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The Anacostia: Restoring a
Ruined River


Cleaning up Contaminants - What Will It Take?

One key to a healthier Anacostia lies in reducing destructive pulses of rain water overloading Washington's outdated combined sewer system - each year about 2.14 billion gallons of raw sewage overflow goes directly into the Anacostia. The District of Columbia and the Washington Area Sewage Authority have developed and approved a $1.6 billion capital program to control combined sewer overflows. The city will rehabilitate pumping stations, close sewage outfalls and use storage tunnels to intercept and store 49 million gallons of sewer overflow during peak periods; it will also undertake aggressive retrofitting campaigns.

But this long-term project will not be sufficient for curbing the quantities of organic chemicals such as PCBs and PAHs and heavy metals that enter the river from diffuse sources throughout the watershed. Because there is no one way to curb such runoff, it will take a suite of different approaches depending on location, topography and available land.

Low impact development (LID) represents a relatively new approach for reducing the flow of stormwater from developed areas. In the past, stormwater management was based on moving massive flows of water off the land as efficiently and quickly as possible, channeling them into drainage systems, sewers and rivers.

"This had a devastating impact on the region's biomass," says Tom Schuler, Director of the Center for Watershed Protection in Ellicott City. The task now, he says, is to reduce the harm caused by mass drainage from so-called "impervious surfaces" - roads, parking lots and paved areas surrounding shopping malls and housing developments. By keeping stormwater on the land, natural hydrological processes associated with grasses, trees and soils can filter out pollutants.

One technique, the humble rain garden - a dry pond or fixed area of grasses and other vegetation that absorbs stormwater runoff - could eventually play an important role in stemming runoff. Scientists estimate that rain gardens can trap 94 percent of sediment, 70 percent of nitrogen and 43 percent of phosphorus that is washed off the land by rain. Low impact development for the Anacostia means using nature to "volatilize" or break down some toxic compounds in water.

Neil Weinstein, the head of the Low Impact Development Center in Beltsville, Maryland, believes that vegetation has tremendous ability to treat pollution and reduce runoff. A single 30 by 20-foot vegetation rain garden can filter the runoff of a large parking lot, he argues. Weinstein was instrumental in the planning of a rain garden in Bladensburg at a restaurant (IHOP) parking lot that is becoming an environmental showpiece for the Anacostia. Proponents of LID approaches to landscape engineering for minimizing runoff offer cost-effective approaches to hydrology that allow businesses to meet regulatory and resource goals.

Larry Coffman, Associate Director of Environmental Resources in Prince George's County and a national expert on maintaining the ecological functions of watersheds, has been instrumental in helping developers plan innovative projects, such as the 80-acre Somerset development in Prince George's. This community of 199 homes on 10,000- square-foot lots uses LID practices to reduce the stormwater management burden. By showing developers how to use swales, rain gardens and other bioretention areas, Coffman helped developers reduce the cost of a finished lot by $4,000. Better for the environment, the lots were also more aesthetically pleasing.

Throughout the Prince George's section of the Anacostia watershed, Coffman has spearheaded the use of rain gardens, which have proven cost effective for developers and enormously beneficial for the area's hydrology. Says Coffman: "If you can disconnect runoff and distribute your drainage, you can reduce stormwater volumes by up to 50 percent and it doesn't cost anything. In the long run it is easier to deal with stormwater at the source rather than at the end of the pipe."

Coffman admits that it has been difficult to change conventional thinking about controlling stormwater. "When we first talked about rain gardens, we were ridiculed," he says. "Now bioretention is the new mantra of watershed management." The task at present, Coffman reflects, is to educate residents in the watershed and get property owners' participation in LID efforts. "If we're going to recover the Anacostia, we need to come up with better technologies that mimic natural processes to save these ecosystems."

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is currently playing a significant role in retrofitting the Anacostia for low impact development. Over the past several years the Corps has spent more than $17 million on the restoration of wetlands, stream restoration and stormwater management. Corps spokesperson Stacey Underwood points out that while we have lost 2,600 acres of wetlands in the Anacostia, we're working with a lot of agencies and organizations to rebuild those watersheds. The approach now, adds Underwood, is "to start at the headwaters of the watershed and work our way down. This is why we are building economic partnerships with Montgomery and Prince George's to improve stream management." Stacey Blersch, the Corps's environmental affairs specialist for the lower Anacostia, also points out that the "Corps has recently done important work in the area of Kingman Island to enhance wildlife habitat by creating more area for bird species. We are trying to get the older hydrologic regime back as much as possible."

