Nahshon Forde, an operations assistant with the Anacostia Watershed Society, steers his kayak to shore after helping with a free paddle night organized by the AWS in Washington, D.C. "By doing paddle nights and things like that we’re helping people develop a relationship with the river, and that’s kind of a conveyor belt to a lot of our other ways to be involved with AWS," said Lee Cain, former Director of Recreation at AWS.
Historically overrun with pollution, the Anacostia is still plagued by litter, toxics and stormwater runoff. But the river is also home to a wealth of wildlife: deer silently approaching the water’s edge, egrets congregating in the shallows and bald eagles defending their nests.
In June 2014, the Anacostia Water Trail officially opened. This nine-mile water trail runs from Bladensburg, Maryland, through Washington, D.C., to where the Anacostia meets the Potomac River, passing by natural areas and recreation sites like Kenilworth Park, the National Arboretum, Kingman Island and Yards Park.
Image by Will Parson
It’s a gray Saturday morning in Washington, D.C. The sky is full of clouds, threatening rain, but Kenilworth Park isn’t empty. In fact, a large group of people are gathered around a tent in the park’s large, open field. But they’re not here for flag football or barbecuing; they’re here to work.
Today is the Anacostia Watershed Society (AWS) Earth Day Cleanup, and all of these people came out to Kenilworth Park to volunteer. As the overcast sky begins to shed its first drops of rain, they break off into smaller groups and head out to different sections of the park. Some begin scouring the field for trash, others head toward the Anacostia River—which cuts through the park—and some begin working on one of the river’s smaller tributaries.
While the Kenilworth group is large, they’re just a small portion of the 2,400 volunteers who signed up to take part in today’s cleanup at 31 different sites around D.C. and Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties in Maryland. Today seems like a large-scale cleanup effort—because it is—but AWS’s day of action is part of an even larger network of cleanups called Project Clean Stream, hosted by the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay. For the past 13 years, the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay has coordinated cleanups around the Chesapeake region. This year, cleanups ran from Sandbridge, Virginia, all the way up to Westfield, Pennsylvania.
For some of the volunteers at Kenilworth Park, this is their first time participating in a cleanup. Many were drawn to the event through Broccoli City Fest, a local concert that offered tickets to people in exchange for community service at a number of designated locations. One volunteer, Hilina Kibron, remarked, “I probably wouldn’t have done it on my own time. This actually forces me to do it.”
For experts and newcomers alike, the day is a learning opportunity. After just a few hours of picking up bottle after bottle and a seemingly endless stream of Styrofoam containers, volunteers reflected on personal changes they wanted to make, and hopes they had for others. After cleaning up plastic bottles and even an oil drum, William Klein said, “I hope that it will bring more awareness about littering and trying prevent that so in the future we won’t have to have days like these because people will be more sustainable.”
Despite the trash, many saw the beauty of Kenilworth Park and the Anacostia River, and wanted others to see that as well. They expressed hope about the value that a clean natural space could bring to the community and its residents. Fajr Chestnut, volunteering with her young daughter Ryanna, summed it up best: “The river means health and sustainability and economic development, and it’s the basis for the community. Once it’s to the level where it’s supposed to be, people will be able to have recreation. It’s bettering the community; it’s making it look better, making it sound better, making it feel better. So it’s important to have a clean river.”
For the uninitiated, paddling the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C., provides an opportunity to discover a hidden natural gem. Paddling away from the riverbank on an early fall evening, we quickly begin to slide past egrets hunting in the shallows and turtles diving deep to avoid our canoe. Joining them is a kingfisher, chattering as it circles before landing on a branch, and a bald eagle, following the course of the river upstream and disappearing around a bend. Moments like this are why the Anacostia Watershed Society (AWS) hosts free paddle nights like the one at Kenilworth Park in D.C. — to change perceptions of a river with a reputation of being heavily polluted.
“From the perspective of someone who’s heard about the river but never been there, I think the most surprising thing is that there’s a whole lot of nature,” says Lee Cain, Director of Recreation at AWS. “When you get out there, there’s some places where you’re there and you think, ‘Am I in the middle of West Virginia?’”
Cain says he heard many negative stories about the Anacostia River before visiting it for the first time, but his perceptions changed after experiencing it up close. The Anacostia is indeed still plagued by trash, sewage, toxins and runoff. But it is also a place where Cain has seen fox and deer swimming across the river, where egrets aggregate by the dozens at nighttime, and where bald eagles and osprey lay their eggs in March so their fledglings can feed on shad. In June, the 9-mile Anacostia Water Trail officially opened, featuring many natural areas and recreation sites along the river.
“You’re probably going to see a higher density of wildlife on this river than you might in even the Jug Bay wetlands,” says Cain.
Cain says the Anacostia is better than it was 25 years ago, when cars, refrigerators and tires were the big items being pulled from the river. Positive signs of change have come in the form of a plastic bag fee passed by the D.C. Council in 2009, and a ban on plastic-foam food containers that passed in June. A group called Groundwork Anacostia River DC has implemented litter traps in several tributaries, and AWS operates a trash trap study as well. The Anacostia Revitalization Fund, established in 2012, has provided funding for local initiatives aimed at restoring the river’s health. DC Water’s $2.6 billion Clean River Project will remove 98 percent of combined sewer overflows to the Anacostia by 2022, keeping 1.5 billion gallons of diluted sewage from entering the Anacostia every year. And the Pepco Benning Road Power Plant, which ran on coal then oil for over a century, sits quietly near the Anacostia, shuttered since 2012 and slated for demolition.
