Anacostia River is Federal City Council’s newest focus

October 28, 2013

Volunteer Judy Bonior cleans debris out of the Anacostia River during a 2012 Earth Day event. (Mary F. Calvert for The Washington Post)

The attention of the District’s civic elite is turning to the health of the Anacostia River.

The Federal City Council, the buttoned-up gathering of the city business titans, said Monday that it was adding the restoration of the long-polluted waterway to its short list of priority issues.

The announcement comes as the Summit Fund of Washington, a philanthropic venture of energy executive Roger W. Sant, prepares to wind down, ending its substantial funding of Anacostia River organizations. It also comes 18 months after former mayor Anthony A. Williams, a staunch advocate of focusing new development on the river’s banks, took the council’s helm.

Williams said in a statement that the council is looking forward  to joining local governments and other groups working to “transform the Anacostia into a showcase for a world class capital city.” Kevin Clinton, the council’s chief operating officer, said the group’s decision to embark on a major environmental initiative for the first time was “largely due” to Williams’s personal interest in the river “as a symbol of the divide in D.C. between east and west, but also as a symbol of the city’s potential.”

“It’s just something he’s personally committed to and personally passionate about,” Clinton said.

The group has hired Doug Siglin — a veteran of clean-water advocacy, most recently at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation — to manage its Anacostia efforts. His first task, he said, has been to meet with other groups involved in the river’s well-being to stake out areas of common ground.

“We’ve had very good conversations with almost all the players,” Siglin said. “We’re going to try a create a new source of funding. … There is anxiety because a lot of the groups are very small operations, and the Summit Fund has been a big part of their funding for a long time.”

Beyond the funding question, likely to be addressed though the creation of a nonprofit trust, Siglin said the Federal City Council expects to get involved in the large-scale aspects of cleaning up the river. With a multibillion-dollar plan to end sewage deposits in the river now underway, those are likely to include how to mitigate polluted storm runoff and how best to address the decades of contaminants deposited on the river bottom.

The efforts, Clinton said, fit squarely in the council’s wheelhouse of pursuing ambitious projects that benefit the city as a whole and require engagement over a broader timeframe than the usual political cycles. The council remains engaged, he said, in its effort to promote public education reform, address downtown congestion, pursue new vehicles of infrastructure financing and improve the tourism industry.

Restoring the Anacostia, Siglin said, is an ambitious project, but not so ambitious that the council can’t have a significant impact.

“It’s a very different situation than, say, St. Louis,” Siglin said. “It can’t by itself clean up the river. … With cooperation from our partners in Montgomery County and Prince George’s County, the District can actually get this done.”

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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Mike DeBonis | October 28, 2013