Running through highly populated areas of Maryland and Washington, D.C., the Anacostia River has historically been home to major industrial sites along its banks. Because of this, and the proximity to these large urban areas, toxic contaminants and other sources of pollution have plagued it for years. However, thanks to the efforts of government agencies, nonprofit organizations and other dedicated partners, the Anacostia has been improving, and even received its highest report card score ever in 2018. Pollution remains a problem though, and last year’s extreme rainfall only added to the river’s troubles.
This year, the grade of the Anacostia slipped slightly, reported the Anacostia Watershed Society, falling from a D in 2018 to an F in 2019. Despite this seemingly large drop, the overall score only decreased 12 percent from 63 to 51.
The Anacostia was not immune to the record level of rain that fell around the region in 2018, which was the primary cause of its lower grade. The District of Columbia observed 66.28 inches of rain in 2018, it’s wettest year on record.
The increased amount of rain led to a larger-than-normal volume of stormwater runoff entering the river, bringing with it pollution from impervious surfaces and sediment from eroding streambanks. As a result, many of the indicators used to measure water quality, such as underwater grasses, fecal bacteria and water clarity, declined.
In 2018, DC Water brought the Anacostia River Tunnel Project online, which captured five billion gallons of combined sewage (about 90 percent of all sewage), 200 tons of trash and 500 tons of sewage in its first year of operation. Despite this massive success, about 80 percent of the Anacostia River watershed lies in Maryland. Although sewage discharge in this area was also significantly reduced, increased runoff brought waste from pets and wildlife flowing into the river as well, leading to a higher score in fecal bacteria.
Experts remain cautiously optimistic despite this news. While the above indicators declined, dissolved oxygen and chlorophyll-a (a measure of algae growth) improved. Dissolved oxygen is important to the aquatic life in the river as they depend on it for survival. The increased amount of sediment actually helped reduce algae growth since cloudy water impedes the sunlight that chlorophyll-a needs to grow. This continues to be further evidence that management actions to restore our local waterways are working as intended.
“In 2018, Mother Nature ‘flushed’ and it all ended up in our rivers, including the Anacostia River,” said Jim Foster, president of the Anacostia Watershed Society. “But the investments we’ve made over the past two decades are paying off, and we’re already seeing the indicators bounce back this spring.”
Another reason to celebrate? For the first time, the amount of trash entering the Anacostia River and its tributaries reduced and received a passing score. This improvement is due in part to efforts to install trash traps in the District of Columbia, fees on plastic bags, new laws that prohibit the use of plastic foam in food and beverage containers, and the dedication of local jurisdictions to reach their trash reduction goals.
Want to help increase the Anacostia’s score next year? Check out our How-To’s and Tips page for simple ways you can contribute in keeping your local waterways clean and healthy.