High schoolers, from left, Brian Brown, Dakoda DaCosta and Isaiah Thomas participate in a free paddle night organized by the Anacostia Watershed Society (AWS) near Kenilworth Park in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 23, 2014. The boys are part of the Green Team program organized by Groundwork Anacostia. (Images by Will Parson)
by Will Parson
October 22, 2014
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.
Paddlers return to Kenilworth Park in Washington, D.C., at the end of a paddle night organized by AWS on Sept. 23, 2014.
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.
A deer visits the Anacostia's riverbank as a heron wades through the river in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 23, 2014.
“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.”
Egrets congregate just before sunset on the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 23, 2014. Many of the birds migrate from the Amazon Basin in South America, while others come from Florida and the Caribbean to spend their summers in Washington.
A plastic bottle lies wedged along the riverbank of the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 23, 2014.
A kingfisher lands on a discarded pipe in the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 23, 2014.
The Pepco Benning Road Power Plant rises above the Anacostia River during a free paddle night organized by AWS on Sept. 23, 2014. The plant was decommissioned in 2012 and is slated for demolition.
A bald eagle flies from its perch on a light post at the Washington Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 1, 2014. "Maybe I've been here and I just haven't seen them, but I pay attention to the birds," said Grant Lattin, who has worked at the Navy Yard for seven years but hadn't seen a bald eagle until recent weeks.
The USS Barry sits docked at the Washington Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., as egrets, cormorants and a bald eagle perch nearby on the Anacostia River, on Oct. 1, 2014.
An egret hunts near the bow of the USS Barry at the Washington Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 1, 2014.
Watershed specialists Carlos Rich, top, and Dawayne Garnett from Groundwork Anacostia work to empty a Bandalong litter trap at Kenilworth Park in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 1, 2014. Groundwork has installed litter traps at several tributaries of the Anacostia to prevent trash from reaching the river.
Watershed specialist Dawayne Garnett from Groundwork Anacostia picks out trash from a Bandalong litter trap at Kenilworth Park in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 1, 2014. The trash gets sorted into bags of plastic bottles, Styrofoam, glass and aluminum before it is weighed recorded and carried away. The trap gets emptied once a week, and often will take 12-20 garbage bags and many hours to remove everything.
Watershed specialists Antwan Rich, left, and Carlos Rich record the weights of bags of trash and recyclables pulled from a Bandalong litter trap operated by Groundwork Anacostia at Kenilworth Park in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 1, 2014. "One day it might stop, hopefully," Antwan said, referring to the regular influx of trash at the trap.
Men fish with lines wrapped around plastic bottles on the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 23, 2014. There is currently a health advisory from the D.C. Department of Health against eating fish caught in the river, though AWS is pushing for the goal of a fishable and swimmable river by 2025.
Visitors haul a canoe from the Anacostia River after one of AWS' free paddle nighs at Kenilworth Park in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 23, 2014.
Nahshon Forde, an operations assistant with AWS, paddles in after helping with a free paddle night at Kenilworth Park in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 23, 2014. "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, Director of Recreation at AWS.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
About Will Parson - Will is the Multimedia Specialist for the Chesapeake Bay Program. A native of Bakersfield, California, he acquired an interest in photojournalism while studying ecology and evolution at University of California, San Diego. He pursued stories about water and culture as a graduate student at Ohio University's School of Visual Communication, and as an intern at several newspapers in New England before landing in Maryland.