“If [the power plant] has some source of PCB contamination then at least that source is gone and now, when we clean out the soil, we’ll have a pretty clean space,” says Cain.
He says it has been a big year for toxins in the river, with the District of Columbia taking core samples along the river to assess what is down there and what it will cost for removal.
“One thing that’s encouraging is that it took us a couple centuries to sort of destroy this river, and then it’s only taken us about 25 years to get it to where it is now,” says Cain. “So you can imagine in another 25 years where it will be.”
In the meantime, AWS will continue working toward the goal of a fishable and swimmable Anacostia by 2025. Getting people on the Anacostia on paddle nights is just one effort to let people see firsthand what it already has to offer. The hope is that some of those visitors might become volunteers with AWS’ or their partners’ trash, stewardship, education and other programs.
“There’s a lot of the Anacostia that’s not exactly accessible to people, and in order to have all of these things and these efforts continue we need the support of the public,” says Cain. “We need people to recognize that this is a resource worth saving.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
The history of the Anacostia and Patapsco rivers is similar to that of countless other mid-Atlantic waterways. At one time, these rivers served as sources of power that fueled industrialization and as sewer lines that removed human and industrial wastes from urban areas. Over time, these rivers lost their identities as “natural resources” and the values placed on them for food and spiritual renewal.
Image courtesy eutrophication&hypoxia/Flickr
Rivers were our early highways, transporting people and goods from one place to another. They bound communities together, giving people a common experience. Earlier this month, community representatives, academics and activists came together at the Smithsonian Institution’s Anacostia Community Museum to share their experiences in trying to reclaim the original values of these resources for local residents.
Image courtesy Mr. T in DC/Flickr
Historian and University of Maryland Eastern Shore Professor Emeritus John Wennersten has studied and written about the Anacostia River for decades. At this talk, he discussed the ethical responsibility we have to remedy the environmental burdens that have been disproportionately placed on low-income and minority communities. Indeed, restoring urban waterways is an important step in this process. Both the Anacostia and Patapsco rivers have legacies of industrial development and pollution, and Dan Smith with the Anacostia Watershed Society and Joe Stewart with the Baltimore Historical Society described efforts to engage the community in reclaiming and restoring waterfronts. As part of this work, Christina Bradley from Baltimore’s Parks & People Foundation described efforts to improve the grounds of city schools. By replacing pavement with plants, her organization gives students, teachers and community members the opportunity to experience the value of urban green space.
There is power in encouraging students to experience the environment. Dennis Chestnut, Director of Groundwork Anacostia River DC, has returned to the neighborhoods of his childhood to reconnect both youth and adult residents to their river. And Tony Thomas, the museum’s “Science Guy,” framed the evening’s discussion by describing his experience as a science teacher and the thrill he would feel when the “light bulb” went on for one of his students to illuminate a concept or idea.
Image courtesy Mr. T in DC/Flickr
The turnout for this event was at a disadvantage, thanks to beautiful weather and a Washington Nationals baseball game. But for those who spoke and those who attended, it offered a valuable time to share our experiences and learn from each other, driven by a common passion to reclaim, reconnect and restore our communities and our natural resources. It was a wonderful thing to witness.
Note: The opinions expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect U.S. EPA policy endorsement or action.
Four organizations in the Chesapeake Bay watershed will receive more than $230,000 to restore portions of the Anacostia and Patapsco rivers.
Image courtesy Tommy Wells/Flickr
In the District of Columbia, two organizations will connect students to the Anacostia in an effort to boost local stewardship. Living Classrooms of the National Capital Region will put third and fifth graders onto canoes, kayaks and an educational vessel, while the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum will turn at-risk high school students into citizen scientists to monitor water quality along Watts Branch.
In College Park, the University of Maryland will design low-impact development solutions to lower the amount of polluted stormwater running off of schools and into the Anacostia. And in Baltimore, the University of Baltimore will monitor fecal bacteria in a portion of a Patapsco River tributary to help two blue collar neighborhoods reduce pet waste and prioritize infrastructure repairs.
Image courtesy Zach Karpinski/Flickr
The funding has been granted through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Urban Waters Small Grants program, which supports the restoration of urban rivers and streams in 18 geographic regions.
Healthy and accessible urban waters can improve economic, educational, recreational and social opportunities in nearby communities.
“People, buildings and businesses are all concentrated in urban areas, making it even more important to protect waterways from pollution,” said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy in a media release. “These communities will receive grants, allowing them to help turn these waterways into centerpieces of urban renewal, spurring economic development and job creation.”
In addition to the four projects inside the Bay watershed, the Urban Waters Small Grants program will fund 32 projects in 15 other states and Puerto Rico.
Restoring urban streams can help restore urban communities, according to a new analysis from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).
In a report released last week, the USGS documents the contributions that the restoration of an Anacostia River tributary made to the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, from the creation of jobs to the creation of open space for residents. The yearlong restoration of a 1.8 mile stretch of Watts Branch is one in a series of case studies highlighting the economic impacts of restoration projects supported by the Department of the Interior.
