That’s because for many years, the Anacostia was one of the most polluted rivers in the country. Meanwhile, its larger neighbor, the Potomac, was the focus of a major ongoing cleanup.
This could slowly be changing. Inlets such as Kenilworth Marsh are starting to show signs of revival. With the rise of nearby high-profile development projects such as Nationals Park and luxury apartments by the Navy Yard, the neglected Anacostia riverfront is getting attention.
But environmentalists stress that because the region’s waterways are connected — the Anacostia flows into the Potomac, which flows into the Chesapeake Bay — a holistic approach to cleaning them is necessary. If one river is neglected, the region suffers.
“The greatest concentration of PCBs [polychlorinated biphenyls], a serious poisonous toxicant in the Potomac, is the spot where the Anacostia enters it,” said Ed Merrifield, head of the Potomac Riverkeeper group. “So if you care about one, you care about the other.”
Experts agree that both rivers need serious work. That’s why every year around this time, hundreds of cleanup sitesalong the Potomac and Anacostia rivers host thousands of Washington area volunteers in honor of Earth Day. They weed the wetlands, pick up litter and compile a bizarre list of found items that in recent years have included toilets, a Studebaker and a newspaper vending box for the long-shuttered Washington Star.
River cleanups are important because they connect residents to resources in their back yard, said Kellie Bolinder, executive director of the Earth Conservation Corps. First-time volunteers are often stunned at how beautiful the Anacostia is, and they are inspired to help restore it, she said.
There are several arguments as to why the Anacostia has been so neglected, primarily that it doesn’t supply drinking water, but the prevailing theory is that the communities surrounding the river — wards 6, 7 and 8 — have been forced to bear the brunt of the District’s waste.
“America has a shameful history of putting our pollution on poor minorities, and there’s no other way to say it,” said Mike Bolinder, head of the Anacostia Riverkeeper group. “You can slice and dice it any way you want, but the Potomac got cleaned up first because it isn’t near poor minorities and toxic landfills.”
Experts on both rivers acknowledge that cleanups have helped usher in progress, but they’re quick to caution residents about celebrating too soon.
“Cleanups treat the symptoms of a much larger problem,” said Lori Arguelles, executive director of the Alice Ferguson Foundation, which promotes environmental education. “Without addressing the infrastructure problems that led us here, we’ll be holding cleanups a thousand years from now.”