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Written by Alexandra Gilliland

Last summer my boyfriend signed us up for rowing lessons at the Anacostia Boat House. He pictured us spending Saturday afternoons leisurely cruising along the river and enjoying the great outdoors.

The lessons failed to morph me into a rowing champ, but they did teach me two things: 1) rowing is definitely not as easy as it looks, and 2) the Anacostia Watershed is in need of some serious rehabilitation. In fact, when I told people about my rowing lessons, the first thing they exclaimed was, “Don’t fall in the water, who knows what’s in there!”

What exactly is in the Anacostia, anyways?

The Anacostia River has the unfortunate distinction of playing second fiddle to D.C.’s other river, the Potomac. Whereas the Potomac borders elite neighborhoods like Georgetown, the Anacostia River has historically bordered the poorer areas of the Nation’s Capital. The Potomac acts as a water supply to the District, the Anacostia does not.  These are things that have kept the Anacostia off the radar, until recently.

For almost 300 years the Anacostia has become a reservoir for trash, debris, oil, grease, sediment, toxins and bacteria.  The natural flat terrain of the area, urbanization and wetland degradation create an easy path for stormwater to flow through the streets, picking up trash, toxins and other pollutants along the way and depositing them directly into the Anacostia. The Anacostia area is densely populated and heavily developed, leaving few natural wetlands to filter and protect the water from the pollutants.

Raw sewage is another concern. When heavy rainfall occurs, sewers reach their capacity and overflow. The excess flow is routed through 15 Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) that pour directly into the Anacostia.

This combination of stormwater and sewage has morphed the once pristine waters of the Anacostia into a murky mess that has become a breeding ground for bacteria. No longer safe to swim or fish in the waters, it is an issue that is finally gaining national and local attention.

But what’s being done?

The District and surrounding areas are working to mitigate stormwater pollution. The Anacostia Watershed Restoration Plan, along with the federal and D.C. government are implementing stormwater management programs to improve the water quality. This plan includes green streets, green roofs and permeable pavements to abate the stormwater flow. The District is also working to adopt stormwater ordinances for development and redevelopment. This is especially important, given the massive gentrification of the surrounding Southeast D.C. neighborhoods, most notably the ever growing Yards Park Development.

DC Water, the District’s Water and Sewer Authority, is working to reduce the number of CSOs in the sewage system, which should in turn reduce the raw sewage entering the watershed. The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission is working separately to repair and fix leaks in the sewer system.

The landscape and face of Southeast D.C. is changing every day. Nationals Stadium, known as the first professional “Green Stadium,” has an intricate filtration system that treats the groundwater and stormwater before it enters the Anacostia. A similar approach will more than likely be taken for the proposed D.C. United Stadium. New apartment and condominiums are being built in the area every day, bringing new voices into the mix.

The Anacostia River Cleanup and Protection Act of 2009 required that all District businesses that sell food or alcohol to charge five cents for every disposable bag used by a customer. Not only has the “bag tax” decreased the number of plastic bags found in the Anacostia River, but a portion of the fee goes into a fund to restore the Anacostia. This small idea has created a big change.

Can the Anacostia actually be saved?

In the 1960s, the Potomac River was called a “national disgrace” by President Lyndon Johnson. This blunt statement created a whirlwind of effort and initiative to make the Potomac River viable again. Sewage treatment plants were regulated and phosphorus levels were monitored, and though it is still illegal to swim in all District waterways, improvement has been made in the last fifty years, and a fully swimmable Potomac River is in sight.

The fight to restore the Anacostia has only just begun, but with the boom of real estate in the area and the increase of concerned voices, a swimmable Anacostia is possible, and luckily I’m a better swimmer than rower.