Image courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region
Completed in 2011, the efforts to restore Watts Branch included the restoration of an eroded stream channel and the relocation and improvement of streamside sewer lines. The work—a collaboration between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the District Department of the Environment, the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority and others—reduced erosion, improved water quality and wildlife habitat, and provided local residents with an urban sanctuary where green space is otherwise limited.
The restoration project also accounted for 45 jobs, $2.6 million in local labor income and $3.4 million in value added to the District of Columbia and 20 counties in Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland.
According to the EPA, $3.7 million in project implementation costs were funded by multiple agencies and organizations, including the EPA and National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
Read more about Restoring a Stream, Restoring a Community.
Tumor rates among catfish in the Anacostia River are down, according to a new report from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).
Biologists with the agency’s Chesapeake Bay Field Office have studied the brown bullhead catfish for decades as an indicator of habitat status and the success of cleanup efforts. The bottom-dwelling fish is sensitive to contaminants that accumulate in the mud in which it finds its food, often developing liver and skin tumors after exposure to cancer-causing chemicals.
Image courtesy USDA/Wikimedia Commons
Brown bullheads in the Anacostia River once had the highest rates of liver tumors in North America, but recent USFWS surveys show that tumors in the fish have dropped. While the rate is still higher than the Bay-wide average, this improvement could indicate that exposure to chemical contaminants is on the decline.
Liver tumors in fish are caused by exposure to sediment that is contaminated with polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs. PAHs can be found in coal, oil and gasoline, and enter rivers and streams from stormwater runoff, waste sites and the atmosphere.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the District Department of the Environment (DDOE) have coordinated a number of recent cleanup efforts to lower PAH contamination in the watershed, from improved stormwater management and more frequent street sweeping to the targeted inspection of local automobile repair shops to lower loadings of oil and grease.
Read more about Tumors in Brown Bullhead Catfish in the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers.
Chemical contaminants continue to afflict the Chesapeake Bay watershed, raising concern over water quality and the health of fish, wildlife and watershed residents.
Close to three-quarters of the Bay’s tidal waters are considered impaired by chemical contaminants, from the pesticides applied to farmland and lawns to repel weeds and insects to the household and personal-care products that enter the environment through our landfills and wastewater. But so-called “PCBs” and mercury are particularly problematic in the region, according to a report released last week by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).
Both PCBs—short for “polychlorinated biphenyls”—and mercury are considered “widespread” in extent and severity, concentrating in sediment and in fish tissue and leading to fish-consumption advisories in a number of rivers and streams.
The District of Columbia, for instance, has issued such advisories for all of its water bodies, asking the public not to consume catfish, carp or eels, which are bottom-feeding fish that can accumulate chemicals in their bodies. While the District’s Anacostia and Potomac rivers raise the greatest concern in the watershed when it comes to fish tissue contamination, a November report confirmed that many Anacostia anglers are sharing and consuming potentially contaminated fish, sparking interest in reshaping public outreach to better address clean water, food security and human health in the area.
While PCBs have not been produced in the United States since a 1977 ban, the chemicals continue to enter the environment through accidental leaks, improper disposal and “legacy deposits”; mercury can find its way into the atmosphere through coal combustion, waste incineration and metal processing.
Exposure to both of these contaminants can affect the survival, growth and reproduction of fish and wildlife.
The Chesapeake Bay Program will use this report to consider whether reducing the input of toxic contaminants to the Bay should be one of its new goals.
A yearlong survey of anglers along the Anacostia River has confirmed that many fishermen are catching, sharing and consuming contaminated fish.
While fishing advisories in Maryland and Washington, D.C., have been in place for more than two decades, these warnings are often not seen, understood or listened to—and as many as 17,000 residents could be consuming fish caught in the Anacostia.
Image courtesy Len Matthews/Flickr
Located less than one mile from the nation’s capital, the Anacostia River has long suffered environmental degradation. Polluted runoff from urban streets and hazardous waste sites has caused toxic chemicals to build up in the water and in the bodies of fish, which could cause disease or development disorders in those who consume them.
According to the results of a survey that studied the social behavior of Anacostia anglers, a complex set of factors is driving the sharing and consuming of locally caught and potentially contaminated fish: past experience and present beliefs, a lack of awareness of the health risks involved and an overriding desire to share their catch with those who might otherwise go hungry.
Image courtesy LilySusie/Flickr
Research conducted through hundreds of interviews along fishing “hotspots” and a community survey that canvassed the lower Anacostia watershed found that 40 percent of fishermen had never heard that fish from the Anacostia could make them sick. Some anglers thought visual cues—like obvious lesions, cloudiness in the eyes or the color of a fish’s blood—would help them determine the health of a fish, or that related illnesses would soon be apparent rather than chronic or long-term. If a fisherman had not fallen ill from a meal of fish before, then he might perceive the fish to be healthy or think that his preparation methods made it clean.
Research also found that current advisories do not resonate among diverse anglers. Just 11 percent of fishermen had seen a sign or poster, and even fewer had received warning material with a fishing license or reviewed related information online. And English-only outreach is not effective among a population in which one-quarter speaks a language other than English at home.
Image courtesy 35millipead/Flickr
But how can Anacostia anglers be reached?
"The answer to this problem will be far more complex than simply telling anglers not to share their catch,” said Steve Raabe, principal of the Maryland-based research firm that conducted the survey.
The Anacostia Watershed Society, among the partners behind the survey, agrees. While the non-profit’s director of public policy acknowledged this study is not a “silver bullet solution,” he hopes it will bring about positive change.
