Progress and Pitfalls in Paradise: News Along The Anacostia

Our River
Photograph By
Bill Matuszeski

Site of Anacostia River Foot Bridge to Aquatic Garden

Ask folks to name their favorite part of the Anacostia River and many will point to the stretch below the New York Avenue bridge, where the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens on the east bank and the National Arboretum on the west create a sense of a faraway paradise filled with forests, water birds, hawks, owls, and even eagles. As you float along, it is difficult to believe that you are inside the city limits. Let’s take a look at a large part of that paradise, the 446-acre National Arboretum, and how what is happening there affects Our River. 

While the Arboretum is run by the US Department of Agriculture as a research facility, it also serves as a place for recreation, observation, and learning about plants, and as lungs for the city. For some it is simply a great place to get away to. Mike Stevens, executive director of the Capitol Riverfront Business Improvement District, calls it his “Zen space.” While it is often overlooked by tourists and even locals from other parts of the city and suburbs, that could begin to change with a great many things happening there.

First and foremost, it is about to open to the public seven days a week. This is currently scheduled for April 15 and will surely occur by the end of the month. After budget cuts by Congress last year, the Arboretum was forced to close to the public Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, but the Friends of the National Arboretum (FONA) has been able to raise the funds to re-open it and keep it open. To help celebrate, bald eagles have returned to nest there for the first time since the 1940s. Their nesting area is off limits to humans until June, which means if you want to see the azaleas in bloom this year you have to get out of your car and walk to those areas still open. No just driving through!

A new dock being designed at the Arboretum River entrance will accommodate more and larger boats for those who want to visit or picnic on the shoreline. A new Arboretum director is about to be named and will team up with the new FONA executive director, Tom Costello, to add to these projects.  

The last segment of the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail is currently under construction between Benning Road in the District and the Bladensburg Marina in Maryland, on the east side of the River. It is scheduled to open in less than a year and will pass through the Aquatic Gardens. It will unify 70 miles of trails along the river and its tributaries, but it will not reach the Arboretum. To do that there is in design a 410 foot pedestrian and bicycle bridge connecting the trail over the river to the Arboretum entrance gate. At the same time, development along New York Avenue includes plans for a bike trail from the Metropolitan Branch Trail near Union Station to the Arboretum entrance. This will allow folks to start at Union Station and join the Anacostia trail system by going out New York Avenue through the Arboretum and over the new bridge, creating a range of trail options for riders and walkers. Consideration is being given to establishing a special “dawn to dusk” FONA membership to allow access before and after work hours for bikers, runners, and hikers within the Arboretum.

Perhaps more important to the river itself is all the work being done to restore the streams on the Arboretum grounds.  Most are essentially storm sewers when they enter the Arboretum under New York Avenue. Working with the City Department of the Environment, the Arboretum and the Friends have started to bring these streams back to life and to remove the pollutants that are choking them and the Anacostia. The focus is on the role of plants in bringing back water quality. Starting where the largest stream, Hickey Run, enters the property, a major facility was installed to remove trash and petroleum-based pollution. Once the city gets the maintenance contracts in place to keep this facility operational, which has been an ongoing problem, we will see continued improvements.  

The first full stream restoration – on Springhouse Run – will start this spring. It will connect the stream to two ponds, one of which will become a cypress swamp, and will replace the current channeled waterway with a series of pools, riffles, and meanders ending in acres of emergent wetlands near where the stream enters Hickey Run. There will be boardwalks and educational signs; garden clubs have been trained and engaged in the collection and planting out of native grasses and flowers, which are being grown in the Arboretum greenhouses. It all promises to add a wonderful new area to enjoy and learn about streams and native plants.

But all is not well with these old streambeds and the waters they are carrying. As the clean-ups have proceeded, a typical problem in urban streams has appeared in both Hickey and Springhouse runs: residual levels of raw sewage have emerged where they were hidden earlier by other pollutants. These “illicit discharges” to the storm sewers are caused when someone by error connects a line that should go into the separate sanitary sewer line. Now the city must determine where these connections have been made and force corrective action. This is not difficult or expensive technology; it simply requires the city to award the contracts for the studies, which continue to be delayed for reasons no one can explain.

Even more serious, several years ago a large DCWater sanitary sewer broke where it ran along Hickey Run, and it took months for the agency to get the spill under control. Meanwhile, raw sewage ran down the stream into the Anacostia. Since then, the DC Department of the Environment and DCWater have been unable to agree on a settlement, which should provide the funds to restore the stream and pay a penalty for Clean Water Act violations by both the city and DCWater. Instead they continue to stall and refuse to discuss options to redesign the routing of the pipe with the Arboretum. And they have left the scene of the crime in a mess for literally years.

The lesson, my friends, is that even those who look like they are here to do good need to be constantly watched if we are going to restore Our River. What can you do? A number of things come to mind from the experience and efforts in the National Arboretum:

  • Provide strong support to complete expansion of the trail system, including the bridge to the Arboretum from the east side of the River.
  • Keep the pressure on the DC Department of the Environment to issue the contracts to build and maintain what they have committed to do.
  • Press DCWater to settle the sewer-line spill case, provide the funds to restore Hickey Run, and clean up the mess they have left.

Finally, come out and enjoy the Arboretum seven days a week! And don’t forget this year’s Garden Fair on April 24 and 25. You can take home some spectacular plants for your garden, and your money will go to support the programs of the Friends of the National Arboretum to keep all these improvements coming to help Our River!

Hickey Run with warning sign
Spring bulbs in the Arboretum
Springhouse Run, showing signs of sewage in the water
The mess left by DCWater along Hickey Run