Growing up in Hillbrook in the 1950s and 60s, Dennis Chestnut learned to swim in the Anacostia River. As a little boy, he would negotiate the smoldering trash fires of the Kenilworth Landfill to the Watts Branch and the east branch of the river.
The city was segregated, and Chestnut is Black. So there were few swimming pools he and his friends could go to, none of them on the east side of town. It was safer than negotiating the majority-White Fort Dupont neighborhood that lay between his home and the pool near Anacostia Park; on one occasion, he and his friends had to run a gauntlet of (glass) bottles and rocks as the passed through.
The Watts Branch alternative was a sanctuary, he said. “We felt that it was our local beach!” he told the Anacostia Waterfront Trust in 2018. “We felt very free, as children should feel.”
Now a civic ecologist and environmentalist who was also founding executive director of Groundwork Anacostia River DC, Chestnut said that up through the mid-1960s, the river was used for swimming, fishing, boating and baptism by people living along either side of the Anacostia.
But by 1971, DC Municipal Code included a new law: it was illegal to swim in either of the District’s two rivers. The Anacostia had been polluted by a century of industrial waste, stormwater runoff and sewage.
A one-time event — Splash! —organized by the Anacostia Riverkeepers for July was delayed after heavy rainfall affected water quality. That may also have been impacted by simultaneous work on the new northeast boundary tunnel.
But the Riverkeepers just announced that the swim event has been rescheduled for Sept 23.
It will be the first legal swim in the Anacostia River in 52 years. In 2018, the law was amended to allow the Director of District’s Department of Energy and the Environment (DOEE) to grant permission for a one-day swimming event on the Anacostia River.
Chestnut’s work is part of the reason Splash! is possible. But advocates have no intention of stopping there. It is a marker of how far efforts to clean up the once notoriously polluted river have come. Advocates say this event is also a harbinger of a much nearer future in which District residents will be able to go down to the river and jump right in. The city has set a goal of making its waterways swimmable and fishable by 2032.
But was there a time when people did just jump right in? When and where did people swim in the Anacostia River ?
DC gets hot. The river is water, and it was there, so people historically swam in the Anacostia River. Of course, the Natochtank (Nacostine) Native Americans swam there before Europeans even saw it, points out NPS Ranger Vince Vaise.
Notably, jobless veterans marching to DC in 1932, or the “Bonus Army”, camped in Anacostia Park for two months in 1932, entered the river, perhaps as much for bathing as for swimming.
But there were historically no beaches on the Anacostia. One reason is probably because mudflats and tidal wetlands line the river, said Vaise. On the north side, it was heavily wooded. That’s perfect conditions for mosquitoes, which discourage bathing but spread malaria so effectively that in 1895, 98 percent of the workers at the Navy Yard had contracted it.
The response was to dredge the river and try to wall it in. That crippled the wetlands; it also eliminated gradual entry into the river, further discouraging wading and swimming.
There were efforts to make the Anacostia swimmable. In 1901, the McMillan Commission tossed around the idea of building a dam near where Kingman Island is now, to create a “great lake surrounded by natural meadows and groves that need only to be cultivated and protected from inundation to become a charming park.” They thought of landscaping an area nearby for swimming. That project was abandoned to build Kingman Island instead, which favored boating over swimming as river recreation.
In 1918, Anacostia Park was created as DC Park. A few years later, Congress was asked for $100,000 to build a bathing beach at Popular Point for Black residents, who were forbidden to swim at the White-only Tidal Basin beach. But the idea was dropped when Congress decided to build two concrete swimming pools –one for Blacks and one for Whites—elsewhere in the District. A few years later, the Tidal Basin Beach was dismantled rather than desegregated.
Muddying the Waters
But DC law against swimming forbids “primary contact recreation,” which essentially means you cannot get directly into the water. That’s because the water has been so polluted.
Pollution came with industry. There was the shipbuilding at the Navy Yard, gas manufacture at the Washington Gas Light Station and open-air burning at the Kenilworth Landfill, which dumped incinerator waste into Kingman Lake.
But one of the biggest sources of pollution was human waste. For years, the District was served by a combined sewer system: one pipe carried both stormwater runoff and wastewater. So, when it rained heavily, some of the pipes weren’t big enough to handle it. Instead of backing up into the sewer system, the overflow went into the rivers. That sent up to 4.5 billion gallons of human waste into the river every year.