“We are hoping [the study] will be the catalyst to engage all stakeholders—federal and local governments, food security and hunger organizations, environmental and health organizations, as well as residents—to come up with answers,” Brent Bolin said.
“Through this research effort, we have already begun identifying potential solutions,” Bolin continued, from directing better messaging to affected populations to expanding urban gardens, farmers markets and other programs that will address the long-term challenges of clean water, food security and human health.
The University of Maryland has received close to $700,000 in federal funding to help communities reduce stormwater runoff.
Using a software program to pinpoint pollution hot spots and an innovative brand of social marketing to boost citizen engagement, the university will embark on a multi-year project to increase the adoption of conservation practices in two watershed communities: the Wilde Lake watershed in Howard County, Md., and the Watts Branch watershed in Washington, D.C., whose waters flow into the Patuxent and Anacostia rivers, respectively.
Stormwater runoff, or rainfall that picks up pollutants as it flows across paved roads, parking lots, lawns and golf courses, is the fastest growing source of pollution into the Chesapeake Bay. Best management practices can reduce the flow of stormwater into creeks, streams and rivers, from the green roofs that trap and filter stormwater to the permeable pavement that allows stormwater to trickle underground rather than rush into storm drains.
But best management practices cannot work without the citizens who put them into action.
"We need to work with communities, rather than take a top-down approach [to stormwater management]," said project lead and assistant professor Paul Leisnham. "For the long-term successful implementation of these practices ... we need communities to be involved."
The university has partnered with local schools, religious organizations and grassroots associations (among them the Maryland Sea Grant, the Anacostia Watershed Society and Groundwork Anacostia) in hopes of breaking down barriers to the adoption of best management practices and increasing community involvement—and thus, investment—in local, long-term environmental conservation.
From left, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, University of Maryland assistant professor Paul Leisnham and U.S. EPA Region 3 Administrator Shawn M. Garvin
U.S. Senator Ben Cardin commended the project at a Bladensburg Waterfront Park event as a creative and results-driven way to reduce stormwater runoff.
"It's going to allow us to make a difference in our [local] watershed, which will make a difference in the Chesapeake Bay," Cardin said.
The funding, which totaled $691,674, was awarded through the Sustainable Chesapeake Grant program administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
A year or two ago, the newest addition to a southeast Washington, D.C., stream was not nesting mallards or spring peeper frogs, but cars – abandoned in the creek at the approximate rate of one vehicle per week.
Illegal dumping was just one problem for Watts Branch: the largest D.C. tributary to the Anacostia River, which flows through the District to the Potomac River and into the Chesapeake Bay. Broken sewer lines running through the stream leaked bacteria into the water. During storms, fast-moving water cut into the stream's banks, leaving Watts Branch looking more like a trench than a backyard creek.
When water cuts into stream banks, it carries sediment (dirt) into the stream. Sediment clouds the water, preventing sunlight from reaching important aquatic life, such as amphibians and bay grasses.
This combination of bacteria and sediment pollution left Watts Branch virtually devoid of life. The creek – just blocks away from Marvin Gaye's childhood home – was beginning to mimic the music legend's environmental concerns, expressed most explicitly in his 1971 single Mercy Mercy Me. ("Oil wasted on the oceans and upon our seas/Fish full of mercury/Oh, mercy mercy me/Oh, things ain't what they used to be.")
Today, dumped cars are a rare sight, and spring peepers splash into the water as I walk along the banks of Watts Branch. A stream restoration project completed in fall 2011 by the District Department of the Environment (DDOE) not only corrected the dumping problem, but repaired sewer lines, installed native plants, and transformed the trench into a meandering stream that can healthily withstand storm events.
Slowing down fast moving water
"The project is designed to keep the channel relatively stable," explains Peter Hill, branch chief for DDOE's Planning and Restoration Division. "Before, the stormwater and all the runoff would come rushing through here very quickly. The banks were steep; there was not a lot of biological activity."
In one 2008 storm event, the stream’s water level rose from zero to four feet in just two hours.
(Image courtesy DDOE)
Like all stream restoration projects, the Watts Branch project aimed to slow down stormwater flowing into the stream. When water moves slower, it does not cut into and erode stream banks, carrying sediment into the water. This allows plants and wildlife to flourish both on the banks and in the stream.
"Now, when we have a storm, water will rise up, but it will tend to fall back into the center of the stream... this basically relieves the pressure from the stream banks so you don’t get erosion," explains Hill. "The water falls over stones, (in the center of the creek) as opposed to tearing up this bank."
In addition to redirecting stream flows, DDOE and Anacostia Riverkeeper installed a floating trash collecting device in the water. Groundwork Anacostia empties the device every two weeks, preventing trash from floating downstream.
Parks and People Foundation and other volunteer groups helped install native plants and aquatic grasses, which will help to keep soil on the stream banks in place.
Watts Branch was chosen for restoration because of its severe water quality impairments from sediment and bacteria. But there are hundreds of streams just like it across the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
In Northwest D.C., Milkhouse Ford, a tributary to Rock Creek, also suffered from high volumes of fast-moving stormwater flowing from a nearby residential neighborhood. Today, rocks separate the stream into small pools where tadpoles are hatching, and newly planted trees dot the stream banks. The DDOE and National Park Service project was completed in fall 2011.
