How Environmental Groups are Saving a Severely Troubled River
In the summertime, when vacationers revel in the splendor of nature, conservationist volunteers and organizations hit the trails, rivers, forests, and other landscapes to clean and restore the natural beauty of these sites.
In the DC area, one beneficiary of these efforts is the Anacostia River—or the “East Branch” of the Potomac River, as it was once called.
The 8.5-mile Anacostia runs from its shallow beginnings around Bladensburg, Maryland, through Washington, DC, until it merges with the mighty Potomac River. The Anacostia’s watershed includes heavily populated areas of Prince George’s County and Montgomery County as well as the District of Columbia.
Despite all the modern development—and pollution—surrounding its banks, the Anacostia River Watershed is “still a remarkably rich natural area,” says the Anacostia Watershed Society (AWS). The nonprofit group said a recent inventory of species, called a BioBlitz, found 522 unique species around the Anacostia, including: bald eagles, beavers, ospreys, cormorants, white perch, striped bass, crayfish, herons, turtles, egrets, otters, red fox, shad, kingfishers, catfish, and mussels.
Today, the Anacostia River continues to be cleaned and restored by several exemplary environmental organizations. In fact, a select few sections of the Anacostia River have been deemed safe enough to swim in, according to The Swim Guide. This marks an improvement over 2018, when none of the Anacostia beaches tracked by theswimguide.org could pass a water test.
The Anacostia Story
Historians say the first riverkeepers of the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers were indigenous tribes, such as the Piscataway, Nacotchtank (or Anacostank), Pamunkey, and Mattaponi, among others.
In 1608, Captain John Smith, a leader of the Jamestown colony, and twelve companions conducted explorations of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributary rivers and were well received by the Nacotchtank, the most northerly of the Algonquin tribes living along the Potomac. Captain Smith documented these forays in his journal, The Sixt Voyage (1606): “Within is a country that may have the prerogative over the most pleasant places known, for large and pleasant navigable rivers, heaven and earth never agreed better to frame a place for man's habitation.”
The tribal name, Nacotchtank, meaning “town of traders,” was later Latinized to Anacostine. Hence the river’s name, Anacostia, is an homage to the indigenous people who inhabited this area and its abundant wildlife and clear rivers teeming with fish and other marine life.
From Pristine to ‘Unfixable’
With the passage of time, industrial development and environmental mismanagement began to foul America’s rivers flowing through urban, suburban, and commercial areas.
The Anacostia River became so befouled it was dubbed the “forgotten river” and “unfixable.”
A major culprit was the Washington Navy Yard that was built on its banks near Southeast DC in 1800. This US Navy installation “manufactured guns and munitions, built ships, and deposited toxic sediment in the riverbed” through the mid-1960s, the DC Appleseed Center for Law and Justice said in a recent report.
Toxic sediment, sewage overflows, industrial waste, urban and stormwater runoff, litter and trash, and illegal discharges all helped make the river unsafe for swimming and fishing.
In addition to that toxic sediment, sewage overflows, industrial waste, urban and stormwater runoff, litter and trash, and illegal discharges all helped make the river unsafe for swimming and fishing, and harmed the wildlife living in or near the river.
By the 1960s, other rivers were also found to be suffering. In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson, speaking to state governors and other officials, exclaimed that he found the polluted Potomac flowing near the Capitol building “disgraceful.”
Fortunately, such sentiments eventually led to the groundbreaking passage of the Water Quality Act of 1965 and, later, the Clean Water Act of 1972. Senator Howard Baker, a Republican from Tennessee, stated in defense of the Clean Water Act, “As I have talked with thousands of Tennesseans, I have found that the kind of natural environment we bequeath to our children and grandchildren is of paramount importance. If we cannot swim in our lakes and rivers, if we cannot breathe the air God has given us, what other comforts can life offer us?”
Reversing the Anacostia River’s Crisis
To counter the pollution of the Anacostia River, environmental organizations, such as the Anacostia Watershed Society (AWS), the Anacostia Riverkeeper (ARK), and the Earth Conservation Corps (ECC), have been at the forefront of efforts to clean up the river, educate the public, and recruit volunteers. They also conduct scientific research to help develop strategies to protect the river in the future.
The Anacostia Watershed Society
The AWS prioritizes community involvement and offers educational programs and volunteer opportunities, such as writing letters, making phone calls, and picking up trash.
One of AWS's large-scale activities involves mussel population restoration.
Biologists have long been aware that mussels, like oysters, play an important role in keeping rivers and waterways clean.
