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Aerial view of Anacostia River's sediment pollution

An aerial view of the Anacostia River (far right) at its confluence with the Potomac River. The dramatic difference in color is due to the high level of sediments from CSOs and stormwater runoff.

In the heart of the nation's capital, running from Bladensburg, Md., to Washington, D.C., is a river that is a poster child for America's tragically neglected, abused urban waterways. Although the eight-mile-long Anacostia River is surrounded by parkland, it is severely polluted by sediment, nutrients, pathogens, toxins and trash. Because the Anacostia is relatively flat and extremely tidal, it moves -- and flushes itself -- slowly, making it especially vulnerable to contamination. It's unsafe to swim in the Anacostia, or to eat its fish. Yet its troubles, though extreme, are hardly unique: Similar problems plague many of our country's urban and suburban rivers.

It is a national embarrassment that the Anacostia -- often called "the Forgotten
River" -- flows in the shadow of the Capitol building. Once a river that sustained abundant populations of fish, birds and other wildlife, the Anacostia is now impoverished and underused, flowing through some of Washington's poorest communities. But an effort to restore the Anacostia is underway. The federal government has committed to coordinate the revitalization of the Anacostia as part of its Urban Waters Initiative and is working with the District of Columbia, other local communities, and businesses and individuals within the watershed to bring the river back. These efforts, if successful, can be a shining example to other river restoration projects around the country.

A Once-Rich Resource

The Anacostia has fallen a long way from the vibrant health it enjoyed in the early 17th century, when Europeans first arrived in the region. The central artery of a watershed that straddles both wooded hills and coastal flats, its shores were cloaked with lush forests and rich tidal wetlands. The Anacostia -- whose name comes from the Indian word anaquash, meaning "village trading center" -- was a thriving hub of Native American culture. The river teemed with shad, white and yellow perch, herring and other fish that were a staple food of the local Nanchotank people.

The river's decline began as settlers cleared fields for agriculture (leading to heavy erosion and sedimentation), then accelerated rapidly from the late 19th century nearly to the present. Urbanization claimed forest and wetland habitat, altered stream flows, and fed ever-increasing flows of sewage and polluted runoff into the Anacostia. (From 1980 to 1994 alone, suburban Washington grew an astonishing 18.3 percent).

Debris in the Anacostia River

A river designated for swimming, fishing, and other recreation is instead an eyesore, as this floating debris testifies.

Until recently, the Anacostia's problems were largely ignored, even as its more famous neighbor, the Potomac, underwent a promising revitalization. But the outlook for the river is brightening as governments and citizens focus new attention on the Anacostia. Like many cities, Washington is rediscovering its rivers. The city's ambitious new Anacostia Waterfront Initiative will steer funding to long-neglected stretches of the river, which winds through poorer northeastern and southeastern sections of the city. The District of Columbia is also overhauling its citywide stormwater regulations, implementing programs to incentivize green pollution reduction technologies, and tackling the problem of sewage discharges into the river.

These initiatives, and the groundswell of interest in waterfront renewal that drives them, present a golden opportunity for reviving the Anacostia. If this chance is seized, the good news will extend far beyond this beleaguered waterway, pointing the way for similar progress on countless other American rivers.

Stormwater and Sewers

Between 75 percent and 90 percent of the Anacostia's pollution is caused by stormwater runoff, a problem closely tied to sprawl and overdevelopment throughout the watershed. More development means more hard surfaces -- more roads, sidewalks, parking lots and rooftops. As a result, water that was once absorbed and filtered by soil and plants now rushes across pavement, picking up nitrogen, phosphorous, oil, heavy metals, bacteria and viruses, which are dumped directly into the river.

The Anacostia River's crumbling sewer system

The District of Columbia's century-old sewage and flood control system is designed to overflow when it rains. As a result, untreated sewage and stormwater spills into the river at 17 different discharge points.

Stormwater also plays a role in combined sewer overflows (CSOs), which are the other major source of pollution to the Anacostia. Like many older cities, Washington uses a sewer system that carries both sewage and stormwater in the same set of pipes. When it rains, the system rapidly becomes overwhelmed and begins discharging untreated sewage into local waterways. Along the Anacostia's short course, such overflows occur in 17 different places, spilling 2 to 3 billion gallons into the river each year. But it isn't just the District's streets and pipes that are fouling the Anacostia -- the river also receives street runoff from suburban Maryland. The human population throughout the Anacostia's total watershed has increased, and pollution entering the river from stormwater and sewage overflows has increased with it.

Stormwater runoff and sewage overflow present difficult challenges -- the former because it's such a diffuse form of pollution, the latter because it's caused by outdated infrastructure that is a challenge to replace or refurbish. But solutions do exist. Some involve broad government action or shifts in how communities are planned and built; others require small changes in people's daily routines. Taken together, however, they can dramatically reduce the flow of pollution into the Anacostia -- or any waterway.

