Anacostia, a ‘forgotten river’ in Washington and Maryland, is slowly cleaning up – Baltimore Sun

By SUMAN NAISHADHAM (Associated Press)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Bruce Holmes, 65, grew up fishing on the Anacostia River, a 9-mile urban waterway that flows through Washington, D.C., and parts of Maryland and has long been marked by pollution and neglect.

Back then, Holmes would save what he caught with his family – usually carp or catfish – and take it home to fry. It was the 1970s and he didn’t know how polluted the water was.

“It was impossible to throw it back,” Holmes said. ‘Whatever we caught, we ate. Or we sold.”

Now, decades later, Holmes no longer eats what he catches from the Anacostia as he has learned more about the river, but instead teaches adults and children in the capital how to fish as the river undergoes something of a comeback. He hopes the fishing lessons can serve as a clarion call to help clean up and maintain the river he grew up on.

Dubbed DC’s “forgotten river,” the Anacostia River is shorter, shallower and more difficult to navigate than the better-known Potomac, which runs through the city’s legendary landmarks and is steeped in Revolutionary and American Civil War history . For decades, the Anacostia was treated as a municipal dump for industrial waste, sewers and trash. That contamination largely affected the communities of color the river crosses.

In recent years, things have started to improve, but change is coming slowly.

Infrastructure upgrades

It is still illegal to swim in the Anacostia due to E. coli levels exceeding the threshold considered safe for human exposure, but in recent years a $3.29 billion sewer improvement in D.C. has reduced the overflow of sewage in the river is reduced, leaving behind large amounts of waste. out.

A series of tunnels bored beneath the city capture storm and sewage water that previously flowed into the Anacostia. Since 2018, when the first segment went online, the upgrades have reduced sewage and wastewater outflows by 91%, according to DC Water, the city’s water utility.

The final section of the Anacostia tunnel system went online last fall. The overall system is expected to reduce river overflows by 98%.

Yet last year, the Anacostia received a failing grade for the third time in six years from a nonprofit organization that rates the river’s health based on fecal bacteria levels and the condition of aquatic vegetation.

The Anacostia Watershed Society tested the river for fecal bacteria, dissolved oxygen – necessary for all aquatic life – and algae levels, as well as aquatic plant health and water clarity.

“The trend line is going up,” said Chris Williams, executive director of the Anacostia Watershed Society. “Twenty-five years ago it was one of the most polluted rivers in the country,” he said, contrasting that with recent years “where water quality is improving quite steadily.”

Environmental justice

For many involved in the Anacostia cleanup, the river’s history, neglect and industrial pollution are inextricably linked to the city’s racial history.

The river and the surrounding 1,200-acre Anacostia River Park, which reaches into parts of Maryland across the D.C. border, were where communities of color swam, fished and recreated.

“Because there are low-income communities around the river, it can seem like they are responsible for the pollution,” said Akiima Price, executive director of Friends of Anacostia Park, an organization that works in the communities around the river.

“But it’s coming from everywhere, all over the watershed,” she said.

That was recognized last year when Pepco, the city’s utility company, reached an agreement with the District of Columbia to pay more than $57 million for decades of discharging hazardous chemicals from their power plants into soil, groundwater and sewers that polluted the Anacostia and other areas. . The settlement was believed to be the largest in the utility’s history.

The payments will be used in part to clean up the river, including addressing pollution from the former power plants. Other measures the city government has introduced since 2009, such as a plastic bag fee, have also helped keep waste out, experts say.

According to Price, the work is ongoing. “There are still challenges,” she said, “but people feel more connected to the river.”

Making it swimmable

To help change the long-held perception that the water is still as polluted as it once was, Anacostia Riverkeeper, another environmental nonprofit, has organized a swimming event along a small section of the river that has been declared safe for swimming.

This year the event will take place at the end of June near Kingman Island, a piece of land in the middle of the river. If the event goes as planned, it would mark the first time in more than half a century that D.C. residents could legally swim in the river, after the city banned it in all waterways in 1971. The same event took place last year. was canceled after a storm caused bacteria levels in the river to rise due to sewage overflows.

“It is not lost on me that we are overturning fifty years of discourse about the river,” said Quinn Molner, director of operations at Anacostia Riverkeeper. About 200 people are expected to participate in the swim, Molner said, despite the skepticism her organization faced when it first announced the event. “Many people who have lived in this area for a long time knew this river when it was not so big.”

Holmes is one of them. Holmes, a lifelong resident of Southeast D.C., still a predominantly black and less affluent part of the city, said he doubts the river as a whole will be swimmable and fishable in a few years.

“That’s a little far-fetched,” he said, “but I can say that because I’ve been fishing here for years, I’ve seen some big changes.”

The Associated Press receives support from the Walton Family Foundation for reporting on water and environmental policy. The AP is solely responsible for all content. For all of AP’s environmental coverage, visit

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