new Office of Policy and Legislative Affairs (OPLA) within her front office. His experience and knowledge of such a range of programs and his service on the City Council makes him uniquely suited to this leadership position.
But we all need to work on ways to keep him involved in the ongoing effort to continue progress on the clean-up of Our River. For example, he could continue as Chair of the Board of DC Water to keep an eye out for any legislative needs for continuing to gain or create support for improving drinking water and water quality in rivers and streams passing through the District. And any issues requiring coordination of budgets or other aspects of the River’s recovery between City Council and the Mayor’s office would be a natural for Well’s involvement.
Whoever becomes the new Director of the DC Office of Energy and Environment will have a full plate, and so to figure out how to take advantage of Well’s experience and new position so they can work together effectively. In particular, Well’s would be useful to identify who are the important folks upstream, how to assure adequate funding in DC and elsewhere, and how to avoid lawsuits by keeping everyone working together.
One important issue is how to deal with the ever-closer goal of a fishable and swimmable river by 2025. At this point, the most seriously polluted stream entering the Anacostia may well be Hickey Run, which is entirely within DC. A range of actions could be used to mitigate this pollution from digging up illegal sewage tie-ins to the allegedly separate storm sewers, to redesigning the route and lowering the speed of the existing passage through the Arboretum to create an above-ground set of waterways to absorb the content of the flow emerging from under New York Avenue.
But Wells has left a crew with a lot of plans and ideas for how to make it all happen. The staff is increasingly willing to get out and meet folks in the communities around the river. An important part of that effort is to engage the youth in the neighborhoods, including part-time work for the older youth in the offices of the agency.
Another interesting project is on Kingman Island, which DOEE recently took ownership of from the National Park Service. The nearby communities have been engaged in an effort to remove all non-native plants and replace them with natives. This has never been done at this level of acreage inside a large metropolitan area, and the results will be of great interest to other places.
Fortunately the Anacostia is not a river with people living nearby just sit around and wait to see what happens. More and more of the communities along it are getting engaged and helping to plan the future. We will all learn together as the next few years unfold toward our 2025 deadline for “full recovery.”
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.