The relationship between man and water has long been part of our biological history as a species. In the U.S., European settlers often chose locations near rivers and lakes because of the convenience and access that comes with living near clean water; those settlements often transformed into massive hubs of industry and transport over the next two centuries. DC’s story is the same.
Booming areas like Capitol Riverfront became extremely profitable off the flow of the Anacostia River, but the river did not improve in the same way. Anacostia Watershed Society (AWS) President Jim Foster says 40 years ago, no one wanted to even go near the water because of the smell and pollution.
But since the Clean Water Act passed in 1972, AWS and other organizations like Anacostia Riverkeeper and DC’s Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE) have dedicated resources to bring the human connection back to the Anacostia by leading cleanup efforts, proposing legislation and educating the public on why it’s so important to have a clean water source. DC Water, the District’s Water and Sewer Authority, has also contributed to the river cleanup in a big way as part of the Clean Rivers Project, a two-billion, 20-year initiative that will reduce combined sewer overflows by 98 percent in the Anacostia River through a massive infrastructure program designed to capture and clean wastewater during rainfalls before it ever reaches the river.
Construction on the Clean Rivers Project Phase I deep underground tunnel system began in 2013 and was completed in spring 2018, contributing to a much-healthier-than-before Anacostia River. Capitol Riverfront is a primary example of the benefits cultivated from their hard work.
“Capitol Riverfront was an opportunity to do waterfront redevelopment with high-end retail [and] residential office space for a whole new group of folks,” Foster says. “It married up well for the goals of local population and the cleanup of the river.”
As the river became cleaner and more people visited its waters, the AWS received more support from the general population to do something about the state of the Anacostia. As more people moved to the waters, the river became cleaner because of the residents’ personal investment in its well-being. This beneficial, symbiotic relationship all starts with education and getting people down to the river to see for themselves, according to Anacostia Riverkeeper Outreach Coordinator Trey Sherard.
“The Capitol Riverfront Business Improvement District wants a river that they’re proud of, that looks clean and supports healthy recreation,” he says. “For the sake of the river, having the neighborhood here brings so many people to the river who may not have seen it or interacted with it otherwise.”
Capitol Riverfront is one of the only places in DC with easy access to the Anacostia, which makes it important to the cleanup efforts of Anacostia Riverkeeper and other organizations, according to Sherard.
“It’s one of the only places where people live this closely to the river,” he says. “People only started seeing how dirty the river was maybe four or five years ago. Then they wanted to join groups and get involved. This whole conversation around a clean Anacostia wouldn’t have happened as fully or with as much broad support so quickly without this neighborhood here.”
But the DC population isn’t the only entity benefitting from the effects of cleaning the rivers. DOEE Director Tommy Wells says one of the most telling signs of the improvement in the waters has been the return of the eagle to its shores.
“Fifty years ago, there were no eagles on the river,” he says. “Four years ago, the eagles returned and they’re on their fourth [or] fifth generation of eaglet. They can finally feed themselves off the river again.”
Although there has been a massive overhaul in the cleanliness of the river over the past several decades, Foster, Sherard and Wells all agree there is still work to be done. AWS wants to make the river swimmable again and has a plan to get there by 2025. Foster says the organization created the Waterway to 2025 plan five years ago to “help drive that vision of connecting people through storytelling through the river.”
“Everybody has a different mindset or connection to the water,” Foster says. “It can be spiritual [or] it can be liking to reflect and relax and be energetic in sports. The water is very powerful. To stand here and look at a waterbody that you can’t touch is just not right. We advocate, we try to engage and persuade and teach people, and if we can’t make that work, we find the legal remedy.”
Meanwhile, Anacostia Riverkeeper is continuing to test the river for E.coli – the bacteria present in solid waste – as they have done for the past few summers. But this year, they have a $140,000 grant from the DOEE to expand testing sites to cover the rest of the rivers in DC and include temperature and pH levels in the readings. This year’s water testing data will be posted online to the Anacostia Riverkeeper website and to Swimmable, an app used to track whether or not the natural bodies of water would be swimmable on any given day. Sherard says there’s an intention behind making the data public.
“In DC, when it’s a 110-degree natural heat index, we think it’s silly you can’t swim in the natural water bodies,” he says. “It’s illegal to swim in the rivers, and we want to get that ban lifted by studying how many people are swimming and document days when water is swimmable.”
A throng of volunteers from many different organizations invested in the cleanliness of DC’s natural water supply will conduct the tests this summer. Sherard says he would love to see more people to volunteer and come out in support of cleaning the rivers because there’s nothing like having a clean body of natural water to recreate on.
“People love water,” he continues. “Almost all the world’s cities are on rivers or coasts. We want to simultaneously introduce people to the Anacostia and have them realize the river is fun and safe.”
For more information on how to get involved with Anacostia River cleanup efforts, visit AWS at www.anacostiaws.org and Anacostia Riverkeeper’s at www.anacostiariverkeeper.org. To review the Clean Water Act and learn more about DC Water’s Clean Rivers Project, visit www.doee.dc.gov and www.dcwater.com/cleanrivers.
This article also ran in the Capitol Riverfront Business Improvement District’s 2019 Riverfront Review, an On Tap-produced publication.
DC’s newest river recreational hotspot Ballpark Boathouse will officially open its docks for kayaking, canoeing and river tours on the Anacostia in late May. Stay cool on the river and tour some of DC’s most notable locations like the U.S. Capitol and Capitol Riverfront this summer. Potomac Avenue and First Street in SE, DC; www.boatingindc.com/boathouses/ballpark-boathouse
Instead of taking a stroll down crowded downtown streets this summer, get out to the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail. The continuous 20-mile trail along both sides of the river for walkers, runners and cyclists alike is perfect for a jaunt in the cool breeze off the Anacostia. Only 12 miles of the trail are currently open, but DC’s Department of Transportation is working hard to get the Capitol Riverfront project completed. Start at Diamond Teague Park and head east along the Anacostia riverfront in SE, DC; www.capitolriverfront.org/go/anacostia-riverwalk-trail
Riverkeeper Motorized Boat Tours
Join the Anacostia River Explorers this summer for an educational river tour focused on the Anacostia’s history, wildlife, environmental threats and possible solutions to the problems it faces. The best part? They’re free. Various locations in Capitol Riverfront, check website for details; www.anacostiariverkeeper.org/tours