Anacostia River Still Needs Help

acrsnho travel down the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C. is to journey through the dregs of the material world. Legions of beer cans and 7-11 Big Gulp cups line the banks, and shards of glass sparkle in the sun. Tires sporadically wash ashore. Even yacht clubs are affected.

The Anacostia begins inauspiciously at the confluence of several creeks in a working class area of suburban Maryland and flows past some of the poorest neighborhoods in the District of Columbia. just above and below the District line, access to the river is restricted by barbed wire fences near the sprawling Potomac Electric Power Company and Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission plants at the river’s banks. A huge scrap metal company straddles the river.

“This is where there’s the highest concentration of pollutants. And they just wash down stream. You can almost draw a racial line across this area of the river. White people live above it and black people live below it. Ifs that blatant,” says Joe Lane of the Anacostia chapter of Earth First! Lane has led what he calls “toxic tours” by bike of the Anacostia.

For Robert Boone, executive director of the Anacostia Watershed Society, the visual blight and misperceptions of the communities near the river are the first problems that need to be attacked. “People think of the Anacostia as a muddy ditch down in the District, just a place where all the murders are and where the pollution goes,” he says.

In the three years since he founded the society, brigades of volunteers from surrounding neighborhoods and the suburbs have hauled 60 tons of debris and 1,500 tires from the Anacostia and its tributaries. “Once you’ve removed some of the trash you say, |this looks so much better,’ and it expands your awareness to more possibilities for cleaning up the area. Ifs something that snowballs into building a political constituency.”

The group paddles flotillas of canoes down the river to scoop up trash. In addition, it sends bright orange vehicles that resemble mini-tanks out onto mud flats to retrieve tires. With the help of 275 youths from the D.C. Public Service Corps, the society has planted more than 4,000 trees near the Anacostia and in other inner-city neighborhoods.

The group is currently working with the Army Corps of Engineers to dredge mudflats at the Anacostia’s edges to turn them into wetlands. By planting such moisture-loving plants as pickerel weed and arrow root they will double the area of wetlands by the river from 30 to 60 acres.

The society is also embroiled in a battle over use of an island in the river called Children’s Island. Boone says he hopes the island will be developed as an environmental education center and field offices for his and other environmental groups to study the Anacostia. His plan also calls for a nature trail and wildlife sanctuary as well as a tree nursery for urban forestry training and a rest area for a proposed four-mile Anacostia Canoe Trail.

But the District of Columbia government is backing plans for a developer to turn the island into an “educational” theme park, a plan Boone calls “totally antithetical to the spirit of restoring the river.” Boone feels that any educational themes would soon be pushed to the wayside to make room for a for-profit amusement park pulling in large numbers of tourists who will harm rather than help the rivers fragile ecosystem.

Beyond the Anacostia River itself, the Anacostia Watershed Society takes a holistic of view the entire watershed – from all the waterways flowing into the Anacostia to the point it empties into the Potomac, the source of much of Washington’s drinking water. Because water from all areas of the watershed eventually flows together, piecemeal cleanup of isolated areas won’t work. The interconnections of rivers in urban areas is an area that is just beginning to be explored, Boone says.

“The underlying theme of all urban watersheds is that they’re being trashed by a throwaway society,” he says. “This is a profound insult to all of us and to the rivers. But I think that both in Washington and around the country if you mobilize enough people and empower them to clean up their own neighborhoods you can make a difference.”

One thought on “Anacostia River Still Needs Help

  1. The Anacostia is definitely one of my favorite rivers, so it’s nice to see that there are real conservation efforts going on right now. Too often we neglect things for too long, and suddenly we end up with an environmental disaster!

    Those are never necessary. We just have to be proactive!

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