"Each pool is a foot drop in elevation," explains project manager and DDOE Environmental Protection Specialist Stephen Reiling. "It's just one way of slowing the stormwater down and letting sediment settle in these pools. That's the simple idea: just slowing the water down."
The pools allow the stormwater to sit long enough to seep into the ground water. This allows many of the pollutants found in stormwater runoff (such as lawn fertilizer, automobile exhaust and bacteria from pet waste) to soak into the ground, instead of making their way into the Chesapeake Bay.
"We have a very impervious residential watershed up here (above the stream), so associated with that, there’s grease and oil from vehicles, sediment, and any kind of fertilizer residents put on their lawns," explains Reiling. "So we’d like to slow that down, and hopefully keep it here before it gets to the bay."
Milkhouse Ford is surrounded by the forests of Rock Creek Park, trees that the project team managed to keep intact. Preserving nearby vegetation is difficult in many stream engineering projects, which require large and heavy equipment to build up banks or replace soils.
"This is pretty unique in terms of how small the footprint is," says Hill.
Rock Creek Conservancy and other volunteer groups planted native trees and shrubs along the banks, which will hold the soil in place and prevent the stream's banks from eroding.
The stormwater story
Since streams, storms and stormwater are natural parts of the water cycle, it may seem strange that stormwater is degrading our streams and contributing to sediment pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. But in many places, stormwater from driveways and lawns flows into a sewer on the street, which connects to a local creek. The problem? These creeks were not meant to hold stormwater from the entire neighborhood – only the water that naturally flowed into them. When too much water flows in at once, the banks wash away, bringing tons of sediment as well.
"When many of these houses (in southeast D.C.) were built, they saw stormwater as a problem, so they piped it out from the streets and sent it to the nearby stream," explains Hill.
While this infrastructure can't be entirely corrected, ensuring that the streams remain stable during storm events will improve water quality in the stream, as well as in the Chesapeake Bay.
Another way to ease pressure on our streams is to keep stormwater onsite. This means reducing runoff from your property by using rain barrels, rain gardens and native plants. In the Bay watershed, local programs such as River Star Homes (Norfolk, Virginia) and River Smart Homes (Washington, D.C.) help local residents implement runoff-reducing practices in their backyards.
More than a stream
Stream restoration project leaders like Hill and Reiling are beginning to notice an unexpected, less measurable outcome of their projects: residents have developed a sense of pride and stewardship for their newly restored neighborhood creeks.
When Watts Branch was transformed from a steep, cloudy channel littered with cars into a meandering creek with sprouting saplings, residents began to spend more time along the streamside pedestrian trail, and dumping stalled.
“Watts Branch was chosen for restoration because...it was an eyesore to the community," says Hill. "The community didn’t see it as an asset, and being D.C.’s largest tributary to the Anacostia, we wanted to fix it up.”
Neighborhoods along the 1.7 mile stretch of restored stream have seen a reduction in crime since the project’s completion, according to Hill.
“Most recently, an older gentleman brought his grandkids here and they were hanging out near the stream; he wanted to show them where he grew up,” explains Hill. “It was really nice that someone would be proud of this, so much that they want to show it to their grandkids.”
Back when I went to college, and my friends and I thought about spring break, it was mainly to figure out where we could go to have the most fun while spending the least amount of our hard-earned money. Going to school in the northeast, Florida was usually our destination of choice. Our two main challenges were to determine whose car could make the drive back and forth without breaking down and finding the cheapest one-bedroom hotel room that could fit six guys!
But a few weeks ago, I participated in an Anacostia River watershed cleanup event that changed my view of spring break forever. The Washington, D.C.-based Earth Conservation Corps (ECC) and some of its local partners hosted more than 250 college students from an organization called Students Today Leaders Forever (STLF). The students spent their spring break driving across the country to do service work in various locations. They clearly had more meaningful challenges in mind than my friends and I did during our college years!
One of their last stops was in the Washington, D.C. area to partner with the ECC and other local watershed organizations to help clean up one of the Anacostia River’s tributaries – the Lower Beaverdam Creek in Cheverly, Maryland. I was fortunate to have a chance to welcome them, along with the mayors of Cheverly and nearby Bladensburg. (I openly admitted that my spring break activities were quite a bit different than theirs!) I also thanked them for their service to the residents of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Then, I worked with them and the Friends of Lower Beaverdam Creek for a few hours to try to make the Anacostia and one of its creeks cleaner.
On that day alone, the enthusiastic STLF members (in their bright orange t-shirts) and other volunteers collected 257 bags of trash, 152 tires, 30 water cooler jugs, and an endless pile of furniture, metal and wood scrap. But this was not a one-time effort for these students – in fact, it was the seventh year in a row that STLF members have worked with the ECC in the Anacostia watershed. More than 3,000 STLF members have taken part in this work over that time period.
These young people have much to be proud of for how they have spent their spring breaks. They will surely have lifelong memories of their experiences…certainly far better memories than mine!
Now it’s time for me (and you!) to make new memories this spring by volunteering for a cleanup event in your part of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. There are lots of opportunities coming up over the next few weeks, such as Project Clean Stream and Earth Day activities in communities across the Bay watershed.
Despite improvements in some key areas, the Anacostia River’s health is still in very poor condition, according to a new report card released by the Anacostia Watershed Society.