Reworking an Urban Landscape with "Low-Impact Development"

NRDC and other Anacostia advocates are promoting an effective and affordable solution to the problem of stormwater runoff. Called "low-impact development" or "green infrastructure," it relies on both simple common sense and technology -- strategically placed beds of native plants; rain barrels; "green roofs"; porous surfaces for parking lots, sidewalks and courtyards; and other tools -- to help rainfall evaporate back into the atmosphere or soak into the ground, rather than polluting the nearest water body. In effect, low-impact development mimics nature's own filtering systems. The result is less water pollution from dirty runoff, less flooding, replenished groundwater supplies -- and often, more natural-looking, aesthetically pleasing cityscapes.

Low-impact development examples abound in the Anacostia watershed. There are now millions of square feet of green roofs in the District, and high-profile development projects like 1050 K Street and the 1st Street Streetscape are using a range of green techniques to manage their runoff. But the use of low-impact development must increase significantly in order to curb the harmful runoff that continues to degrade the Anacostia. To that end, a number of new policies in the District are encouraging the expanded use of green infrastructure.

Great blue heron, Anacostia River

Signs from the return of beavers and osprey to the river to healthy populations of wading birds -- like this great blue heron -- hint at the wonderful community asset a revitalized Anacostia could be.

In 2011, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a permit to the District authorizing its stormwater discharges into local waterways, but under certain conditions. Prince George's County, Maryland will be getting a new permit soon as well.) Under the terms of its permit, the District must develop clean-up plans for local water bodies and retrofit existing properties with low-impact development techniques, including at least 350,000 square feet of new green roofs during the five-year permit term. In addition, the District must also overhaul its citywide regulations that govern how newly developed and redeveloped properties manage their stormwater runoff. The District Department of the Environment is currently developing these regulations, which will require runoff from 90 percent of all storms to be retained and captured on-site -- preventing pollution and harmful stormwater volumes from entering the Anacostia. These regulations may also include an innovative program that allows regulated properties to buy and sell stormwater volume retention "credits" from one another.

The District has also adopted economic incentives that encourage landowners to voluntarily reduce the amount of stormwater their properties generate. The city charges all landowners two fees -- known as the Impervious Area Charge and the Stormwater Fee -- based on the amount of impervious surface area on each property. These fees are a fair way to distribute the cost of maintaining storm sewers and protecting area waterways because they are both based on a property's contribution of rainwater to the District's sewer system and rivers. They also create an incentive for landowners to minimize impervious areas.

The District's Plan for Cleaning Up CSOs

Meanwhile, the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority is implementing a long-term plan for reducing the city's combined sewer overflows. Finalized in 2004, this plan -- which DC Water calls the "Clean Rivers Project" -- sets out a schedule for the construction of massive tunnels that will capture and provide storage for CSOs. These large-diameter storage tunnels, deep underground, will trap sewage and stormwater during times of heavy precipitation until it can be pumped to a treatment plant. When completed, this project is expected to reduce CSOs to the Anacostia by about 98 percent.

Anacostia advocates are also pressing the federal government to acknowledge the important role it must play in addressing combined sewer overflows in the nation's capital. The federal government is by far the largest landowner in the District. Dozens of federal buildings, from the White House and U.S. Capitol to military facilities, lie on land inside the combined sewer system; in fact, federally owned land is directly responsible for 18 percent of the runoff that causes the region's CSOs. Toilets in the Capitol regularly flush directly into the Anacostia -- our federal government needs to show leadership and contribute its fair share to cleaning up the District's rivers. Promisingly, the federal government has partnered with local agencies and organizations to develop the Anacostia Restoration Plan.

Healing Troubled Waters

Virtually every urban and suburban river is contaminated by polluted runoff, which the U.S. EPA considers the country's most common cause of water pollution. Combined sewer overflows plague hundreds of communities nationwide, especially in the Northeast and Great Lakes regions. The other problems the Anacostia faces -- from industrial pollution to the loss of wetlands to engineering changes that have altered its flow -- are also seen again and again in American watersheds.

The solutions that will help the Anacostia will help these rivers as well. Low-impact development, strong cleanup plans, government funding and leadership, and the actions of ordinary citizens can all diminish the volume of pollution rushing into American waters, making them cleaner, healthier and safer for generations to come.

What You Can Do if You Live Within the Anacostia Watershed

It's essential that local and federal officials act now to clean up the Anacostia, but the river needs help from citizens as well. Every business and every individual in the watershed affects the river's health. Each one also has the power to minimize the damage to its water quality. The first step is to be aware of the many substances that enter the Anacostia as a result of daily activities. Pesticides applied to lawns, for instance, wash into the river. So do used motor oil, litter, pet waste and a host of other substances. Reducing the use of toxic substances and cleaning up -- after ourselves and after our pets -- will further speed the river's recovery.

Water conservation also matters. The smaller the volume flowing into the region's sewers, the less likely CSOs are to occur. Fixing leaks, buying efficient faucets and toilets, using less water to begin with -- these and similar steps can save thousands of gallons of water each day, reducing the burden on sewers and treatment plants alike.

Finally, you can turn a critical eye to your property -- does your home or business have impervious surfaces that send stormwater straight into the sewers? Are there low-impact development techniques that might make a difference in bringing the "Forgotten River" back from near-death? See the pages below for more information on curbing runoff pollution.

last revised 2/21/2013

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