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Creating and Cleaning a Clean River

There is a lot going on in the clean-up of the Anacostia River, so much that sometimes it gets very confusing.  Let’s take a look at who is doing or sponsoring what and where the potential conflicts may lie.

The Anacostia drains 176 square miles, but only 28 of those are in the District.  The rest are divided between Prince Georges and Montgomery Counties in Maryland.  The first European settlers found Indian villages along the lower portion and ocean-going ships could dock in what became Bladensburg.  But as soon as the settlers got the idea to grow tobacco for export the river began to fill with soil running off the land and port access up-river was history.

The Washington Navy Yard began building ships and creating weapons along the river in 1799 and other industries followed.  Washington Gas made products from coal and oil along the river between 1888 and 1948 and intermittently until the mid-60’s.   Kenilworth Park was a dredged material disposal location from the early 1900’s and a DC landfill for wastes and ash from 1942 until 1970.  Kingman Lake was an incinerator residue dump.  And the shoreline area north of Benning Road had a Pepco power station that ran from 1906 to 2012, with a waste transfer station next door that continues to operate.  Is it any wonder that we inherited a river with a reputation for serious pollution?

Progress In The Clean-Up
The efforts to restore the Anacostia are well underway.  There are still some delays caused by inadequate funding or technology issues.  But there is a strong commitment by the DC government and key Federal agencies to keep the different stakeholders working together and to assure continued support from Maryland communities upstream.

The focus of the clean-up effort is on three activities – swimming, fishing and boating.  These three have mostly common goals, but also some conflicting needs that still need to be worked out.  For example, to be safe some boating areas are in serious need of deepening channels and other waters, including areas that when stirred up could have adverse effects on nearby fisheries and swimming areas.

Getting the river clean enough to swim in has been greatly helped by the tunnels built to capture, hold and pass on sewage and stormwater, preventing overflows to the River from the combined sewers.  Now the overflows will be held in enormous tunnels that connect to the Blue Plains Treatment Plant and are released as the capacity there becomes available.  The tunnel along the river was completed in 2022; when joined this year by the Northeast Boundary Tunnel up near Rhode Island Avenue, the tunnels will capture and hold 98 percent of the stormwater and sewage that would otherwise have gone into the River.  The remaining 2 percent will only occur during heavy storm conditions and will flow into the Potomac where the pollutants will quickly be diluted.  There has already been a remarkable improvement to the water quality of the river.

Environmental groups under Riverkeeper leadership have been planning a “splash day” in the River sometime this summer, but it may need to be simplified or delayed by the City’s Office of Risk Management if everything is not in place in time.

Rowing Club Vessels at the Anacostia Community Boathouse

Fishing in the River is also improving and will get even better with the full set of tunnels.  Both the number of fish and the safety of consuming them should improve as a result.

Boating will also improve if as a result of improved water quality there is a willingness to deepen channels and remove or relocate the sediments.  It is far easier to relocate the bottom sediments if they are not contaminated.

All of these improvements are on a schedule of actions to improve the water quality and take advantage of the reduction in sewage discharges already underway.  A set of “early action areas” has been identified as especially in need of clean-up and/or places where we can learn lessons to apply to other areas to hasten recovery or assure its permanence.

These are eleven areas which combine high levels of contamination with a record of regular performance monitoring to build on:

Kingman Lake: 3 areas, 6 acres, $7 million, dredge & cap
Wash. Channel: 2 areas, 28 acres, $9 million, all cap
Main Stem: 6 areas, 44 acres, $19.5 million, dredge & cap

A Remaining Challenge
The place where the most potential conflicts of this range of efforts come together is the area of the river between the 11th Street Bridge and upstream to the CSX railroad bridge.  This area shares many of the swimming and fisheries issues throughout the DC portion of Our River, but it has particularly difficult issues to resolve between these and boating.  This stretch has many shallow spots and areas of sediments, but also many boats and boatyards that need these places to be deepened and expanded.  It is here that concerns about uncovering toxic areas or not deepening the channels enough need to be worked out, and extra care taken to assure adequate safe depths for vessels as well as proper disposal of removed toxic materials.

Believe it or not, the most recent maintenance navigational dredging was completed in 1993.  Today, an estimated 300,000 cubic yards of sediment needs to be removed to establish the necessary safety levels for boats using the area.  The cost estimate to do this is over $50 million.  Potential sources of Federal funds are being looked at.

We are accustomed to taking on tough issues in restoring and improving all aspects of Our River.  But the achievement of the full range of restoration goals in this one area will be a challenge to agree to and to pursue.  But we really cannot fail to work it out and achieve the full range of the navigation, fisheries, and water quality benefits that will serve us all for many decades.

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.

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