Healing the Anacostia's Troubled Waters

After two centuries of neglect, NRDC is helping revitalize Washington, D.C.'s forgotten river.

The Anacostia River

Credit: Anacostia Watershed Society

Ask most Americans to name the river flowing through the nation’s capital, and they’ll likely say the Potomac. Wide and majestic, coursing past malls and memorials and other historic sites, it’s an appropriately mighty symbol for the seat of federal power.

But there’s another, more troubled, river flowing through Washington, D.C., one that’s not nearly as well known to visitors as it is to frustrated locals. The 8.7-mile-long Anacostia River runs from Bladensburg, Maryland, to the District of Columbia, where it passes through several residential neighborhoods and just below the U.S. Capitol before merging with the Potomac at the Washington Channel.

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, it ran through lush forests and rich tidal wetlands. The water teemed with shad, herring, perch, and other fish that had long been a staple food of the local Nanchotank people.

Once settlers started clearing fields for agriculture—which led to heavy erosion and sedimentation—in the early 19th century, the river began to suffer. And its decline accelerated rapidly from the late 19th century to nearly the present day. As the Washington, D.C., area grew, urbanization claimed forest and wetland habitat, altered stream flows, and fed ever-increasing amounts of sewage and polluted runoff into the river.

Dominique Skinner from Groundwork Anacostia leads a group of Green Team High Schoolers during a free paddle night organized by the Anacostia Watershed Society.
Credit: Chesapeake Bay Program

Though it’s surrounded by parkland today, the Anacostia is severely polluted by sediment, nutrients, pathogens, toxins, and trash. As such, it’s often referred to as Washington’s “forgotten river.” According to Becky Hammer, an attorney in NRDC’s Washington, D.C., office, the Anacostia is disproportionately affected by urban pollution because of its slow-moving tide. “Contaminants like sewage and runoff tend to stay there for a long time before getting flushed downstream,” she says.

But the future of Washington’s forgotten river is suddenly looking a little less forlorn. Like many other cities around the nation, D.C. has proved eager to reclaim its neglected waterways by restoring their ecological health and returning them to the public as a shared resource. Toward that end, a number of projects are setting the stage for the Anacostia’s resurgence.

For example, the Urban Waters Federal Partnership—which connects more than a dozen federal agencies with local RiverKeepers and conservation groups to catalyze and coordinate action—has already moved the needle significantly by helping to facilitate the Anacostia Watershed Restoration Plan. This blueprint for the river’s restoration, in the words of its drafters, represents “a bold and unparalleled initiative. No other restoration plan in the United States has systematically identified the thousands of projects needed to retrofit an entire urban watershed.”

Another project, the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative, involves spending $10 billion over 30 years to turn the river’s beleaguered shoreline into a vibrant and dynamic asset to the several communities—most of them poor or working-class—that flank it. Its vision for the Anacostia is one in which the many abandoned and derelict stretches of waterfront are transformed into parks, recreational facilities, bike and walking paths, and commercial centers that will create jobs.

Along with other advocates, NRDC is promoting and helping to implement an effective and affordable solution to the Anacostia’s single biggest threat: the runoff-laden stormwater that is responsible for 75 percent to 90 percent of the river’s pollution. Called low-impact development or sometimes green infrastructure, this solution involves measures that meld technology with simple common sense: strategically placed beds of native plants; rain barrels; vegetation-covered “green roofs”; porous parking lots, sidewalks, and courtyards; and other tools that help rainfall evaporate back into the atmosphere or soak into the ground instead of sluicing downhill and into the river.

A great blue heron
Credit: Anacostia Watershed Society

Examples of low-impact development now abound in the watershed. There are currently millions of square feet of green roofs in the District, for example, and several high-profile development projects are employing a wide range of green techniques to manage their runoff. While these projects serve as great advertisements for cutting-edge ideas and technologies, the simple truth is that low-impact development in the watershed must increase—and significantly—if it’s to curb the harmful runoff that continues to degrade the Anacostia.

And all this needs to happen in tandem with changes to the District’s century-old combined sewage and flood-control system, which allows a toxic mix of stormwater and untreated sewage to overflow into the river at 17 discharge points during the area’s heaviest storms—as much as two billion gallons per year. “When our country’s first sewer systems were constructed a century ago or more, people didn’t realize it was a problem to dump raw sewage into our waterways,” Hammer says.

Stormwater runoff and sewage overflow present serious challenges to waterway health—the former because it’s such a diffuse form of pollution, the latter because it’s the result of outdated infrastructure that is costly and difficult to replace or refurbish. But solutions do exist. Some involve targeted government action, such as new regulations that have been placed on the District by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, or major shifts in how communities are planned and built, such as D.C.’s ongoing Clean Rivers Project. Others involve encouraging landowners and businesses to help reduce runoff, or getting individuals to make small but meaningful changes in their homes and daily routines. Taken together, all these efforts can dramatically reduce the flow of pollution into any waterway. Even one as troubled as the Anacostia.

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