The Anacostia: Our River

As time goes by, more and more of us are discovering our neighborhood river, the Anacostia. Whether enjoying the live music on a Friday night at Yards Park, paddling a canoe or kayak through what seems an almost magic wilderness near the Arboretum or the Aquatic Gardens, or just throwing out a fishing line along its banks, the Anacostia continues to surprise us. In part that surprise is because at heart the Anacostia is still a classic urban river, with a lot of problems caused by neglect and pollution. This article is the first of a monthly series that will try to get a handle what the Anacostia is, is not, and could be.

Progress on Eliminating Runoff

The Anacostia begins as a series of streams in the suburbs of Prince Georges and Montgomery counties with names like Paint Branch, Sligo Creek, Watts Branch, and Beaverdam Creek. The watershed draining into the Anacostia includes such places as Cheverly, Wheaton, and Greenbelt, as well as Fort Lincoln and a large part of DC. It also drains nearly all of the Beltsville Agricultural Research facility of the USDA. The major branches join just above the Bladensburg Marina, which is also the limit of the tide coming in from the Potomac. The river was once navigable to Bladensburg by ocean-going ships, but that is a tale for another time.

With this kind of a watershed profile the river can be expected to have some problems. An oversupply of nutrients from fertilizer and other sources creates conditions that encourage algal blooms in warm weather. There is so much roof and pavement and other impermeable surface that storm water rushes off into streams bringing trash and eroding the banks to add heavy sediment loads. In large sections of the District the storm and sanitary sewers are combined so that, an average of once a week, they overflow and discharge raw sewage into the river, where it sloshes back and forth with the tides. And there are heavy levels of toxics from sources that have long operated along the river.

But progress is being made on a number of fronts. New and innovative provisions in storm-water permits under the Clean Water Act are reducing nutrient loadings and runoff from the first flush of storms by holding and slowly releasing the water. Many of these efforts involve homeowners by providing incentives or paying the cost of rain gardens, rain barrels, and the replacement of walks and driveways with permeable pavers. The new local controls on plastic bags and Styrofoam are also having an impact.

The Long-Term Control Program for combined sewer discharges under DC Water is moving along with construction of large underground storage facilities that will reduce raw sewage discharges to once or twice a year. The traditional sources of toxics are being cleaned up under the Superfund Program in places like the PEPCO plant on Benning Road and the Navy Yard.

A Toxic Legacy

All of these efforts will take years to complete, but they are underway and we are already benefitting with a cleaner river. However, the big remaining job is just getting started. This involves the issue of “legacy sediments,” the toxic material that lies on the bottom of the river as a result of all those years of release of chemicals, solvents, and other toxic materials from sources along the river that are in the process of closing down or cleaning up their discharges. Much of it has been there for decades, and since it is in areas subject to tidal ebb and flow it does not clear out as it would in a fast-moving stream. But it does not lie there inactive. During storms the sediments can be stirred up and re-suspended for a period, during which their toxics can be consumed by fish and other living resources. 

This is not an easy issue to deal with, which is one reason why it has received little attention until now. If we hope ever to be able to swim or to eat the fish in the Anacostia, it has to be done. The District Department of the Environment has been working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and others to develop a plan for toxic sediments. There are basically two stages. Stage One is evaluative; it will study what is in the sediments and where, and what the options are to deal with them. Sampling began this summer and Stage One is to be completed in 2017. Experts consider it an aggressive timetable.

Stage Two will be the effort to carry out the recommendations of Stage One to deal with the legacy toxics. The scheduled completion date, 2025, seems a long way off, but it is a realistic date given the likely amount of work involved. A similar effort is underway in the upper Hudson River to deal with toxic sediments filled with polychlorinated biphenyl’s (PCBs), one of the major pollutants in the Anacostia sediments. It is a seven year project currently in its sixth year and on schedule.

One key issue is whether to try to treat (or “cap”) the sediments in place or remove them to another place for treatment and/or disposal. Capping is cheaper and does not require finding a permanent disposal site, but it has drawbacks. Where there is constant tidal flow and occasional storm-driven currents that may re-suspend sediments, capping has its limits. It is also a problem in an area with a lot of shallow water, where the new configuration may exclude boaters or damage vessels. 

Hope for the Future

After years of costly efforts, we want the thing to work. The Hudson River project has proven the technology of removal with minimal disturbance and re-suspension of the toxics as they are removed with closed buckets.

In addition to the government agencies cooperating on the legacy sediments project, two new groups are bringing focus to this and other clean-up efforts on the Anacostia. They join and draw support from a number of existing organizations such as the Anacostia Watershed Society, Riverkeeper, and Groundwork DC, as well as the government-wide Anacostia Watershed Restoration Partnership. First there is a new coalition of environmental groups called United for a Healthy Anacostia River. Second, Mayor Gray has established a Leadership Council for a Cleaner Anacostia River, to be chaired by former Mayor Anthony Williams. 

Public involvement is the key to all these efforts, so get involved in all that’s going on. It’s our river!

Bill Matuszeski writes on environmental issues. He is former director of the Chesapeake Bay Program and current chair of the Anacostia Watershed Citizens Advisory Committee.