(Image courtesy Mr. T in DC/Flickr)
Stormwater runoff is the largest source of pollution to the Anacostia River, which flows to the Potomac River, one of the Chesapeake Bay’s largest tributaries. Runoff carries dirt, oil, trash, fertilizer and other pollutants from the land into the Anacostia, where they smother underwater life and make the river unsafe for fishing and swimming.
The Anacostia River report card uses data on four water quality indicators – dissolved oxygen, water clarity, fecal bacteria and chlorophyll a (algae) – to determine the river’s health. Although this year’s report card showed improvements in fecal bacteria levels, the river’s water clarity is still extremely poor due to continued sediment runoff.
New legislation just passed in Maryland to enact a stormwater fee in the state’s largest counties, combined with funding from a similar District of Columbia fee, will help implement infrastructure repairs that reduce polluted runoff to the Anacostia and other waterways.
Visit the Anacostia Watershed Society’s website for more information about the river’s health and what you can do to help restore it.
When you think of the Anacostia River, you may not think of it as being a place that’s abundant with wildlife. But did you know that more than 170 species of birds call the Anacostia River and its watershed their home?
(Image courtesy Anacostia Watershed Society)
From the American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos), a notable species during this time of the year for its Halloween symbolism, to all the raptors, herons, chickadees, warbles, vireos, ducks and turkeys, the lands and waters of the Anacostia watershed have lot to offer for birdwatchers and wildlife enthusiasts.
To learn more about the Anacostia’s important role as wildlife habitat and see some great bird photos, visit the Anacostia Watershed Society’s blog.
A $2.6 billion project in Washington, D.C., will nearly eliminate combined sewer overflows (CSOs) to Rock Creek and the Anacostia and Potomac rivers, helping to improve the Chesapeake Bay’s health.
The Clean Rivers Project, led by the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority (DC Water), is the largest construction project in the District since Metro was built.
Combined sewer overflows occur during heavy rainstorms, when the mixture of sewage and stormwater cannot fit in the sewer pipes and overflows to the nearest water body. CSOs direct about 2.5 billion gallons of sewage and stormwater into Rock Creek and the Anacostia and Potomac rivers in an average year.
The Clean Rivers Project consists of massive underground tunnels to store the combined sewage during rainstorms, releasing it to the Blue Plains wastewater treatment plant after the storms subside. The first, and largest, tunnel system will serve the Anacostia River.
Visit DC Water’s website for more information about the Clean Rivers Project.
Image courtesy Daniel Lobo/Flickr
On a hot, late July morning in Southeast Washington, D.C., I joined about 50 other volunteers to clean up the banks of the Anacostia River for the third annual “Green Up Day,” hosted by the Washington Nationals Dream Foundation, the Earth Conservation Corps and other partners.
The river cleanup was held at Diamond Teague Park, located in the shadow of Nationals Stadium and adjacent to the ECC’s old “pump house” headquarters. The ECC is a grassroots organization that works to empower Washington’s endangered youth to reclaim the Anacostia, their communities and their lives. I was pleased on this hot day to see volunteers from the EPA and other organizations working at the cleanup – wearing waders, boots and gloves and filing up bags of trash to keeping the waste from flowing into the Anacostia.
I have been involved with many ECC cleanups such as this over the past decade as part of the EPA’s mentoring program with the ECC. But this one was especially significant to many of us because it was at the “new” Diamond Teague Park. I asked a few of the volunteers if they knew who “Diamond Teague” was – one of them even thought Diamond was a baseball diamond! But no, Diamond Teague was a very special ECC Corps member who was an enthusiastic participant in the EPA/ECC mentoring program about eight years ago. He truly stood out among his peers that year of the mentoring program. He had recently completed his GED and was looking forward to going to college after completing his ECC tour. Then one night while standing in front of his house, he became a needless victim of a drive-by shooting. A bright light snuffed out way too soon and a loss to the ECC and all who knew and loved him.
So back then, we decided to take an abandoned plot near the ECC pump house and turn it into a small neighborhood park. We named it Diamond Teague Park. Building it was a labor of love by ECC members, EPA mentors (including me) and other volunteers. And then the new stadium came and covered the original Diamond Teague Park with left centerfield grass in Nationals Park. But the Nationals were kind enough to create a new Diamond Teague Park adjacent to the ECC pump house along the banks of the Anacostia.
And so, it brings us back to today and the voluntary cleanup effort that will help D.C. meet the Anacostia trash TMDL (a “pollution diet” for trash in the river) and ultimately, the Chesapeake Bay TMDL. Because in the end, it’s about cleaning up the local streams, creeks and rivers that lead to the Chesapeake Bay that is going to make the Bay restoration effort a success. One stream at a time, one river at a time and, indeed, one person at a time.
There are more than 17 million people living in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and each of us needs to do our part. One person can make a difference – just like Diamond Teague did. Now it’s your turn – and mine too.
Eleven federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture, have joined together in a new initiative to revitalize the Anacostia and Patapsco rivers.
The Urban Waters Federal Partnership will focus on the two Chesapeake Bay region rivers, as well as five other waterways throughout the United States, as pilot locations for the new initiative. The partnership’s goal is to help underserved communities access and benefit from their local waterways.
Urban waterways like the Anacostia and Patapsco rivers provide local residents with drinking water and opportunities for fishing, boating and swimming. Cleaning up and restoring these rivers is essential to protecting human health, improving quality of life, and connecting people to their local natural areas.