That flow was aggravated by astronomical growth; the District’s population doubled from 1930 to 1950, at which point 802,000 people called the city home. The open land was quickly developed, much of it covered in concrete. Heavy rains caused water to run through the streets of the District, picking up trash, bacteria and animal waste as it headed for the river.
By the 1970s, the river had developed a reputation as “dirty water.” That, according to Chestnut, is about when the view of the river changed –by the seventies people could see plastic bottles and bags floating in the water.
In a June 1983 Post article, former director of the D.C. Department of Environmental Services (DES) A. William Johnson described the Anacostia as a “filthy dirty” river.
But maybe not to everyone. Riverkeeper volunteers say they do see people swimming in the water occasionally, with a slight spike during the pandemic when pools were closed. Anacostia Riverkeeper Trey Sherard says he will occasionally meet people swimming in the river, particularly near docks intended for boats. He spotted one swimmer by RFK Stadium, in the mainstem of the Anacostia in front of the big sewer bypass point. “[I’m] not sure where she entered the river,” he said, “but she was swimming laps.”
“Some have been unhoused folks swimming in the same spots pretty regularly, including Kingman Lake and Yards Marina,” he continued. “Others include a visitor from Europe who just happened to be in town, saw the river, and dove in for an open water swim since that’s one of the fun things people do in rivers in most of the rest of the world.”
Cleaning A River
And it is safer to do so in DC now than it has been in fifty years. That this is true is due to the work of residents like Chestnut and others. They founded community-based organizations like the Riverkeepers, the Chesapeake Legal Alliance, and the oldest and largest of them, the Anacostia Watershed Society (AWS).
In the 1990s, District environmental groups started threatening litigation if the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the City did not figure out a solution to the polluted river. The city responded in several ways.
Key to the recovery is DC Water’s $2.7 billion Clean River Project. The two tunnels that comprise the project will capture and hold 98 percent of the stormwater and sewage that would otherwise have gone into the river. The first tunnel in the Clean River Project was completed in 2018. The Northeast Boundary Tunnel is set to be finished this year.
“We wouldn’t even be having this conversation except for those tunnels,” said DOEE’s Anacostia Coordinator Gretchen Mikeska.
DOEE says DC used to see 80 overflow events a year; the first tunnel took that down to eight and the completion of the second should bring it closer to two.
DOEE is also addressing stormwater runoff, retrofitting streets, sidewalks and areas adjacent to the hardscape of the city to soak up stormwater runoff. “If we do as much of that as we can, then there’s less runoff travelling over land, coming into contact with sources of pollution and delivering it to the receiving waters,” said Jonathon Champion of the DOEE Stormwater Management Division. They retrofit about 200 acres annually. Private development and redevelopment in the District is required to apply stormwater management to projects.
Also important to clean up efforts is the Anacostia River Cleanup and Protection Act –you know, the “bag tax.” Plastic bags used to be the most common litter in the river; a year after the tax was enacted, they were reduced by 75 percent. The bag tax was used to pay for trash traps in the river.
In October 2020, DC released a plan for continuing river clean up, addressing the areas with the highest contamination and hoping to remediate 77 acres of sediment, which would reduce health risks from contamination by 90 percent.
Where We Are
Since the Anacostia tunnel came online, there has been dramatic improvement in the overall water quality conditions said Petra Baldwin, Project Coordinator for Water Quality Monitoring for Anacostia Riverkeeper.
Founded in 2008, the nonprofit has conducted water quality monitoring for DC since 2019. They do it with a grant from DOEE and as part of a partnership with Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay.
“It’s definitely the best that it’s been, definitely in the past decade–decades, actually,” said Baldwin. Multiple sites on the river pass water quality tests most of the time.
The key tell, she said, is E. Coli. Not because it’s the most dangerous bacteria, but because it indicates what other bacteria might be in the water. The Riverkeeper monitors seven sites on the main stem of the river. It’s consistent at sites like Buzzard Point and up near Kingman Island, where Splash! will take place.
DOEE Environmental Protection Specialist Alicia Ritzenthaler agrees. She says that 80 or 85 percent of samples have swimmable bacteria levels during the May to September season; in some spots, it is 90 percent or more. “So, we’re not talking about crazy impossible things here,” she said. “DOEE is ready to look at water quality and start adjusting these swim bans and start getting everybody in the water.”
But before that day comes, the city wants to be able to give people same-day information. Right now, samples are taken from the river and processed over a day in a laboratory. But water quality changes very quickly, Ritzenthaler said. “That’s why it’s really important to make sure that the sample and result we have is representative for the day people will be getting in the water, rather than yesterday.”