Biologists have long been aware that mussels, like oysters, play an important role in keeping rivers and waterways clean. When mussels feed, they act like powerful vacuum cleaners, filtering materials out of several gallons of water per day. In fact, they have been used in New Zealand to help filter and clear up that nation’s freshwater lakes (see the Earth & I article “Mussel Power Cleans New Zealand’s Freshwater Lakes.”)
Many of the mussels previously found in the Anacostia River are either endangered or extinct. AWS is now working with Professor John Pfeiffer, a zoologist at the National Museum of Natural History, to raise awareness of local mussel restoration. “Since 2019, the Anacostia Watershed Society has released more than 24,000 mussels into Washington’s Anacostia River, which will filter an equivalent of 132 Olympic-sized swimming pools each year,” says a recent article in Smithsonian Magazine.
The AWS also recently launched a project called “Mussel May,” in which volunteers re-introduced several thousands of mussels into the river.
The Emerald Ash Borer Threat
Another problem besetting the Anacostia region is the devastation of the ash forests along the riverbanks.
Approximately twenty years ago, an invasive beetle from Asia known as the Emerald Ash Borer (EAB) appeared in North America, decimating ash tree forests in several states. About ten years ago, these beetles began attacking the ash trees adjacent to the Anacostia River. Although in Asia, ash trees have developed a natural resistance to the beetles, the North American ash species is vulnerable and can suffer a 99% mortality rate with no intervention.
Although in Asia, ash trees have developed a natural resistance to the beetles, the North American ash species is vulnerable and can suffer a 99% mortality rate with no intervention.
“You don’t know how much ash trees make up a riparian forest until they’re dead,” Jorge Bogantes, AWS's Natural Resources Specialist, told the DCist this year. He and his team of volunteers have planted hundreds of trees of fifteen different species not affected by the EAB pest on both sides of the Anacostia River to recreate the forest amidst the dead ash tree snags.
The online exhibit Ash Forest Project offers information about the ash tree forest ecosystem and how people can become stewards of this vital natural environment.
The ARK works “to protect and restore the Anacostia River for all who live, work, and play in its watershed, and to advocate for a clean river for all its communities.”
In line with its mission statement, ARK schedules volunteer cleanup activities. In 2022, for example, more than nine hundred volunteers collected over 20,000 pounds of trash from the river and its shoreline.
Besides raw sewage, a rising source of pollution for the Anacostia is the illegal dumping of tires from vehicles.
Besides raw sewage, a rising source of pollution for the Anacostia is the illegal dumping of tires from vehicles. This past spring, ARK worked with a group of students from The George Washington University’s Environmental Resource Policy Capstone Project to investigate the issue of tire pollution in the Anacostia watershed and determine how best to mitigate it.
The students recommended that the DC government assess a nominal fee on the sale of all new and used tires, of which a small amount would go to the dealer and the bulk of the fee would go to a tire management fund. Such types of funds have been used elsewhere to expedite tire cleanup, deter repeat offenders, develop a monitoring task force, and schedule free tire drop-off events.
ARK volunteers also regularly sample and monitor the river’s water quality to alert the community to the ongoing health of the Anacostia River.
Earth Conservation Corps
In 1992, nine youths from the Valley Green public housing project in Southeast DC kickstarted the ECC by deciding to improve their lives through environmental cleanup. The nonprofit ECC has since helped at-risk youth transform their lives by improving the environment in which they live.
The ECC and its allies have long targeted the Anacostia River for rehabilitation and have ended up raising and investing more than $40 million in youth-driven conservation projects.
After thirty-one years of clean river advocacy and conservation programs, there is a visible improvement in surface-level river quality and millions of dollars are planned in current and future investments.
With the support of the National Wildlife Federation, AmeriCorps, and other groups, the ECC has helped to restore and maintain DC’s first certified wetland along the Anacostia. After thirty-one years of clean river advocacy and conservation programs, there is a visible improvement in surface-level river quality and millions of dollars are planned in current and future investments.
The Anacostia Recovery
The Anacostia River is a precious historical and natural treasure. It is home to a variety of wildlife, including fish, birds, and turtles.
The growing success of the efforts to clean up the Anacostia River shows that when people take ownership of their environment and engage in wise stewardship, both natural habitats and America’s communities can become healthier and more livable. In concord, the DC government is investing in improving its processes to prevent wastewater from entering the Capital’s waterways untreated.
*Marion Warin Miller is a French bilingual researcher, writer, and editor now residing in Northern Virginia. She has master’s degrees in Business and Economics, and in International Economics and Economic Development. She has also ministered for community development and world peace. As a grandmother of eight, she is deeply interested in environmental stewardship and preserving natural wonders for future generations. She has traveled to many natural sites in countries around the world and now escapes to the gorgeous Shenandoah Valley National Park whenever time allows.