How Are We Doing on the Anacostia?

Kent and Kelly, two of the many people who volunteer to clean and restore the Anacostia, go out weekly to pick up “invasive objects,” including shopping carts and tires. Photo: Marian Dombroski

Winter is a good time for an overview of how the Anacostia River restoration is going. I interviewed five leaders of the multiyear effort who know best what is going on, what is working and not working, and what are the prospects for continued progress.  They are, in alphabetical order:

• Dennis Chestnut, head of Ward 7 Resilience Hub Community Coalition, and previously Executive Director of Groundwork Anacostia River DC.

• Marian Dombroski, Chair/ViceChair of the Anacostia Watershed Community Advisory Committee.

• Brenda Richardson, head of Anacostia Parks and Community Collaborative.

• Trey Sherard, Anacostia Riverkeeper.

• Chris Williams, head of the Anacostia Watershed Society.

Do these folks believe we are meeting our timelines and goals in the Anacostia watershed?  Overall, the situation is looking very positive.  This is because of DC Water’s $2.7 billion Clean River Project. The two massive tunnels that comprise the project capture and hold 98 percent of the stormwater and sewage that would otherwise have gone into the river.  This runoff now goes to the Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant, a part of DCWater.

Trey Sherard, Anacostia Riverkeeper

This practice to mix the sewage with rains from runoff goes back to the 19th century in many cities; engineers back then thought that it would keep the drain pipes clean and add pollution to rivers for only a short time.  But they were wrong, and many cities are now planning and building their own storage tunnels for the combined sewage.  DC is ahead of nearly all the others!  And the Anacostia project is the first to go into operation in the region.

“A lot of work remains to be done,” said Chris Williams, “but it’s exciting to see initiatives we’ve worked on for many years, like the Anacostia River tunnels and the remediation of toxic chemicals in the river bed, coming to fruition. These are game-changers for water quality in the Anacostia.”

More Areas of Pollution Concern
The enormous success of the storage tunnels does not mean all our pollution problems in the Anacostia River have been solved, however.  There are two areas upstream that continue to give us problems. Beaverdam Creek runs along New York Avenue in Maryland.  Where it enters the District, it releases into the Anacostia a flow of heavy pollution from industrial wastes that come from lands along Route 50 all the way to the Beltway.

There is also a flow of toxics down Hickey Run in DC, passing under New York Avenue and through the National Arboretum to the Anacostia.  There is another stream entering the Arboretum a few hundred feet northeast.  It is low on pollution and runs through an artificial lake and streams with high quality water that all manner of creatues including flourishing families of beavers.  This is Springhouse Run, which must be seen to be appreciated. It flows down through the Arboretum and joins Hickey Run on the way to the Anacostia.

Enjoying the River
One of the most important contributions for citizens to make about the continued enjoyment of the river and its shoreline over time is to decide how to accommodate the many desired activities along a limited shoreline.

“It is so exciting to be talking about actual locations for swimming, wading, fishing and boating – activities which have been limited or non-existent on the Anacostia for so many years. These opportunities must be accessible to everyone,” said Marian Dombroski.

Natural areas for rest and quiet should also be built into the plan, with citizens of each neighborhood taking the lead in the parklands closest to them. Restoration of natural areas and protection of important habitat must also be integral to planning. After all, the public lands along the Anacostia were set aside to protect the river, and to provide opportunities to enjoy it. We must share it with all the wildlife that depend on it.

Issues with Kenilworth
At the present time there is planning going on which is out of step with other planning and restoration efforts.  The National Park Service has asked the DC Department of Transportation to extend the Riverwalk Trail through Kenilworth Park and across the Anacostia.  DC DDOT is developing a trail, with no consideration of the range of folks who would be affected by the design and location of the bike trails or for the sensitive natural areas through which they pass.  For example, the shoreline should be reserved for purposes which depend on proximity to the river, and  should include quiet areas for sitting and enjoying nature.  Trails should serve the parks, not create throughways.

“I’ve seen incredible change for the better in the 12 years I’ve spent on the Anacostia River, but some bad habits die hard, or not at all,” says Trey Sherard, Anacostia Riverkeeper. “But, while we’ve gone from the designs for the sewage tunnels to the entire Anacostia tunnel system entering operation last fall and the Splash event planned for this summer, we still find some agencies like the District Department of Transportation refusing outright to meaningfully engage with communities east of the river, as they have over the proposed bridge from Kenilworth Park to the Arboretum.”

The Future
All of our voices are needed to take advantage of the amazing opportunities before us to shape the future of the Anacostia for generations to come. That will assure that each stretch of the River reflects the human places and the rich natural areas along its shores.

Dennis Chestnut speaks for all when he says. “The Anacostia river and the communities that border it are inextricably linked, and the health of one will not happen without the improvement to the health of the other.  We have made tremendous strides and must continue to work hard to create a fishable and swimmable river for all DC residents.”

Let’s make it happen!
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.