DOEE has entered into a partnership with the US Geological Survey (USGS) to try out a new testing system in the river. The self-contained unit can be installed in the river and draw a sample itself, test it for E. Coli, then send results electronically, eliminating the time lag of travel and laboratory testing.
Those systems are being added to the DOEE toolbox as they work to ensure the river is clean, she said. “Because what we’re really trying to do is make sure that when the bans are lifted, that DOEE is ready to roll.”
But when will that be? Advocates say they’re on track to reach it much sooner than the 2032 goal.
Question of Law
But the question of whether it will be legal if they do so is a murkier one, the DOEE team says. “The existence of that ban basically means that we have a higher bar to clear in terms of the evidence that we need to bring to bear in order to remove that ban,” said Champion.
So DOEE is working incrementally to find ways the ban could be relaxed under certain circumstances. That’s why fast testing is so important. If they can deploy the USGS testing units in a handful of locations, Champion said, “I think we can make a case for making some changes to regulations that would allow swimming at designated locations provided that we collect data that says it’s okay. That’s something we’re actively working towards now.”
In 2018, Anacostia Riverkeeper drew up a feasibility study for a swimming facility in the Anacostia to kick off the process. DOEE says that there’s a lot of work that needs to be done before they start building beaches or pools on the river, such as Paris’s Bassin-dela-Villette.
That’s why Ritzenthaler is working on a road map for what river swimming could look like in the future. It doesn’t include just water quality, but also considers the current strength at particular sites and the structural strength of sediment to determine if it can support a swimmer. It also poses questions that need to be considered, such what the community wants and what point would provide equitable access to swimming for all residents. There are also partnerships with other entities and agencies to consider. For instance, as so much of the riverbank is National Park Service land, the Park Service would need to weigh in on any future plans.
It doesn’t get much closer than getting in. The Splash! event originally scheduled on July 8 was quickly full to capacity as people seized the opportunity to swim in the river with ARK. Each is assigned a 20-minute block to swim from the Kingman Island Dock (3101 Benning Rd. NE).
But starting July 1, heavy rains fell. During that same period, DC Water took the the Combines Sewer Overflow (CSO) tunnel near RFK stadium offline on July 5. They did it as part of the final installation of the Northeast Boundary tunnel, which connects with the Anacostia Tunnel at that point.
While the CSO was offline, there were two small overflows during a storm on July 6. The storm brought 1.2 inches of rain in 30 minutes. That caused 2 million gallons of overflow at the CSO near RFK Stadium (CSOs have a 100 million gallon capacity). The other incident was at the near DC Water headquarters in Navy Yard.
Did taking the CSO offline affect water quality near RFK and force cancellation of the planned swim? DC Water VP of Communications John Lisle said it was unclear. The Navy Yard CSO wasn’t offline, but it overflowed anyway, he told the Hill Rag in late July, “but there was so much rain in a short amount of time it could not drain into the tunnel fast enough and overflowed as a result.”
“It potentially impacted the water quality,” Lisle acknowledged, “but we don’t know that for certain.”
It makes sense to have the swim event when the Northeast Boundary Tunnel is officially complete, Lisle said, as the tunnel is a significant step in effort to clean up the river. That’s sometime this fall. DC Water estimates it will result in a 98 percent reduction in overflow to the river –from 50 overflow incidents annually to maybe 2.
But those who know have confidence in the waters. “I’m definitely going to be there,” Dennis Chestnut said. He’s been taking weekly samples of water quality at Watt’s Branch for the Waterkeepers, so he knows exactly what he’s getting into.
For Chestnut, it is a chance to demonstrate progress, to celebrate the past forty years of advocacy that have brought us to this moment. It is also a chance to look forward to the future of the Anacostia and to show residents what it could look like when his great-grandchildren go down to our river.
“I have such a strong connection to the river, because it goes all the way back to my childhood,” he said, remembering those carefree days swimming with friends. “To be able to do it now with the improvements to the river that are underway –that’s really special.”
Learn more about the efforts to clean the Anacostia at restoretheanacostiariver.com. Explore more about the Riverkeepers at www.anacostiariverkeeper.org and the Anacostia Watershed Society at www.anacostiaws.org. See ideas about swimming in the Anacostia at www.anacostiariverpool.com.
A version of this story appeared in the July issue of our sister publication, East of the River DC News.