Spring-time water flow between the rocks along the Northwest branch
Bubbling between the fall line's enduring rocks, spring-time waters of the Northwest Branch rush downstream toward the mainstem Anacostia. As noted by scientists and conservationists alike, restoring the river will require efforts in the streams of suburban Maryland, as well as downstream in the tidal waters of Washington, D.C.

The Good News So Far

Do we see some effects of these actions yet? The answer is a qualified yes, depending on location. Perhaps Montgomery County provides the best case example where watershed manager Cameron Wiegand points to efforts at improved wetlands and stormwater hydrology that have returned 10 species of fish to Sligo Creek and other county tributaries. Since 1997 Montgomery County has monitored 23 watersheds in its boundaries in order to identify healthy waters and improve unhealthy ones. "What we are proud of," says Wiegand, is that "we have raised the bar in terms of what we do with our streams." Wiegand's staff found that 75 percent of the sediment load in county streams came from stream bank erosion and that is where they have concentrated their energies. Streams are constantly downcutting, destroying old channels and eroding their banks. On upper Sligo Creek the county has installed three stormwater ponds that have proven successful in preventing large sediment runoff during storms.

"We have a lot of tools in our box to help make our portion of the Anacostia watershed better," says county environmental engineer Daniel Harper. The placement of rock to resist bank erosion - riprap interspersed with willow planting - is a favored technique. As the willows become established, roots invade and permeate the rock and underlying soil, binding them together into an erosion-resistant mass. The willows also impart a more "natural" look to the shoreline.

Restoration efforts can succeed but they take work to make a difference. "Finally you have to look at history," Wiegand concludes. "Here in Montgomery we have been working about 12 years to repair these problems. It is not an overnight process."

Meanwhile the Anacostia does not lack bold initiatives. In Bladensburg the Anacostia Watershed Society (AWS) is working to develop wetland nursery projects in the river. "Right now," says AWS president Robert Boone, "we are restoring wild rice in what is left of Anacostia wetlands. Wild rice is an amazing filtration device for nutrients. We call wild rice the river's kidneys." Rice was once a dominant species in the watershed and bringing it back will help the river to regain its health. The AWS is also planting bulrush, pickerelweed and arrow arum to improve plant life in the new marshlands.

"By involving students in planting the marshes," adds Boone, "we can weave the wetlands into the lives of local citizens who will become stakeholders in the river's health." The AWS is also continuing its vision of saving the watershed by planting thousands of trees to rebuild the forest buffer and working in partnership with other agencies like the Army Corps of Engineers. The AWS is putting in large stands of plant life that will improve water clarity, oxygenate the water, improve fish habitat and attract marsh birds like the sora rail, bobolink and grasshopper sparrow.

"Clearly some things are now in place that will greatly benefit the Anacostia River," says Bill Matuszeski, a consultant and former director of the U.S. EPA's Chesapeake Bay Program. The new Combined Sewer Overflow Plan for the District of Columbia will correct many of the district's sewage problems, he says, by ameliorating some of the major degrading effects on the water quality of the Anacostia River. Environmental activist Larry Silverman adds that "given all the political and other issues affecting the District, it is remarkable that they have made the efforts they have to focus on the Anacostia and its stormwater and sewage problems."

Washington, as its famous resident Frederick Douglass once quipped, is a city of "magnificent intentions." Now those intentions are slowly being directed towards rescuing a once "ruined river" and a poster child for abused urban waterways. Currently there is strong public interest in healing the watershed; and despite its environmental troubles, the Anacostia has been nominated as an American Heritage River. "For the first time in decades," says David Baron, "we are really discussing serious measures about reducing sewage overflows and cleaning up the river."

In the heart of the nation's capital kayakers may be surprised to find wooded shorelines, abundant waterfowl and active recreational marinas.
view of the shoreline from a kayak

The future of the Anacostia will center not only on environmental quality but also on environmental equity, believes Cole. "The conservation stuff just doesn't get the work done without a good balance between nature and human beings."