For more information, visit www.urbanwaters.gov.
The second annual Choose Clean Water Conference was my destination last Tuesday. The conference had some interesting trips planned around the D.C. area to showcase urban development. Being a baseball fan, I naturally went on a tour of the Washington Nationals stadium.
The first thing to note about the ballpark is that it is located right on the Anacostia River. Because of this, the tour guide informed us, the stadium engineers focused greatly on limiting stormwater runoff. The stadium has a filtration system “that separates water used for cleaning the ballpark from rainwater falling on the ballpark.” Both sources of water are treated before they are released to local sewer and stormwater systems.
The ballpark also uses many water-conserving features, such as dual-flush toilets. According to our tour guide, these features save an estimated 3.6 million gallons of water per year and reduce overall water consumption by 30 percent.
In addition to saving water and reducing pollution, the ballpark conserves energy by using special light fixtures. The ballpark uses a projected 21 percent less energy than typical baseball field lighting.
The ballpark also has a small but impressive green roof just over the fence in left field.
As we toured the facility, it was obvious that our tour guide was just as proud of the stadium’s greening techniques as I am to be a Yankees fan. Nationals Stadium became the first LEED Certified Silver ballpark upon completion in 2008.
One last thing that I thought was pretty cool is that they actually offer a bicycle valet. You can cruise in on your bike, drop it off at the valet, then pick it back up after the game.
After we finished the tour, we walked over to Yards Park, a new waterfront park just a couple of blocks from the stadium. On the way to the park, we passed a few swales in the sidewalk. These grassy areas were intentionally lowered to allow stormwater to be absorbed more easily.
Yards Park is definitely one of the coolest places I have been in D.C. It has a modern design and offers open air in an urban environment. You can see some of the vegetation by the riverbank in the slideshow.
If you would like more information about Nationals Park’s sustainable approaches, visit the team’s official website to view a diagram.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) along with the state of Maryland and the District of Columbia have announced a new Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) or “pollution diet” for trash in the impaired Anacostia River as directed by the federal Clean Water Act. The TMDL will require the capture or removal of more than 600 tons of trash from the Anacostia watershed each year, making the Anacostia the first interstate river in the country with a Clean Water Act limit on trash.
Officials believe limiting the amount of trash in the Anacostia watershed will be a step in the right direction toward a “fishable and swimmable” Anacostia River by the year 2032. Every year, hundreds of tons of trash and debris make their way to the Anacostia River either through illegal dumping or stormwater runoff carrying it into the river. This trash then flows downstream to the Potomac River and eventually the Chesapeake Bay.
"This precedent-setting 'trash TMDL' is a multi-regional commitment to finally attack the trash traveling through our storm drain systems," said Maryland Department of the Environment Secretary Shari T. Wilson. "Trash has for too long been a problem in our waterways and communities – reducing trash and stormwater runoff is key to restoring the Anacostia River, the Potomac River and the Bay."
The Anacostia River was placed on both Maryland and the District’s impaired waters lists in 2006 due to this excessive amount of trash pollution.
The new pollution diet will also contribute to the five-year-old Trash-Free Potomac Watershed initiative, which the Alice Ferguson Foundation celebrated by holding its fifth annual Potomac Watershed Trash Summit this week. The summit included a ceremonial signing of the Potomac Watershed Trash Treaty as well as roundtables and exhibits on enforcement, composting, public education and regulation.
The initiative is working to have a trash-free Potomac by the year 2013, with a campaign using public education and market-based approaches, including the District’s 5-cent tax on plastic bags.
Trash in our rivers is not only unappealing from an aesthetic standpoint, making our natural areas more difficult to enjoy, but it can also cause serious damage to wildlife and habitats. The health of our local waterways, including the reduction of trash flowing to them, is vital to the health and restoration of the Chesapeake Bay. The Bay cannot be fully restored if its tributaries are unhealthy and plagued by pollution.
A TMDL, as required by the Clean Water Act, establishes the amount of a given pollutant that a water body can take without compromising water quality standards. The state and District’s new stormwater regulations will work in coordination with the TMDL to reduce the amount of trash entering the Anacostia River.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the District of Columbia and the state of Maryland have announced a new draft “pollution diet” for trash in the impaired Anacostia River, only the second river in the country to get a daily trash limit.
Stormwater runoff, the fastest growing source of pollution to the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers, delivers hundreds of tons of trash to the Anacostia each year. The amount of trash in the river is not only aesthetically unappealing, but it also endangers the river’s wildlife, which may eat or get tangled in the trash.
The draft pollution diet was developed in response to the federal Clean Water Act’s directions to develop Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDL) for polluted water bodies like the Anacostia. A TMDL establishes the amount of a given pollutant that a water body can take without compromising water quality standards.
The Anacostia River was added to Maryland and the District of Columbia’s impaired waters lists in 2006 due to excessive trash and polluted water. New stormwater regulations in Maryland and the District of Columbia will work in coordination with the TMDL to reduce the amount of trash entering the Anacostia.
The District Department of the Environment and the Maryland Department of the Environment, along with members of several non-governmental organizations, have worked collaboratively with the EPA to develop this draft trash TMDL.
The three agencies will hold a public meeting on the draft TMDL on May 6, 2010, in Washington, D.C., and take public comments on the plan through May 18, 2010. Visit the Maryland Department of the Environment’s website or the District Department of the Environment’s website for the full draft TMDL.