The Civic Dimension

"We just want to see people and government comply with the Clean Water Act," says David Baron, an attorney for Earth Justice, an environmental defense organization.

Baron's view resonates locally. Citizens in the African-American community in the District have fought government policies that would turn settled neighborhoods and parklands into amusement parks and parking lots. Says civic leader Herbert Harris, "We have to keep a close watch on things at the local level if we want to protect our community from rampant growth and environmental degradation."

Environmentalists have done a lot of good, he notes. "But the important thing," he says, "is that local civic organizations are taking ownership of the river and are protecting it from corporate interests that would harm it."

Others in the community worry about the future of the Anacostia. As redevelopment and property values near the river begin to rise, what will happen to settled neighborhoods? Community activist Carl Cole believes that access to the river is key. "We were fenced off from the river by junkyards and polluters in the past. We certainly don't want to be fenced off by gated condo communities." Cole believes that the future of the Anacostia will center not only on environmental quality but also on environmental equity. "The conservation stuff just doesn't get the work done without a good balance between nature and human beings," he says.

The Anacostia, Cole points out, flows in the shadow of the Capitol and provides the focal point for a neighborhood of historic sites essential to understanding the African-American experience. Community revival is in the air. In Cole's view, the Anacostia is inching towards the intent of the Founding Fathers of this country. "The Anacostia historically was designated by our early leaders to be the river that was graced by beautiful federal buildings, ministries and homes of Congressmen. We are now seeing eastward development at last in that direction." (See sidebar, "Child of the Urban Wilderness," highlighting Cole's involvement with Anacostia restoration.)

The city's new Anacostia Waterfront Initiative, for example, proposes to open up a shoreline 90 percent of which is owned by the National Park Service, the Department of Defense and the District of Columbia. Central to the initiative is a cohesive mixture of commercial, residential, recreational and open space uses that will give citizens of the District greater access to their own waterfront.

Community attitudes in the district towards the river, says Reginald Parrish, have overcome their "historical disconnect." Parrish, the EPA Liaison to the Anacostia River, believes that previously "folks in the district were too much concerned with public safety and job issues to give much thought to the environment. Now they are beginning to see the river as part of the picture of future job growth and community development." In concert with the District, the EPA is developing programs to get area youths jobs in low-impact development projects in the watershed. With the new Anacostia Waterfront Initiative, other jobs in tourism and recreation in the watershed will follow.

No doubt the Anacostia will experience significant challenges in the future, while still trying to deal with the legacies of the past. Changes in precipitation, temperature, and storm patterns combined with growth will profoundly affect water systems in this area, as elsewhere in the United States. Regardless, Robert Boone argues that we have to act now in terms of our moral stewardship of the watershed. "Any place can be beautiful if you take the trouble to discover what there is to love," he urges. "We can't wait for some future generation to save the Anacostia."

Web Sites

Anacostia Watershed Toxics Alliance (AWTA)
Represents more than 25 different groups, agencies, institutions and community groups. Formed in 1999 as a voluntary public-private partnership to address toxic problems in the river.

Anacostia Watershed Network
The network, sponsored by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Government's Anacostia Watershed Restoration Committee (AWRC), is designed to provide comprehensive information on resources within the Anacostia watershed.

Anacostia Watershed Society (AWS)
A non-profit environmental organization dedicated to restoring and protecting the river through programs of education, action and advocacy.

Chesapeake Ecotox Research Program
This multi-institutional, five-year research effort aims at developing a means for predicting the effects of contaminant reduction strategies on living resources in the Chesapeake Bay. Sediments used in these studies come from the Anacostia River, Baltimore Harbor and the Elizabeth River in Virginia.

Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin (ICPRB)
The commission's mission is to enhance, protect and conserve water and land resources of the Potomac River basin and its tributaries through regional and interstate cooperation.

Merrill Leffler and Jack Greer contributed to this article.

John R. Wennersten is the author of The Oyster Wars of Chesapeake Bay, Maryland's Eastern Shore: A Journey in Time and Place, and most recently Chesapeake: An Environmental Biography. A professor of history for many years at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, Wennersten now lives on Capitol Hill, not far from the Anacostia River.


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