The District of Columbia Council has unanimously approved a bill that will help clean up the Anacostia River by placing a fee on disposable bags.
The Anacostia River Cleanup and Protection Act of 2009 will charge a 5-cent fee on disposable paper and plastic carryout bags at grocery stores, restaurants, convenience stores, food vendors and other shops in the city. Most of the money collected will go towards a newly created Anacostia River Cleanup Fund, which will target environmental cleanup, reclamation and restoration efforts on the Anacostia River.
“This landmark law brings the District of Columbia to the forefront of addressing pollution caused by disposable bags and takes much-needed action to clean the Anacostia River,” said D.C. Councilman Tommy Wells, sponsor of the bill and chair of the Bay Program’s Local Government Advisory Committee.
According to a recent report by the D.C. Department of the Environment, plastic bags, bottles, wrappers and Styrofoam make up 85 percent of the trash in the Anacostia River, a tributary of the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay. In the river’s tributaries, such as Watts Branch, nearly 50 percent of the trash is plastic bags.
The report stated that placing a small fee on disposable bags could eliminate up to 21 percent of the trash in the Anacostia and 47 percent of the trash in its tributaries.
The legislation also creates a new Anacostia River vehicle license plate and an income tax donation option. Proceeds from both will go to the Anacostia River Cleanup Fund.
For more information about the Anacostia River Cleanup and Protection Act of 2009 and the Anacostia River Cleanup Fund, visit trashfreeanacostia.com.
What You Can Do: Reduce the Amount of Plastic Bags You Use and Reduce Plastic Trash in the Anacostia River, the Chesapeake Bay and Your Local Waterways
Learn about more ways you can help the Bay.
Once considered by the community to be “dead,” Virginia’s Elizabeth River is being revived through the efforts of one local non-profit organization. That's the role of the Portsmouth, Va.-based Elizabeth River Project (ERP), a non-profit organization devoted to restoring the Elizabeth River, located near the mouth of the James River in southeastern Virginia.
Few would consider the ERP's mission an easy task. The Elizabeth River watershed encompasses over 200 square miles of urbanized land from parts of four cities: Chesapeake, Norfolk, Portsmouth and Virginia Beach, Va. Ninety percent of the land in the watershed is developed.
Furthermore, the Elizabeth River, along with the Anacostia River and Baltimore's Inner Harbor, is one of three Regions of Concern —the most contaminated areas of the Bay watershed. The river's heavily industrialized Southern Branch has some of the highest levels of PAHs in bottom sediments found anywhere around the Chesapeake.
“The primary focus of the Elizabeth River Project is to try and tackle these known areas of contamination,” said Joe Rieger, Director of Watershed Restoration for the ERP. “If we can either clean up or remediate these sediments, that would be the most useful result for the entire watershed from a restoration standpoint.”
To accomplish this, the ERP has concentrated on doing intensive restoration of small sub-watersheds within the larger river watershed. The first area to be targeted was Paradise Creek, a 2.9 square mile watershed in southeastern Portsmouth . In 2002 the ERP received one of the first Chesapeake Bay Small Watershed legacy grants for this innovative cleanup and restoration project.
In 2003 the ERP published its five-year Paradise Creek Restoration Plan, which describes the cleanup of Paradise Creek “as a model for how to restore the Elizabeth River and the Chesapeake Bay —one creek at a time.”
In addition to cleaning up contaminated sediments, the ERP is reviving the landscape around the creek by planting buffers and restoring tidal wetlands. Soon, ground will be broken on the 40-acre Paradise Creek Nature Park , which will include trails, native flower meadows and a tree canopy boardwalk.
Recently the ERP published its second sub-watershed plan for Money Point, a 35-acre industrial area in Chesapeake that is one of the most polluted spots in the Bay watershed. The vision of this ten-year plan is to make Money Point “a model for the co-existence of thriving waterfront industry and ecological regeneration.”
Some of the goals of the plan include:
The cleanup plan for Money Point is significant from a Bay-wide restoration standpoint. It is one of the first efforts in Virginia to clean up contaminated sediments in the Bay and the first community-led sediment cleanup in the nation.
In addition, removal of toxic sediments will significantly reduce the amount of contamination that is transported to the James River and the lower Bay. “Once you start eliminating the hotspots, the overall regional PAH concentrations will start to drop,” said Rieger.
The ERP is also getting local schools, businesses and government facilities involved in the overall river restoration effort through its River Stars program. River Stars is a voluntary program for organizations in the Elizabeth River watershed that go above and beyond the law to reduce pollution and restore habitat. Over the past ten years, River Star organizations have:
The 59 River Star organizations “are making environmental stewardship the industrial ethic on the river,” said Lynn Louria, Director of Development and Communications for the ERP.
Despite the ERP's extraordinary efforts, the community perception that the river cannot be restored still clings on.
“We always hear people say that the river is dead,” said Rieger. “People are surprised at how many species live in the river.” Many important fish species, such as striped bass, menhaden and croaker, use the Elizabeth as a nursery area. And the river typically has one of the highest oyster spat sets of any area in the Bay.
As the restoration of the Elizabeth River progresses, it is likely that local residents—and the entire Chesapeake watershed—will come to recognize the river itself as a star. By taking the lead on creative and intensive restoration activities, the ERP has given the larger Bay community a model for successful restoration and a bright star to watch rise in the coming years.